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Jeremiah 20:7-18 consists of two laments—a lament being a literary form to express sorrow over a loss:
• The first lament is found in verses 7-12.
• The second lament is found in verses 14-18, where Jeremiah rues being born.
There were four earlier laments in the book of Jeremiah (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10: 15:15-18). These laments from chapter 20 are the last of Jeremiah’s laments.
There are a number of laments in Hebrew scripture, to include several laments in the book of Psalms and several in the book of Lamentations. There were four earlier laments in the book of Jeremiah (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:11:14; 15:15-18).
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 will not prevail against you, for I am with you’, says Yahweh, ‘to deliver you'” (1:19).
But it hardly seemed that simple. Jeremiah had done as Yahweh commanded (and would continue to serve Yahweh faithfully 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).
Then Yahweh called Jeremiah not to take a wife—not to have sons and daughters (16:1-2). Not only would that involve the sexual frustration 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 to share happy moments and to give him solace in difficult times.
Then we read that the priest, Pashhur, struck Jeremiah and put him in stocks (20:1-2).
Later, we will learn that 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 20:7-10. YAHWEH, YOU HAVE PERSUADED ME
7Yahweh, you have persuaded (Hebrew: patah—deceived, enticed, seduced) 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. 8For 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. 9If 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. 10For I have heard the defaming of many, terror on every side. Denounce, and we will denounce him, say all my familiar friends, those who watch for my fall; perhaps he will be persuaded, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him.
“Yahweh, you have persuaded (patah—deceived, enticed, seduced) me“ (v. 7a). The sense that we have here is that Jeremiah is charging Yahweh with less-than-honest recruiting tactics—with making promises to Jeremiah that Yahweh has failed to fulfill.
What Yahweh actually promised was that Jeremiah could speak Yahweh’s prophetic message without fear, because “I am with you to deliver you” (1:8). Yahweh further said:
“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).
Yahweh further promised:
“‘They will not prevail against you;
for I am with you,’ says Yahweh,
‘to deliver you'” (1:19).
“and I was persuaded” (v. 7b). Jeremiah is complaining that he has been misled—sold a bill of goods. Yahweh’s recruiting ploy was successful. Jeremiah is feeling as if he has been played for a sucker. Life has hardly been a bed of roses (see “The Context” above)—but then a bed of roses isn’t exactly what Yahweh promised. If we look closely at the promises that Yahweh made during Jeremiah’s call in 1:8, 10, 19, Yahweh has fulfilled them all. His position is entirely defensible. No court would convict him.
But Jeremiah isn’t interested in parsing the details of Yahweh’s promises. He is miserable, and hadn’t counted on being miserable. He heard Yahweh say, “I am with you, to deliver you,” and imagined better things than he has experienced. He feels gyped.
“you are stronger than I, and have prevailed” (v. 7c). In any transaction between greater and lesser persons, the greater person has a decided advantage. The greater person can use his/her power to impose conditions on the lesser person that the lesser person would resist if negotiating with an equal.
When Yahweh called Jeremiah, Yahweh was obviously the greater and Jeremiah the lesser. Jeremiah was therefore completely at Yahweh’s mercy. Now Jeremiah is accusing Yahweh of using his privileged position to force Jeremiah into a place where Jeremiah would never have agreed to go had he had a clear choice.
With these words, Jeremiah tiptoes to the edge of blasphemy. To accuse Yahweh of a breach of ethics crosses a line that moves Jeremiah out of the camp of the faithful into the camp of the unfaithful. This is not the first time that Jeremiah has put himself in this position. Earlier, he accused Yahweh of being to Jeremiah “as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail” (15:18).
But Yahweh does not punish Jeremiah. He allows Jeremiah to continue his lament, which Jeremiah will end with words of praise for Yahweh (20:13). When Yahweh responds to this lament, it will not be with words of judgment for Jeremiah, but for King Zedekiah and Pashhur, the priest who struck Jeremiah and put him in stocks (21:1-14; see also 20:2).
“I am become a laughing-stock all the day, every one mocks me” (v. 7d). Now Jeremiah gets down to specifics. He has become a laughingstock. People are mocking him. His recent experience in the stocks is fresh in his mind (20:2-3).
Stocks are used to punish offenders. The prisoner is required to sit on a bench with arms and legs thrust through holes in a wooden frame and locked in place.While a night in the stocks would be uncomfortable physically, their greater purpose was humiliation. Typically, stocks were located in public places where passersby could see the prisoner and taunt him. The prisoner would be absolutely helpless to defend himself.
We shouldn’t wonder that Jeremiah would be angry with Yahweh after a night in the stocks. Yahweh had promised to protect Jeremiah, and his night in the stocks didn’t leave Jeremiah feeling protected.
“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” (v. 8). Jeremiah has become an object of ridicule because Yahweh has required him to shout, “Violence and destruction”—warnings of Yahweh’s judgment—warnings of defeat in battle and Jerusalem’s destruction. When Yahweh called Jeremiah, he commissioned Jeremiah “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). So far, there has been no building and planting—just prophecies of destruction. The people have become tired of hearing Jeremiah, and have responded with “reproach and derision.”
“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” (v. 9). Jeremiah has been caught in a classic bind. He would like to lay down his prophetic mantle and leave the prophetic task to someone else—but Yahweh’s word is like a “burning fire shut up in (his) bones.” It demands expression. Jeremiah has tried to hold it in, but cannot do it. In spite of himself, Jeremiah is a prophet—and finds himself compelled to act as a prophet.
