Biblical Commentary

Jeremiah 1:4-10, 17-19



1The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin:2to whom the word of Yahweh came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.

3It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.

While these verses are not part of the lectionary reading, they provide essential background.

This book is intended for the survivors of the nation of Judah—people who have seen their beloved Jerusalem destroyed and who have experienced exile. They have suffered greatly, and are subject to despair. Jeremiah’s writing puts their suffering in context and shows that Yahweh has not abandoned them, but has instead allowed their suffering to facilitate their redemption. For Jeremiah, Babylonia is not a mighty empire that has defeated Yahweh’s people (and by implication Yahweh as well). The Babylonians are Yahweh’s “instruments of judgment” (Fretheim, 48). Yahweh has used Babylonia to bring Judah to its knees. In good time, Yahweh will raise up Cyrus of Persia who will allow a remnant from Judah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple.

“The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests” (v. 1a). Jeremiah is the son of a priest. We have no evidence that he ever performed priestly functions, but we can be sure that he was well-trained in religious matters and understands the priestly function. In his prophetic role, he will rail against the sins of priests.

“who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin” (v. 1b). Benjamin is one of the twelve territories of Israel—located north of the territory of Judah, where Jerusalem and the temple are located. Anathoth is near the southern boundary of Benjamin and Jerusalem is near the northern boundary of Judah, so Anathoth is only 2-3 miles (3-5 km) north of Jerusalem—an easy journey by foot.

“to whom the word of Yahweh came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign” (v. 2). It is the Lord to takes the initiative to bring the word to Jeremiah. King Josiah is a good king who “did what was right in the sight of Yahweh, and walked in all the way of David his father” (2 Kings 22:2). Josiah is the most recent in a succession of kings who, for the most part, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.

These kings functioned as minor regents in the midst of three great powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia—and several lesser but still powerful nations. There were always tempted to look for security in great-power alliances instead of trusting God to protect them.

King Manasseh, who ruled prior to Josiah, “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, after the abominations of the nations whom Yahweh cast out before the children of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2). Because of Manasseh’s evil leadership and the willingness of the people of Judah to accept his leadership, God said, “I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab; and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will cast off the remnant of my inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies. They will become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies; because they have done that which is evil in my sight, and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came forth out of Egypt, even to this day” (2 Kings 21:13-15).

God did not execute that judgment immediately. Manasseh died and was succeeded by his son Amon, who “did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 21:20). However, Amon reigned only a short time before he was assassinated. He was succeeded by Josiah, his son, an eight year old boy (2 Kings 22:1). As noted above, Josiah did what was right in the sight of the Lord, to include giving orders to the high priest Hilkiah (Hilkiah was a common name, and there is no reason to believe that this is Jeremiah’s father) to restore the temple. In the process of the restoration, Hilkiah discovered “the book of the law” (2 Kings 22:8)—assumed today to have been part or all of the Book of Deuteronomy. He gave this to Josiah’s emissaries, who took it to Josiah and read it to him. When Josiah heard the reading, he was seized with guilt, recognizing immediately that neither he nor the people were in compliance with God’s law. He took steps to rectify this situation, and “made a covenant before Yahweh, to walk after Yahweh, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul…. All the people stood to the covenant” (2 Kings 23:2-3).

Josiah made an honest attempt to live up to the covenant that he had made, but God’s response (continued judgment) leads us to believe that the people accepted his reforms only at the most superficial level—gave them lip-service only.

Josiah reigned 31 years (2 Kings 22:1), beginning in 640 B.C. The thirteenth year of his reign—the year that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah—was 627 B.C. In the thirteenth year of his reign, Josiah was 21 years old.

In verse 5, God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you.” This has led scholars to debate whether the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah while he was still in the womb or as a young man. If the call came while Jeremiah was in the womb, Josiah would have been older than Jeremiah by 13 or more years, and Jeremiah would have been elderly during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, the kings who followed Josiah. If the call came when Jeremiah was a young man, he and Josiah would have been roughly contemporary in age, and Jeremiah was middle-aged during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. While we do not have enough information to settle the matter, it seems more likely that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah as a young man.

“It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, to the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month” (v. 3).

Josiah died in battled at the hand of Pharaoh Neco (2 Kings 23;29), and was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz, who reigned only three months before being deposed by Neco. Neco then made Josiah’s son, Eliakim, king and changed his name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:31-34). Jehoiakim reigned 12 years, doing “evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 23:37), during which time King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon defeated Egypt and began to bring pressure on Judah.

Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin, who reigned three months and “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:9). During his short reign, Nebuchadrezzar besieged Jerusalem. “Jehoiachin the king of Judah went out to the king of Babylon, he, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers: and the king of Babylon took him in the eighth year of his reign” and looted the city but did not destroy it (2 Kings 24:12-17). The year was 597 B.C.

