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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator

Jeremiah 20

Verse 7

Jeremiah 20:7

O Lord, Thou hast deceived me.

The arduous character of God’s service forgotten

Too often the servants of God are impatient under present crosses, and give way to the infirmity of their old nature. Like Jeremiah, they complain as if God had done them some wrong, and had not let them know in entering His service what trials were before them. But it is not God who has dealt unfairly with them, but themselves who have lost sight of the appointed conditions of His service. The Lord never allures any to follow Him without plainly telling them the cross that awaits them.

He deals with them as brave Garibaldi did with his recruits. When Garibaldi was going out to battle, he told his troops what he wanted them to do. When he had described what he wanted them to do, they said: “Well, General, what are you going to give us for all this? “Well,” he replied, “I don’t know what else you will get; but you will get hunger and cold, and wounds and death.” How do you like that? (Revelation 2:10.)

The ideal and the real; or, does God deceive?

A religious man in the nineteenth century is not accustomed to speak of God as a deceiver. And yet, once we allow for the difference of phraseology and get behind the words, we find that the experience which Jeremiah expressed here is one through which we ourselves have passed, and the problem which he tries to solve is still on our hands. He had now been preaching for several years. He had set out with all the ardour of young enthusiasm. His was no reckless rush into the ministry. Objections and difficulties there were, and he took account of them. But the impulse to preach was too strong to be resisted, and the young prophet had no doubt that that impulse was the voice of God. His obedience involved an expectation. He expected, of course, that his work would tell; the God who called him would be with him, and the “work of the Lord” would “prosper in his hands.” After several years’ hard, faithful work, what does he find? A people not only obdurate and disobedient, but revengeful and cruel. He had seen the reformation under King Josiah, and he had seen also the terrible relapse. It grieved his heart to see the fearful idolatrous practices restored in the Valley of Hinnom. He went down there one day to protest against it in the name of God. While he delivered his message he held in his hand a potter’s earthen bottle, which, at one point in his discourse, he dashed to pieces on the ground, and assured his hearers that so the Lord would break them and their city in pieces. The result of this was not, as he might have hoped, the turning away of the people from sin. On the contrary, Pashur, the chief officer in the house of the Lord, struck Jeremiah and put him in stocks to be jeered at. Though liberated the next day, this treatment caused the prophet seriously to reflect upon the whole question of his mission. He looked upon that mission in the light of results, and he confessed to a great disappointment. That is what he expresses in the words, “Lord, Thou hast deceived me.” Results seemed to tell him to give up, and he tried to give up. He said: “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name.” But what did he find? A burning fire in his heart, and he could not forbear. Here, then, was the prophet’s dilemma. The language of actualities to him was “stop,” but there was an imperative in his soul, and he could not stop. Now the practical question to him was--Which of these two conflicting voices was the voice of God? Was it the voice of history, or was it the prophetic impulse of his heart? If the latter, then there was the hard fact for him to face, that “the word of the Lord” made him a laughing stock, a derision, and a reproach. Jeremiah decided for the latter, spite of the tremendous odds against him, and preached on in the faith that God would some day vindicate his cause. The problem which Jeremiah had to solve for himself is still with us. There does appear to be a contradiction between the world as it is and the world as we feel it ought to be, which is very puzzling. To many minds that contradiction is altogether inexplicable. The so-called moral ideal is an illusion of the mind, and if we call it the voice of God, then God deceives men. There always have been ideals of justice and goodwill, but the real world is all the time in dead opposition to them. Now, which of these expresses the will of God? Is it the world of fact, or the world of aspiration? Is it in our sight of what is, or in our hope of what may be? Shall we learn His character from what He has actually done, or from an ideal which He has always promised but never realised? Does God deceive men? Reformers die with their holms unfulfilled; lives have been given to the cause of righteousness, and yet might remains right, and the tyrant prevails. Do our ideals simply mock us? If these are the voice of God, why do they not prevail? Is God defeated? What shall we say? Let us not try to escape the difficulty by denying it. We may purchase a cheap optimism by blinking the ugly facts of the world. Let us admit to the full that the history of moral reform has its sore disappointments. The world has not only opposed the reformer, but it has always put him in stocks. It changes the kind of stocks as time goes on, but they are stocks all the same. Official religion and real religion are often engaged in deadly conflict, a conflict which frequently results to the reformer, as to Jeremiah, in a sore sense of disappointment. And every man who seeks to do good soon comes upon many discouraging facts. There are times when he says: “I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought.” Nor is it by ignoring such and similar facts, and dwelling only on the bright side, that we have to support faith. On the other hand, we must beware of the temperament which ever occupies itself with life’s disappointments, and fails to see its progress and success. Now, I admit that if there were that complete breach between the real and ideal which appears to be, the problem would be utterly insoluble. But it is not so. In the first place, it is not correct to speak of the world of fact and the world of aspiration as separate and distinct, for the aspiration is one of the facts. It is a part of that unto which it aspires. The aspiration after goodness is itself good, and all prayer for spiritual excellence is part of its own answer. There is no clear line between the ideal and the real, for the ideal is a part of man as he is, and he is a part of the world as it is. When we ask whether we shall learn God’s character from that which He has accomplished in the world, or from the ideal which stirs the soul, we forget that that soul with its