“O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.” What could possibly lead Jeremiah to this outcry that we have before us in our text? Is this an isolated moment of frustration, a brief loss of patience, in Jeremiah’s life? No. It turns out that this outcry has a whole life of frustrating prophetic work behind it. For Jeremiah, it had started long, long before.
Many years before, Jeremiah had thought his life was his own. He thought the world was his “oyster”—that life was what he was able to make of it. The day God stepped in and called him, however, everything changed. Jeremiah was told by Yahweh, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart for my purposes.” All this time Jeremiah had thought he was the one calling the shots and ordering his life. This rude awakening altered his whole existence. Jeremiah was being called by God to be the Lord’s mouthpiece, to proclaim His Word to Israel, “to pull up and tear down, take apart and demolish—and then start over, building and planting.” From this point forward, Jeremiah began to see the terror and the comfort that accompanied being the instrument of the Lord. Yahweh’s unforgettable words echoed into the depths of Jeremiah’s being—“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. 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.”
What powerful words! The Lord declared that he was making Jeremiah—all by himself!—a pillar to stand against the “whole land”—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land—! Yahweh, however, assured Jeremiah that He would be with him, that He would never forsake him. From this point on Jeremiah would intimately begin to learn what life was like standing alone with God.
So Jeremiah went forth and began to preach the Word of the Lord to Israel. This Word seemed like nothing but a long stream of judgment and disaster against the people. Jeremiah declared that an ancient and powerful nation would be brought against Israel, devouring its food, herds, vineyards, and families—even destroying entire cities and villages. This message was not what the people wanted to hear—Jeremiah was speaking of the overthrow of their country, of the rape and pillage of their homes. Needless to say, the people were not happy about this and they began plotting against Jeremiah, “Let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” This unhappiness with Jeremiah’s message ran so deep among the people that eventually Jeremiah’s own family turned on him and betrayed him, bringing their voices against him. His people and family had left him—Jeremiah was standing all alone.
The true extent of the hurt that Jeremiah was experiencing is hard to imagine. He was completely cut off from his country, culture, friends, and family in every meaningful way—they decided to forsake him rather than support the harsh message he was bringing from God. In light of Israel’s turning away from the Word of God, Yahweh told Jeremiah to give up marriage and not have any children: “You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.” The Lord did not want His spokesman to mingle with the people who had rejected His Word. And because of this, Jeremiah was stuck again—stuck between the God who had claimed him and the people, family, life, and dreams that he once had and desired to keep. The Lord had already taken away the world Jeremiah had once known, and now the Lord was even preventing him from building a new life to replace it. Jeremiah was left standing alone with God.
Jeremiah, being steadfast, continued to prophesy—as the Lord desired—disaster after disaster upon the people. He proclaimed boldly the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem, telling vividly of their fall to their enemies and the gross cannibalism that would occur among the people while the cities were under siege. This message was too much—its words too brutal and too disturbing. His people and his family had already heard enough, but now the ones he should be able to trust above all—the priests of His God, Yahweh—couldn’t stand his words any longer. Jeremiah was seized by the priest of the Lord’s temple, was beaten, and then put into stocks at the upper gate of the temple—and he was there presented as a mockery for all to see. And in this moment we find Jeremiah even rejected by the leaders of his own religion, the leaders of the Temple of the very same Lord he was serving with his proclamations. With his own religion now turned against him, Jeremiah was literally standing alone with God.
When he was released from this humiliation the next day, Jeremiah faithfully and obediently prophesied that Israel would be carried off in exile by Babylon. After this, however, exhausted and worn out Jeremiah was at the end of his rope. His miraculous patience was finally running thin. Overwhelmed by it all, his heart cried out to His God: “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! ‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ say all my close friends, watching for my fall. ‘Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.’ But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O LORD of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause. Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.” But even here Jeremiah does not stop—he boldly goes on to curse the day of his birth! “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!...Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”
Here, we find the honest cry of despair from one whose life has been taken over by God. Jeremiah has come face to face with the reality that he is only an instrument and tool of His God. Everything in his life has turned against him because of his relationship to Yahweh. He is alone, desperately alone—apart from his people, his family, and unable to have a wife or children of his own. And to top it all off, he has now been seized, beaten, and dishonored by the leaders of the Temple of His Lord.
So at this moment of outcry, at this “midlife crisis” of Jeremiah’s, does everything change? Does the Lord answer his prayer, by relieving him of his loneliness and troubles? No. The Lord does not have a fairytale ending for this life in mind for Jeremiah.
