Jeremiah’s shattering prophecies in chapter 19 would provides the context for his punishment and prayer in chapter 20. The chief officer (a top official under the high priest), Pashhur son of Immer, hears Jeremiah’s dire pronouncement in the temple courts and has him arrested, beaten and placed in stocks the the Upper Gate of Benjamin (1-2).
The next day, when he’s released, Jeremiah has words for Pashhur. Rather than backing down, he repeats his message about Judah and Jerusalem being laid waist (4-5) and adds a personal warning from the Lord for Pashhur (“this is what the Lord says”—4). Pashhur will see his friends die before his eyes (4); he and his family will be exiled to Babylon and die in a foreign land (6). The Lord has a new name for Pashhur: Magor-Missabib (“Terror on every side” or “terror from all around”). The reason for Pashhur’s punishment is not said to be his unjust treatment of Jeremiah, but the fact that he “prophesied lies” (6). Pashhur, a priest and (false) prophet, spoke words of false comfort to the people. He would soon experience a siege of terror, exile and death as the result of his misleading words.
It’s no surprise that James 3:1 has a sober warning for those who purport to speak for God: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” If that’s the case when teachers speak truth, it’s certainly true when they speak falsehood. Jeremiah 23 provides a more detailed and descriptive account of God’s fury on false prophets. Here is a stern reminder of the need to “preach the Word” with “careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). It’s a fearful thing to speak falsely in God’s name and mislead his people. He will bring judgment on those who do.
After pronouncing the Lord’s judgment on Pashhur, Jeremiah unloads an emotional prayer to God about his situation. There are soaring moments of trust and praise, and awkward moments of self-pity and accusation. It’s painfully honest and raw. He’s upset with God, his “friends” and the guy who announced his birth rather than killing him as a newborn. This is a prayer that gets Jeremiah labeled as unstable, almost bi-polar.
Jeremiah begins with a complaint against the Lord: “O Lord, you deceived me and I was deceived” (7). The Hebrew word for “deceived” (פִּתִּיתַנִי) is from a stem that means “simple” (as in the “simpleton fool” in Proverbs). It carries the idea of persuading by alluring (Hosea 2:16), enticing (Prov. 1:10), coaxing (Judges 14:15), or deceiving (2 Samuel 3:25). The over-riding sense is to intentionally influence someone to do what you want them to do, to prevail upon them. Often there is a sense that they are “fooled” (made a fool) in the process.
Jeremiah accuses God of fooling him into his calling. He claims God “overpowered” him to get him into his prophetic ministry; God used His power to prevail in an unfair way. Jeremiah was fooled into accepting a calling that has led to constant ridicule and mocking (7), insult and reproach (8). Jeremiah is hating life and ministry and he lets God know about it. Just as God “deceived” him and “prevailed” (7), so now his “friends” (a different Hebrew word used for “friends” in verse 10 than in verses 4 and 6) are hoping he will be “deceived” so they can “prevail” over him too.
Jeremiah is ready to turn in his prophet’s badge and find another job. There has to be an easier, less painful way, to make a living and have a life. But when he resolves to stop speaking (literally “remembering”) of the Lord or delivering His message, “his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones” (9). The fire smoldering inside him smokes him out. He is “weary of holding it in.” In fact, it’s impossible to contain the fire of God’s message inside of him: “indeed, I cannot” (10). The Hebrew word translated “I cannot” is the same Hebrew stem (יָכֹל) translated “prevail” in verse 7 “(“you overpowered me and prevailed”) and verse 10 (“Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him”). God word prevailed over Jeremiah to start him in ministry (his calling to ministry); God’s word still prevails over him when he wants to end his ministry. God’s word is not only a fire that burns and refines those who hear it (23:29), it’s a fire that burns inside the heart of those who are called to communicate it.
Here is one of the evidences of a call to a preaching/proclamation ministry: you can’t just walk away from it when it becomes difficult and painful. There is an internal pressure, a fire that smolders and won’t go out, an internal heat that consumes those who would try to contain it. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Jeremiah modulates from major to minor keys for the remainder of his prayer. He steps into the bright sunlight of hope and praise in verses 11-13, then slinks back into the shadows of self-pity and despair in verses 14-18. The change is so abrupt and so extreme that some have postulated that another hand pieced this prayer together from fragments of Jeremiah’s writing (an idea with no textual support). A better explanation comes from simply remembering that we humans are changeable creatures; moments of confident faith are often closely followed by emotional and spiritual collapse. This is especially true under the kind of prolonged, extreme pressure that Jeremiah experienced.
In our better moments we remember and rejoice that God is a righteous judge (12) and “mighty warrior” (11). He “probes the heart and mind” (12) and “rescues the life of the needy from the hand of the wicked” (13). As this truth comes into focus, Jeremiah is able to trust in the Lord (12) and sing praise (13). We, too, are able to rejoice and rest when our vision of God’s greatness and goodness is unclouded.
Unfortunately for Jeremiah (and for us), the dark clouds of doubt and despair can quickly roll in again. Things go dark in our souls. Life looks bleak. Our gaze turns inward and downward. So Jeremiah moves from sunlight back into shadow in verses 14-18. He expresses his wish that he’d never been born (18), cursing the day of his birth (14). Expressing his feeling in a way that’s foreign to modern ears, he calls down curses on the guy who came and told his father that a son had been born to him. The New American Commentary explains that cursing one’s parents was a capital crime under Mosaic Law (Leviticus 20:9), so the bearer of good news (“A son is born!”) gets the wrath.
While Jeremiah goes through more severe times of trouble (he’s put in a cistern), we do not read any more dire prayers from him in the rest of the book. This was the low point. I find great comfort in the fact that the Lord allowed this prayer to be included in the Bible! We have a God who hears our prayers at the lowest points of our lives.