"You have deceived me!" – An Examination of Jeremiah 20:7

In using presuppositional argumentation an objection in the form of a question is often raised by unbelievers to the effect of, “How do you know your God is not lying to you?” They will usually refer to the passage in Jeremiah where the prophet writes:

O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. [1]

This is an interesting passage, and it presents an apparent problem for the presuppositionalist. However, as we look at the passage, we find that rather than being a contradiction between God’s action and God’s nature, it actually confirms what Scripture teaches about God (John 14:6, Hebrews 6:18, Numbers 23:19).

Jeremiah 20:1-6 recounts the story of Jeremiah being beaten and imprisoned because he has prophesied a coming judgment upon Israel. Afterward Jeremiah also prophesies specifically against the Priest and tells him explicitly that Babylon will take Judah captive.

Next Jeremiah begins a lament and we are brought to the verse in question. John Calvin argues that Jeremiah is ironically taking on the “character of his enemies”[2]. Calvin goes on to say:

The Prophet here declares that God was the author of his doctrine, and that nothing could be alleged against him which would not be against God himself… But as I have already said, he relates the words of those who, by opposing his teaching, denied that he was God’s servant, and gave him no credit as though he was only an impostor. [3]

As much as I generally appreciate Calvin’s work, I believe he is incorrect in his interpretation of this passage. Calvin does not appear to rely upon the text as much as he attempts to speculate about Jeremiah’s intent and avoid the meaning of the passage.

Gill, however, provides an explanation of this passage which makes much more sense of the context as well as the phrase in the original language (as will be seen later). He writes:

Others, to soften the expression, render the words, “if thou hast deceived me, I am deceived”; or, “thou hast deceived me if I am deceived” (y). But it seems best of all to translate them, as they will hear it, “O Lord, thou hast persuaded me, and I was persuaded”… then the sense is, thou hast persuaded me to take upon me the prophetical office against my will, and against remonstrances made by me; and I was persuaded by thy words and promises, and by thy spirit and grace, to enter upon it…[4]

Therefore, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Does Gill’s translation do justice to the original language?” The specific phrase is written as follows:

פתיתני יהוה ואפת [5]  

While the verb  פתה can refer to “deception,” it also can carry the meaning of “seduction, persuasion against ones will.”[6] So, rather than saying “LORD you have deceived me and I am deceived,” the phrase could be translated (as in both the NKJ and NRSV),  “O LORD, you have enticed me and I am persuaded.”

Not only does this translation resolve the apparent contradiction between God’s action and nature, but it makes better sense of the context provided by Jeremiah’s lament. For example, we see later on that Jeremiah says:

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.[7]

Here Jeremiah refers to the ‘persuasion/enticement’ of which he previously spoke. It is not as though the message that God gave Jeremiah was a false message, but rather, God has convinced Jeremiah even against his will to prophesy these words, because he cannot contain them.

As we can see then, this passage, far from making God out to be a liar who gives his own prophets false prophecies, shows us that God’s sovereign will is irresistible. When God calls a man to prophesy he empowers that man and changes his will in such a way that he can do nothing but prophesy. The triune God of Scripture lives, and there are none who can thwart his perfect will.

  1. [1]Jeremiah 20:7 (ESV)
  2. [2]Calvin’s Commentaries 19.iii.ix
  3. [3]Calvin’s Commentaries 19.iii.ix
  4. [4]Exposition of the Old and New Testament, by John Gill, (Jeremiah 20:7)
  5. [5]Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: With Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit Morphology; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit. Logos Bible Software, 2006. Jeremiah 20:7
  6. [6]Brown, Francis, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs. Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. electronic ed. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000. 834.
  7. [7]Jeremiah 20:9 (ESV)

3 Comments

Micah Burke

I think the issue is more that Jeremiah THOUGHT God’s intent in sending him was to redeem Israel. Jeremiah imagined the people would hear the prophecies and repent. But God’s intent was to judge Israel through his prophecies. What man thinks (Jeremiah) and what God plans rarely coincide.

Resequitur

Many times, thoughts and feelings of the writer of Scripture are important for the context. After all, God used the unique personalities of each author, instead of having them write in some mechanical sense. So Calvin hasn’t noted anything outside of what many biblical theologians have.

Ben W.

Micah:

If you read chapters 18-19 you can see that God has already spoken through Jeremiah that he is going to destroy them. If you look at verse 15 of chapter 19, he says:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will bring on this city and on all her towns all the doom that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks that they might not hear My words.’”

So I don’t think this is a matter of Jeremiah falsely believing that God was going to hold back judgment. Rather, that judgment seems to be the most sure thing from the prophesy.

Resequitur:

Whether or not biblical theologians have been attempting to get inside of the minds of the writers, when we have no basis in the text for a particular interpretation then there is no reason, beyond speculation, to assume that interpretation. However, if we can, through study of context and the meanings of the words used, provide an interpretation that both makes sense and seeks to be faithful to the text then we ought to do that rather than speculate about the state of mind of the writer. I think it is a good practice to assume the writer means what he has written, unless we are provided with some evidence to the contrary.


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