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Jeremiah 15:10-21 consists of two laments—a lament being a literary form to express sorrow over a loss:
• The first lament is found in verse 10, where the prophet rues being born (see also 20:14-18). Yahweh responds to that lament in verses 11-14.
• The second lament is found in verses 15-18, followed by Yahweh’s response in verses 19-21. This lament and response constitute our First Reading.
There are a number of laments in Hebrew scripture, to include several laments in the book of Psalms and the book of Lamentations. There were two earlier laments in the book of Jeremiah (11:18-23; 12:1-6)—and there will be two more (20:7-12; 20:14-18).
Biblical laments typically include: (1) a complaint, (2) a section in which the lamenter contrasts former good times with current bad times, (3) a prayer for relief, and (4) a statement of trust in God.
A lament might be inspired by any form of calamity, such as defeat in battle, exile, illness, or death. The lamenter might engage in any number of outward signs of sorrow, such as wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, fasting, or loud weeping. The purpose of the lament was to persuade God to provide relief from the calamitous circumstances.
What did Jeremiah have to lament? Quite a lot! Yahweh had called him to prophesy disaster to the people of Judah—Jeremiah’s people (1:4-16). Yahweh had told Jeremiah that the people would fight against him, but promised, “They shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you” (1:19).
But it hardly seemed that simple. Jeremiah had done as Yahweh commanded (and would continue to serve Yahweh for a total of forty years). Jeremiah had grieved for his people to the point that his joy was gone and his heart was sick—to the point that his eyes were a fountain of tears that he wept day and night (8:18 – 9:1). The people, however, instead of repenting, threatened Jeremiah with death (11:18-23). He had to contend with lying prophets, who countered Jeremiah’s prophecy with their own reassurance that all would be well (14:13-14).
Later, we will learn that Yahweh called Jeremiah not to take a wife—not to have sons and daughters (16:1-2). Not only would that involve the sexual frustrations of a celibate life, but it would also deny Jeremiah children to bring him joy, to care for him in his old age, and to carry on his name. It would deny him the simple comforts of marriage—having someone with whom to share the happy moments and someone to give him solace in the difficult times.
The priest, Pashtur, will strike Jeremiah and put him in stocks (20:1-2)—and Hananiah will publicly oppose Jeremiah (28:1-17)—and Jeremiah will suffer through a siege with his people (32:1-15)—and court officials will put him in a muddy but waterless cistern (38:1-6). Then Jeremiah will suffer with his people through the fall of Jerusalem (39:1-10).
No wonder Jeremiah lamented!
JEREMIAH 15:15-18. REMEMBER ME, AND VISIT ME, AND AVENGE ME
15Yahweh, you know; remember me, and visit me, and avenge me of my persecutors; don’t take me away in your longsuffering: know that for your sake I have suffered reproach. 16Your words were found, and I ate them; and your words were to me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart: for I am called by your name, Yahweh, God of Armies. 17 I didn’t sit in the assembly of those who make merry, nor rejoiced; I sat alone because of your hand; for you have filled me with indignation. 18Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuses to be healed? Will you indeed be to me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?
“Yahweh, you know; remember me, and visit me” (v. 15a). Jeremiah begins his lament by acknowledging that Yahweh knows him—his faithfulness and his suffering. Simple justice would dictate that Yahweh would visit Jeremiah—would make his presence known to him—would reward him for his faithfulness.
“avenge me of my persecutors” (v. 15b). Simple justice would also seem to dictate that Yahweh would exact retribution on Jeremiah’s persecutors.
“don’t take me away in your longsuffering” (v. 15c). This is probably a plea that Yahweh would not take Jeremiah’s life, although it could be a plea that Yahweh would not require Jeremiah to go into exile.
“know that for your sake I have suffered reproach” (v. 15d). This is Jeremiah’s trump card. He is suffering because of his faithful service to Yahweh. Now it is time for Yahweh to remove the insult that Jeremiah has suffered and to restore Jeremiah’s wholeness.
“Your words were found, and I ate them; and your words were to me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart” (v. 16). Jeremiah remembers his call (1:4ff.). As part of that call, Yahweh touched Jeremiah’s mouth and put his words into Jeremiah’s mouth (1:9), promising, “Behold, 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” (1:10).
Being chosen for such a momentous task must have seemed daunting to Jeremiah, but he must also have felt honored to be chosen to be Yahweh’s prophet. Jeremiah says now that he ate Yahweh’s words—that he took them into himself and they became part of him (see also Ezekiel 3:1-3 and Revelation 10:9-10). Yahweh’s words became a joy and a delight to Jeremiah. He knew that his life would have great meaning serving Yahweh, and it is always a joy to know that one’s life has value.
“for I am called by your name, Yahweh, God of Armies” (v. 16b). Jeremiah reminds Yahweh that people associate Jeremiah with Yahweh to the extent that Jeremiah is known by Yahweh’s name. Their names and reputations are bound together. When people see Jeremiah, his presence causes them to think about Yahweh. Something similar happens today when people see a clerical collar. They act differently in the presence of a Godly man or woman.
“I am called by your name” In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character.
Given that people have linked Jeremiah’s name and Yahweh’s name, it would make good sense for Yahweh to vindicate Jeremiah as a way of preserving Yahweh’s good name.