ideal is a part of what He has done. Man, with his sense of duty, with all his yearnings for purer and diviner being, is a part of the world as it is; the ideal is partly actual; prophecy is history at its highest range. If only one man desired that society should be righteous and pure, society could not be judged without that man. The power of an ideal may culminate in a great person, find in him an exceptionally brilliant expression, and reach the point at which it commands the world; but he is always a sharer in the conditions he condemns, and the men he condemns have helped to make him what he is. He may be as different from the average society as the blossom is from the stem on which it grows, but that society conditions him as the stem conditions the blossom. This is the fact which the prophet is liable to forget. It was as true of Jeremiah as of Thomas Carlyle, that he made the blackness blacker than it was. Jeremiah was not as lonely as he himself thought he was. If that nation had been utterly faithless, such faith as his could not have been born in it. So, though the prophet must condemn the actual, because he is swayed by the ideal, and is a divinely discontented man, working for progress, yet his very existence proves that that progress has already been the order of God, and has produced him. That there is a contradiction between what is and what ought to be is true, but it is not the whole truth. Strictly speaking, nothing is, but everything is becoming. We are in the process of a Divine evolution in which the ideal is forever actualising itself. The contradiction is not ultimate, nor the breach complete. What cannot we hope, for instance, of a race that counts one Jesus among its members? He is, then, an example of what we may become, and our representative before God. In like manner, surely, when God judges the human race, He does not judge it with its best specimens left out; He takes its highest points into consideration. He does with the race what you and I do with the individual--takes its best as its real self, as that to which it shall one day fully attain. And when we think that Jesus, and all that He was, is a part of the actual history of the world, then we say that the richest ideals that ever sway our souls are justified by the history of our race--God is not deceiving us. Let us try to remember this when we come to bitter disappointments in life’s work. When the prophet finds, as find he will, that multitudes do not listen, but mock and deride, let him nevertheless be sure that the good and the true must prevail. Some disappointments are inevitable. It is of the very nature of an ideal to make life unsatisfactory; a spirit so possessed can never rest in what is, but will forever press forward to that which is before. To be content with all things as they are is to obliterate the distinction between good and bad, between right and wrong. No high-souled man will settle matters so. But some of our bitterest disappointments come from the fact that the form in which the ideal shapes itself in our mind is necessarily defective, and that our scheme of work is consequently partial and one-sided. This was a constant source of trouble to the prophets of Israel. We get many of our disappointments in a similar way. Here are two men, for instance, whose souls are stirred by the ideal of a renovated world in which righteousness and love shall reign. Each think of bringing it about chiefly in one particular way, the former, perhaps by some scheme of social reform, the latter by a certain type of gospel preaching. Both will be very disappointed; the world will not come round to them as they wish. And yet while these two men are groaning under their disappointments, the fact is that the world is all the time advancing, though not in their way. The man who thinks that his particular gospel is the only thing that can possibly save the world finds the world very indifferent to that gospel, and thinks that it is going to perdition, while all the time it is going onward and upward to higher and better things. But the truth is, that the world’s progress is far too great to be squeezed into any one creed, or scheme, or ordinance, and you cannot measure it by any of these. Attempt that, and while you bemoan your discouragements and think ill of the world, humanity will sweep onward, receiving its marching orders from the throne of the universe. For practical purposes we must confine our energies chiefly to one or two ways of doing good, but if we only remember that when we have selected our way it is but a small fragment of what has to be done, that other ways and methods are quite as necessary, we shall save ourselves from much personal trouble, and from much ill-judgment of others. But even when we have done our best, there will still be some adverse results. These must not dishearten us. If there be in our heart “as it were a burning fire,” and we become weary of silence and cannot contain, then let the fiery speech flow, however cold the world. We must obey the highest necessities of our nature. Our best impulses and purest desires are the word of God to us, which we have to preach. With this conviction we can go on with our work, disappointments notwithstanding. Nothing is more evident in reviewing history than the continuity of Divine purpose. It is the unfolding of a plan. It is full enough of evil and of sorrow, and yet “out of evil cometh good,” and “joy is born of sorrow.” It is full enough of error, and yet, somehow, even error has been used to preserve truth. Out of mistakes and superstitions have come some of the greatest truths. The greatest tragedy of history was the crucifixion of Jesus, yet Calvary has become the mount of our highest ascensions, and the altar of our best thanksgivings. So often, indeed, has the best come out of the worst, so often has the morning broken when the night was darkest, so often has peace come through war, that no discouragements of today shall weaken our faith, or bedim our hope, or mar the splendour of our expectation. We believe in God. There are dark places in history, tunnels through which we are not able to follow the train of the Divine purpose, but we saw it first on the one side, and then on the other, and conclude it must have gone through--the tunnel, too, was on the line of progress. The history of the world is an upward history. And those who know God are ever looking up; men with a Divine outlook are ever on the march. And, friends, whatever you do, cling to the ideal. Let no discouragement release your hold. Be active and practical; yes, but do not be bound within the limits of any one scheme. Climb the mount of vision, and have converse with God, and you will carry down with you a faith that can stand any disappointment, and hold itself erect amid the rush of the maddest torrent. (T. R. Williams.)

