Some years back I saw a movie about the prophet Jeremiah. Although I can’t remember it all too well, I do recall having a couple of reactions. One was – I was very glad to see a movie about a book of the Bible that I was less familiar with than others. I had read through the Book of Jeremiah but many of the incidents recorded therein weren’t as easily citable for me as, say, quotations from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Thus, to see so many portions of the fifty-two-chapter book of Jeremiah in an hour and half movie was something I really enjoyed. The second reaction I can recall was – I remember saying to (and with) those who were with me, ‘Wait a minute… I don’t remember Jeremiah having a girlfriend…’ As is fairly common knowledge, Biblical movies sometimes take ‘artistic license’ to fill in details where the Scriptures are silent. Well, in this case, the prophet who is not said to have had a romantic interest had a girlfriend that he had to leave behind because of the call of God. Which is a good reminder – always compare movies about the Bible to the Bible so as to make sure you don’t end up thinking that something is Biblical when it is not. Now even though Jeremiah is not said to have had a particular romantic interest, what is clear is that he was prohibited from that very thing. Chapter sixteen opens with the words,
“1 The word of the Lord also came to me, saying, ‘2 You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place’” (vs.1-2).
Jeremiah’s calling demanded sacrifice. He knew that from the start. But the particular sacrifices demanded of him in this chapter were new. We don’t know Jeremiah’s hopes for the future but given how common marriage was in the ancient near east, and given the fact that it wasn’t prohibited for prophets or priests, he likely entertained the thought. That possibility is even augmented by the fact that the Lord gave him the command that He did in this verse! Jeremiah’s calling, then, demanded not only a willingness to be rejected in previously existing relationships (Jer. 12:6) but to forsake the prospect of precious future ones.
Besides the emotional challenge that such a command may have provided, there was also the social challenge. The normal expectation of society was – you get married and have children. Given the fact that Jeremiah would also be excluded from other societal norms like going to funerals and feasts (Jer. 16:5,8) he would likely have been perceived as an ‘odd ball’ to the rest of the Jewish culture.
The question becomes – why did God ask Jeremiah to do this? This clearest answer comes in the following verses where we read:
“3 For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning their mothers who bore them and their fathers who begot them in this land: 4 “They shall die gruesome deaths; they shall not be lamented nor shall they be buried, but they shall be like refuse on the face of the earth. They shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, and their corpses shall be meat for the birds of heaven and for the beasts of the earth.”
There was going to be such widespread devastation that the bodies of men, women, and children alike were going to cover the land (Jer. 16:3-4). God was keeping Jeremiah from experiencing such pain, as well as the anxiety that would lead up to the pain. This is similar to 1 Corinthians 7:26 logic, where Paul told the church at Corinth – “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress – that it is good for a man to remain as he is”, part of which most immediately included remaining single if one was single (vs.25). Given the distress that was facing the church at the time of Paul’s writing 1 Corinthians, a distress that was likely connected to persecution, Paul knew that those who got married in such a tumultuous time would “have trouble” and he wanted to spare them that (vs.33). It’s similar to Jesus’ prediction of coming turmoil during the Olivet Discourse, “But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days” (Mt. 24:19).
Furthermore, Jeremiah’s singleness would also illustrate to the Jews how bad the coming calamity was going to be. His life would be an acted-out sign of what was coming upon the land of Judah. When the people asked him why he was single he could tell them – it was better to be single than to be married. And when the people asked why he could warn them of the soon-coming judgment.
This passage is a reminder to us that Jeremiah’s calling was not only high but hard. He not only had to withstand persecution and rejection but he had to forego attending feasts and having a family. Again we are reminded that the high calling of following the will of God will also often come with high costs. Granted, the demands of Jeremiah’s life were unique – no Christian is scripturally prohibited from non-sinful marrying, funeral-attending, and feasting; but the principle remains – denying one’s self is part-and-parcel of the Christian calling. But the Christian does have a unique consolation – the God who demands sacrifice actually knows what it is like to sacrifice. No one has ever given up more than the Father gave when He sacrificed His Son. And no one’s high calling has been harder than the Son’s.