7 O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
everyone mocks me.
8 For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
9 If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
10 For I hear many whispering.
Terror is on every side!
“Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
say all my close friends, watching for my fall.
“Perhaps he will be deceived;
then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.”
11 But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonour will never be forgotten.
12 O LORD of hosts, who tests the righteous,
who sees the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you have I committed my cause.
13 Sing to the LORD;
praise the LORD!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
from the hand of evildoers. (Jeremiah 20:7-13 ESV)
When you hear Jeremiah today I wonder whether you feel awkward – unsettled – maybe even embarrassed. Now you might wonder why I’m saying this – after all, it’s just another passage in the Bible – and we hear lots of them – three per Sunday usually – but did we hear Jeremiah?
Imagine you’re a student outside the principal’s office or a military person outside the base commander’s office or you’re a dinner guest about to knock on the door to go in and you overhear – not deliberately – the principal, the commander, or your host having a private whinge about school, politics and the chain of command, or the people about to arrive. We quickly tune into the words and realise that this is something we shouldn’t really be hearing. But we do because overhearing a private conversation gives us a glimpse past the public persona we like to project. There are many clips online of people who thought the microphone was off and who have been embarrassed when what they were saying was picked up and broadcast. There are times and places for saying the things we say.
And hearing Jeremiah this morning is something like that – he usually is heard speaking God’s judgement on the people – an unpopular message which is not only ignored at times but also generates hostility and persecution (and, finally we think, his death) but at the moment he is complaining to God about God and about his task as a prophet and about the reactions he keeps getting from people who seem set on attacking him. His complaint pauses – is he catching his breath? – is he simply spent, said what he wanted to say, thinking? – and he then acknowledges that God helps and supports the righteous while also reminding God not to let his enemies get away with their behaviour towards him. The lament is to God not to us but we overhear as it were. There are times and places for saying the things we say – and this is in the Bible!
And if we had ‘Hebrew ears’ what we hear I think would shock us more. Jeremiah is accusing God of being a big bully who has given him an impossible task. Little Jeremiah up against big God is no contest and so Jeremiah feels ( פּתּהּ pātâ) – fooled, deceived, persuaded – which is pretty tense. Telling God that he has deceived you suggests … what the heck? … brutal honesty on our part. Is that not an aspect of faith to say you’re wild with God? However this word also is used to describe sexual seduction (Exodus 22:16; Judges 16:5) and so we might overhear Jeremiah complain “O Lord, you seduced me and I was seduced, you over powered me and prevailed” and this image really jars – for two reasons: 1. seduction and force are not to go together in our minds; and 2. this really doesn’t sound like the way you should talk to God. This is raw.
Welcome to a complaint or a lament. Have you ever complained or lamented? Polite language can fly out the window – exaggeration can fly in – anyone in visual range can become a target – and if the complaint is big enough or the pain of the lament is rough enough, raw, too much then God is often not far from a roasting. What do people say to God on those occasions? Some of it I definitely couldn’t say at the moment.
But we can imagine or we have said … I hate you. It’s not fair. Why did she / he die? You don’t care. If you really cared, you’d help me. I prayed for guidance and then I stepped out faithfully to serve you and look what’s happened. You’ve let me down. This hurts. Please make the pain go away. I’ve been asking for 15 years – come on, are you there? How can you sit up there and do nothing? You’re pathetic. You’re useless.
The list and language of complaints against God can be almost endless. Complaints happen because life is not going how we want it to go and because we expect God to make our lives better so that means he should help when we’re in trouble; heal when we’re sick; rescue us when we’re in a predicament; and give us parking spots when we need them. And when he doesn’t … well … what’s the point?! … what’s the good of having a god around?!
Jeremiah’s complaint was specific to his call to be a prophet – something that he didn’t apply for – but his life was a response to that call in a time when God’s people faced catastrophe after catastrophe – consequences for their sin and rebellion. Jeremiah’s call to his own people was to tell them again and again of God’s judgement; of their imminent destruction; of their need to repent – and this did not go down well. Jeremiah’s prophetic role extended over 40 years and 5 kings and, simply put, no one listened – even when Jerusalem was destroyed. And so there were times when Jeremiah complained, “God, what is going on – where is the power of your Word?”.
And there it was – his complaint – his desire for vengeance and justice to God leads him to consider again who God is and he remembers what God has done in the past. God is a mighty warrior whose enemies will stumble and not prevail – like Pharaoh’s chariots stumble in the Red Sea as God rescues his people in the Exodus. Jeremiah recalls – links made by the Holy Spirit – who God is rather than staying focused on what God is not apparently doing. His God will rescue in his own time as he has done in the past. Jeremiah’s God does not abandon his people – there will be righteousness, truth, and justice prevailing. The lament is not just verbal vomit but is a challenge that God grants us so that when we’ve stopped punching and scratching him, as it were, we can pause (exhausted, spent, puffing) and sense again his heart beating for us.
There are 150 psalms and the individual psalm of lament is the most frequent type of psalm found in the Psalter. That tells us something. We can lament and complain to God – get things off our chests – and know that God has heard us and in the pause consider who God is for us. These psalms conclude with the psalmist thinking about who God is and what he has done and acknowledging that God is helping and has not abandoned him.
Today we maybe more refined – in public! – but there are times when people lament and complain to God. There is nothing wrong with this – God knows what we’re feeling anyway – so saying it out loud allows us to ‘see it’, ‘hear it’ and consider God’s reply.
Probably the most famous psalm of lament is Psalm 22 which begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1) We recognise the opening words of this psalm as Jesus’ words on the cross and through him we come again in our hardship and suffering to the realisation that God truly understands. This realisation is not magic – God does not click his fingers and the suffering ceases – no, often the pain is still there, the tragedy still exists – but the complainant – us – is now silent (maybe just for a moment) as the focus moves to who God is for you.
Who is God for you?
If he – deep down – is your cosmic genii who is expected to provide you with a life style that you are largely satisfied with, then you will be disappointed, at some point, when the lifestyle is not what you want. It is naïve to think that Christians have good things and non Christians have all the suffering.
If God – deep down – owes you ‘something’ for all your church work, your good deeds, even your effort, etc, that you have done in his name, then you will be angered when he doesn’t ‘pay up’ – pay you what you think you deserve for all the things you’ve done for him.
Who is God for you? If the answer is Jesus Christ – then your focus becomes a cross – what Jesus suffered and what we are called to pick up. Crosses are things we can complain about (“Father, if there’s some other way …) but crosses are also messages – a truth – that we know – but maybe at that moment we are rediscovering deep down – that in Jesus and his cross – and that’s raw stuff from God – our God is good and he doesn’t and never will abandon his people no matter their laments, their complaints, or how raw and horrible life becomes. And the cross also tells us that God does help us – one moment at a time. I don’t know what that help will be at that moment but help will come even if it is another perspective or strength for endurance. Help will come.
And Psalm 22, how does it end? Where can our complaints and laments end? Always with God!
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
(Psalm 22:30,31 ESV)
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. [Amen]
- Jeremiah 20:7 - 13