Verse 9

Jeremiah 20:9

Then I said, I will not make mention of Him nor speak any more in His name.

Jeremiah discouraged

Jeremiah’s momentary rashness. Oh! it was a rash speech--like the rashness of Job, like the petulance of Jonah. It is useful for us to have set before us the failings of the most distinguished of God’s people. We learn from these failings, that after all they were mere men, and “men of like passions with ourselves,” that they were encompassed with the same infirmity, that they carried about with them the same weakness, and that therefore the same grace which was triumphant in them in the result can be equally triumphant in our support and in our ultimate victory.

His many and great discouragements.

1. They arose partly from the very nature of his message. His was not a pleasing burden. The message of God’s Word is a message of wrath as well as of mercy; there are denunciations in it as well as promises. And we must be as faithful and as earnest in the delivery of the one as we are in the delivery of the other.

2. The unbelief and opposition which that message experienced.

3. Nor were the hearers of Jeremiah satisfied with the discouragement that would be occasioned by their opposition to and unbelief of the message of the prophet; they added to this bitter reproach, misrepresentation and persecution. What though earth meets us with its opposition? What though calumnies are flung against the cause in which we are engaged? We are not looking for earthly honours; we are not seeking the gratitude and encomiums of the world. Our record is with God; our reward is on high. We appeal to His judgment seat; we labour as in His sight.

The perseverance, by which the course of the prophet was marked, notwithstanding all. Mark, then, it was only a momentary fit of despondency. They are the moments of God’s people, that are the seasons of their giving way; it is not the characteristic of their entire life. Though they may now and then say, “I will not make mention of Him nor speak any more in His name,” follow them a little--they are at it again, and again, and again; and on to a dying hour, and with their dying breath, that name is on their lips; and when the tongue is silent, it is still engraven on the heart. (W. H. Cooper.)

Pulpit experience

The power of the outward to induce a godly minister to discontinue his work. I will state a few of the things which often induce this depressing state of mind

1. The momentous influences that must spring from our labours. In every sentence we touch cords that shall send their vibrations through the endless future; that shall peal in the thunders of a guilty conscience, or resound in the music of a purified spirit.

2. The incessant draw upon the vital energies of our being. To preach is to teach as well as to exhort and warn; and to teach the Bible requires a knowledge of the Bible, and to know the Bible requires the most earnest, continued, and indefatigable investigation. Physical labour tires some limb, but this labour tires the soul itself; and when the soul is tired, the man himself is tired.

3. The seeming ineffectiveness of his labours.

4. The inconsistent conduct of those who profess to believe the truth.

The stronger power of the inward to induce a godly minister to persevere in his work. Look at this inner force; it is like a “fire.” Fire! What a purifying, expanding power! it turns everything to its own nature. So it is with the Word of God. This fire was shut up in the bones of the prophet; it became an irrepressible force. The thoughts that passed his mind about resigning, feel as fuel to increase its force. If a man has God’s truth really in him, he must speak it out.

1. This word kindled within him the all-impelling “fire” of philanthropy. Many waters cannot quench love. All the waters of ministerial annoyance, disappointment, anxieties, and labour, shall not quench this “fire,” if the Word of God is “shut up in his bones.”

2. This word kindled within him the all-impelling “fire” of piety. It filled him with love to God. David felt this “fire” when he said, “I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved.” Paul felt this “fire” at Athens, when he “felt his spirit stirred within him.”

3. This word kindled within him the all-impelling “fire of hope.” The Word of God kindles within us a fire that lights up the future world, and makes us feel that what we are doing, however humble, is great, because it is for eternity.

4. This word kindled within him the strong “fire” of duty. “It is giving in trust,” etc. “I am a debtor,” says Paul. (Homilist.)

The soul under discouragement

The effects of discouragement as a pious soul.

1. In our labours for the good of others.

2. In our exertions for our own souls. Such apprehension is most enervating.

The effect of piety on a discouraged soul.

1. To shame querulous impatience.

2. To resuscitate drooping energies.


1. Expect discouragements in every part of your duty.

2. Make them occasions for glorifying God the more. (C. Simeon, M. A.)

Ministers, their discouragements and supports

Ministerial discouragements distressingly felt.

1. Here is a rash resolution formed.

2. An insuperable obstacle presented to his meditated abandonment of his work.

Popular detraction sensitively deplored.

1. Explain the nature of popular detraction.

2. Adduce Scripture precepts respecting the evil of popular detraction.

3. Exhibit Scripture examples of individuals who have felt the scorpion’s sting of popular detraction.

4. Analyse more particularly the ease of the prophet as exhibited in the text.

Divine support happily realised.

1. From a sense of the presence and power of God.

2. Expectation of the future failure and confusion of his opposers.

3. From a belief of the omniscience of God.

4. From the efficacy of prayer.


(1) To expect detraction.

(2) Follow the Saviour’s rule: speak to the detractor alone.

(3) Cultivate habits of circumspection.

(4) Lay our cause before God.

