The Prophet’s Call – A Dialogue With God: As Seen In Jeremiah

T. T. Crabtree  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 4 - Fall 1961

The prophets were launched upon their prophetic careers by a definite call. Even as Israel moved forward because of a consciousness of a covenant relationship with God, so the true prophets entered the prophetic ministry because of the constraint of God’s will.

Amos, the herdsman from Tekoa, declared that he prophesied not out of personal choice, but because God took him from following the flock and inducted him into the prophetic ministry (Amos 7:14-15). Hosea, the brokenhearted husband, saw in his tragic domestic experience the heartbreak of God and felt constrained to proclaim the suffering love of Israel’s Maker (Hos. 1-3). Isaiah, the aristocrat, heard the voice of the divine Sovereign calling for a messenger and knew that the call was meant for him (Isa. 6). Micah felt that he was possessed by his message and the power to deliver it (Mic. 3:8). Jeremiah, the shy and sheltered youth of Anathoth, found himself conscripted into a position from which his timid nature caused him to shrink (Jer. 1:6). Ezekiel was set as a watchman over Israel in order that he might warn them to turn from their wicked ways (Ezek. 2:8 f.).

These men were conscious of God’s summoning and sustaining them as they sought to reveal his message to the people. Harold Knight has said that “this experience” of the soul’s confrontation by the living God “is central and determinative” of all that is to follow.[1]The Hebrew Prophetic Consciousness (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947), p. 102.

The prophets reveal the fount of their inspiration in the accounts of how they were led into the prophetic ministry. They lived constantly under the lengthened shadow of this initial experience with God. It affected the totality of their life-relationships.


Prophetic Inspiration

A consideration of that deep, inward, personal, spiritual experience by which the prophets were inducted into the prophetic ministry brings one face to face with the mystery of inspiration and revelation. That the prophets were organs of revelation and that they were inspired by God is undeniable if one accepts the claims of the Old Testament as valid.

The Hebrew prophets stepped forward on the stage of history with a word which they claimed to have received from God. A New Testament writer states that “no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).

H. Wheeler Robinson is right when he says that “many attempts have been made” to explain “how” God spoke to the prophets.[2]Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), p. 178.

According to Philo, the revelation from God came to the prophet while in a state of mental unconsciousness and inactivity. The prophet was to the Spirit what a flute would be in the hands of a musician. The prophet was wholly passive while the divine Spirit was active and imparted to him that knowledge of the divine character which he chose to reveal.[3]Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947), II, 28-30.

Philo, no doubt, held these views of prophetic inspiration because he found that type of ecstatic phenomenon present in Greek thought and culture.[4]Cf. W. R. Ingre, “Ecstasy,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), V, 157. Since Philo was attempting to interpret the Old Testament so as to show its similarity to the philosophy of Plato, it was only natural for him to interpret prophetic inspiration in Platonic terms to prove his point.

The Hebrew never thought of a soul’s departing from the land of reason, as Philo taught, to be possessed by the divine Spirit. The Hebrew would have thought in terms of the Spirit coming upon the individual and taking possession of his faculties.[5]Robinson, pp. 178-79. The experience of inspiration among the great Hebrew prophets was always considered a result of the divine initiative and was not sought as an end within itself. The view of prophetic inspiration held by Philo is definitely not Hebraic and therefore untenable if one would come to a genuine understanding of Old Testament prophecy.

It is interesting to notice that the New Testament is silent as to the manner in which God spoke to the prophets. It simply says that prophecy is of divine origin (2 Pet. 1:21).

In rejecting the opinions of the Montanists, who looked upon the state of inspiration as being a condition of ecstasy and madness, Origen believed that the prophets received their oracles while in complete possession of their rational consciousness.[6]A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, ed. J. A. Paterson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1903), p. 133. He speaks of the prophets as men of the highest type of moral character who were selected by God to be the depositories of his holy oracles. Concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration, Origen says that the minds of the prophets were “illumined, made clear and sensitive” so as to perceive the message of God.[7]”Origen against Celsus,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951), IV, 611-13.

The view of inspiration held by the Apologists prevailed in the church, with only slight modification, until some time in the nineteenth century, when a new interest in prophecy was awakened by fresh investigations into Old Testament questions. In reaction to the findings of scholars who sought to study the Old Testament in its historical setting, Hengstenberg, an outstanding leader in the school of rationalistic-orthodoxy, in the first edition of his Christology of the Old Testament, reverted to the position of Philo and the early church. He taught that the prophets received divine revelations while in a

state of complete ecstasy in which the rational powers were suspended, their own agency ceased, and they became completely passive under an overpowering of the Spirit of God; so as Philo says, the prophets were interpreters whose organs God used to impart his revelation.[8]E. W. Hengstenberg, The Christology of the Old Testament, trans. Recel Keith (Alexandria: William M. Morrison, 1836), first edition, I, 218.

