Jeremiah 20 marks the climax of Jeremiah’s “confessions,” a series of pointed prayers from the prophet. Jeremiah had long disputed with YHWH about his severe plan for Judah and about Jeremiah’s own mistreatment, but in this chapter he curses the day of his birth, which indicates he also rejects his calling as prophet (cf. Jer 1:5). Jeremiah’s pointed prayer in 20:14–18 receives no answer from YHWH, and yet henceforward the character of Jeremiah seems transformed. He no longer disputes with YHWH, even when he endures worse mistreatment than Pashhur had dealt him (e.g., 38:6; 43:1–7). What explains this change in character?
This paper will explain this riddle by reading the book of Jeremiah as a literary whole. We will elucidate the prophet’s unfolding relationship with YHWH using the approach outlined by Meir Sternberg in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1985), respecting areas of deliberate ambiguity while filling those gaps which the text invites us to fill “by [its] own norms and directives.” Two other insights will contribute to our reading: (1) against the tendency to read Jeremiah’s “confessions” as limited to chs. 10–20, we will incorporate all texts that involve the prophet’s direct interactions with YHWH. (2) We will capitalize on the many literary parallels between the prophet and the nation as a whole, which allows the rehabilitation of both prophet and nation to mutually explain each other.
Our thesis is that Jeremiah’s conflict with YHWH arises from a series of misunderstandings on the part of the prophet. First, Jeremiah assumed that his adequacy to be a prophet stemmed from his own strength and ability (1:6). Next, Jeremiah believed that the false prophets actually were sent by YHWH and that YHWH intended peace for Jerusalem (4:10). Next, Jeremiah struggled to accept that there was no possibility of the reversal of judgment, and could not comprehend why his prayers of repentance went unheeded (ch. 14). Finally, Jeremiah could not fathom that he could endure such persecution from Pashhur if YHWH were to be true to his deliverance promise in 1:17–19. In each case, YHWH leads Jeremiah from misunderstanding to truth. The last misunderstanding only is resolved when Jeremiah understands YHWH’s plan for Judah, that death must precede life, and that the light of grace will only come after a long and harrowing night of judgment.