(5) Anticipate through the merits of Christ a world where there will be no defaming. (J. Redford)

The burning fire

We have sometimes seen a little steamer, like The Maid of the Mist at the foot of the Falls of Niagara, resisting and gaining upon a stormy torrent, madly rushing past her. Slowly she has worked her way through the mad rush of waters, defying their attempt to bear her back, calmly and serenely pursuing her onward course, without being turned aside, or driven back, or dismayed. And why? Because a burning fire is shut up in her heart, and her engines cannot stay, because impelled in their strong and regular motion. Similarly, within Jeremiah’s heart a fire had been lit from the heart of God, and was kept aflame by the continual fuel heaped on it. The difficulty, therefore, with him was, not in speaking, but in keeping silent--not in acting, but in refraining. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)

A heart on fire

But, after all, our main desire is to know how we may have this heart on fire. We are tired of a cold heart toward God. We complain because of our sense of effort in Christian life and duty; we would fain learn the secret of being so possessed by the Spirit and thought of God that we might be daunted by no opposition, abashed by no fear. The source of the inward fire is the love of God, shed abroad by the Holy Ghost; not primarily our love to God, but our sense of His love to us. The coals of juniper that gave so fierce a heat to the heart of a Rutherford were brought from the altar of the heart of God. If we set ourselves with open face towards the Cross, which, like a burning lens, focuses the love of God, and if, at the same time, we reckon upon the Holy Spirit--well called the Spirit of Burning--to do His wonted office, we shall find the ice that cakes the surface of our heart dissolving in tears of penitence; and presently the sacred fire will begin to glow. When that love has once begun to burn within the soul, when once the baptism of fire has set us aglow, the sins and sorrows of men--their impieties and blasphemies, their disregard of God, of His service and of His day, their blind courting of danger, their dalliance with evil, will only incite in us a more ardent spirit. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)

Verses 10-18

Jeremiah 20:10-18

An my familiars watched for my halting.

Pathetic experiences

In these verses we have two distinct aspects of human experience. Within this brief section Jeremiah is on the hill top and in the deepest valley of spiritual dejection. How much depends upon circumstances for man’s estimate of life! That estimate varies with climate, with incidents of a very trivial nature, and with much that is only superficial and transitory. Life is one thing to the successful man, and another to the man whose life is one continual series of defeats and disappointments. It is well, therefore, that all men should have a touch of failure, and spend a night or two now and then in deepest darkness that cannot be relieved: such experience teaches sympathy, develops the noblest faculties, brings into beneficent, exercise many generous emotions, and in the morning, after a long night’s struggle with doubt, there may be tears in the eyes; but those tears denote the end of weakness and the beginning of strength. The year is not one season, but four, and we must pass through all the four before we can know what the year is. So with life: we must be with Jeremiah on the mountaintop, or with him in the deep valley; we must join his song, and fall into the solemn utterance of his sorrow, before we can know what the whole gamut of life is. How impossible it is to realise all the conflicting experiences at once, and to be wise. There is an abundance of information, there is a plentifulness of criticism that is detestable; but wisdom--large, generous wisdom, that understands every man’s case, and has an answer to every man’s necessity--oh, whither has that angel-mother fled? We need now and again to come into contact with those who know us altogether, and who can speak the word of cheer when we are cheerless, and the word of chastening when our rapture becomes riotous. Consider the vanity of life, and by its vanity understand its brevity, its uncertainty, its fickleness. We have no gift of time, we have no assurance of continuance; we have a thousand yesterdays, we have not one tomorrow. Then how things disappoint us that were going to make us glad! The flowers have been blighted, or the insects have fallen upon them, or the cold wind has chilled them, and they have never come to full fruition or bloom or beauty; and the child that was going to comfort us in our old age died first, as if frightened by some ghost invisible to us. Then the collisions of life, its continual competitions and rivalries and jealousies; its mutual criticisms, its backbitings and slanderings; its censures, deserved and undeserved: who can stand the rush and tumult of this life? Who has not sometimes longed to lay it down and begin some better, sunnier state of existence? And the sufferings of life, who shall number them?--not the great sufferings that are published, not the great woes that draw the attention even of the whole household to us in tender regard; but sufferings we never mention, spiritual sufferings, yea, even physical sufferings; sufferings that we dare not mention, sufferings that would be laughed at by unsympathetic contempt--but still sufferings. Add all these elements and possibilities together, and then say who has not sometimes been almost anxious to “shuffle off this mortal coil,” and pass into the liberty of rest. Jesus Christ understands us all. We can all tell Jesus, as the disciples did, what has happened. He can listen to each of us as if His interest were entranced and enthralled. He knows every quiver of the life, every throb of the heart, every palpitation of fear, and every shout of joy. Withhold nothing from Him. You can tell Him all, and when you have ended you will find that you may begin life again. In your hope is His answer. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Evil watchers

“All my familiars watched for my halting”: the original word does not mean my innermost friends, for true friendship can never be guilty of such treason, but the Hebrew word means, The men of my peace; the men who used to accost me on the highway with, “Is it peace?”--the men who salaamed me out of civility, but who never really cared for me in their souls: these men, behind their painted masks, watched for my halting; they all watched. Some men take pleasure when other men fall. What is the answer to all this watching of others? It is a clear, plain, simple, useful answer: Watch yourselves; be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. It is not enough that others watch you--watch yourselves; be critical about yourselves; be severe with yourselves; penetrate the motive of every action, and say, Is it healthy? Is it honest? Is it such as could bear the criticism of God? Dare we take up this motive and look at it when the sun burns upon it in its revealing glory? If a man so watch himself he need not mind who else watches him. Watch the secret places; watch the out-of-the-way doors, the postern gates, the places that are supposed to be secure against the approach of the burglar; be very careful about all these, and then the result may be left with God. He who does not watch will be worsted in the fray. He who does not watch cannot pray. He who watches others and does not watch himself is a fool. (J. Parker, D. D.)

But the Lord is with me as a mighty terrible one.--

The best Champion

(as a mighty terrible one):--As a strong giant, and mine only Champion on whom I lean. Here the spirit begins to get the better of the flesh, could Jeremiah but hold his own. But as the ferryman plies the oar, and eyes the shore homeward where he would be, yet there comes a gust of wind that carrieth him back again; so it fared with our prophet (verses 14, 15). (John Trapp.)

Cursed be the day wherein I was born.

Existence regretted

Job and Jeremiah were alike in wishing they had never been born. They were both men of sorrow.

A preference alike irreligious and irrational.

1. Good men should not for a moment think that non-existence is preferable to life and being. These were both good men, children of God; existence was therefore a blessing to be prized, not an evil to be mourned over. Had they been versed in the design and results of Divine dispensations, as Paul, they would have said, “Our light affliction,” etc. With such a destiny before them, instead of cursing the day of birth, they would have blessed it as the dawn of an eternal existence, to be hereafter crowned with a glory that fadeth not away.

2. Ungodly men may with some degree of reason prefer non-existence; because in trouble they have no Divine support, in death no good hope, in eternity no expectation but the penalty of sin.

Non-existence is preferable to existence unless existence possess more pleasure than pain.

1. If every ungodly man lived out threescore years and ten, and the whole was spent in pleasure, yet, as that period is but momentary as compared with his eternal existence, and as that existence is to be one of pain, he might curse the day of his birth.

2. Existence, eternal existence, is a blessing to all unfallen ones, and also to such fallen ones as are redeemed by the death of Christ.

3. But perpetuity of existence can be no blessing to “the angels who kept not their first estate,” nor to those of the human race who by impenitence and unbelief reject the great salvation and bring upon themselves the double condemnation of the law and the Gospel.

Hell and heaven are two great teachers.

1. Hell teaches--the folly of wickedness, the full enormity of sin in the penalty it has entailed, and leads all its victims amid the consequences of their depravity to curse the day they were born.

2. Heaven teaches--the wisdom of holiness, the full benefits of redemption in the felicity it has secured, and leads all the ransomed to bless the day of their birth as the morn of their noontide of glory.

God is not willing that any should have occasion for preferring non-existence.

1. He has devised and carried out a costly plan by which the existence of fallen ones might be made an eternal blessing.

2. Every man who now wishes for a glorious existence has only to look to Jesus and be saved. (D. Pledge.)


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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 20". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.