“For I have heard the defaming of many, terror on every side. Denounce, and we will denounce him” (v. 10a). After Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah told Pashhur, “Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself, and to all your friends; and they shall fall by the sword of their enemies, and your eyes shall see it; and I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall kill them with the sword. Moreover I will give all the riches of this city, and all its gains, and all the precious things of it, yes, all the treasures of the kings of Judah will I give into the hand of their enemies; and they shall make them a prey, and take them, and carry them to Babylon. You, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house shall go into captivity; and you shall come to Babylon, and there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you, and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely” (20:4-6).
Now it appears that the people have decided to taunt Jeremiah by calling him by the indictment that he had used for Pashhur—”a terror to yourself, and to all your friends.” When people see Jeremiah, they say, “Watch out! Here comes old Terror on every side.” It is difficult to be the butt of such mocking—and even more difficult to counter it. Jeremiah is angry with Yahweh, because Jeremiah has said the words that Yahweh put in his mouth, but those words have come back to haunt him.
“say all my familiar friends, those who watch for my fall; perhaps he will be persuaded, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him” (v. 10b). It is difficult to understand how Jeremiah’s close friends would watch him, hoping to see him stumble. That’s not how close friends act—or is it?
It would seem that even Jeremiah’s closest friends have become weary of his gloom-and-doom prophecies. That isn’t difficult to understand. Jeremiah’s friends have almost certain heard more of his unhappy prophecies than anyone, and they are tired of it. They may also be concerned lest they be branded with Jeremiah’s brand because of their friendship with him. They would like to see him silenced. They are scrutinizing his behavior closely, hoping to find a way to compel him to be quiet.
JEREMIAH 20:11-13. BUT YAHWEH IS WITH ME AS AN AWESOME MIGHTY ONE
11 But Yahweh is with me as an awesome mighty one: therefore my persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail; they shall be utterly disappointed, because they have not dealt wisely, even with an everlasting dishonor which shall never be forgotten. 12 But, Yahweh of Armies, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance on them; for to you have I revealed my cause. 13 Sing to Yahweh, praise Yahweh; for he has delivered the soul of the needy from the hand of evildoers.
“But Yahweh is with me as an awesome mighty one: therefore my persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail; they shall be utterly disappointed, because they have not dealt wisely, even with an everlasting dishonor which shall never be forgotten” (v. 11). Now Jeremiah begins to move in a different direction. He remembers that Yahweh has promised to be with him, and knows that Yahweh is a great warrior. He concludes that Yahweh will do for Jeremiah in the future what Jeremiah has accused Yahweh of failing to do in the past. Just as Yahweh prevailed over Jeremiah (v. 7), so also Yahweh will prevail over those who persecute Jeremiah. The persecutors will not prevail over Jeremiah.
While Jeremiah’s friends have watched him carefully, hoping to see him stumble, it won’t be Jeremiah who stumbles, but his persecutors. They will experience great shame that will prove eternal. It “shall never be forgotten.” That has proven true. Here we are, more than 2,500 years later, remembering the shame that Yahweh heaped on Jeremiah’s enemies.
“But, Yahweh of Armies, who tests the righteous” (v. 12a). The words of this verse are very much like the words with which Jeremiah ended an earlier lament (11:20). Jeremiah acknowledges that Yahweh tests the righteous, and Jeremiah surely counts himself among the righteous. Understanding his recent troubles as a test, makes it possible for him to accept his troubles and to expect better things in the future.
“ who sees the heart (literally, “the kidneys”) and the mind” (literally, “the heart”) (v. 12b). The Jewish people thought of the kidneys as the seat of a person’s emotions—and the heart as the seat of his/her thought and will.
Yahweh can see to the depths. He sees both what people are feeling and what they are thinking. Nobody has any secrets from Yahweh.
“let me see your vengeance on them; for to you have I revealed my cause” (v. 12c). Jeremiah’s rationale for asking Yahweh to see the retribution on his enemies is rooted in the fact that Jeremiah is Yahweh’s servant. He has committed himself to Yahweh’s cause. Therefore, he can trust Yahweh to protect him and to punish his enemies.
“Sing to Yahweh, praise Yahweh; for he has delivered the soul of the needy from the hand of evildoers” (v. 13). This verse is a bit of a surprise, because it is so positive. It seems to stand at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jeremiah’s earlier complaints (vv. 7-10). However, it is not unusual for laments to end on a positive note (see Psalms 6:1-10; 7:1-17; 13:1-6). It is as if the lamenter, having gotten the anger out of his system, suddenly remembers that Yahweh can be trusted—that Yahweh is worthy of praise.
“for he has delivered the soul of the needy from the hand of evildoers” (v. 13b). Both Old and New Testaments reflect God’s special concern for the poor and the vulnerable. Torah law included provisions to provide for the needs of the poor. Landowners were required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean those fields and obtain enough food for survival (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also made provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and required families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concerned for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
But when Jeremiah speaks of “the needy” in this verse, he is surely thinking of himself. He might not be poor financially, but he is certainly in need of Yahweh’s help. He is trying to do what Yahweh has called him to do, but he cannot defend himself against the unfaithful. He must rely on Yahweh to defend him—and in this verse speaks of his confidence that Yahweh will do just that.
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