In his second edition Hengstenberg modified his views but continued to hold that the prophets received their oracles from God while in a state of ecstasy.

Hengstenberg went too far when he stated that all of the prophetic oracles came while in a state of ecstasy.[9]Ibid., pp. 397, 408-9, 413. This cannot be proved from the Old Testament records. Hengstenberg and the school of rationalistic-orthodoxy made the same mistake that the Apologists made, only in another direction. The Apologists said that the prophets experienced no ecstasy, and then Hengstenberg said that ecstasy was a distinguishing characteristic of the prophetic state.

There are some scholars who like to emphasize the fact that the prophets were religious geniuses. Prominent among these is C. H. Dodd, who uses the terms “religious geniuses” and “religious experts” rather freely. According to Dodd, the authority of the Bible is the “authority of experts in the knowledge of God, masters in the art of living, the authority of religious genius.”[10]The Authority of the Bible (London: Nishet & Co., Ltd., 1938), pp. 24-31. Of these religious experts, Dodd says that it is possible to study their antecedents and environment and to account for the direction which their genius took, but that it is impossible to define that unique quality which made them prophets. Christ is said to be the supreme religious genius and the climax to a great succession of religious experts.

Dodd does refer to the prophets’ having communion with God. However, his emphasis on the divine initiative in this matter of inspiration and revelation is conspicuous by its absence. He speaks of the prophet’s apprehension of “the word of the Lord” under the category of “imagination.” He compares this apprehension of “the word of the Lord” to the creative imagination of the poet.[11]Ibid., p. 81. These discoveries are said to be the result of some “insight resident in personality, and raised to a high power in genius.”[12]Ibid., pp. 269f.

That the prophets were men of superior intellectual ability cannot be disputed. But let it be said that these prophets were not spokesmen of God just because they had superior intellects. Their oracles came to them as a result of something more than concentrated cogitations. If they can, be properly called “religious geniuses” or “religious experts,” it is because God had chosen them and revealed to them a knowledge of his character which they did not possess before. This knowledge of God, as a result of the divine initiative in an act of self-disclosure, qualified them to speak as his interpreters.[13]John Wilson, How God Has Spoken (Edinburg: T and T. Clark, 1909), pp. 117f.

Some have thought of the prophets as mystics.[14]Cf. Herbert W. Hines, “The Prophet as Mystic,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature, XL (October, 1923), 41; and T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (2d ed. rev., New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950), p. 152.Davis has said,

There is a great difference between the mystic and the prophet. For the mystic, time is swallowed up in eternity. It vanishes. But for the prophet time still persists, but penetrated by eternity.[15]D. R. Davis, “The Vision of God,” The Christian World Pulpit, XV (January, 1879), 26.

Because of this indisputable fact, one must look upon the prophets as being far more than “mystics” in the common definition of that title.

During the past generation the most keenly discussed question in connection with prophetic inspiration has been that of the significance of “ecstasy” for an understanding of the prophets. It has been held by many scholars that “ecstasy” was the distinguished characteristic of the Hebrew prophets and that it provided a criterion without which neither the prophet nor his audience would be satisfied. T. H. Robinson contends that the very name nabi (prophet) implies ecstatic behavior, and that it would not have been used if the prophets had not been ecstatic.[16]Prophecy and the Prophets in Ancient Israel (London: Duckworth and Co., 1953), pp. 44-45. This is inconclusive, since the philology is more than doubtful and words have a history as well as a derivation.[17]Cf. H. H. Rowley, “The Nature of Prophecy in the Light of Recent Study,” The Harvard Theological Review, XXXVIII (January, 1945), 1-33; Alfred Guillaume, Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Other Semites (New York: Harper Brothers Publishers, 1938), pp. 112-13; and William Foxwell Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), p. 231.

That there was a large element of abnormality in the canonical prophets is unquestionable. But this does not necessarily prove that every prophetic utterance was given either while in a condition of ecstasy or as a result of an ecstatic experience.

The real test of a genuine oracle was not its being an ecstatic utterance but rather its content. There were several criteria in the prophet’s mind by which he could test the genuineness of’ his utterances, such as “the possibility of verification, the religious effect of the message, and the moral character of the prophet.”[18]W. F. Lofthouse, “Thus Hath Jahveh Said,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, XL (July, 1924), 245. At no time did the great prophets consider an oracle as authentic just because it was ecstatic.

The Old Testament records do not reveal a definite formula for receiving a message from God. Instead of finding a “set formula,” it will be discovered that God spoke to the prophets in many different ways.

“The things of everyday life, of their own life, of the natural world around them”[19]L. H. Brockington, “The Lord Shewed Me,” Studies in History and Religion, ed. Ernest A. Payne (London: Lutterworth Press, 1942), p. 31. served as points of contact whereby God revealed his will to the prophets. This can be’ seen clearly in the transcripts which the prophets gave of their call-experience.


The Called of God

“Logically and chronologically the prophet’s career begins with a call.”[20]Lindsay B. Longacre, A Prophet of the Spirit (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1922), p. 92. One scholar states that the difference between the earlier prophets and the writing prophets was due to the fact that “the latter are conscious of an express call, at a definite moment, by Jehovah to their prophetic office.”[21]James Hastings (ed.), Isaiah (“The Great Texts of the Bible,” Vol. VII, Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1910), p. 68. Farley affirms that the essential mark of a prophet is “a consciousness of a divine call.”[22]W. J. Farley, The Progress of Old Testament Prophecy (New York: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 14. Scott observes that the assurance of a divine call “was a primary element in the prophetic consciousness.”[23]R. B. Y. Scott, The Relevance of the Prophets (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1944), p. 88.

The prophets do not speak of a resolution or purpose, formed by themselves, to devote themselves to the prophetic ministry. They describe a moment in which they received a call from God. They were “conscious of a sudden intuition, impressing itself upon them with irresistible clearness and force, and in certain instances, communicated to them in the form of a vision.”[24]S. R. Driver, Isaiah: His Life and Times (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.), p. 16. Cf. J. Philip Hyatt, Prophetic Religion (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947), pp. 13f.

H. Wheeler Robinson asserts that, whenever the account of a prophet’s call is given, it “can naturally be expected to be a primary document for the understanding of the man and his message,”[25]Two Hebrew Prophets (London: Lutterworth Press, 1948), p. 80. for this experience was the supreme moment in his life. It was in this experience that the prophet’s human personality encountered the divine in an especially intense contact, and an idelible imprint was left on his thinking.

The extraordinary religious experiences of the great prophets were not only emotional but had a content as of intelligible speech. These experiences provided the prophets with an “insight into the moral and spiritual realities of a given situation”[26]Scott, p. 86. in conjunction with an inner constraint to be spokesmen for God. This is a far cry from the religious experience of the ecstatic bands during the days of Samuel (1 Sam. 10:10f.). The great prophets had an irresistible inner compulsion to deliver a message which they had received, and the message and the commission were parts of the same spiritual experience (Hos. 1:2; Isa. 6:9f.; Jer. 1:7, 9; Ezek. 2:8f.). Pedersen has gone so far as to say that in this encounter with God “the sum and substance of the prophet’s mission is concentrated in one first pregnant experience.”[27]John Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (London: G. Cumberlege, 1946), III-IV, 114.

In trying to understand these experiences of the prophets, which happened over twenty-five hundred years ago, one must beware of beginning with some modern psychological explanation of prophetic phenomena and illustrating it with examples selected indiscriminately from the Old Testament at its various levels and even from pseudepigraphical apocalyptic books. The most reputable Old Testament scholars are in agreement that the experiences of the great prophets are not “directly accessible to modern psychological methods.”[28]N. W. Porteous, “Prophecy,” Record and Revelation, ed. H. Wheeler Robinson (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1938), p. 227. Certain allowances have to be made before the religious life of the prophets can be discussed in modern psychological terminology. To appreciate the Old Testament prophets properly, an understanding of the primitive Hebrew psychology is a necessity. Little had been done in this field until quite recently.[29]Franz Delitzach published a System of Biblical Psychology (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark Clark, 1869), but this work is by no means adequate in the light of modern research. H. Wheeler Robinson has been the leading explorer into the workings of the ancient Hebrew’s mind.[30]See his The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament (London: Duckworth, 1913), pp. 173-86; Redemption and Revelation in the Actuality of History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), pp. 353-82; The Christian Doctrine of Man (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911), pp. 4-26; The Christian Experience of the Holy Spirit (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), pp. 160-64; and Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament, pp. 173-86. Other scholars have accepted his main conclusions.[31]Porteous, Rowley, Guy, Knight, and Brockington.

It is difficult for some to begin with the actual conception of the Hebrews, and the result has been that oftentimes the prophets were made to be “tape recorders” which received the message of God and then played it back to the hearers. On the other hand, some would ascribe the beliefs of the prophets in divine inspiration to an unscientific age when man did not bother to raise questions. It must be admitted that their experiences were subjective, but “the objective reality and truth of these experiences” must not be discredited because of this, for “knowledge of God can never be obtained by exact scientific methods, but only by personal experiences.”[32]Rudolf Kittel, The Scientific Study of the Old Testament (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), p. 324. Divine revelation will always elude complete comprehension by man. Concerning an understanding of this mystery. Robinson says,

Our study of the prophets can shew us the experience of those who believed they stood in the council of God, what ideas they held of themselves and of Him, what apparent characteristics distinguished them from others. This is the province of psychology—the psychology of the Hebrews in general and of the Hebrew prophets in particular. But, fascinating as such studies are, they are only preparatory to the real thing. In the last resort, we shall know as much or as little of the prophetic consciousness as is the degree to which we share its essential and central experience. The value-judgments we make of a prophet’s message pass beyond psychology, and imply a metaphysic.[33]H. Wheeler Robinson, “The Psychology and Metaphysic of ‘Thus Saith Yahweh,'” Zietschrift Fur Die Alltestamentliche Wissenschaft, Band xli, (1923), p. 1.

This scholar states that the most important differences between the Hebrew’s conception of man and that of the modern psychologist are as follows: (1) “the ready belief in invasive energies,” (2) “the attribution of psychical capacity” to various physical organs of the body, (3) the “objectivity” assigned to “subjective phenomena as the vision and the dream,” and (4) the significance which they gave to “symbolic acts.”[34]Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament, p. 178. An actual examination of the call-experience, which is the very central core of the prophetic consciousness, should begin with these matters in mind.

A prophet’s call did not come to him in a vacuum. It was not an induction into an undefined ministry. Of necessity it was vitally connected with some particular occasion, because the Hebrews did not deal in abstractions as did the Greeks. The spiritual and the physical were inseparably connected in their experiences, the one merging into the other or else emerging from it. The fact that “God enters into the experiences of men, and teaches them of Himself when they are sensitive to learn”[35]H. H. Rowley, The Re-Discovery of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946), p. 192. Cf. Scott, pp. 131f; and Hyatt, pp. 149f. is well illustrated by the call-experience of Jeremiah.


Jeremiah’s Call From God

Jeremiah presents a striking example of God’s message coming to a prophet while he was in a state of calm though exalted meditation.

The call of God to Jeremiah is disappointing to those who love the spectacular and melodramatic. The account of how Jeremiah became a prophet of God, found in the first chapter of his prophecies, bears the marks of simplicity when campared to those of Isaiah and Ezekiel.

The historical background. “World conditions were the major factor in the call of Jeremiah.”[36]Clyde T. Francisco, Introducing the Old Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1950), p. 142. The thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, the boy king of Judah, was also the death-year of Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria. For better than a hundred years the fortune or misfortune of Judah had been dependent upon the will of the Assyrian ruler. Assyria had been the chief power in Western Asia, but now there was, a profound change taking place. The Assyrian empire was showing signs of weakness. Egypt was slowly rising from its prostration. The Medes had gained independence from the Assyrian yoke, and the Neo-Babylonian empire was being born. The Scythians, a savage horde from the north, were sweeping toward Jeremiah’s homeland. An attitude of fear and uncertainty must have characterized the minds of those of Judah’s inhabitants who were looking at facts realistically.

It was time for a prophet to appear with a word from God.

Jeremiah’s heritage. Anathoth, an hour’s walk to the north of Jerusalem, was Jeremiah’s birthplace and home until manhood. Since the days of Solomon, Anathoth had been the residence of a famous family of priests (1 Kings 2:26 f.). Abiathar, the only survivor of the house of Eli, took the wrong side upon Solomon’s accession to the throne and was commanded to surrender his priestly prerogatives and to abide at Anathoth. Jeremiah, being “the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were at Anathoth” (Jer.1:1) was possibly able to trace his lineage back to those who originally had custody of the Ark. Nowhere would the best traditions of Israel and her God find a better repository than in a household whose forebears had guarded the most sacred symbol of Israel’s invisible God.

There is every reason to believe that Jeremiah was reared in a godly Hebrew home. His name means “Yahweh hurls,”

evidently expressing the hope of his parents that the Lord would use him in helping to alleviate the conditions prevalent during the reign of wicked Manasseh, who was ruling at Jeremiah’s birth.[37]Ibid.

In all probability, Jeremiah was instructed by his father in the knowledge of Israel’s past, her ideals, and even in the prophecies of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah.

Nature was not silent as far as making a contribution to the life of the lad of Anathoth. The simple things of the countryside fascinated Jeremiah. This is seen in the manner in which his call came to him, and throughout his life he saw a profound significance in simple things.

By living only a short distance from Jerusalem it was possible, after a short walk, for Jeremiah to hear of the happenings in the rest of the world. Since Jeremiah was not a member of the official priesthood, it was possible for him to look at the sins of Judah objectively. “He was free from the narrowness of vision and the timidity which are always apt to creep over an official caste.”[38]Adam C. Welch, Jeremiah: His Time and His Work (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1951), p. 34.

The religion of Israel had degenerated during the reign of Manasseh. Apostasy was rampant in the land. Judah, like her sister to the north, had made the Baalim the object of her trust for prosperity. For national security she was depending on alliances with neighboring nations. The worship of Yahweh was formal and ritualistic; it contained no reality and made no moral demands upon the worshipers. To such a prophet as has been described and in such a time as has been pictured “the word of the Lord” came to the son of Hilkiah.

A dialogue with God. The account of Jeremiah’s confrontation by God in the deepest zone of his being is given in the form of a dialogue. He did not receive his call to the prophetic ministry in the midst of a temple filled with brilliant light or surrounded by strange heavenly creatures. “The revelation came to him not from cloven skies, or out of the midst of the thunders of the heavens.”[39]Harry F. Baughman, Jeremiah for Today (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947), p. 50. Instead of the spectacular, Jeremiah describes the objects or events of common daily experience as the starting point for his perception of the divine truth.

Back of Jeremiah’s call-experience “there must have been some wrestling of the spirit of which there is no record.”[40]Ibid., p. 84. Without doubt, the indelible impression that God was calling him into the goodly fellowship of the prophets came to him as a result of a growing religious experience.

Several scholars take the account to be a description of a visionary experience.[41]Cheyne, Davidson, T. H. Robinson, and Skinner. Perhaps it was; but all must admit that it lacks the unusual phenomena of Isaiah and Ezekiel. It is not said to be a vision. Baughman calls attention to “the absence of the vision, the ecstasy,”[42]p. 50. and Streane points out that “without startling symbol or ecstatic trance the command is received.”[43]A. W. Streane, Jeremiah and Lamentations (“The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges” Cambridge: At the University Press, 1888), p. xvi.

Peake describes Jeremiah’s experience in a most satisfying manner:

The narrative gains an effectiveness of its own by the very absence of accessories. God and the man are here alone in intimate conversation, no Seraphim or Cherubim mar the impressive simplicity of the scene. It is a fit prelude to the lifework of the prophet who first clearly conceived religion as a personal relation between man and God.[44]A. S. Peake, Jeremiah, Vol. I (“The Century Bible” Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1910), pp. 5-6.

If Jeremiah’s experience took the form of a vision, it was a “calm meditative vision” that was not accompanied by any spectacular phenomena. It was an experience with God on life’s way. God chose him, met him, spoke to him, touched his lips, and commissioned him as a prophet.

Predestination. In the first portion of Jeremiah’s call-experience the divine purpose for his life was revealed to him.

Now the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations (Jer. 1:4-5).

This was an amazing communication which, “by some mysterious channel, made its way into the young man’s soul.”[45]Alexander Stewart, Jeremiah the Man and his Message (Edinburgh: W. F. Henderson, 1936), p. 55. It would appear that this impression came to the mind of Jeremiah as a result of the revelatory activity of God working in harmony with the prophet’s own reflective processes. Glover says, “It does not matter” whether this impression came to him in “a moment or six months; . . . it came.”[46]T. R. Glover, “The Call of God,” The Expositor, Eighth Series, VII (April, 1914), 373.

As Jeremiah meditated upon the purpose of God for his life, the conviction was forced upon his mind that a combination of things happened even before his birth that were to be determining factors in his becoming a prophet. He came to realize that everything that he had received or that had happened to him worked together under the hand of God to prepare him for the work to which he was being called. This only served

… to give him the greater assurance of his call, and to impress the more strongly on his mind that God was in earnest and had a work for him to do from which he could not be excused.[47]Henry Cowles, Jeremiah and His Lamentations (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1880), p. 20.

The consciousness that he had been a thought of God before his birth must have stirred the sensitive young man from Anathoth to the depths of his being. In the opinion of Freedman, “This consciousness must have sustained him and enabled him to triumph over the moods of despondency to which he was subject.”[48]Harry Freedman (ed.), Jeremiah (“Soncino Books of the Bible” London: Soncino Press, 1949), p. 2.

Jeremiah’s hesitancy. Jeremiah’s first reaction to this perception of the divine ideal and purpose for his life was a feeling of utter insufficiency. “He did not like Isaiah volunteer to go on God’s errand, but like Moses he shrank back from it.”[49]L. Elliot Binns, The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (“Westminster Commentaries” London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1919), p. xxxviii. This can be easily understood when one recognizes the immensity of the task that was before him. He was to be a prophet, not only to Judah, but “to the nations” as well. “His work was to be unusually extensive in its activities, and for the most part intensely painful in its character.”[50]Stewart, p. 3.

Jeremiah’s reply to the call of God was: “I know not how to speak, for I am a child” (Jer. 1:6). This was not a plea of unfitness of character, as in the case of Isaiah, for “such a plea would have been to doubt the divine wisdom which had thus selected him.”[51]Welch, p. 42. Jeremiah was pleading his youth, inexperience, and lack of ability as a basis for evading the prophetic office. Cheyne calls attention to the fact that Jeremiah was most likely in his late teens or early twenties, and youth’s role in the Orient was to hear instead of being heard.[52]T. K. Cheyne, Jeremiah, His Life and Times (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1897?), p. 3. He was not saying, “I will not,” but “I cannot.”

This was a natural response from a sensitive young soul like Jeremiah. Stewart observes that there were “temperamental causes to which Jeremiah’s hesitation must be partly ascribed.”[53]p. 3. Jeremiah was of the type that “was continually looking into his own mind.”[54]A. B. Davidson, The Called of God, ed. J. A. Paterson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902), p. 213. He was deeply convinced of his human inability for such a task as he was called to perform. Because of his introspective nature and the difficulty of his task, Jeremiah was to experience a struggle within his soul for many years.

The assurance of divine assistance. God took steps to reassure the timid, hesitant young prophet of divine help in the discharge of his prophetic duties. He was led to understand that he is to speak only that which he is commanded to speak (Jer. 1:7). His own intellect is not to be the source for the oracles which he is to utter. They are to come from God and will carry divine authority within themselves. Consequently, “Jeremiah is preeminently the prophet of the word. From the start of his career he was manifestly conscious of being guided by a will not his own.”[55]Baughman, p. 32.

Jeremiah was then assured of the divine deliverance from his enemies: “Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee” (Jer. 1:8). It was but reasonable that the young prophet should fear those who were to be his hearers. Sinful men never had welcomed a message of judgment and condemnation, and there was a strong possibility of reprisal. With such thoughts in his mind, Jeremiah was given assurance that when “God sends forth His servants He goes with them.”[56]Binns, p. 5. The prophet was not promised that he would be preserved unhurt, “but that he shall be delivered from destruction at the hands of his enemies.”[57]Streane, p. 4.

Jeremiah then describes a third thing that God did to encourage him. ”Then Jehovah put forth his hand, and touched my mouth; and Jehovah said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jer. 1:9). “Then God touched his mouth. How? Who can tell?”[58]G. Campbell Morgan, Studies in the Prophecies of Jeremiah (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1931), p. 25. Jeremiah experienced what today would be called “an actual psychical experience.”[59]Raymond Calkins, Jeremiah the Prophet (New York: Macmillan Co., 1930), p. 59. Freedman calls this impression of Jeremiah “an anthropomorphism; the action symbolized that henceforth he would speak with the tongue (authority) of God,”[60]p. 3 and in the words of Keil,

The hand is the instrument of making and doing; the touching of Jeremiah’s mouth by the hand of God is consequently an emblematical token that God frames in his mouth what he is to speak.[61]C. F. Keil, The Prophecies of Jeremiah (“Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament” Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880), I, 41.

God thus assured the uncertain young prophet, who “never loses the sense of his own insufficiency, but again and again is brought back to the sufficiency of God.”[62]H. Wheeler Robinson, The Cross of Jeremiah (London: SCM Press, 1925), p. 51. Jeremiah was given definite assurance that God would use his mouth to reveal the divine message to the people. This sense of “touch by the hand of God” is said by Streane to be “an outward symbol of the gift of eloquence, which was being then and there bestowed.”[63]p. 5.

It seems that, in spite of these words of promise, Jeremiah delayed his entrance into the prophetic ministry. The vision of the almond rod and of the boiling caldron served as further urgings from God to the young prophet and gave to him a sense of urgency and inner compulsion.

The nature of Jeremiah’s ministry.—It was revealed to Jeremiah that he was a prophet set “over the nations and over the kingdoms” (Jer. 1:10). This indicates a change of, view from that of the earlier prophets. Skinner observes that, “None of his predecessors, so far as we know, had entertained so exalted an idea of his mission.”[64]John Skinner, Prophecy & Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1955), p. 28.

The word which Jeremiah is to utter will not lose its efficacy in the human utterance of it. It will enter upon a mission of its own that will accomplish the will of God that is behind it.[65]Cf. C. J. Ball, The Prophecies of Jeremiah (“The Expositor’s Bible,” Vol. XII, New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), p. 72. The effect of God’s word spoken by Jeremiah will be twofold: it will be both destructive and constructive (Jer. 1:10). The word will serve “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow” that which is displeasing to God. The constructive work of the word will be “to build and to plant” that which is good. Beyond a ministry and message of judgment Jeremiah is to look forward to a better and more hopeful state of affairs.

The vision of the almond rod.—Smith describes the mental anxiety that Jeremiah experienced while meditating upon the significance of the work with which God was confronting him:

The Word, the ethical purpose of God for Israel was clear, but how was it to be fulfilled? No strength appeared in the nation itself. The party or parties, loyal to the Lord had been in power a dozen years and effected little in Jerusalem and nothing beyond. The people were not stirred and seemed hopeless. Living in a village where little changed through the years, but men followed the habits of their fathers, Jeremiah felt everything dead. Winter was on and the world was asleep.[66]George Adam Smith, Jeremiah (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922), p. 84.

With such thoughts in his mind Jeremiah was struggling against his call as he walked through the fields near Anathoth. Against the bleak winter landscape he saw “a dry twig, which could easily be mistaken for something other than it was.”[67]Welch, pp. 46-47. Upon closer scrutiny the young prophet perceived that the twig was the branch of an almond tree (Jer. 1:11).

Like a later Prophet greater than himself, Jeremiah was able to see profound truths in simple things. The almond tree, which blossomed in January, was the first of all the trees to awake to the first sign of spring. It was “poetically named by the Hebrews the wakeful tree.”[68]Skinner, p. 31. As Jeremiah pronounced the name of the tree, shaked-which means “awakeness or watchfulness”[69]Smith, p. 84. “a  corresponding thought leaped, God-inspired, into Jeremiah’s mind.”[70]Costen J. Harrell, The Prophets of Israel (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1933), p. 121. The Lord was awake and watching—shoked—to perform his word. For some sixty years Judah had been in the grip of a spiritual winter. God was about to bring her long winter to an end.”[71]Ibid.

Jeremiah was enabled to see that when all was asleep God was still awake and watching to accomplish his purpose. Orem says that the vision of the almond rod presented to Jeremiah “a half-linguistic, half-figurative symbol of the restless vigilance with which the Lord will carry on the fulfilment of His Word.”[72]C. Von Orelli, The Prophecies of Jeremiah, trans. J. S. Banks (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889), p. 30. Jeremiah learned that “God, who may have appeared to be slumbering, was now waking to action.”[73]George Douglas, The Book of Jeremiah (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), p. 100.

The vision of the boiling caldron. In close association with the vision of the almond rod (cf. Jer. 1:13) and for the same general purpose, but with a different emphasis, Jeremiah saw a vision of a boiling caldron.

While in a mood of deep meditation concerning the fate of his country, Jeremiah’s eyes fell upon a pot boiling on a domestic hearth. As he glanced at the pot, he noticed that it was leaning toward the south and that a strong north wind was blowing the flames which heated the pot.

As the materials on which it is standing are consumed, it settles unevenly, and the southern side sinks. Thus it will presently be overturned, and send its scalding contents in that direction.[74]Streane, p. 7.

Jeremiah was conscious of the unrest in the north. “The ominous North was indeed like a boiling caldron.”[75]Calkins, p. 64. The Scythians were on a rampage. Assyria was crumbling. Babylon was rising to a position of prominence in the east. Israel’s worst enemies had always come from the north. As Jeremiah gazed at the seething caldron, he became conscious of the fact that God was speaking to him and giving him a “symbol of the peril that will presently boil out of the north.”[76]Baughman, p. 50.

Jeremiah was led to see that the judgment of God was coming upon Judah in the form of an invader from the north. “If he thought of a definite enemy it was probably the Scythians.”[77]Peske, p. 84. It is not necessary to state definitely that he was referring to the Scythians. He knew that judgment would come from the north, for Egypt was not a strong nation at the moment.

The pot of judgment was already boiling. It was already tilted toward the south. Destruction faced Judah in the near future. Jeremiah was thus shown the urgency of his obeying the divine summons immediately. God was not asleep. He was awake to accomplish his purpose of judgment. Those who would repent must be warned. The record implies that it was this conviction of the judgment of God as coming in the immediate future that gave Jeremiah the inner compulsion to assume his prophetic responsibilities.


The Significance of a Divine Call

To appreciate the significance of the prophets’ call-experience, one must explore the wider influence it had on their ministry, as well as their message.

Origin. The great prophets of the Old Testament explained the fact of their existence as an act of God (Amos 7:14-15; Hos. 1:2.; 3:1; Isa. 6; Jer. 1:4-19; Ezek. 2:3f.). Amos speaks for all of the prophets in his graphic statement of the reason for his assuming the prophetic office.

I was no prophet neither was I a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel (7:14-15).

Jeremiah refers to a similar command from God to speak his message: “For to whomsoever I shall send thee thou shalt go, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:7). Later this prophet speaks of the power of God as being so great that he could not resist it, and therefore he was compelled to be a prophet. “O Jehovah, thou hast persuaded me, and I was persuaded; thou are stronger than I, and hast prevailed” (Jer. 20:7). Jeremiah labored under a consciousness similar to that of Paul, who said, “For necessity is laid upon me; for woe is me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

Superiority. It is in the fact that these men had been confronted by the living God of Israel; had received a revelation of his ethical character; and, by a means that defies exact psychological analysis, had felt an irresistible constraint to surrender themselves to his purpose, that one must look for an explanation for their superiority over the prophets of other nations. “They were not self-appointed, but God chosen.”[78]Hyatt, p. 31.

Unity. The God which the Hebrew prophets met in their call-experience was a consistent God with a great redemptive purpose. He chose to reveal different aspects of his character to different prophets and these aspects were never contradictory. This explains the unity of Hebrew prophecy.

Sense of inner compulsion. One of the distinguishing features of the great prophets was the sense of compulsion under which they proclaimed their message to Israel. The constant refrain, “Thus saith the Lord,” expresses their consciousness of “the sense of being gripped by an overpowering, invading presence”[79]Knight, p. 61. that took control of their faculties for declaring the divine will to Israel. The prophets, without exception, were convinced that the message which, from time to time, they felt constrained to proclaim was from a source outside themselves.

