Previous | Next

October 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 4 · pp. 383–88 

The Confessions of a Prophet (Jer. 15:1-21)

David Ewert

The book of Jeremiah not only contains powerful sermons, rich in spiritual instruction. It also opens up for us windows through which we may look into the life of the prophet.

In many respects this book is like other prophetic literature. In one respect, however, it is quite unique in that it has so much “confessional material”—sometimes called “the intimate papers of Jeremiah.” These passages do not appear to have been a part of the prophet’s public proclamation, but they were recorded nevertheless, and they have come down to us as a precious legacy.

The form of these confessions is that of monologue or soliloquy or, perhaps more correctly, “colloquy,” for they come out of communion with God. We hear the prophet talking to God about his life and ministry and we hear God talking to his servant.

Although these confessions are not, strictly speaking, meditations or songs as we have them in the Psalter, they are couched in the language of prayer, and often they are quite poetic in form. Perhaps the closest parallel to these confessions of Jeremiah would be the “lament” found in the Psalter and in other Old Testament books.

The passage we are about to study portrays the inner conflict in the soul of the prophet. His sensitive nature has been hurt by the opposition to his ministry and he feels like giving up. On the other hand, his deep sense of calling to the prophetic ministry will not permit him “to throw in the towel.”

Precisely at what time in his ministry these particular words of Chapter 15 were spoken is hard to say. Some suggest they belong in his early ministry, when Jeremiah’s soul had not yet been sufficiently inured against attack and abuse, and the prophet felt deeply wounded by the resistance to his message. Others are of the opinion that this particular confession comes from the time of his suffering under Jehoiakim, when he was forbidden to preach and all his work seemed in vain.

Perhaps we need not date the passage at all, for it may well reflect the fluctuating moods of Jeremiah throughout his long ministry. (People who feel deeply have no difficulty in identifying with the prophet’s state of mind as it is expressed in our text.)

As we listen to Jeremiah’s lament, we may be tempted to accuse the prophet of morbid introspection; but we should remember that he is talking to God, before whom nothing is hidden. This kind of honesty before God can have a very cathartic effect and can bring peace and quietness of mind. {384}

We can be forever grateful to Jeremiah for opening up the shutters of his heart and letting us observe him in his struggles. May I invite you, then, to listen to these Confessions of a Prophet. Perhaps they will find an echo in your own life.

PROVOCATION (vv. 10-14)

Deep melancholy has settled over Jeremiah’s life. He speaks as if communing with his mother, who brought him into the world. He seems to rue his birth. Not that he is accusing his mother for having borne him, but he wants mother to hear his complaint.

Life has been harsh and cruel and this provocation becomes all the more bitter as he thinks of his own innocence. He has treated other people fairly (10b); he has refrained from business entanglements which often lead to strife; he can not be accused of being a harsh creditor nor that he has been careless in the payment of debts. And yet he has become the butt of other people’s railing. After spending his energies to help his fellow-men, he has gotten only abuse.

This passage shows how false the notion is that the prophets were supermen/who never faltered in their calling. When God took hold of a man and made him a prophet, He did not turn him into an automaton, a helpless instrument in the hands of the Deity, with no feelings and no questions. Here we see Jeremiah in all his humanity lapsing into acute self-pity and then launching a bitter attack on God.

He had not asked God to make him a prophet. He had not prophesied for selfish gain. God had put his hand upon him when he was but a youth and made him a prophet. Then why all this trouble?

Most of God’s servants know of such dark moments. And lest it should occur to someone that only Old Testament servants of God could feel as Jeremiah did, listen to Paul: “For I want you to know, brethren of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed, that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8, 9).

I have been told that there used to be in Scotland a friendly society called “The Order of the Juniper Tree.” You will recall that a dejected Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, found shelter under this desert bush. I suppose it must have taken more than ordinary courage to become a member of such an Order, for most of us are very hesitant to admit our Juniper-tree experiences. The words spoken by Elijah under that tree, however, do remind us of the words of Jeremiah in our text: “Lord, it is enough; now take away my life.”

Suddenly the monologue changes to dialogue; his soliloquy changes to colloquy with God; the lament becomes petition. He gives himself to prayer, as the great men of God before him had done.

PRAYER (v. 15)

“O Lord, thou knowest; remember me and visit me, and take {385} vengeance for me on my persecutors. In thy forebearance take me not away; know that for thy sake I bear reproach.”

