They Will Fight Against You: Jeremiah and Leading through Turmoil

Author Hollie Holt-Woehl reflects on the life of Jeremiah, arguing that this prophet can teach us much about leading through turmoil.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during King Josiah’s reign (circa 626 BCE). He continued his prophetic ministry until sometime after the fall of Jerusalem (587 BCE), therefore he was a prophet for well over 40 years.

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah when he was still a young boy. At that time he learns that the LORD God formed and appointed Jeremiah before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5). The LORD reminds Jeremiah that his age does not make a difference, only that he speaks whatever God commands him to speak. Jeremiah’s job is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). That pretty much summarizes his long ministry career; he tells God’s people that they have sinned and that they will be punished, but God will be with them and, someday, restore and heal them.

The LORD’s final words to Jeremiah at his commissioning service are this:

But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you. (Jeremiah 1:17-19)

“They will fight against you,”—no truer words were ever spoken to a prophet. Jeremiah has to speak what God tells him and it will not be welcomed by God’s people. Not only his words but Jeremiah’s life will be used by the LORD God to speak to God’s people about their evils of idolatry and injustice.

To illustrate the lengths to which God will use Jeremiah to get the people to listen, God tells him to buy a linen loincloth, wear it, hide it, and then retrieve it. When Jeremiah retrieves the loincloth, it is ruined. The LORD tells Jeremiah that just as the loincloth was ruined so the LORD will ruin the pride of Judah. Will the LORD God disown Judah, even though they are very close, as close as loincloth to the body? Yes, Jeremiah says, because Judah ruined the relationship by having other gods. The LORD has tried to warn them, but they would not listen (Jeremiah 13:1-11).

God invites Jeremiah to use other object lessons and parables to deliver God’s message to God’s people. A potter and clay (Jeremiah 18:1-12), a broken pot (Jeremiah 19:1-15), a yoke of iron (Jeremiah 27:1—28:17), a field purchase (Jeremiah 32:6-44), a pile of stones (Jeremiah 43:8-13), and a book in the river (Jeremiah 51:59-64). Jeremiah is constantly delivering a message of gloom and doom to a people who still do not listen, and it wears on him.

Jeremiah discovers that being a prophet of the LORD has its downside. In chapter 20:7-18, he bares his soul to God (and to us). “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction’” (Jeremiah 20:7-8). The violence and destruction haven’t happened yet. Even though it will come, the people don’t see it immediately, so they make fun of him. Even his close friends are watching for him to stumble (Jeremiah 20:10).

Jeremiah, like Job (Job 3:3), curses the day of his birth (Jeremiah 20:14), which means he wishes he wasn’t born. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my day in shame? (Jeremiah 20:18).

Even prophets of the LORD have bad days and wonder about their life. Even though God gives them the words to speak and guides them where to go, the life of a prophet is not easy.

Jeremiah, however, does not give up. He complains to the LORD God but then goes on to do what he was called to do, speak the word of the LORD to the people.

During the three years of the COVID pandemic, it was not easy to be a messenger of the LORD in the congregation. I served three different congregations as interim pastor during that time. Framing the restrictions as caring for our neighbor—or caring for the least of these—met with resistance and accusations of undermining individual rights and political freedoms. Anger at an unknown virus and government mandates was acted out at the community level and I, like many pastors, was on the receiving end of hostility and destructive words. Neighbor was fighting against neighbor. Christian against Christian. It was a difficult time to be in the church; the vicious side of human behavior appeared in many and various ways.

All of this led me to think about the prophet Jeremiah. He continued to proclaim God’s word even when it wasn’t popular. He also complained to God when he needed to. He didn’t have it all together, but he had God’s word and God’s promise, They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you (Jeremiah 1:19).

I know the word of God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, the word of God is a two-edged sword after all, but during the pandemic time I got a deeper appreciation for the life and witness of Jeremiah, who probably never received a cake after 40+ years of faithful ministry.

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