The beginning of this sense of compulsion had its origin in the prophets’ experience of a call from God. Mowinckel has rightly said that the “prophetic call is not merely felt to be a certainty, it is upon them and in them as a compelling force from which they cannot escape.”[80]Sigmund Mowinckel, “‘The Spirit’ and the ‘Word’ in the Pre-Exilic Reforming Prophets,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LIII (October, 1934), 221. The prophet was awed by a majestic presence and aware of an irresistible might that called for and won his surrender.

A norm for testing genuineness of prophetic message. That the true prophets did not speak automatically or mechanically and that they were constantly searching for certainty can be seen more clearly in Jeremiah· than in any of the other prophets. That it was true in his case permits the assumption that it was true of the other prophets also. There was no easy way for a prophet to know ultimate truth.

The true prophets were conscious of a living, personal relationship with Yahweh which had been established in their call-experience. In that experience God became more than a name or a fact to them. From that moment onward “the greatness and gravity of the life-enveloping, life-directing and decision-demanding reality of God . . . burned like a fire” in the souls of these prophets.[81]Scott, p. 106. Rowley, in describing the effect of the prophet’s call says,

He came forth with the consciousness that he was an extension of the divine personality. Sometimes he could use the third person when speaking of Yahweh, but at other times he could pass over to the first person. His word was so directly God’s word that God could be thought of as uttering the words through his mouth.[82]Rowley, The Re-Discovery of the Old Testament, p. 143.

In their call-experience the prophets came into contact with a transforming revelation of the character of God which thereafter dominated their thinking and which inspired their every message.[83]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1925), pp. 223-24. This experience was the beginning of a moral and spiritual fellowship which was maintained by the surrender of the prophet’s will to the purpose of God and by a progressive purification of the inner life. It was this immediate consciousness of direct communion with the living God that gave the prophets an assurance that the intuitions which rose up from their being was a word from God. Concerning this truth, Skinner has stated that “the ultimate secret of true prophetic inspiration” is found in an “immediate consciousness of having the mind of God.”[84]Skinner, p. 195. The concept of God which the prophets received in their call was an in­ ward and spiritual criterion by which they tested the truthfulness of their message. Their oracles were never such as would contradict what they had learned in their initial experience with God.

The central theme of the prophetic message. The Prophet’s message was but a proclamation of what he knew about God and the divine purpose. In the prophets’ call-experience God not only inducted them into the prophetic ministry but also revealed his character and purpose to them in a way so as to leave a lasting impression upon their minds. An examination of the prophetic messages of the great prophets reveals that those truths which they learned about God in their call-experience provided the theme for every oracle that they ever uttered. This is not to imply that the prophet received his inspiration once and for all in one single experience, but it does mean that he received the seed or germ of every great idea that he was to proclaim to Israel in that experience. The memory of that experience remained with them as a constant challenge and as a compelling force to be God’s spokesmen of eternal truth. They lived and labored under the lengthened shadow of that initial experience with God until the end of their earthly ministry.


Implications for the Present

After studying the call-experience of Jeremiah, I can see no basis at all for believing, as some do, that God no longer calls men to be his spokesmen. The failure of many preachers to make a spiritual impact upon the society in which we live is due to the fact that they have assumed the prophetic office without having an express call from God. It is my deep and abiding conviction that the ministerial office should never be assumed by anyone who does not have a sense of call from God.

A study of Jeremiah’s call, when contrasted with that of the other great prophets, reveals that God used a variety of ways in extending a call. None of the prophets received his call from God in the same manner; Even so, as is obvious, God uses many ways of revealing his will to men in the present. He still speaks to those who have seeing eyes, hearing ears, and a surrendered heart.

I am inclined to believe that the difference in the inspiration of the great prophets and that of genuine spiritual leaders of today is not in the manner of inspiration, but in the content of the revelation. The Hebrew prophet’s message as not only an exposition of a previous revelation, but it also included additions to the revelation given previously. The message of the modern prophet differs only in that it is an interpretation of God’s revelation as recorded in the Bible and an application to the problems of today. There is no essential difference in the manner of their being inspired by God.

It is very possible that a preacher’s sense of inner compulsion to be God’s true spokesman to the present day will be in proportion to his consciousness of a call from God. It is impossible for a true prophet to remain silent when God has spoken to his heart.

The great prophets of the Old Testament had divine authority when they spoke for God because of their vital experiential knowledge of God. The modern spokesman for God will have authority only as he has a personal experience of God’s presence and of God’s power, and as he surrenders himself completely for the accomplishment of the divine will in the world in which we live. His inspiration and authority will be no deeper than his personal experiences with God. One must not dare to speak authoritatively for God unless he has stood in the council of the Lord and received a commission to speak to the needs of his generation.

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