The last two biographies I have read are those of Louie Zamperini and William Wilberforce. If I had to pick one word that overlaps their stories, “perseverance” would be it. Zamperini survived 47 days on a raft, battling sharks, the elements and having to be incomprehensibly creative to procure food and water. And then faced the hell of being a POW for years, suffering from starvation, torture and other unspeakable indignity. Wilberforce attempted for decades to end the slave trade in England only to lose the vote in Parliament year after year after year. And then had to fight for universal abolition and to implement it. Both men refused to quit. And so we celebrate them for enduring.
The Bible has stories like these, too, of course. And today I want to honor one that we rarely discuss. Maybe because there is no Hollywood ending, like there was for Zamperini and Wilberforce. Maybe because there was no dream fulfilled after 20 years like Genesis Joseph. Or a son born after 25 like Abraham. There are no toppled giants. God doesn’t shut any lions’ mouths. No giant fish or Red Sea miracles or walls that come tumbling down.
No, for the prophet Jeremiah, there’s mainly 40 years of preaching to wicked people. And receiving abuse in response.
More Than a Verse Out of Context
Not the stuff of movies. But the story is still one of the most important God has ever told. If you know Jeremiah, you know that in his book verse 29:11 has become the Old Testament Philippians 4:13. People wield it as a promise that since God knows the plans he has for us, to prosper us, we will be successful in pleasant and pleasurable ways. But you may know that the original audience was living in harsh judgment, deported from their homeland and in a pagan culture. That fact really turns the verse on its head. And teaches us something about our counterintuitive God. And even though Jeremiah is the author of the letter that contains that verse, and not the recipient, I still think his life is fascinating when we see his life as God’s plan for him.
The story could not begin any more inauspiciously. Jeremiah was from a small town and a small tribe and possibly even came from the lineage of a disgraced priest, Abiathar. Additionally, Jeremiah protested that he was too young to do what God is calling him to do. Yet, as he does with others, like Moses and Gideon, God straightened him out. And emboldened him to obey. That part is crucial. Because I truly think if Jeremiah knew what was coming, his age and background would have been the least of his concerns.
Persecuted But Not Abandoned
You see, Jeremiah preached mostly judgment due to things like idol worship for four decades. And much like today, he had to tell his people that if prophets were not proclaiming God’s judgment, they were false. As far as I can tell, only two people responded favorably: Baruch and Ebed-Melek. Essentially everyone else Jeremiah proclaimed God’s messages to either ignored him, causing their people to suffer exile or destruction, or they persecuted him. His own people, those in power even, threatened him with death numerous times. They falsely accused of him of treason, beat him and cast in prison at one point. And on another they threw him into a pit, without water, left to sink in the mud. He constantly faced insults from the very same people who wanted him to ask God for mercy on their behalf.
His life was defined by suffering, rejection and mourning. And I have zero doubt, based on his words both in the book that bears his name as well as Lamentations, that Jeremiah suffered from some form of depression.
God mandated Jeremiah at one point to not marry or have children. In view of the rest of his life, I cannot help asking myself introspective questions. What do I want in life? Comfort? Convenience? A great family? Acceptance? For people to adore my preaching? Jeremiah had none of that. The plans God had for him were to throw him to the wolves for forty years. He loved his people enough to lambast them with God’s truth, manifesting transcendent trust and courage. And they hated him for it.
God Told Him to NOT Pray For His People
Jeremiah no doubt gave messages of “If you repent, God will forgive”. But so much else of what he speaks are vicious messages, extreme even among the other OT prophets. Like God telling Jeremiah to not pray or mourn for his people. Because God was so sick of them it was too late for that. I can’t imagine being the prophet God gave that message to. The spiritual and psychological consequences of having a front row seat to the horror of the Babylonian deportation should make us quite uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, you cannot read Jeremiah and not also appreciate the beauty and complexity of his theology. First, you can easily see the influences of the books of Moses in his writings, as well as Psalms, Isaiah, Hosea and Job. He also prophesies about the future Messiah and the New Covenant. No doubt he was a learned student of God’s Word and not merely the impassioned speaker who once claimed that God’s word was a fire in his bones that he could not hold in.
Yet he still speaks truths that are rare or unique. It was Jeremiah who said that heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Jeremiah is the one who claimed that forgetting God is as absurd as a bride forgetting her wedding dress. Jeremiah is he who said of King Josiah, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy. Is that not what it means to know me?” And Jeremiah is the one who Jesus uses to develop the idea of Hell in the New Testament.
I fear the prophets in our Bible are too often considered boring or weird. Jeremiah is neither.
No Hollywood Ending
Jeremiah eventually got dragged off to Egypt of all places. He didn’t even get the ironic honor of Babylon taking him in the first wave as Daniel and his friends did. But he was blessed to even be alive at that point. And he likely died there, preaching to the Hebrews and the Gentile Egyptians till God finally took him home. His legacy even to modern times is that he was the “Weeping Prophet”. Yet, God took this heart-wrenched and ravaged soul and inspired him to write a book that, by original language word count, is the largest in our entire Bible. And then an entire book on lamenting. What does that say about what God values?
Going back to Zamperini and Wilberforce, I know that is far too easy to look at their lives and marvel at the triumph of the human spirit. But that is never the point in Christianity, as our kingdom is for the poor in spirit. Jeremiah makes this clear. After Jeremiah doubted at first, God told him, “If those I’m sending you to intimidate you, I’ll make you cower before them”. Yet immediately added, “Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you”.
Jeremiah responded with humble obedience because his life was not his own. God broke him down, to build him back up in Him. God alone deserves the praise. As he does for everyone who endures to the end, and is therefore saved.
Tell His Story
My former pastor, David Potete, often says, “Quitting is not an option”. It was not for Jeremiah. HIs perseverance matters. His rejection and persecution matter. We need to tell his biography. We need to celebrate his mammoth contribution to our Bible. Simply put, we need to appreciate the story of Jeremiah.