“O Lord, thou knowest”—what an endless stream of comfort comes from such a confession. The apostle John wrote that when our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things, and so we can quiet our hearts. In that great book of comfort at the end of the Bible, our Lord says repeatedly to the churches: “I know”—where you live; your poverty, your tribulation, the slander you have to endure. God is called the kardiognostes, the heartknower, in the Greek Bible.

And to this great affirmation of faith Jeremiah adds several petitions: (a) “Remember me!” And when God remembers, he steps in and acts in our behalf. (b) “Visit me!” When God visits his own he deals with them in saving grace. (c) “Take me not away!” Jeremiah is at the end of his resources and so he casts himself on the grace and mercy of God.

No one can be long in the service of the Lord without experiencing a measure of what Jeremiah describes for us in our text. Blue Monday is never far away, and the weapon of discouragement is one of the Devil’s most powerful weapons. Only if our life is anchored deeply in God can we prevail in the dark night of the soul which comes upon God’s servants from time to time.

There is a sudden change of mood in v. 16, as he breaks out in praise of God’s revelation.

PRAISE (v. 16)

“Thy words were found and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by thy name.” The very words which his enemies had rejected were the delight of Jeremiah’s heart and a constant source of joy. These words had entered deeply into his life; he had “eaten” them; that is, they had become part of him. Ezekiel, in a vision, was told to eat a scroll containing the words he was to proclaim. Also John, on the Isle of Patmos, had a vision in which he was asked to eat a little scroll, which turned out to be sweet to the taste but bitter to the stomach. When God’s Word enters deeply into our live there is a sweetness about it, but this sweetness is usually mixed with some bitterness. For example, the Word may put demands upon us which we find difficult to carry out.

When God called Jeremiah, Jeremiah resisted. “I’m only a youth,” he expostulated, “I don’t know how to speak.” But the Lord said, “I have put my words in your mouth.” And God had been true to his promise. He had put his words into Jeremiah’s mouth and the prophet had eaten them, and they had been the sustaining power in his life and the source of untold joy. Perhaps, in this moment of darkness Jeremiah recalled the moment when God had called him to the {386} prophetic ministry. John Bright (in Interpretation Jan. ’74) suggests that we should translate, “your name was called over me,” instead of “I was called by your name,” meaning: you made me your property, I belong to you. This assurance floods his heart with momentary joy.

When the great Anglican liturgical scholar, Gregory Dix, lay dying, he had lost all interest in reading or even in speaking to his neighbor in the hospital-bed next to his. Then someone gave him the great scholarly commentary on the Gospel of Mark by Vincent Taylor, then just off the press. He began to read; he came back to life; he talked again; and a few hours before he died he led his neighbor to the Lord. Those of you who know Vincent Taylor’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark may wonder how this highly scholarly work could make God’s Word so sweet to Professor Dix. But it was God’s answer to the needs of this man’s soul. “Thy words were found and . . . thy words were unto me the joy and the delight of my heart.”

And yet, for the ministry to which God had called Jeremiah, the prophet had to pay a price. Of this he speaks in v. 17.

PRICE (v. 17)

“I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because thy hand was upon me, for thou hadst filled me with indignation.”

From the high point of praise, this crest of spiritual delight, he sinks into the trough of the wave as he recalls what his prophetic ministry had cost him. Jeremiah had a warm and tender nature and a great capacity for friendship. But the demands put on him by his ministry had been so great that he had to walk a lonely road.

At God’s command he had never married and so did not know the comfort of a sympathetic wife in the midst of the trials of life. Many of the joys of family life had to be forfeited for the sake of his calling. Indeed, much of the opposition to his work came from his relatives who had little appreciation for his ministry.

He had taken his calling so seriously that he had refused to fritter away many precious hours in the company of merrymakers and so had to sit alone. Frequently this has been the price of leadership. Because of the call of duty one cannot always do exactly what everyone else is doing. Like an athlete who has to restrain himself in order to obtain the prize, so the servant of God must discipline himself because of God’s call.

When Gideon tried to rally Israel to take a stand against the Midianites, he sent most of them back home and took only the 300 who had held their weapons in one hand and lapped water with the other. Those who want to drink deeply at all the streams that are available to them, may some day find themselves unfit for their Christian calling.

