Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

The Elusive Presence: Jeremiah 20:4-11

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

The Elusive Presence: Jeremiah 20:4-11

Article excerpt

Experiencing presence and absence

Jeremiah's name is forever associated with laments and complaints. In the Hebrew-Jewish tradition, however, he does not stand alone. Approximately one-half of the book of Psalms, titled "Praises" in the Hebrew Bible, contain laments! They are cries for justice and deliverance to a seemingly absent God from people who, like Jeremiah, are enduring great pain. These laments create a dissonance with a major theme in the Old Testament, that of Immanuel, the God who is with us and for us--the God who cares (e.g., Exod 3:12; Josh 1:5; Isa 7:14 and 41:10). The psalmists rejoice and give thanks to this Divine Partner whose mighty acts of righteousness and mercy have meant life to Israel. It is on such a God that Jeremiah pins his hopes (Jer 1:8) when he is called to prophesy. God promised to deliver him from his opponents, and these words were a "joy and the delight" to him (Jer 15:16; cf. Ezek 3:3).

However, this promise of support and protection was as deceptive as a mirage--it was as "a deceitful brook, like waters that fail" (15:18; cf. 20:7-8). As Jeremiah begins to speak the warning message that God gave him, he feels abandoned, forsaken by the very one who called him. His message of "violence and destruction" (vv. 7-8) is not taken seriously. People laugh at him and mock his warning that soon the land will endure unimaginable cruelties brought on by a conquering enemy. There will be, he announces, "terror ... on every side" (Jer 6:22-25). His opponents, however, turn a deaf ear to his threatening proclamation and make fun of his warning call. Some scholars think that his enemies may have used the phrase as a title for him, something like "Mr. Terror Man" (Jer 20:10). His enemies, however, do not limit themselves to mocking words; they persecute him and attempt to kill him (Jer 11:18-21). His friends also have proven untrue. They have not only left him; they watch and hope for his downfall (20:10). Standing alone and exposed to the attacks of his persecutors, Jeremiah begs God not to become a "terror" to him because "you are my [only] refuge" (Jer 17:17). He wants to pull away from his commitment to speak this message, but he feels pressure from within to continue (Jer 20:7). He is at the end of his strength! Finally, in angry and despairing words that echo Job's own longing for the peace and rest of non-birth, Jeremiah curses the day when he was born, the day that would be the beginning of sorrow and suffering (20:14-18; cf. Job 3:1-26). The prophet, who is calling on people to trust in God, now finds his own confidence in God wavering on the edge of rejection.


Jeremiah longs for the comforting presence of Immanuel, but now, when he is in desperate need, God appears nowhere to be found. In the temple, however, people praise God's interventions in the past and saving actions of the present (see, e.g., Pss 34; 103; 135; 136). Jeremiah repeats such praise also (17:14, 17; 20:13), but in the midst of his suffering it no doubt lacks the sure conviction of the early days when it was "a joy and delight" to accept God's call (15:16). It is praise coming from one hanging by a thread but still trusting that what he is experiencing has not escaped God's eyes. Fully aware of the miracle of the Exodus, Jeremiah no doubt is hoping that God would "notice" his suffering, hear his cries, and deliver him as he once heard and delivered the Israelites under Moses (Exod 2:24-25; 3:7-9).

The text that we are examining in this article is but one of seven or eight texts in which Jeremiah struggles with his relationship to God--swinging back and forth between confidence and doubt, hope and despair (e.g., 17:14-18). We should not therefore think of the prophet as one whose usual faith and optimism was marred by a one-time fall into questioning and doubt. No, it appears that throughout Jeremiah's ministry he was pressured by questions of God's inaction that allowed his enemies to have the upper hand. …

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