The book of Jeremiah begins with the prophet’s distinctive call to ministry. Jeremiah 1:51 states that before Jeremiah was born, even before he was conceived in his mother’s womb, the Lord had specific plans for his life. Scholars widely interpret this passage to mean that God had predestined the course of Jeremiah’s life.
However, sound biblical exegesis reveals that the clearest reading of Jeremiah 1:5 testifies not to an inviolable predestination as to what the prophet’s life and ministry would be but to God’s sovereignty mingled with humanity’s free will. This article will show that even during the collapse of the kingdom of Judah, the Lord, wanting to save His children, never forced or predestined the will of Jeremiah.
I will also aim to illuminate a passage of Scripture that has long been painted with the broad brush of predestination. In so doing, we shall arrive at a clearer understanding of God’s all-loving and ever-respecting stance toward humanity’s total and complete freedom of will and choice.
History of interpretation
Predestination can be broadly defined as a doctrine that maintains that God has sovereignly determined the history, life, and destination of all humans, arbitrarily electing some to eternal life and some to eternal condemnation.2 In other words, an individual’s life calling—that is, one’s earthly and eternal destinies—are predetermined by God without the possibility of any change. The individual has no choice as to his or her destiny. Countless theologians and Bible commentators have interpreted Jeremiah 1:5 from the context of this worldview.
J. A. Thompson, in his commentary on the book of Jeremiah, endorses the predestination view, asserting that predestination was vital to the psyche of the prophet when coping with the trials that attended his prophetic office. Thompson further maintains that Jeremiah’s “awareness that he had been predestined to occupy the prophetic office since his birth” would serve as a substantial encouragement for the prophet, should despair creep into his mind.3 Similarly, William L. Holladay presupposes the same nuance of determinism when describing the prophet’s call from God: “[It] remains true that the experience of the providence of God attracts men and women throughout history to such language of predestination.”4
Other commentators, such as John Bright, voice their agreement: the striking feature of Jeremiah’s call is the prophet’s “awareness that he had been predestined for the prophetic office since before his birth.”5 Ostensibly, there is no doubt in Bright’s mind that Jeremiah was destined to be a prophet, regardless of Jeremiah’s will. Likewise, Ernest W. Nicholson argues, “Jeremiah believed himself to have been predestined.”6 Nicholson further observes that Isaiah (Isa. 49:1, 5) and the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:15) had similar unalterable callings.7 John L. Mackay voices his agreement, stating that God has “determined what destiny should be for each.”8 Thompson, Holladay, Bright, Nicholson, and Mackay represent the majority of scholarship on Jeremiah, which presupposes predestination without entertaining the slightest possibility of free will.
A final argument worth noting is that of John Skinner, author of Prophecy and Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah. Skinner, though believing in the personal predestination of Jeremiah to be a prophet, adds a caveat. He submits that Jeremiah’s understanding of his individual predestination was not “a truth suddenly injected into the mind from without . . . but a conviction formed within, an intuitive perception.”9 However, Mackay disagrees with Skinner, urging that this concept of “conviction formed within” be “totally rejected.”10 Mackay contends that the prophet’s call was a call precisely because it came unexpectedly from an external source and challenged the prophet’s expectations.11
Notwithstanding Skinner’s and Mackay’s disagreement about when and how the prophet became aware of his call, they, like the other aforementioned commentators, unswervingly hold to predestination as the appropriate schema for understanding Jeremiah 1:5.
Jeremiah was from the priestly line of Hilkiah, whose family dwelt in Anathoth, a small village approximately three miles northeast of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.12 The time period in which Jeremiah received his call to prophetic ministry was exceptionally tumultuous in the history of the kingdom of Judah. Within a span of 23 years (609 b.c.–586 b.c.), four kings in succession would lay claim to its throne. This turbulent time concluded with Judah’s defeat and total destruction in 586 b.c. at the hands of Babylon.13 Jeremiah received his call in 627 b.c., the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign (1:2).14 He lived and ministered through this politically, socially, and economically unstable period, witnessing both the ruin of the beloved city of Jerusalem under the reign of Zedekiah, as well as the shameful captivity of his fellow citizens.15 This scene of collapse amid monumental world change was the context of Jeremiah’s appeal to his erring nation, pleading for their return to spiritual fidelity.
The account of Jeremiah’s call to prophetic ministry is captured in the book’s first chapter (1:1–19). The call can be divided into four sections: “the editorial superscription (vv. 1-3), the call proper (vv. 4-10), two visions (vv. 11-14), and expansions . . . (vv. 15-19).”16 This article considers the three lines found in Jeremiah 1:5.
Before I formed you in the belly I knew you
And before you came out of the
womb I sanctified you
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.17
Note that immediately preceding this verse, Jeremiah 1:4 opens a dialogue between the Lord and Jeremiah: “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying.” Dialogue with the Lord at the commencement of prophetic ministry is not uncommon to the Israelite (see Isa. 6; Ezek. 1). This text is set in poetic frame,18 containing four pairings of phrases.
A critical reading and exegesis of this parallel structure shows abundant biblical evidence pointing to an alternative to predestination. The first pairing is that of before, prepositions denoting time. This term is often used in the context of birth or creation and death (cf. Isa. 42:9; 66:7; Pss. 39:13; 90:2).19 With the repetition of before, a reader may accurately conclude that the time when the Lord both knew and sanctified Jeremiah came long before Jeremiah’s time on this earth. This sounds as though the Lord is saying there is no merit outside of His grace and that Jeremiah was chosen as a result of this grace. God repeats Himself twice to make sure the point is well understood.
Some view the above mentioned verses as providing compelling evidence of Jeremiah’s predestination from birth. However, there are indications that speak otherwise. Staying within the prophet’s own writing, the reader finds a very similar coupling of before in Jeremiah 13:16: “Give glory to the LORD your God, before He brings darkness and before your feet stumble.” Here the prophet is clearly delivering a conditional prophecy via a parallel structure that includes the word before. Judah chose not to heed the warning of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah.
The next two sets of pairings in the sequence are I formed you with you came out, and in the belly with of (from) the womb. Observe here a simple structure of two qal active verbs followed by their corresponding prepositional phrases containing like nouns. This parallel structure peaks in the final pairing.
Before discussing the significance of this climaxing pair, it is worth noting that evidence has been given for an alternative reading of the phrase translated as “I formed you.” Holladay points to the ketib as “I summoned you” and suggests that this is the proper meaning.20 Another example of this is found in Isaiah 49:1, 5, which offers both meanings. With this rendering, Jeremiah 1:5 would read as “I summoned you” and “you came out.” This wording denotes a clearer connection between God’s call and Jeremiah’s response, leading the reader to appreciate more fully the climaxing pair.
The parallel structure culminates with a pair of two verbs: the qal perfect translated in the past tense (“I knew you”), and the hiphil perfect, which is translated with a causative function (“I sanctified you”). The reader should now consider these verbs and their connection, if any, with predestination. Beginning with “I knew you,” this precise phrase occurs for the first time in Exodus 33:12, in which the Lord states that He has known Moses by name. And earlier, the passage indicates that God spoke with Moses face-to-face (v. 11). This knowing is much more than a mere intellectual knowledge; it is a deep and intimate understanding of another—a relationship.
The question remains whether or not this knowing is in any way a commitment to predestination. Look at the second time outside of Jeremiah 1:5 where the phrase I knew you is used. Hosea 13:5 is widely translated as “I cared for you” but could also be read as “I knew you.” This verse refers to the backslidden tribe of Ephraim. The Lord presents His case, as it were, in an attempt to woo the sin-filled tribe back from Baal into a life of purity and fidelity to Him. However, Ephraim chose Baal instead of the Lord. In this case, the Lord’s intimate knowledge of Ephraim did not determine or predestine Ephraim to turn back to Him. The backslidden tribe chose to pursue its course of unfaithfulness notwithstanding the Lord having intimately known it.
In the parallel mentioned above, the corresponding phrase to I knew you is I sanctified you. In this repetition, the second verb is an intensification of the first. In its Hebrew construction, the language has shifted to a causative state. Not only does the Lord simply know Jeremiah, albeit intimately, He is causing Jeremiah to be holy. The second verb portrays the additional effort that the Lord had invested in Jeremiah.
As with the verbal clause “I knew you,” “I sanctified you” does not denote or connote predestination. Without the pronoun you, it is found in six other places (Num. 3:13; 8:17; Judg. 17:3; 1 Kings 9:3; 9:7; 2 Chron. 7:20). It will suffice to consider the two passages in 1 Kings. After completing the construction of the temple, Solomon’s prayer to the Lord was heard. In 1 Kings 9:3, the Lord states, “ ‘I have consecrated this house which you have built by putting My name there forever.’ ” Then the Lord sets a condition to His prophecy in verses 6 and 7: “ ‘But if you or your sons indeed turn away from following Me . . . , then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them, and the house which I have consecrated for My name, I will cast out of My sight.’ ” Here, if the condition was not met, the consecration of the Lord would become void. Therefore, the Lord’s consecration of a thing is nevertheless not the same as predestination.
Finally, consider the concluding phrase I appointed you. There is corroborating evidence as early as Jeremiah 1:17, 18 that the Lord afforded Jeremiah a choice. The verbal clause employed here appears in verse 18, where the Lord tells Jeremiah, “ ‘I have made you today as a fortified city.’ ” At first, it sounds like the Lord predestined Jeremiah to be a fortified city because this is in the qal perfect form, indicating a completed action. However, the key here is to look at verse 17, which sheds light on the use of “I appointed you” in verse 18: “ ‘[A]rise, and speak to them all which I command you. Do not be dismayed before them, or I will dismay you before them.’ ” If Jeremiah had been predestined to be a fortified city, then the Lord’s promise to dismay him seems out of place. Implied in the Lord’s statement that He will dismay Jeremiah is the assumption that Jeremiah truly has a choice to make.
In light of the analysis above, all three main verbs utilized clearly identify the presence of choice and free will.
While Jeremiah 1:5 has been read extensively through the lenses of predestination, there is sound textual and exegetical evidence for the presence of free will. Deconstructing the parallel structure of this verse and analyzing its four pairings and climaxing verbs, both within the book of Jeremiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament, provides strong support for a reading of choice in Jeremiah 1:5. The presumption of predestination has gone unchallenged for an extensive period. However, biblical exegesis reveals an alternate reading that eradicates the predestination stance.
Despite the ominous collapse of the kingdom of Judah and the Lord’s certain desire to save His children, in His consecration of Jeremiah as a prophet to warn them He did not cast off the prophet’s privilege of choice.
1 All Scripture passages, unless otherwise stated, are from the New American Standard Bible.
2 Leanne VanDyke, “Predestination,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1079, 1080.
3 J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 145.
4 William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah Chapters 1–25 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 33.
5 John Bright, Jeremiah, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), 6, 7.
6 Ernest W. Nicholson, The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 1–25, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 24.
8 John L. Mackay, Jeremiah, Mentor Commentary (Scotland: Mentor, 2004), 1:96.
9 John Skinner, Prophecy and Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah (London: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 27.
10 Mackay, Jeremiah, 94, 95.
12 Peter C. Craigie, Joel F. Drinkard Jr., and Page H. Kelley, Jeremiah 1–25, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1991), 26:2.
13 Ibid., 3. There are groupings of scholars who have the date of Judah’s destruction as 586 ac., of which this author agrees. The Word Biblical Commentary date is 587 ac.
14 Ibid. Scholarship has also shown a possibility for this date to be 626 ac.
15 Bright, Jeremiah, xxviii.
16 William L. Holladay, The Architecture of Jeremiah 1-20 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1976), 27.
17 Author’s translation.
18 J. Andrew Dearman, Jeremiah and Lamentations, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 49.
19 Holladay, 33.