“Your words were found and I ate them” (Jer. 15:16).*
In the beginning, when God gave Adam and Eve fruits, grains, and nuts to eat, He didn’t mean for them to eat scrolls. But by Jeremiah’s time, six centuries before Jesus came to reset earth life to its original mode, eating words seems to have become a thing to brag about. Not too long after Jeremiah says he did it and loved it, the Lord told Ezekiel to do something similar (Eze. 3:1, 2). Ezekiel liked it too—at least he did at first. Then at the end of the New Testament, the angel from whom John receives a book tells him: “Take it and eat it” (Rev. 10:9). So what is it with eating books?
To be fair and clear as well as precise, Jeremiah doesn’t represent himself as a book eater. It’s words that evoke the pleasure upon his palate. Also, it’s not just any words or just anyone’s words: it’s God’s words. Our study of word eating is lost if we start focusing on paper versus papyri, or wood against baked brick. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John are not in an argument about ancient writing systems. The angel of John’s vision is not proposing some unique form of documentation that will preserve yesterday’s prophecy for the ether-reading people of the present.
The satisfaction of our “word meal” was not designed to wax or wane based on Anthony Bourdain’s gustatory proclivities, Rachael Ray’s culinary dexterities, or Chef José Andrés’ disaster-intervening philanthropies. The value of a word meal must be the depth of its moral penetration, or the breadth and prophetic precision of its application, or the height of its intellectual and literary content. It was all these for Jeremiah. In context of which, we should note, despite Jeremiah’s satisfaction: affective pleasure is not guaranteed from consuming words, even when they are divine.
Jeremiah was warned beforehand of what his text meal was for. The call he received was clarion. We don’t know his age when he got it, but he was young—na’ar is the flexible Hebrew word for his life stage, the label Saul pins on David that proves him inadequate to fight a giant (1 Sam. 17:33). That Saul-David conversation helps illustrate the range of the term’s application: Ishmael is a na’ar in Genesis 21; but the picture of a child in his early teens dying of thirst in the wilderness (Gen. 21:16) varies vastly from that of David, who responds to Saul’s label by informing his king that he has wrestled a lion and a bear and delivered his flock from their jaws (verses 34-39). Na’ar may mean inexperienced, but doesn’t have to mean stripling or some equivalent diminutive as the King James Version describes David (see 1 Sam. 17:56, KJV).
Be that as it may, wherever Jeremiah falls on the spectrums of chronology and social development, he knows up front that he will not be allowed to use it as an excuse or justification for inadequate ministry. He knows this because he tries it at the very beginning and gets rebutted. “I am a na’ar” was his comeback when God tried to engage him for service (Jer. 1:6).
In response, God stated: “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ because everywhere I send you, you shall go, and all that I command you, you shall speak” (verse 7). And there was more: the Lord then reached out to touch the intern’s mouth and spoke more words, words about eating—and regurgitating—words: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms” (verses 9, 10). “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (verse 8).
Public ministry subjected Jeremiah to unrelenting and capricious attacks from far and close quarters. Speaking for God was its own occupational hazard. There was so much to speak against in a nation God chose as His flagship that dedicated itself instead to “continual apostasy” (Jer. 8:5). And there seemed so little to speak for—except that divine grace always abounds beyond any scope of our sin. Grace always serves up delectable dishes. Tidbits like God announcing, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness” (Jer. 31:3). And extravagantly multi-course meals: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, . . . I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. . . . They will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest . . . , for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (verses 31-34).
The best tasting words of all are God’s words.
His people’s rejecting such a God was heartbreaking enough, but the hostility heaped on Jeremiah personally was overwhelming. If it wasn’t the king himself (Jer. 36), then it was Priest Pashhur abusing and imprisoning him (Jer. 20:1-6), or some fake-news false prophet feeding the crowds words of pâté de fois gras and ice cream, much less healthy and much more gratifying than the word dishes Jeremiah got from the Lord. Fake prophets were many and everywhere, aggressive and vile, slandering Jeremiah, sleeping around, spewing lies, and signing off with God’s name.
Over in Babylon, Ahab ben-Kolaiah and Zedekiah ben-Maaseiah, the people’s true enemies, added to their lies in God’s name, sleeping with neighbors’ wives (Jer. 29:21-23). Shemaiah the Nehelamite was describing Jeremiah as a madman and urging supporters who consumed his propaganda to lock him up (verses 24-28). In Jerusalem, fake newsman Hananiah was predicting: “God is breaking Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke off your neck in two years”; in two years everybody would be back home and comfy (Jer. 28:10, 11). Over against his disinformation, Jeremiah, serving up God’s words, was predicting seven decades of captivity (Jer. 25:11, 12; 29:8-10). The adulterous liars were pleasing and winning more people.
When Jeremiah wasn’t locked in a spiritual and moral struggle with false prophets, it was a bunch of women from the rank and file pouring out scorn on his claims to be bringing some word from God (Jer. 44:15-19; re: the women, see, particularly, verse 19). If not false prophets and rude women, it was his righthand man, his personal scribe, Baruch, who couldn’t take it any longer and wanted out, nursing dreams of some better lot in life that would bespeak his genius, instead of being the colleague and servant of his society’s greatest pariah (Jer. 45). And if none of those, then it was his own relatives scheming up some way to take out their cousin (Jer. 11:21; 12:6). Either his relatives, or everybody, “the priests and the prophets and all the people,” mobbing him and crying “Kill him!” (see Jer. 26:8).
In the midst of the clamor for his blood, Jeremiah had to hear the voice that had called him, command that he must go it alone: no woman to complete his manhood, to share love’s deepest intimacies and bear him children; no woman to stand with him when all things and everyone opposed him, to squeeze his hand, tickle his ear, or whisper sweet and silly nothings that lack all logic or rhetoric but mean everything to his very human heart. No welcoming smile to come home to, dear Brother J, so you could know that at the end of your day, whether bright or gloomy, warm hugs and hot tea were waiting for you (Jer. 16:1, 2). A man can lose sight of his true north at a time like that, or rather, at times like those. He can forget something crucial; fill his pillow full of tears as bitter as they are salty; cry his heart out for nobody to hear, sink into depression, and wonder why he has to be part of any such thing.
And Jeremiah did: he cried for disaster about to fall on his land (Jer. 4:19-22); he cried for himself: “My sorro
w is beyond healing, my heart is faint within me” (Jer. 8:18); he cried for what the brokenness of his nation and people meant for him: “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken. . . . Oh that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for . . . my people!” (Jer. 8:21-9:1). He cried so much that he’s called “the weeping prophet.” He was undone by his personal victimization, by the national rebellion, and by the destruction that comes from rejecting God’s uncomplicated guidance. The constantly depressing results made his pain “perpetual,” and he wanted to know why (Jer. 15:18).
But Jeremiah’s story does not end in distress. He found his answer, the answer to all his anguish. He found the words that could feed his soul. The best-tasting words of all are God’s words. As Jeremiah exclaimed: “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by Your name,” literally, “Your name is on me” (verse 16).
What words of God did he find? Succeeding verses suggest that the words of his prophetic beginning were part of his liberating discovery, words that will feed and vivify every follower of God who answers His call to service today. Why? Because He who calls us is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24). His promise to Jeremiah is as valid as ever: “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jer. 15:20); “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
* Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review.