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Cover image: Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah”
Jeremiah 16; 23; 39; 31
Calling of a Prophet
The prophet Jeremiah provides us with a remarkable study in steadfastness in the Lord. From his premortal performance to his mortal ministry we are given an often painful portrait of what a prophet goes through to serve God in correcting his own people. Called in his youth (Jer. 1:6), and somewhat reminiscent of Enoch, Moses, and at least two Josephs (Jacob’s son, and Joseph Smith), the young man was concerned that he lacked the verbal skills and social respect required for Israel to listen to him. The Lord’s response was simple. “Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee” (Jer. 1:8).
Then Jehovah bestowed upon the boy a blessing (Jer. 1:9) with the prophetic charge to “root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down” that which is evil in Israel on one hand, and on the other hand he was to also “build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). These opposing metaphors are sequentially correct. Israel was laboring in idol worship—“playing the harlot” (Jer. 1:20) and changing themselves into “[plants] of a strange vine” (Jer. 1:21). This wickedness must be repented of first, and then the true construction of a Christ-like soul can take place only after the soil of their souls has been appropriately prepared.
LDS Scholars David Rolph and Jo Ann Seely have cogently collected the following background materials on this Old Testament prophet in their analysis of Jeremiah and Lehi—his Book of Mormon counterpart and contemporary.
• “Jeremiah was from the tribe of Levi through Aaron (see Jeremiah 1:1) and was descended from the priestly family of Abiathar. Abiathar, one of the two high priests that served under David, had supported the rebellion of David’s son Adonijah; consequently, Solomon exiled Abiathar to the little town of Anathoth, two and a half miles to the northeast of Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 2:26-27). Centuries later Jeremiah was born and lived in Anathoth but spent much of his ministry in Jerusalem” (“Lehi and Jeremiah: Prophets, Priests & Patriarchs,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 8 [no. 2], 1999, 27).
• “Jeremiah’s life was a symbol of the justice of God and the impending destruction of Jerusalem. He was commanded not to marry and not to have children, lest they die grievous deaths (see Jeremiah 16:1-4), and he was commanded not to mourn for the people because the Lord had taken away his “lovingkindness and mercies” (Jeremiah 16:5-7). Neither was he allowed to participate in the house of feasting and joy because the day was upon Judah when gladness would cease (see Jeremiah 16:8-9).” (Ibid., 27).
• “We do not know exactly the dates of the births of Jeremiah or Lehi, but it is very likely that they were born either during or immediately after the reign of the wicked king Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) and that they were very close to the same age. Jeremiah was called to be a prophet as a young man in 627 B.C. (see Jeremiah 1:6)…. Some scholars believe this date represents the birth of Jeremiah, who was called from the womb [Jeremiah 1:5]—in which case he would be almost 30 when the Book of Mormon opens, younger than Lehi” (Ibid., 27-28, 85).
• “Jeremiah … lived [his] early years in the reign of King Josiah, known as one of the most righteous of Judah’s kings. He came to the throne at a young age and was instrumental in cleansing the temple and reestablishing the covenant…. As the Assyrian Empire was beginning to weaken, there were great hopes of nationalism, but Josiah was tragically killed at Megiddo in 609 B.C., after which two decades of tumult began.” (Ibid., 28). This culminated with the reign of Zedekiah who had been placed on the throne by the Babylonians.
• “Lehi and Jeremiah may have known each other, and it may well have been through the priesthood that they shared association. We may assume that those commissioned by the Lord to prophesy in Jerusalem were acquainted with each other…. It is possible that a group of legitimate prophets also existed in Jerusalem shortly before the exile. Joseph Smith taught that all of the prophets, presumably including Jeremiah, had the Melchizedek Priesthood [Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 180-81]. Lehi and his family certainly had the Melchizedek Priesthood, as evidenced by Alma 13, which describes the Nephite priesthood as Melchizedek. It is likely that Lehi and Jeremiah were part of a Melchizedek Priesthood community in Jerusalem, and it is not unlikely that one even received his priesthood from the other” (Ibid., 28-29).
This excellent analysis provides helpful insights into the world of the Jews during Jeremiah’s tumultuous ministry. I am personally humbled as I study this 40 year mission of Jeremiah—he labored with such a wicked people, in such precarious times, and without the hope that captivity and exile could be avoided. Yet, he persevered and stayed the course the Lord laid out for him.
No wonder Lehi rejoiced, while still in Jerusalem, when he learned that the city would be destroyed by the Babylonians. While this seems inappropriate or insensitive at first, Lehi correctly recognizes the Lord’s mercy in preserving the righteous. After reading the declaration of destruction and captivity in the prophetic book delivered to him he declared “thou art merciful, [for] thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Nephi 1:12-15). Meaning, that he knew God would preserve the righteous, even through the punishment of the wicked.
We, too, in these latter-day times rife with wars and rumors of wars, take comfort and know of the mercy of God. Nephi taught, “For the time soon cometh that the fulness of the wrath of God shall be poured out upon all the children of men; for he will not suffer that the wicked shall destroy the righteous. Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by this power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire” (1 Nephi 22:16-17).
“Indifference to the Savior or failure to keep the commandments of God brings about insecurity, inner turmoil, and contention. These are the opposite of peace. Peace can come to an individual only by an unconditional surrender—surrender to him who is the Prince of peace, who has the power to confer peace. One may live in beautiful and peaceful surroundings but, because of inner dissension and discord, be in a state of constant turmoil. On the other hand, one may be in the midst of utter destruction and the bloodshed of war and yet have the serenity of unspeakable peace. If we look to man and the ways of the world, we will find turmoil and confusion. If we will but turn to God, we will find peace for the restless soul.This was made clear by the words of the Savior: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33); and in his bequest to the Twelve and to all mankind, he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth. . . .” (John 14:27; Elder Howard W. Hunter, Conference Report, October 1966, 16).
