Prophets aren’t usually popular — it goes with the job description — but I think my favorite prophet is Jeremiah. He might be glad to know that, since in his day, he was not the kind of person most people were glad to see coming their way. For Jeremiah was clearly a prophet of gloom and doom. And who likes gloom and doom?
Well, pretty much nobody. Which is why, in Jeremiah 37, the prophet is put in prison. And if the king hadn’t listened to his plea, he might have died there. But no sooner is he released from prison, his enemies throw him into a cistern. And so, he goes from bad to worse. As Jeremiah 38.6 says, “Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (NRSV). In fact, could he have gotten any lower (figuratively and literally)? Such a pitiful and humiliating sight, where one of the most noteworthy prophets in the history of God’s people finds himself alone, desperate, at the bottom of a well, covered in mud.
Could this be why Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 20.18 (in another episode where he was being persecuted for his preaching), “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” Clearly, it was not an easy job God had called Jeremiah to fill: to preach judgment to a people who weren’t really excited to hear that judgment was coming.
But are we ever? Do we ever like hearing bad news — especially when that bad news calls us to change, to repent, to turn from the wrong we are doing? The people in Judah in Jeremiah’s day sure didn’t. So, they tried to shut Jeremiah up, while seeking out other prophets who would say: God isn’t going to punish you. Babylon isn’t going to overthrow Jerusalem. You’re okay.
But if God loves us — if God really loves us — then won’t He tell us the truth about ourselves and our conditions? And won’t God point us in the direction of honest and true repentance, so that we may be restored?
By the time Jeremiah received his call to preach, and was sent by God, the die had largely been cast. Judgment was coming. And so, Jeremiah’s job was one of the most difficult of any preacher or prophet, any time in history. No wonder he didn’t relish his job, and struggled with it throughout his ministry.
Even so, he was faithful. He kept preaching. And trusting. And pointing people to the hope they have if they would simply humble themselves and turn to God. And so, this Prophet of Gloom also gives us some of the most hopeful words in all of the Bible, when in Jeremiah 31, the Lord says, “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant…. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of the them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
This is the promise that even in Israel’s worst was still true. Even when judgment comes and will not be halted, God still points us forward — to a day when all God’s people will know God, and live with God, and for God — free from iniquity and sin, forever.
This is why prophets like Jeremiah are still essential today. They tell us the truth about ourselves. But even more, they tell us the truth about God: what God has done, and will do — will forever do.