Even from a young age, Jeremiah seemed destined for the ministry. As the son of Hilkiah, a priest in the territory of Benjamin, Jeremiah must have been familiar with the joys and struggles a family experiences when serving the Lord. It seems ministry was their family heritage. The village of Anathoth was the home town of Abiathar, who was the high priest during the reign of King David.
David was long gone by Jeremiah’s day. But a David-like king named Josiah was sitting on the throne. As a faithful king, Josiah had once again ushered in good days for Judah. An older Jeremiah may have looked back on them fondly.
Then, all at once, those gloriously free younger days were gone. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. This was such a memorable experience for a prophet that the year was seared into his memory: the thirteenth year of the reign of the good king, Josiah. Looking back on the occasion, Jeremiah also writes the ending date of his ministry in Judah: the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah. Through the lens of hindsight Jeremiah briefly shows us just how far his people had fallen spiritually. In the span of his forty-year ministry, one of the longest of any prophet, Jeremiah had witnessed his people go from reformation to desolation. A ministry that began soon after Josiah’s cleansing of the temple and rediscovery of God’s word would eventually give way to the destruction of the temple and the godless captivity of God’s people.
It was quite a period in which Jeremiah served! Looked at positively, Jeremiah witnessed some of most important years in Judah’s entire history. Negatively, Jeremiah witnessed Judah’s spiritual fall from grace and the physical fall of his people.
Knowing all that was going to happen over the course of the next forty years, the Lord did something we certainly would not have. He came to a young man named Jeremiah and prepared him to minister. The Lord’s first words to Jeremiah may have been some of the most comforting he ever told his prophet:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
What comforting words to hear from our omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Lord! From eternity the Lord knew all about Jeremiah. He foresaw everything Jeremiah would experience. He understood the trials Jeremiah would face. He formed Jeremiah for this calling.
Just imagine, the omnipotent, eternal God taking the time to carefully craft his small prophet. How can someone so large, so holy, so unknowable reach down and gently call a sinful man to serve him? The answer, as is so often the case, is love. The Lord loved Jeremiah. That love expressed itself in the very creation of Jeremiah. The Lord set Jeremiah apart. The Lord appointed him to be a prophet. Perhaps young Jeremiah even saw God’s undeserved grace pouring out through these initial words of the Lord.
You are part of that call, too. You have been sent out by the Lord to speak his word with care and boldness, as Jeremiah did. Perhaps, like Jeremiah, you come from a family with a heritage of public ministry. Perhaps you also grew up in a household of pastors and teachers. Perhaps, like Jeremiah, you dedicated yourself to serving in the public ministry from your youngest days.
Or perhaps you are nothing like Jeremiah, growing up in a family that was once distant from the Lord. Perhaps you came to ministry later in life. Maybe your family and relatives don’t approve of your work for the Lord. This, too, is similar to Jeremiah’s experience.
How can one react to these deep and meaningful words of the Lord when they fall on one small, sinful individual? Jeremiah responds with his first words to the Lord: “‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’” Indeed, he was! Jeremiah may have been the youngest prophet called to serve the Lord in the Old Testament. How could this young boy possibly carry out God’s important task of ministering to Judah? How could such a young child live “as a prophet to the nations”?
Jeremiah’s youthful reluctance toward ministry sounds eerily similar to Moses’ aged objections at the burning bush. Neither thought they could speak the way God needed them to speak. Yet both went on to be listed among the greatest preachers in the his- tory of Christendom. Both were pretty good inspired writers, too. Moses’ words from the Lord formed the first five books of the Bible! Jeremiah’s words from the Lord created the longest book of the Bible!
Of course, the Lord doesn’t explain all of that to Jeremiah at this point. Instead, he meets the objection headlong. “Do not say, ‘I am only too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.” And Jeremiah would say those words—whether they were law or gospel.
Yet he remained understandably afraid. Who wouldn’t be? God’s law can stir up very powerful and angry emotions in people. In fact, this word of the Lord would produce persecution throughout Jeremiah’s ministry. So the Lord reminded him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
Those words of the Lord probably would have been enough. But in his love, the Lord followed them with one of his most loving actions. “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’”
The Lord himself touched Jeremiah’s mouth! The very fact that Jeremiah survived this experience illustrated God’s grace. When the Lord called the prophet Isaiah, a burning coal was brought to his mouth by one of the seraphim. Here, the Lord touched Jeremiah with his own hand! Jeremiah’s words would be God’s words. The Lord would accomplish the uprooting, the tearing down, the destruction, and the overthrowing. And the Lord would also take care of the building and planting. The touch of the hand of the Lord became an extraordinary event in Jeremiah’s life and ministry. From now on the two would be woven together.
What about you? I doubt the hand of the Lord physically touched your mouth when you were called to serve him. No voice from heaven boomed from the sky to send you forth. And yet you have probably had doubts similar to those Jeremiah shared with the Lord. You are not the greatest speaker in Christendom. You cannot teach as well as the greatest teachers. An admonition of these truths is not evidence of any shortcoming in how God knit you together. It is a confession of sin. Every prophet, judge, priest, king, pastor, and teacher has possessed sinful shortcomings. We are all daily plagued by a sinful nature that cries out with Jeremiah, “I’m not capable— find someone else!” We all have fallen into the ditches on either side of the road of righteousness. At times we have exemplified prideful arrogance. At other times, we lived in hopeless ministerial despair.
The presence of the Lord and his call shines a glorious light on these filthy marks of ours. We stand ready to be ruined. But like Jeremiah, we hear the word of the Lord lovingly say, “Do not be afraid.” What can take away this fear of eternal punishment for sin? What enables us to stand in the presence of such powerful perfection? It is the very Savior we are privileged to proclaim. The sins Jesus has forgiven include ministerial shortcomings, too. Because these sins manifest themselves daily in your ministry, this confession of sins must also remain a daily exercise. The absolution that follows is the daily reminder of God’s grace. That grace motivates your ministry on his behalf.
We give ourselves too much credit when we think that the gospel ministry stands and falls because of our own strengths and weaknesses. The word stands powerful by itself! And yet in his infinite love, the Lord has chosen to use us, sinful human beings, to carry that powerful message. The word of the Lord remains ever powerful, even when you are not. What a comforting message for his called workers!
Your daily confession and absolution of sins stands as a constant reminder of God’s grace. That very grace brought you to serve the Lord. And if the Lord has accomplished all of this for you, of course he will stand with you always—through persecution and joy alike. The comfort the Lord shared with Jeremiah so many years ago still remains a powerful comfort for any servant in the church. In the face of anger and bitter disputes, in the presence of persecution and hatred, your Savior calls you by name. “‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.”
This is an edited excerpt from “The Pastoral Prophet: Meditations on the Book of Jeremiah” written by Steve Kruschel (1517 Publishing, 2019), pgs 7-11.