“I didn’t sit in the assembly of those who make merry, nor rejoiced” (v. 17a). Jeremiah has seen people celebrating and making merry, but he didn’t join their celebrations. To have done so would have undercut the gravity of his prophetic message. How could he join in their parties while proclaiming that the people had “turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers” (11:10)? To have done so would have undermined everything that he had set out to accomplish as Yahweh’s prophet. He had too high a sense of his calling to allow that to happen.
But it isn’t easy to sit on the sidelines while everyone else is having a good time. It isn’t easy to be the perennial outsider. It’s lonely. It’s no fun. It can be heartbreaking.
“I sat alone because of your hand; for you have filled me with indignation” (v. 17b). Jeremiah maintained his lonely stance—his outsider status—because he felt the heavy weight of Yahweh’s hand on his shoulder. Yahweh had chosen Jeremiah to deliver a message of judgment to his people. Yahweh had given Jeremiah a clear vision of the corruptness and sinfulness that were leading to Judah’s destruction. Yahweh had filled Jeremiah with indignation at their wrongheadedness and self-destructiveness. It was Yahweh’s doing, therefore, that made it impossible for Jeremiah to join in with the people as they were laughing and having a good time. It was Yahweh’s fault that Jeremiah had been denied so much joy.
“Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuses to be healed?” (v. 18a). Given Jeremiah’s faithfulness, how could Yahweh allow him to suffer such pain? How could Yahweh allow Jeremiah to suffer a wounded heart—wounded beyond healing? Elsewhere, Yahweh is called a God of justice (Hebrew: mispat). How can this God of justice allow his prophet to suffer such injustice?
“Will you indeed be to me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?” (v. 18b). Jeremiah accuses Yahweh of being “as a deceitful brook”—like a stream that goes dry when you need it most. Yahweh has claimed to be “the fountain of living water” (2:13), but Jeremiah, Yahweh’s prophet, has a parched mouth—and little hope of slaking his thirst.
With these words, Jeremiah tiptoes to the edge of blasphemy and beyond. To accuse Yahweh of being deceitful crosses a line that moves Jeremiah out of the camp of the faithful into the camp of the unfaithful.
This would give Yahweh cause to reject Jeremiah and to choose another prophet, but he will not do so. In the beginning of this lament, Jeremiah said, “Yahweh, you know” (v. 15a)—and that is true—Yahweh does know. Yahweh knows how faithfully Jeremiah has served, and Yahweh knows how much pain that service has caused Jeremiah. Yahweh is a God of justice (which would suggest punishing Jeremiah), but he is also a God of compassion, so he will give Jeremiah another chance (see the next verse).
JEREMIAH 15:19-21. I AM WITH YOU TO SAVE YOU
19Therefore thus says Yahweh, If you return (Hebrew: sub), then will I bring you again, that you may stand before me; and if you take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as my mouth: they shall return (Hebrew: sub) to you, but you shall not return (Hebrew: sub) to them. 20 I will make you to this people a fortified bronze wall; and they shall fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you; for I am with you to save you and to deliver you, says Yahweh. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem you out of the hand of the terrible.
“Therefore thus says Yahweh, If you return (sub), then will I bring you again, that you may stand before me; and if you take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as my mouth” (v. 19a). As noted in the comments on verse 18 above, Jeremiah has given Yahweh cause to reject Jeremiah as his prophet. However, Yahweh doesn’t reject Jeremiah out of hand, but offers him an opportunity to “return” (sub)—to reverse his direction—to repent. If Jeremiah will do so, Yahweh will take him back. If Jeremiah will stop his complaining and “take forth the precious”—Yahweh’s words—Yahweh will permit Jeremiah to continue as his servant.
“they shall return (sub) to you, but you shall not return (sub) to them” (v. 19b). If Jeremiah will subback to Yahweh, then Yahweh will see to it that the people of Judah sub to Jeremiah. Jeremiah will not have to sub to them.
This little word, sub (and variants) appears frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures. In most cases, it envisions Israel’s return to Yahweh. It is sometimes translated “repent” (1 Kings 8:47-48 NRSV).
“I will make you to this people a fortified bronze wall; and they shall fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you; for I am with you to save you and to deliver you, says Yahweh” (v. 20). In Yahweh’s original call to Jeremiah, he promised to make Jeremiah as “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. They will fight against you; but they will not prevail against you; for I am with you” (1:18-19). Now Yahweh restates that promise.
Today, we talk about running into a brick wall, by which we mean that we have dashed ourselves against an immovable object. That is the kind of image portrayed here by the “fortified wall of bronze.” The people of Judah will try to use force to stop Jeremiah from uttering his gloomy prophecies. However, they will find that they cannot destroy Jeremiah, but can only break themselves by smashing against him. It won’t be Jeremiah’s strength that stops them, but Yahweh’s strength. Yahweh will save Jeremiah and deliver him from his foes.
“I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem you out of the hand of the terrible” (v. 21). Yahweh doesn’t say that Jeremiah will never fall into the hands of the wicked, but rather that, when Jeremiah falls into their hands, Yahweh will deliver him. Wicked men will put Jeremiah in a muddy but waterless cistern—a prison in which he could very well die—but Yahweh will rescue him.
Yahweh never promises to make Jeremiah’s life easy—and he never makes his life easy. He promises only to deliver Jeremiah from his enemies and to save him from the wicked people who would destroy him.
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.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25(Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Longman, Tremper III, The New International Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah & Lamentations (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan