In the biblical narratives of a prophet’s calling to his particular function, the individual in question is usually summoned against or independently of his own will. He never asks for the job, never finds himself in some sublime moment reveling in the fulfillment of his long-time dream to become a prophet.
Moreover, such passages frequently show him asserting not only his disinterest but also his lack of ability for the work into which Yahweh has dragged him.
Jeremiah is no exception. This son of a priestly family will eventually protest mightily against his fate. For now, in this complex book’s first chapter, his rebellion against the vocational decision that Yahweh has chosen for him takes the shape of a claim that he’s just not cut out for this kind of work.
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’
The reach for a juvenile exemption is just that. Jeremiah is not claiming underage status. Rather, he recognizes that a prophet’s equipment goes beyond his own. He’s not too young. He’s just not fit.
Yahweh will have none of it.
Prophetic capacity, it seems, emerges along the way rather than at its inception. Ability comes in the practice of it. The courage to dare oneself into obedient service is the principal credential.
In Jeremiah’s case—as well as in those prophetic call narratives that seem to look to his and Moses’ calling as their touchstone—Yahweh takes responsibility for the rest:
But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
In committing himself to supplying what the prophet knows that he lacks, Yahweh is transparent about the threat and difficulty of the calling. Any reassurance in his words results not from toning down Jeremiah’s estimation of the threat but rather in the urge not to fear. Indeed, the language of appointment seems not to diminish any ideas Jeremiah might have had previously about what it means to serve as Yahweh’s spokesman. Rather, it intensifies them. The prophet’s role will not be provincial. Far from it, his vocation will affect the fate of nations.
His words, crucially, will not be his own. They will, instead, be Yahweh’s, placed in the very speaking of them into the prophet’s mouth.
In all critical concerns, Yahweh and the prophet will act as one. Only in this light does the prohibition of fear become orienting rather than ludicrous.