Jehoiachin was succeeded by Zedekiah, who “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:19). He revolted against Nebuchadrezzar, who again besieged Jerusalem in 588 B.C. Nebuchadrezzar was forced to lift the siege temporarily to meet a threat from Egypt, giving the people of Jerusalem false hope that they would be saved. However, Nebuchadrezzar returned after dealing with the Egyptians, laid siege to Jerusalem once more, and in 587 B.C. breached the walls, destroyed the city, killed many of the residents, and took the rest into exile in Babylonia.


4Now the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, 5“Before I formed you in the belly, I knew (Hebrew:yada) you. Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified (Hebrew: hiqdis—”set apart”) you. I have appointed (Hebrew: nathan) you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak; for I am a child.”

These verses tell of the call of Jeremiah, which is similar in several ways to the calls of Moses (Exodus 3:1-6, 17), Gideon (Judges 6:11-12), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-5), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-3). “All these report an encounter with God, a commission to do the Lord’s will or speak the Lord’s word, and a ritual act or sign symbolizing the designated role. In all cases except Ezekiel, the one who is called objects to the vocation and then is reassured” (Tucker, 89).

“Now the word of Yahweh came to me” (v. 4). It is easy to underestimate the power of a word. Words have the power to encourage or discourage—to heal or to wound. The words of a great visionary or orator have the power to stir crowds to build or mobs to destroy. We might be tempted to think dismissively about words—”They were only words,” we say—but the Hebrews would not make that mistake. They understood that words lead to actions —produce results—have consequences.

This was particularly true with regard to a word from Yahweh. Their earliest scriptures gave witness to the power of a word from God. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ AND THERE WAS LIGHT” (Genesis 1:3). God’s word accomplished the creative action. That formula—”God said” followed by “and there was” or “and it was so”—is repeated for “an expanse in the middle of the waters” (Genesis 1:6) and separating the waters from the land (Genesis 1:9) and creating vegetation (Genesis 1:11) and so forth until God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).

The word of Yahweh, therefore, has the power to create or to destroy and is not to be taken lightly.

We should note that in the original text the name of God is Yahweh in this verse. Using Yahweh’s name has the effect of making Yahweh personal. The NRSV translation, “the Lord,” fails to capture fully that personal effect.

“Before I formed you in the belly, I knew (yada) you (v. 5a). The Hebrew word translated “formed” here is used in Genesis 2:7 to speak of God forming man from the dust of the earth. It is also related to the Hebrew word for potter.

The Hebrew word, yada, suggests an intimate kind of knowing. It is used to describe a man knowing his wife (Genesis 4:1), the deep intimacy that comes from knowing another person to the core of his/her being. It is the deep relationship that comes with commitment. As the word is used here, it reflects both Yahweh’s knowledge of and commitment to Jeremiah from before the time that Yahweh formed Jeremiah in the womb.

“Before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified (hiqdis—”set apart”) you (v. 5b). The Israelites are familiar with things that have been consecrated or set apart for religious purposes. The Sabbath is a day set aside for rest—to commemorate the Lord’s rest on the seventh day—and as such it is considered to be holy (Exodus 20:8-10). The tabernacle and temple were places set apart for worshiping God, and such were holy. In this case, Yahweh set Jeremiah apart for prophetic work, a holy calling. To disregard such a calling would be as serious as failing to observe the Sabbath or to maintain the sanctity of the temple.

“I have appointed (nathan) you a prophet to the nations” (v. 5c). The Hebrew word nathan means to give, to put or place, or to make. The use of this word in this context suggests something more than the bestowal of a title or the appointment to an office. Yahweh has given Jeremiah the gift of prophecy. He has put in him that which makes Jeremiah a prophet. He has made him or shaped him in such a way that prophet is the only word worthy of describing Jeremiah’s essence––his being.

Prophecy is the specific task to which Yahweh has set Jeremiah apart. He is to be a prophet, not only to Judah, but also to the nations. Chapters 46-51 are oracles of judgment on foreign nations. Other prophets also included the nations in their prophecies, to include “Isaiah 13-27, Ezekiel 25-32, Joel 3, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Zephaniah 2” (Raabe, 404).

People who hear the word, “prophet,” today are likely to think of a person who foretells the future. Those who are more Biblically literate might think of a person who emphasizes social justice and/or calls people to repentance. These are facets of prophetic ministry, but only as outgrowths of the prophet’s central task, which is to act as God’s spokesperson—to proclaim the word given by God. In Jeremiah’s case, his predictions of the future will paint a picture of the doom that people can expect if they fail to repent and return to the Lord. While his writing includes concern for people in need (5:38; 7:6; 8:10; 15:8; 22:3, 16-17; 49:11), this is simply one example of the righteousness that God expects of his people and for which God will hold them accountable. First and foremost, God expects them to repent of their sins and to become faithful to him once again.