As time goes by and Jeremiah continues his prophetic work, his very life is eventually threatened by his people. “This man should be sentenced to death because he has prophesied against this city!” Though at this point Jeremiah’s life is spared by the Lord, he goes on to be beaten and imprisoned, thrown into a dungeon for a miserably long time. And to cap this all off, Jeremiah is later thrown into a cistern—into a dark well with no water—where he is left to starve as he sinks down into the mud, all alone with no one but God. In order to preserve His prophet, the Lord once again steps in and delivers Jeremiah—just as He promised—saving him from this hopeless mud pit.
We lose contact with Jeremiah at this point and don’t know for certain how his life comes to an end. Jewish tradition holds that Jeremiah was put to death by stoning in Egypt. Based on what we know of Jeremiah’s life, we can see that this would be an appropriate and fitting ending to this dark tragedy—a tragedy filled by Jeremiah continually standing alone with God.
So what can we take from all this? What do we learn from this hectic and heartbreaking life of Jeremiah? Is his life of standing alone with God too distant to matter to us? Is there anything that comes to us across this 2700 year gap?
It turns out Jeremiah’s life is frighteningly similar to ours. It turns out that the very same God who laid His call upon Jeremiah has come to claim you. In Jesus Christ, you, like Jeremiah, have been called into the Lord’s service—you are now His disciple, you have been called to stand alone with God. In your baptism you have been seized by God and taken hold of, once and for all. As the Apostle Paul put it: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” From now on, you can never get away from God—you will never be God-less again because His call is irrevocable. This is both terrifying and comforting—God will always be with you, to protect and save, but God being with you will also often take the shape of Jeremiah’s life.
Jesus’ own words show that the life of discipleship—the life of standing alone with God—that He calls us to, will look very similar to the life of Jeremiah: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This is life lived under the cross of Jesus Christ—this is life lived in obedience to the Word of the Lord—this is life standing alone with God.
Right now in the world there are physical persecutions of Christians taking place in China, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey—to name a few. The 20th century had the greatest number of Christians persecuted in the history of the Church. Though we might feel safe in our country now, the winds of time are changing. In our culture a great shift is beginning to take place—we are becoming more and more post-Christian. Slowly, but surely, our country is becoming more intolerant of those who insist on taking the Word of Jesus seriously and putting it into practice. As long as we only “talk the talk” they will arrogantly ignore us, but if we start to “walk the walk”—like Jeremiah did—if we start to stand alone with God, they will have no choice but to stand up, take notice, and probably turn against us.
Donald Miller, in Blue Like Jazz, tells a story about being confronted by a professor at Reed College. The professor was not pleased when he found out that Miller might be trying to “evangelize” some students on the campus. The professor proceeded to boldly recall the story of Captain Cook’s visit to the natives of Hawaii—and how Cook failed to escape with his life. The professor then defiantly connected the fate of Captain Cook with Miller’s own potential fate. The message was clear: if Miller kept pushing his Christian faith on campus his very life would be in danger. Miller also tells another story from the same school where some students on Easter snuck into the Christian’s “meditation room” on campus, and left a slaughtered stuffed lamb. In addition to these, there are stories from many other bold college students around the country, who have stood up for their faith in the classroom only to be mocked, ridiculed, and passed off as brainless idiots. Our institutions of higher learning often set the trend for the future, and if that fact holds true, the outlook for Christianity in our country is bleak. When you take the Word of Jesus seriously you will find that people will begin to turn against you. Family members may begin to distance themselves, friends may stop calling, and coworkers may passive-aggressively mock you—or worse. There are even bumper stickers on cars scattered across our country which read: “Too bad we can’t feed Christians to the lions anymore.” Like our Master who goes before us, we are asked to bear our cross and press His Kingdom forward—bearing the same persecution He received from the world.
But we must not forget that we stand with our Lord Jesus Christ not only in persecution and death, not only under the cross—we also stand with Him in His resurrection, in His conquering of death. As Paul said, if there is no resurrection then in this life we are to be pitied more than all men. But there is a resurrection of the dead—Jesus Christ proves this to be true by being raised from the dead Himself, as the first fruits of what is in store for us. The same promise that Yahweh gave to Jeremiah holds firm for us in Jesus Christ: “If you will endure with me till the end, I will stand there with you and I will save you.” Despite the fact that we, like Jeremiah, might have our country, our culture, our friends, our own family, and even our religion turn against us, we are assured that God Himself will be with us through it all. When we stand alone with God—God stands with us. God gives us Himself and that is enough—it is all we need. When everything else has fallen aside—when our health has failed us, when our youth has faded, when our riches have been used up, when our things have rusted, when our families and friends have abandoned us, and even when death and persecutions finally overtake us—we will stand, we will stand again with our Lord at the resurrection of the body. In that day we will see—see with our own eyes!—our Redeemer Jesus Christ and the truth of Jeremiah’s words: “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.” Amen.