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Jeremiah 20:7-18

March 20, 2017

This is perhaps the most disturbing passage in the entire Book of Jeremiah. More than anywhere else, we hear Jeremiah’s despair and even a bitter accusation against God.

Verse 7 can be translated O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed (NRSV), or O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived (NIV). The Hebrew verb means both “entice” and “deceive.” Perhaps a better translation here might be “tricked.” Jeremiah feels tricked by God.

In 1 Kings 22:19-23 there is a very interesting story about a prophet, Micaiah, having a vision in which he hears God calling for an angel to entice/deceive Ahab so he will be defeated in battle. An angel steps forward and agrees to be a “lying spirit” who will trick Ahab’s prophets into telling him it is God’s will to go into battle–a battle which will actually be disastrous for Ahab. I think this story helps us understand what it is Jeremiah is saying in verse 7. It is dawning on him that he has been tricked by God–just as the prophets of Ahab were tricked by God. God has purposely made Jeremiah into a false prophet. Jeremiah feels like a fool tricked by God.

Jeremiah is being laughed at all day long because the coming violence and destruction he has been preaching has not happened. It is looking more and more like he is a false prophet. But Jeremiah knows that his messages are coming from God, not from his own imagination or prejudices. So if these are messages from God, but they are not coming true, then God must have been purposely deceiving him, manipulating him, for God’s own purposes. Jeremiah feels shattered but such divine manipulation.

What can Jeremiah do? He decides he won’t play God’s games any longer. He will stop prophesying. He simply won’t speak any more in the name of God! But when he does this, he feels a burning in his bones. He tries to hold it in, but it is too tiring and painful. He feels forced to speak whether he wants to or not. He is being forced by God to speak as a false prophet and be made a fool of and have his life endangered by those who wish to have him executed for sedition.

This is one of the most daring accusations against God in the entire Bible. Only Job accuses God and objects to God’s actions as forcefully as Jeremiah does. Jeremiah’s picture of God tricking him into false prophecy is indeed disturbing.

Skipping to verse 14, we come to the deepest depths of Jeremiah’s despair. He curses the day he was born–in words very similar to Job cursing the day of his birth (Job 3:1-19). Job curses the day of his birth, wishing he had never been born, because he has lost his wealth and children and health. Jeremiah wishes he had never been born because God has tricked him and made him into a laughingstock whose life is in constant danger.

Not only does Jeremiah (and Job) curse the day of his birth, but he curses the person who first announced his birth. This is deeply ironic because one of the happiest moments in life is when we announce the birth of a new child. When my children were born I was ecstatic as I shared the good news. I called everyone on the phone. Every trouble in my life was forgotten and of no consequence. But for Jeremiah, all that joy at his birth was a terrible mistake. Anyone who thought his birth was a cause of celebration should be cursed. The most wonderful news a father can hear should have never happened; Jeremiah wishes he had been aborted, killed in the womb.

Jeremiah is not suicidal. He does not contemplate taking his own life. That never occurs to him. Rather, his existence is all the more tragic because he will need to live out his life as a failure and a fool.

But in the middle of this lamentation is a group of surprising verses. In verse 11 Jeremiah has confidence and comfort in God’s presence. God is going to fight for him, and his persecutors will be the ones who stumble and become ashamed. And in verse 13 he breaks into song praising God for deliverance. How are we supposed to understand these hopeful and exuberant verses in the midst of so much despair?

Ancient Hebrew writers did not write in a “linear” fashion. In other words, the logic is not meant to flow in one direction. Instead, what we often find in Hebrew writing is a kind of circle, and what’s in the middle is meant to be the high point. I think verses 11-13 (especially 13) are meant to be the interpretive center–the high point for understanding Jeremiah.Yes, Jeremiah is filled with despair, feels tricked by God, and wishes he were never born; but that is not the last word about his faith. What truly controls his life and work as a prophet is an underlying confidence in God that is never defeated. The despair is real, but not permanent. The self-doubts plague him continuously, but do not ultimately define his faith.

What is truly amazing is that the editors of the Book of Jeremiah preserved these intimate and disturbing feelings of the prophet. They did not view his laments as undermining the integrity of his faith; on the contrary, these laments made his faith all the more honest and deep and useful throughout history for the community of faith. Just as Mother Teresa’s decades-long “dark night of the soul” does not negate her stature as an extraordinary saint used by God, so Jeremiah’s bouts of pessimism and confusion do not negate the reality of his vocation and his message. Jeremiah was a sensitive man who felt the pain of shame acutely; but despite his feelings of shame, he kept on speaking for God. Despite everything, he knew what he was saying was deeply true and needed to be said. And he knew that ultimately God was standing by him.

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