“Then I said, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak; for I am a child” (v. 6). Jeremiah responds by protesting his inadequacy for the task. First, he doesn’t know how to speak, by which he most likely means that he doesn’t consider himself an accomplished speaker or a worthy spokesman. Second, he is too young for the task to which Yahweh has called him. Acting as God’s spokesperson requires a certain gravitas—the kind of mature and serious demeanor that comes, in part, with age—or so Jeremiah thinks.

However, if he were to remember his nation’s history, he would understand otherwise. When Yahweh chose a king to replace Saul, he didn’t choose the eldest or tallest or the most handsome of Jesse’s sons, but the youngest and least likely—David (1 Samuel 16). When Yahweh chose someone to face the giant, Goliath, he didn’t choose the strongest man or the mightiest warrior, but chose instead a shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot (1 Samuel 17). Yahweh often prefers working with the least obvious person as a way of avoiding confusion. Nobody who sees a boy kill a giant with a slingshot can fail to see the hand of God behind the boy’s success.

We see the same principle at work in the New Testament. Paul expresses it this way: “But God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

It is not unusual for people to protest God’s call. At the burning bush, Moses said, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). After some additional dialogue and considerable reassurance, Moses protested, “O Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before now, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Note the similarity between Moses’ protest and Jeremiah’s claim not to know how to speak.

The response of the prophet Isaiah to his call was both similar and different—not so much a protest but more a lament. Upon seeing the glory of the Lord, Isaiah responded, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” (Isaiah 6:5).


7But Yahweh said to me, “Don’t say, ‘I am a child;’ for to whoever I shall send you, you shall go, and whatever I shall command you, you shall speak. 8Don’t be afraid because of them; for I am with you to deliver you,” says Yahweh.

“But Yahweh said to me, “Don’t say, ‘I am a child;’ for to whoever I shall send you, you shall go, and whatever I shall command you, you shall speak” (v. 7). Yahweh does not enter into discussion with Jeremiah about the pros and cons of this call, but simply rejects Jeremiah’s objection and insists that Jeremiah do what Yahweh has called him to do.

“I am a child” (v. 7). God calls whom God calls! It is no wonder that people protest their inadequacy at the time of their call. Who is adequate to speak for the Lord? The key to understanding vocation is the realization that the fulfillment of the call is dependent, not on our ability, but on God. God enables those whom God calls. The only question is not whether we are capable or worthy (which we are not) but whether we will answer the call—whether we will step out in faith and allow God to work through us.

Yahweh asks (requires) only two things of Jeremiah:

• First, Yahweh demands that Jeremiah “go to all to whoever I send you.” That is a frightening prospect, because “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34 KJV). The person whom God chooses can expect to stand toe-to-toe with kings and giants—powerful people who are quite capable of crushing their opposition.

• Second, Yahweh demands that Jeremiah ” whatever I command you, you shall speak.” Again, this is frightening, because God tends to put words of judgment in the mouths of prophets—words that nobody wants to hear. After the death of Uriah, Nathan had to tell King David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). John the Baptist had to criticize Herod for marrying the wife of Herod’s brother. Some people (such as David) accepted the judgment spoken by the prophet, but others (such as Herod) ended up killing the messenger.

“Don’t be afraid because of them; for I am with you to deliver you” says Yahweh” (v. 8). God promises to protect Jeremiah. This is not a promise that God routinely makes to prophets. Prophets were routinely persecuted (Matthew 5:12), and sometimes were killed.

When God promises to deliver Jeremiah, he is not promising Jeremiah an easy life. Priests and prophets will threaten to kill Jeremiah (26:8, 11), and Jehoiakim will kill Uriah for proclaiming a message similar to Jeremiah’s (26:20-23). The people of Jeremiah’s hometown will plot to kill him (11:18-23). People will curse him (15:10). He will find himself cut off from happy celebrations (15:17). He will be placed in stocks overnight (20:1-6) and become a laughingstock (20:7). He will be beaten and thrown in a muddy cistern (37:15-16). He will grieve over the fate of the people who fail to listen to his warnings (9:1; 13:7; 48:32). He will not be allowed to marry, and will be lonely.


9Then Yahweh put forth his hand, and touched my mouth; and Yahweh said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. 10Behold, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

“Then Yahweh put forth his hand, and touched my mouth” (v. 9a). Note the similarity to Isaiah’s call where the seraph said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven” (Isaiah 6:7).

“and Yahweh said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth'” (v. 9b). These words closely resemble the wording in the promise by Yahweh to Moses, “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like you; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Did Jeremiah think of himself as the promised prophet? There are reasons to believe that Jesus is the promised prophet. Perhaps there is more than one fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to Moses—more than one prophet like Moses.

