John D. Barry
Poetry often mixes metaphor with reality. At times it’s difficult to tell where realism ends and analogy begins; we’re not always certain if we’re reading spiritual vision or events in real time. Consider the opening lines of “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake:
“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. … The beggar’s rags, fluttering in air, does to rags the heavens tear. … We are led to believe a lie, when we see not thro’ the eye, which was born in a night to perish in a night, when the soul slept in beams of light. God appears, and God is light, to those poor souls who dwell in night; but does a human form display to those who dwell in realms of day.”
Blake mixes perspectives—juxtaposing the eternal (“see a world,” “heaven,” “infinity” and “eternity”) with humanity (“grain of sand,” “wildflower,” “palm of your hand” and “an hour”). He may be speaking on behalf of God, or he may be simply observing life and offering critique like God would. In this way, Blake is similar to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah also mixes vision with reality and God’s perspective with his own:
“But you, O Yahweh … you see … that my heart is with you. … How long will the land mourn … because of the wickedness of those who live in it? … They have said, He does not see our future. If you run with foot soldiers and they have made you weary, then how will you compete with horses? … For even your relatives, and the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you. … You must not trust in them. … I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my inheritance. I have given the beloved one of my heart into the hand of her enemies (Jer 12:3–7).”
There are no “Thus sayeth the Lord” statements to guide us in this passage—we’re not sure when Jeremiah is speaking or when God is speaking. In this prophecy, the clues of who is speaking when have disappeared. Here’s why and what you can learn from it.
God’s Voice, the Prophet’s Voice—Same Voice
Step one: Discern the speaker and what they’re teaching in both words and actions.
There are no quotation marks in the original Hebrew—which is why I’ve removed them from this excerpt from Jeremiah. In prophetic narratives, when there are no “Thus sayeth the Lord” or “says the Lord” phrases, our only way to discern the speaker is interpretation. In this example, God begins speaking at “If you run with foot soldiers.” English Bibles often identify the speaker with headings (like the LEB’S heading “The Lord’s Reply”), but these aren’t original to the text—they’re inserted. We can tell that God begins speaking at this point because the words sound like a reply: “You must not trust them.” Additionally, the next phrase is something God often says: “my house” (being the temple).
It can be tricky to pick out a speaker on our own. However, if the speaker is identified for us, we can miss a major point of the biblical text: God’s voice and the prophet’s voice are one. The prophet is so united with God that there is little difference in his mind between what he says to the people and what God says to the people. This is, in part, what it means to be in God’s likeness (Gen 1:27).
But They Don’t Hear God
Step two: Examine the audience.
By living God’s calling, Jeremiah conveys the prophecies against God’s people in both his words and his deeds. The people have regularly disobeyed God, and God is fed up. The people believe that religion will save them, but the hammer is going to drop; Jeremiah is that hammer, a role that is especially difficult to bear when he receives orders that “you … must not pray for this people, and you must not lift up for them a cry of entreaty or a prayer, and you must not plead with me, for I will not hear you” (Jer 7:16). God has made His purposes known to Jeremiah, and now Jeremiah must follow through—even to the point of proclaiming divine retribution when he wants to plead for the people.
And They Still Don’t Hear God
Step three: Ponder parallels in the Gospels—see if Jesus says something similar or if He, as a person, provides a parallel.
Jeremiah’s way of life and prophetic voice can be seen in Jesus’ demeanor. And Jeremiah’s opposition—those who believe that religion will save them—is paralleled in the Pharisees. Jesus even says to His disciples, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). However, there is a major difference between Jeremiah and Jesus: Unlike Jeremiah, Jesus actually is God. Jeremiah is living in God’s image, but Jesus is the living God (Gen 1:26; Jer 1; compare John 1:1). Jesus is the living Word itself (John 1:14)—He’s not just God’s voice, but God in person.
You All Shall Prophesy
Step four: Consider how the other New Testament books handle similar ideas. Use that message as a way to reflect on the meaning of the Scriptures for your life.
Since Jesus is the Word, the New Testament Church lives as the Word—the concept of living in God’s likeness. Paul even states, “Pursue love, and strive for spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. … The one who prophesies speaks to people edification and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:1, 3). Jesus’—and by extension, Jeremiah’s—way of living manifests itself in their lives.
But this isn’t all fun and games: God takes prophecy seriously, even saying to a group of evil people in Jeremiah’s time, “You shall not prophesy in the name of Yahweh or you will die by our hand” (Jer 11:21). We shouldn’t ever claim to speak godly words unless we’re sure they’re actually godly. We must speak the truth and only the truth into others’ lives. In doing so, we experience what it means to bear God’s image like Jeremiah did—to be His voice to the world.
Jeremiah was both ordinary sinner and extraordinary voice of God. He lived to help the sinless and to glorify the only sinless one—God Almighty and, ultimately, Jesus. We must be both prophetic voices of truth and God’s living examples of it.
Faithlife Study Bible identifies audience. Download the app or go to FaithlifeBible.com
Biblical quotations from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).
John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.