F. W. Robertson, a great preacher of Brighton, England, had to {387} suffer much opposition to his preaching. His friends seemed to become fewer and fewer. In his letters he frequently mentions his loneliness. But there is a note of assurance as well: “A sublime feeling of a presence comes about me at times, which makes inward solitariness a trifle to talk about.” He, like Jeremiah, felt something of the price one must often pay for a prophetic ministry.

As we come to v. 18, we seem to hit bottom.


Jeremiah complains that his pain is persistent; it is like an incurable wound. He wonders why he has to endure so much. Earlier in the book he accuses Israel of forsaking God, the fountain of living waters, and making for themselves cisterns that do not hold water, cracked cisterns which deceive the thirsty. Now he accuses God of deceiving him. “Wilt thou be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” He feels like a thirsty traveller who sees a wadi in the distance and rushes forward to slake his thirst, only to find it has gone dry in the summer drought.

We are shocked to hear Jeremiah speak of God in this way. It sounds blasphemous. He appears to be saying: “Lord you got me into this; you tricked me. If I had known what the ministry would involve I would not have accepted your call to it. How can I get out of this?”

John Robertson of Glasgow, a preacher of forty years, decided one morning to resign. He prayed: “O God, Thou didst commission me forty years ago, but I have blundered and failed and I want to resign this morning.” But as he prayed and sobbed, he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “John Robertson . . . ’tis true you have blundered and failed; but . . . I am not here for you to resign your commission but to re-sign your commission.” He went on to new and greater things in his ministry. And so did Jeremiah.

Fortunately, not Jeremiah but God spoke the last word in this lament. “Therefore, thus saith the Lord . . .”

PROMISE (vv. 19-21)

Before God can comfort and strengthen this distraught and perplexed servant of his, he must correct him. Who would have thought that a man who for some forty years preached so unremittingly in the face of fierce persecution could be anything but a man of iron? Yet he was a man like we are. And perhaps that is why these words were recorded and preserved. The scribes who copied the messages of Jeremiah thought these laments were too precious to be thrown into the wastebasket.

Surely Jeremiah was not exemplary in some of the things he said. Self-pity and discouragement do not bring honor to God. We appreciate the prophet’s honesty, but that does not mean that we condone all that he said in the dark moments of his life. He came {388} perilously close to blasphemy. And so we can be grateful that Jeremiah has also shared with us the correction which the Lord gave him. Just imagine! He had called God a deceiver, who had tricked him into the ministry.

Whether Jeremiah felt guilty immediately after he had hurled such charges to God, or whether the Lord had to deal with him over a period of time, we do not know. But he did accept God’s reproof as a word of the Lord.

In essence, God told Jeremiah to repent. “I will be with you; I will make you a wall of bronze; they will fight against you but not prevail; I will deliver you from their hands; but first you have to return to me and stop saying worthless things. Then I will return your prophetic office to you, which you have all but forfeited by speaking the way you did.

Notice that God did not answer all of Jeremiah’s questions. He did not promise to change his circumstance either. He did not say that from now on it will be easier. But he promised to stand by him, to strengthen and to deliver him. And so the prophet found a renewal of his faith and of his spiritual commitment. He would continue to be God’s servant. It almost appears as if he got a second call to the ministry. God “re-signed” him.


These confessions of a prophet were written so that other servants of God might find comfort and strength from them.

From Jeremiah’s confessions we learn that God does not call only those who have purged themselves from all weaknesses and who have achieved a high degree of perfection. He does not extend his call only to the brave, to those who never have doubts or problems. But he entrusts his treasures to earthen vessels, frail creatures of dust.

Jeremiah’s lament shows us how close to the brink of despair a man or woman of God can come. The redeeming factor is that Jeremiah knew where to turn in such a dark night of the soul. “Lord to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”

We are not Jeremiahs, to be sure. We are not even “minor” prophets, let alone “major.” We are not recipients of divine revelation as Jeremiah was. And yet, ours too is a prophetic ministry. We are to interpret God’s will for others. And we can be sure that there will be times when we feel very much as Jeremiah did. But to all who hear and obey God’s call to preach the Gospel to every creature, to heal the hurts of mankind, to serve the needy in the name of Christ, Jesus gives the promise: “Lo, I am with you, to the end of the age.”

Dr. David Ewert is Professor of New Testament at M.B. Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. This meditation was given at a seminary chapel service, May 1975.

Previous | Next