Taking It Well
Jeremiah’s lament in Jeremiah 20 is certainly understandable (see vv. 14-18). As all prophets of the Lord are, he was subjected to all manner of indignities and injustices simply for telling the truth. Yet, his inspiring words ring down through the ages, resonating with those in whom the Spirit of God is kindled: “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jer. 20:9). What makes such a man? Is it not the receipt of and resolution to be true to the revelations of the Almighty?
In this way the words of Ammon, the great Book of Mormon missionary who went through much affliction during his multi-year ministry among the Lamanites are instructive. “For this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo” (Alma 26:36). He has received the witness of the Spirit that has revealed to him his eternal identity—to know he is God’s son and as such has a divine destiny with mortal missions germane to the same. To know this, then, is such sustaining power through all that natural men and fallen mortality can heap upon us.
Peter, who knew somewhat of suffering himself, reasoned, “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:20-23).
Jeremiah exhibited that rare kind of resignation that people who are at peace with God and all that their covenants might require feel. Like Abinadi, Jeremiah resigned himself into the hands of the people, saying, “As for me, behold, I am in your hand: do with me as seemeth good and meet unto you. But know ye for certain, that if ye put me to death, ye shall surely bring innocent blood upon yourselves, and upon this city, and upon the inhabitants thereof: for of a truth the Lord hath sent me unto you to speak all these words in your ears” (Jer. 26:14-15; see also Mosiah 17:9-10).
In the final analysis we must see that this life and all that the world has to offer is at best temporary. In this way, Jeremiah’s fairly shocking attitude toward his own birth, including his wish that he had been killed from the womb (Jer. 20:14-18) can be seen as a hyperbole on the value we should place on our lives in this world. This is not to say that we should think less of the probationary purpose of mortality, of course; rather it is to see just how simple the proposition is here for us—will we be for God and his gospel and all that “the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon” us (Mosiah 3:19), or will we instead forsake him, “the fountain of living waters, and [hew ourselves] out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water”? (Jer. 2:13).
The Israelites of Jeremiah’s day were trying to find life’s satisfaction without the Lord’s guidance for how that satiation comes. Nephi, making plain the words of Isaiah’s prophecies and preachings to an earlier generation of Israel that were also facing imminent destruction, poetically wrote: “And all the nations [and individuals] that fight against Zion, and that distress her, shall be as a dream of a night vision; yea, it shall be unto them, even as unto a hungry man which dreameth, and behold he eateth [in his dream] but he awaketh and his soul is empty; or like unto a thirsty man which dreameth, and behold he drinketh but he awaketh and behold he is faith, and his soul hath appetite” (2 Nephi 27:3; compare Isaiah. 29:7-8).
Samuel the Lamanite demystified this phenomenon by simply stating: “Ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head” (Helaman 13:38). Elder Costa of the Seventy recently taught,
“Many people in this world do not understand the difference between fun and happiness. Many try to find happiness having fun, but the two words have different meanings. I looked them up in the dictionary to find out what each of them meant. Fun is play, pleasure, gaiety, merriment, source of enjoyment, amusement, to behave playfully, playful, often a noisy activity, and teasing. Happiness is contentedness, joy, delight, and satisfaction.”
“I was taught, after becoming a member of the Church, that there is indeed a big difference between fun and happiness. I learned, even before my baptism, that the Lord has a plan of salvation for all His children (see 2 Nephi 2:29). Through this plan, depending upon what we accomplish here on earth, we shall return to our Heavenly Father’s presence and live with Him forever in a state of eternal happiness.”
“….All who seek full happiness can find it in the gospel of Jesus Christ, taught in His Church. Through Christ’s doctrine, we are taught that we can be part of the great plan of happiness that He has prepared for all of us, His sons and daughters. As we keep His commandments, we are blessed and come to know true happiness” (Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, “Fun and Happiness,” Oct. 2002 General Conference, Sunday Afternoon Session).
It has been said that idolatry in its most rudimentary form is simply the placing of anyone (or anything) above God in our worship, affections, and devotion (see Jer. 2:27). As the Master himself taught, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…. No man can serve two maters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life” (Matt. 6:24-26; and also Matt. 6:19-20, 24-25).
President Kimball renewed Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophet’s charge against idolatry in his unforgettable talk “The False Gods We Worship.” His words are ever more relevant a quarter of a century later.
“Sadly, however, we find that to be shown the way is not necessarily to walk in it, and many have not been able to continue in faith. These have submitted themselves in one degree or another to the enticings of Satan and his servants and joined with those of ‘the world’ in lives of ever-deepening idolatry.
I use the word idolatry intentionally. As I study ancient scripture, I am more and more convinced that there is significance in the fact that the commandment ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ is the first of the Ten Commandments.”
“Few men have ever knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject God and his blessings. Rather, we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the “arm of flesh” and in “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know” (Dan 5:23)—that is, in idols. This I find to be a dominant theme in the Old Testament. Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.”
“….And so it often seems to be with people, having such a firm grasp on things of the world—that which is telestial—that no amount of urging and no degree of emergency can persuade them to let go in favor of that which is celestial. Satan gets them in his grip easily. If we insist on spending all our time and resources building up for ourselves a worldly kingdom, that is exactly what we will inherit.”
“In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people—a condition most repugnant to the Lord” (Pres. Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976, 4-5).