“Before you were born I sanctified you; and I ordained you a prophet to the nations” Jer. 1:5
God is interested and concerned for the small things (he made the atoms) and for the big things (he made the universe). He is concerned for everything he has made simply because he is the Creator and takes pleasure in what he has made. He is very concerned for the least noticed of individuals and equally concerned for the largest of nations. So he watches the nations and he weighs their actions; he watches their rulers and their people. He has never “switched off” from that concern and he has never put the world on “auto pilot”.
God’s concern for nations was the very first thing Jeremiah learned when God called him to be a prophet. God told him that before he was born God (already planning for the future) had chosen him to be a prophet and, moreover, a prophet “to the nations”. The calling to be a prophet was a very high and privileged calling. Prophets were privileged to hear what God was thinking and what he planned to do both with individuals and nations, and in Jeremiah’s case particularly what he wanted to do with the Jews, his own people. And in their turn those to whom the prophet was sent with his “word” were equally privileged. Through the prophet they would receive guidance, support and warning. On the whole the Old Testament Jewish nation (both Israel and Judah) recognized and honoured the prophet and his calling. Sadly, however, only too often they rejected what the prophets were saying when they most needed to listen to them and take their warnings seriously. Jewish leaders were prone to listen to the “false prophets” (self-ordained prophets who had not really heard from God) who spoke to them the things they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear. They much preferred the words, “Peace, peace” to the word “Repent!”
But it was not just the Jews that were privileged to hear the “word of the Lord” from the Israelite prophets. It is quite clear that all the surrounding nations were given words of warning by those same prophets. They, too, were hearing of the expectations of justice and righteousness that God required from all nations. They were hearing of the judgements that would come if those expectations were not met.
In the providence of God these prophetic pronouncements to the Jews and to the nations have come down to us in our generation in written form from several of these prophets, forming as they do a very significant part of the Old Testament scripture. These writings cover the best part of two centuries of prophetic activity. Together they form one large, continuous and united flow of the mind and heart of God as he dealt with the nations of that era. They all bear witness to a God who loves and requires righteousness and who brings about severe correction and judgement where they are where those requirements. They are not just of historical interest, though a knowledge of their history is essential in order to fully grasp their message. They are essentially a collection of the timeless principles on which God deals with nations, why they prosper and why they fail. They underline very clearly that God has dealings with the nations and that no nation can afford to neglect his laws. It is this that makes them intensely relevant to any real understanding of our own times. The prophetic warnings given more than 2500 years ago are as applicable as much today as they were then. God has not changed, people have not essentially changed, and nations have not changed despite the passage of time. In fact the similarities in behaviour from then and now are very striking. God is still at work among the nations today, he is still weighing them on the same scales of righteousness and justice and he remains a god who judges evil. How very sad, then, that the prophets remain a closed book for many of God’s people to-day; how very mistaken and foolish that we should think we have matured and those principles no longer apply.
Jeremiah was born to be a person who would hear God speaking to the nations and would be required to speak out what he heard to the nations. He was hearing the “word of the Lord”! The words he spoke had a divine stamp on them; they were beyond human wisdom and human assessments. They were not just relevant to one generation but were valid for all other generations. God does not change – his principles abide. God’s commission to Jeremiah was very strong: “I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant”. Jer. 1: 9-10. Even as Jeremiah was commissioned with these words God emphasized what he was saying by touching his prophet’s mouth. Whatever the nature of that touch was, it utterly confirmed to Jeremiah that he was indeed speaking God’s word, not his own. He was to be God’s mouthpiece, God’s spokesman, God’s messenger.
In a very real sense, however, this word to Jeremiah was even stronger than endorsing his credentials as a speaker of divine truth. The expression “I have set you this day over nations … to destroy … and to build” almost seems to convey on Jeremiah a power to bring about on the nations what he is pronouncing over them. It is as though Jeremiah himself is destroying or building. The phrasing is quite astounding. What it means is that by simply speaking out prophetically God’s word for a nation Jeremiah would also actually bring about the enactment of the word. By simply speaking judgment as God’s mouthpiece, he would cause judgement to happen. This is understandable if we keep in mind the fact that in principle when God declares something will happen then his very declaration is the first step in making it happen; God speaks and what he speaks comes into being. This is fundamentally how creation itself came into being – “God said let there be light, and there was light”. God in fact underlines for Jeremiah the importance of his speaking out by giving him a vision. It is a very simple but unusual and enigmatic vision of an almond tree (1:11-12). God asks Jeremiah what he sees. Jeremiah replies, “An almond tree”. The Hebrew word for “almond tree” is almost exactly the same as the word “watching”, and it’s as though Jeremiah had said “watching”. God’s interpretation of the vision to Jeremiah was “I am watching over my word to make it happen”. In this way God was making sure that he understood that he was not prophesying mere words but words which God had every intention of making happen. It is indeed astonishing that God should require his word to be spoken out as crucial for it happening. For Jeremiah it was sharp reminder that he was not just playing with words but that his prophesying was integral to what God was going to do. It was a ministry of power, not just words.
Jeremiah was also warned by God of the opposition he would receive as he declared the “word of the Lord”. He was told that the kings of Judah, the princes, the priests and the people would all “fight against him” (Jer.1:18-19. In the main the thrust of the prophecies would be of judgement on nations bent on idolatry and self-indulgent behaviour. It would not be well received, but would be met by self-justification and even hatred and violence. That fact in itself was also ultimately to be enshrined in our Scriptures, that those who spoke up for righteousness would be hated and rejected in a nation that was bent on godless ways.