Jeremiah’s task is not to preach creatively but to proclaim faithfully. He will not be responsible for devising clever ways of getting people’s attention, but will simply proclaim the words that Yahweh has given him.

“Behold, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms” (v. 10a). “The mission of the prophets to the nations is restated and emphasized in language that points to the prophet’s role in the politics or government of God. Jeremiah is an ‘appointee,’ an official of the divine government, appointed to a task” (Miller, 582).

As noted above, Jeremiah’s prophecy is to be directed to nations and kingdoms—not just Judah.

“to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (v. 10b). “The claim of the book (of Jeremiah) is that God is sovereign over history and will judge the nations, including Judah—pluck up and pull down. Then God will restore them ­—build and plant” (Bracke, 19).

Jeremiah’s prophecy will have two facets. On the one hand, he is to pronounce words of judgment—”to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow.” On the other hand, he is to pronounce words of mercy and hope—”to build and to plant.” Note that there are four words or phrases having to do with judgment, but only two having to do with mercy. This will be in keeping with the character of Jeremiah’s work. He will speak more words of judgment than words of mercy, and will be remembered as a prophet of doom.

The order is intentional. Israel must experience judgment before it can experience mercy. Only after the people of Israel experience judgment will they turn to God and seek his mercy. We see this same tearing down and building up cycle at work in the life of Jesus. He died on a cross so that he might experience the resurrection and, in the process, defeat death once and for all.

Jeremiah’s oracles of judgment will put him at odds with the people of Israel and bring him a good deal of pain, a fact that we see reflected in his complaint to God:

“Yahweh, you have persuaded me, and I was persuaded; you are stronger than I, and have prevailed: I am become a laughing-stock all the day, every one mocks me. For as often as I speak, I cry out; I cry, Violence and destruction! because the word of Yahweh is made a reproach to me, and a derision, all the day. If I say, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name, then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with forbearing, and I can’t” (Jeremiah 20:7-9)


17“You therefore put your belt on your waist, arise, and speak to them all that I command you. Don’t be dismayed at them, lest I dismay you before them. 18For, behold, I have made you this day a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against its princes, against its priests, and against the people of the land. 19They will fight against you; but they will not prevail against you; for I am with you,” says Yahweh, “to deliver you.”

These verses link with verses 4-10 to conclude Jeremiah’s call.

“You therefore put your belt on your waist, arise, and speak to them all that I command you” (v. 17a). The call is threefold: (1) “Put your belt on your waist.” (2) “Arise.” (3) “Speak to them all that I command you.”

“put your belt on your waist” To put a belt on the waist is to get one’s clothing under control. The purpose is to free the person from the constraints of tight clothing—to enable the person to move freely, to work or to fight without stricture.

“arise” shows readiness—determination. The next step is to “speak to them”—to proclaim—so Jeremiah is to stand up so that they can see him. His standing up will announce that he is ready for action—that he has something to say—that they should listen.

“and speak to them all that I command you” There are two components here:

First, Jeremiah is to tell the people what the Lord tells him to say. Jeremiah is not to create his own sermon—the Lord will give him the words to say.

Second, Jeremiah is to tell them everything that the Lord commands. He is to hold back nothing. As we will see later in the book, his proclamation will offend people and lead to his imprisonment. However, the Lord specifically requires that Jeremiah faithfully proclaim the message that he is given—not tailoring it to make it more palatable—not leaving out the hard parts.

“Don’t be dismayed at them, lest I dismay you before them” (v. 17b). The first part of verse 17 was a commission. This second part is a warning. If Jeremiah breaks under the pressure of opposition, God will break him. If he fails to carry out his commission faithfully, the Lord will punish him—and will punish him severely.

“For, behold, I have made you this day a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against its princes, against its priests, and against the people of the land. (v. 18). Jeremiah will experience great opposition from his own people—and specifically from kings, princes, and priests—powerful people. That would be enough to give anyone pause. But the Lord tells Jeremiah that he has made him as impregnable as a fortified city—as strong as an iron pillar—as impenetrable as a bronze wall. The Lord doesn’t promise to do that in the future, but says that he has already effected this change in Jeremiah. Jeremiah need not worry, because the Lord has made him equal to the task. He will enjoy the Lord’s strength and the Lord’s protection.

“They will fight against you; but they will not prevail against you; for I am with you,” says Yahweh, “to deliver you.” (v. 19). The Lord doesn’t promise Jeremiah an easy road. Jeremiah will not lie down on a bed of roses, but in the mud at the bottom of a cistern-prison (37:16; 38:6).

But the Lord does promise that Jeremiah will prevail. The outcome has already been determined. Jeremiah has only one hope, but that the Lord’s promise that the Lord will be with him—that the Lord will deliver him.

Jeremiah will do what the Lord tells him to do. He will preach faithfully for forty years. His life will be anything but easy, but he serve as a great model of faithfulness.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan