Politics and the Sovereignty of God—Jeremiah 1:4–10

The Politics of Scripture

God’s prophets are those who call us to recognize our limitations before the sovereignty of God. Indeed, Jeremiah reminds us of the relativity of human politics and that in God alone does the individual and human society find meaning and security.

4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 
5 ‘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.’ 
6Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ 7But 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. 
8 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. 
10 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.’

Modern politics, despite its egalitarian democratic claims, is hierarchical. At the top sits the sovereign who decides the exception, makes the final decisions on matters of law, and makes senior state appointments. In secular politics there is no-one above the sovereign head of state with whom the buck stops. Obviously true in traditional or absolute monarchies, this is less apparent in constitutional republics with the checks and balances that come with the separation of powers. Nevertheless, in modern politics the sovereign is the highest authority in the state. Such shibboleths of modern liberal politics are directly challenged in this reading from Jeremiah.

Firstly God, acting as a sovereign King over earthly nations, appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet over the nations. Jeremiah was not appointed just to be a prophet for Jerusalem or Israel alone; his was a prophetic mission for all the nations. Like Jesus who would come after him, Jeremiah was a prophet for more than just his people.

God’s sovereignty is not just over the nations, God is also sovereign over individuals. That God knew Jeremiah in the womb and before his birth, has made this passage a proof-text in the politics of abortion, suggesting that we are persons before birth. Yet in its context, verse 5 does not speak about the ontological status of the individual so much as the sovereignty of God over the person who God calls and uses for great things, such as being a prophet. Jeremiah’s protests his calling fall into insignificance in the face of God’s creation of him and directing his life to this moment and into an unknown future.

God is also sovereign over time. Not surprisingly, being the opening of a prophetic book, there are essential discontinuities in this passage. Jeremiah’s vocation is determined in being summoned as a prophet in God’s service—the nations cannot continue as they have been. They will be thrown down and reconstructed. Time is disrupted along with the lives of the Jeremiah and the nations he will prophesy against.

At his call, Jeremiah denies his preparedness for this mission. Such humility is not surprising and here we are reminded of Moses’ own protests of his call to mission due to his perceived ineloquence (Exodus 4:10). Others have felt like imposters in their roles. In politics, however, there is no shortage of people who feel the opposite. They arrogantly feel uniquely prepared for public office, even if they clearly aren’t. Others like to disqualify their fellow candidates with questions about their young age or perceived lack of experience. For example, at the beginning of 2019, as new members were sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives, questions were being asked about the age and experience of the some of the newcomers, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York. God doesn’t ask such questions. God calls whoever God will, and stands behind people with words and prompts to action, as we see in the cases of Moses and Jeremiah. More important to God than age and experience is the meritocracy of virtue and understanding, at least according to the Wisdom of Solomon 4:9 where “understanding is gray hair for anyone, and a blameless life is ripe old age.”

In thinking about one’s qualifications for office we might also think about the position of that office in the political hierarchy. It could be asked whether Jeremiah is ready for high office. But is this leadership position in fact so high at all? We might question the relative positions of the nations and Jeremiah. If we believe the nations to be of great importance, then we might think that Jeremiah has been elevated to a mighty position far above them. Yet if we think that if the nations aren’t that important to God, then Jeremiah’s new position is not that elevated at all. After all, as Isaiah wrote (40:15, 17):

15 Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
   and are accounted as dust on the scales;
   see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him;
   they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. 

From Jeremiah’s calling we also see that a relative nobody is placed above and over the nations. When God places a youthful nobody over the nations then they are, at least in God’s view, of limited importance. This provides reason for us to question our own allegiances to nations and countries and borders. We know from history that empires come and go, borders are porous, and many countries as we know them today are relatively recent human inventions. The reader of this passage, then, is reminded that God is far above the nations and they are of relative value.

Jeremiah, in his new role as God’s appointed prophet, has the following six tasks in relation to the nations:

  1. to pluck up
  2. to pull down
  3. to destroy
  4. to overthrow
  5. to build
  6. to plant

Note here that there are four negative tasks and two positive ones. John Cassian points out that this suggests that it is harder to root out the evil than to cultivate the good.[1] It is important then to take extra care of the political body that corruption and evil is kept out, as eradicating corruption is more difficult than building a virtuous society.

Does this passage also mean that the task of pulling down regimes is the sole project of God, and that tyrannicide or revolution is forbidden to humans? Does the prerogative for regime change lie solely with God, with nothing demanded of political subjects but quietism in the face of tyranny? Would this leave the space for political activism only with God-ordained (or self-proclaimed) prophets? In Jeremiah’s case it is clear to the reader that was truly called by God. Was it so clear to the people he chastised?

Given the imbalance of Jeremiah’s tasks, could it also be that there are many ways of destroying the bad nations, but only two ways to build correct ones. Is the prophetic task more deconstructive that reconstructive? Given the propensity for political idolatry and the means of statecraft to be violent and ungodly, it is no surprise that there is much destroying and uprooting to be done in human politics. We might apply the words of Jesus here from Matthew 15:13: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” If these words can be applied to nations, then those nations that are not built and planted by God shall be destroyed.

Also observe that the negative four come first and the constructive two second. Destruction is not God’s final word. There is always the hope of rebuilding and reconstruction. It is important to note that the order of events is destruction of human sinfulness and then divine rebuilding. God does not create in order to destroy; God destroys the distortions of human politics in order to recreate God’s Kingdom.

In summary, verse 10 contains no reformist message. Things are not here corrected by tweaking or altering things in a piecemeal fashion. Jeremiah’s role was not a public policy consultant. God’s annoyance with the Israelite nation required a more revolutionary approach of plucking it up and overthrowing it. This involves the practice of judgment, it is by God’s standards that the nations are judged and by them they can be rebuilt. In practice then, no wall or border can protect a nation from the power of God who judges it worthy of destruction. Recall Jericho (Joshua 6), whose impenetrable walls were toppled within a week of marching round them. It was God’s power alone which devastated this city protected by the best human-made walls.

This brief passage from Jeremiah contains in potted form a worldview that political events do not happen randomly through human causes and effects. God is sovereign over politics. God not only has the power to pull down regimes and build them up, God has reasons to do so. Jeremiah is an instrument of God in proclaiming God’s judgment on the nations. Overall, God directs history and is involved in history. How and why God does this remains a mystery and beyond human understanding. Nevertheless, Christians affirm that God is sovereign over history.

God’s prophets, such as Jeremiah, are those who call us to recognize our limitations and penultimate politics before the sovereignty of God over human politics. This raises questions for our secular prophets, who try to determine trends and visions of things to come as a result of studying the cause and effect of political science. The soothsayers and pundits that dominate television news channels, may be able to predict short term trends and debate on television. True prophets come from outside and bring the judgment of God. In doing so, Jeremiah reminds us of the relativity of human politics and that in God alone does the individual and human society find meaning and security.

[1] Conferences, 2.14.3

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