Jeremiah 20: 1-6
Now the priest Pashhur son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the LORD, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. 2 Then Pashhur struck the prophet Jeremiah, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the LORD. 3 The next morning when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, The LORD has named you not Pashhur but “Terror-all-around.” 4 For thus says the LORD: I am making you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; and they shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall kill them with the sword. 5 I will give all the wealth of this city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon. 6 And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house, shall go into captivity, and to Babylon you shall go; there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.
To be a prophet means that you will challenge the way things are, that you will incur the wrath of those who disagree with you, and that there will be consequences. People don’t want to hear bad news, they often don’t want to hear what they are doing wrong, and especially within the context of the Temple or a church there can be a certain self-righteousness that looks down and says, “how dare you challenge me in this way.” Jeremiah is struck and placed in the stocks overnight, not a fun proposition but not one that is probably a significant deterrent, it is like spending overnight in jail for participating in a protest. Jeremiah is not deterred, he immediately turns to curse Pashhur, who struck him and placed him in stocks. Pashhur is:
Renamed to be identified with the horror that is coming
He will be a terror to himself and those he cares about
He will have to watch the destruction of his homeland and go into exile
He will watch his friends die, the things he trusted in destroyed
He will die, his friends will all die not here but in exile and their bodies will not return home
If this isn’t a curse, I don’t know what is. Jeremiah has endured much and has more to endure but we see him giving vent to one of his persecutors. Next we’ll see him vent to God.
Jeremiah 20: 7-18
7 O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
10 For I hear many whispering:
“Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.
“Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.”
11 But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.
They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.
12 O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.
13 Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD!
For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.
14 Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
15 Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
16 Let that man be like the cities that the LORD overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
17 because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?
This is pathos (suffering) laced language, and while some would want to break apart these verses between 7-10 where Jeremiah complains, 11-12 when Jeremiah turns to hope, 13 which bursts into praise and then 14-18 where self hatred and the desire for death come up I think they are all connected and need to be held together. This is a faithful monologue, it is difficult to hear, much less to find yourself needing to utter words like this, but it is the story of a faithful one abused, trying with everything within himself to trust God, to believe as he once did, and yet in the end there is the wish for it all to be over. The language is strong, stronger even than the NRSVs translation. As Brueggemann states: “The verb rendered “deceived” (NRSV enticed) could be rendered more strongly as “harassed,” “taken advantage of,” “abused,” even “raped.””[i] Jeremiah actually says either God you abused me or God you raped me (which fits well with the language of overpowering in the following verse). God has violated the prophet’s trust with the message he has been given, with the abuse he has endured, with the pain of announcing death and destruction. A person would have to be sick to want to be the bearer of a message of death. No doctor comes out cheerfully to tell a mother their child has died, no officer wants to write to a family their son or daughter will never return home, and yet Jeremiah is given the unwanted message that not only will many people die, but the temple and the city will be destroyed, that those who survive will be taken away as exiles to a foreign land. Jeremiah wants out, he no longer wants to speak, he no longer wants to be a prophet. “Just let me be like everyone else!” and yet God will not allow him to stay silent. Jeremiah is tired, ready to be done, ready to announce a message people want to hear and yet that is not his calling, at least not yet. The time of disaster is approaching.
Jeremiah cries for revenge on those who are persecuting him, and probably most painfully former friends. Jeremiah wants God to act, and yet on the other hand probably doesn’t because he knows at least in some shadowy way the disaster that is rapidly approaching and has no power to stop it. He desperately wants to believe and hope in God, desperately wants God to deliver him from this moment. He wants to sing, he tries to talk himself into it and quickly slides into a question of “what is it all for?” Wishing he was never born, even though earlier in Jeremiah 1 he was shaped in his mother’s womb now he wishes he died there.
What do we do with laments like this, with the heartbroken language of the wounded and weeping prophet? First I think we need to realize this is faithful language and that there may be those in our midst who can all too easily identify with what the prophet is saying. I know I find some resonance and can point to times in my life where the words I said were different but the feelings were essentially the same: I wanted to believe, and I felt abused, I wanted to hope and yet right now I just wanted it all over with. Jeremiah is given a hard task and he feels abandoned by God, and no simple statements of God’s presence will cure the broken heart in the moment. But Jeremiah does not give up on God any more than I believe God wants to give up on God’s people.
[i] Brueggemann, Jeremiah, 181.