The Oxford English Dictionary commemorates Jeremiah’s legacy with the word ‘jeremiad’, defining it as ‘a lamentation; a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress; a doleful complaint; a complaining tirade; a lugubrious effusion’.1 This is in keeping with the common appreciation of Jeremiah as ‘the weeping prophet’. Yet his tears were understandable, and his multiple bouts of melancholy demonstrate that even the most faithful, godly saints may be afflicted with depression. Nevertheless, there is a gleam in the gloom: the Lord sustains and encourages His downcast children amidst horrendous circumstances with the promised blessings of the new covenant. As one has written: ‘He was not only the prophet of sorrow and public calamity, but also the prophet of a new and better covenant of the heart’2
Jeremiah’s inner life is revealed more than many other biblical heroes. Facing the conquest of his homeland by the Babylonian empire, coupled with his countrymen’s apostasy, it is small wonder that he suffered depression. As Findlay remarks: ‘Endowed with the finest sensibilities, in so evil a time he was bound to be a man of sorrows’.3 Others agree, citing his deep-seated struggles:
‘It is impossible to plumb the depths of grief into which Jeremiah was plunged. Despairing of comfort (8. 18, 21), he desired to dissolve in tears for doomed Judah (9. 1; 13. 17) and abandon her to her self-inflicted fate (9. 2). Convinced of ultimate failure, he cursed the day he was born (15. 10; 20. 14-18), accused God of having wronged him (20. 7a), complained of the ignominy that had befallen him (20. 7b-10), invoked imprecations upon his tormentors (18. 18, 21-23). It is in this sense that the emotional, highly-strung Jeremiah was a tragic figure. The tragedy of his life springs from the conflicts which raged within and around him – his higher self wrestling with the lower, courage conflicting with cowardice, certain triumph struggling with apparent defeat, a determination to abandon his calling defeated by an inability to evade it (cf. 5. 14; 15. 16, 19-21 with 6. 11; 20. 9, 11; 23. 29). But these fierce internal conflicts and the ignominy in which his calling involved him (15. 17f; 16. 2, 5, 8) compelled him to find in God a refuge. Thus the OT ideal of communion with God comes to its finest expression in Jeremiah. And it was in this fellowship with God that Jeremiah was able finally to withstand the erosive effects of timidity, anguish, helplessness, hostility, loneliness, despair, misunderstanding and failure’.4
Clearly, he was distraught by his people’s sin and the tragic discipline that Judah was about to endure.
Jeremiah’s mental and emotional struggles were rooted in multiple documented causes:
1 In his anguish over the Jews’ sin and the death and destruction that it will bring, he cries: ‘Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!’ Jer. 9. 1; and ‘Woe is me for my hurt! my wound is grievous: but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it’, 10. 19. His despair over these dark conditions even leads him to the Job-like bewailing of the day of his birth, 15. 10; 20. 14-18. Like Asaph in the seventy-third psalm, he was perplexed by the apparent prosperity of the wicked, 12. 1-4, and sought answers from his righteous God.
2 His patriotism further distresses the solitary prophet. It broke his heart to watch the spiritual backsliding and increasing debauchery of his homeland, which resulted in the Lord employing the Babylonians as the instruments of His wrath, 9. 2-5; 10. 25. As Hastings writes:
‘A man of tender, loving, yielding, deeply impressible spirit, Jeremiah loved his country intensely. He would have given all he had to see Judah flourishing, Jerusalem prosperous; and, lo, we see him compelled by his destiny to announce to his fellow-citizens nothing but misfortune. Yet we may recognize in Jeremiah’s character a special fitness for his mission. That tender, shrinking, sympathetic heart could more fully feel, and more adequately express, the ineffable Divine sorrow over the guilty people, the eternal love which was never stronger than at the moment when it seemed to have been metamorphosed into bitter wrath and implacable vengeance’5
3 Jeremiah was falsely accused and persecuted by his neighbours, as well as so-called fellow prophets and the highest powers in the land, 11. 18-23; 26. 1-19. As one describes his career: ‘Jeremiah’s ministry was a lifelong martyrdom. It was in its nature a burden that might well have crushed the strongest spirit. Not only was he compelled to stand almost alone against the whole nation; but he was actually the object of bitter persecution; his very life was constantly in danger’.6Others point out the severity of his service: ‘The enmity to which he fell a victim, on account of his declaration of nothing but the truth, he deeply felt; see his complaints (9. 1ff; 12. 5f; 15. 10; 17. 14-18; 18. 23 …). In this sad antagonism between his heart and the commands of the Lord, he would perhaps wish that God had not spoken to him’7
4 Eventually, Jeremiah was wrongfully imprisoned and would have starved to death apart from God’s providential deliverance, 37. 11-21; 38. 7-13.
5 His ministry went unheeded by the nation and – on one notable occasion – his written message was cut up and burned by the king, 36. 1-26. Schaff observes his intrepid commitment to the Lord’s work in the face of daunting opposition:
‘Jeremiah’s task was a thankless one. He was the divine means, not of encouragement, but of discouragement. His voice was constantly heard calling upon the people to submit to their enemies. During all this time Jerusalem was in a most distracted and deplorable condition, and the prophet was calumniated, imprisoned, and often in danger of death. But no ill-treatment or threatenings could deter him from denouncing the judgments of God, which were coming upon the nation and that devoted city’8
But the lack of response to his preaching was more indicative of the populace’s hard hearts, rather than the true value of his efforts. Cheyne comments: ‘The visible success of a faithful preacher is no test of his acceptableness before God. There are times when the Holy Spirit himself seems to work in vain, and the world seems given up to the powers of evil … Jeremiah went on preaching, but with small apparent success; when all at once a little cloud arose, no bigger than a man’s hand, and soon the fair prospects of Judah were cruelly blighted’.9
In view of Jeremiah’s sufferings, one may draw certain conclusions:
1 Even the most faithful believers are naturally disheartened by troubles and opposition. A compassionate saint cannot view the decline of the modern western world – not to mention other parts of the globe – and be unmoved by the plight of the perishing. Unbelieving family members, friends, and neighbours are a regular source of grief to Christians.
2 The increasing iniquity in the public square and its attendant persecution – verbal and otherwise – gives concern and possible anxiety to the saints.
3 The decline of spiritual discernment, appetite for God’s word, and inconsistent living within the Church causes pain to saints whose hearts are attuned to the Lord’s glory being seen and experienced in the assemblies of His people.
4 Jeremiah was sustained by fellowship with the Lord; this is the continual refuge of depressed and suffering saints. We must carefully go to Him for encouragement, spiritual strength, and wisdom. Prayer and the scriptures are the unfailing resources for God’s people, 1 Pet. 5. 7; Jas. 1. 2-8.
Jeremiah was not the last saint to experience depression. Many can testify to similar struggles (this author has family members and close friends that have suffered from clinical depression; he himself often battles discouragement in labouring for the Lord). One of the most used evangelists of the past five hundred years left this testimony:
‘He who has been long experienced in the things of the divine life will sometimes be overtaken with a dark night and a stormy tempest; so dark will be the night, that he will not know his right hand from his left, and so horrible the tempest, that he cannot hear the sweet words of his Master, say, “Fear not, I am with thee”. Periodical tornadoes and hurricanes will sweep o'er the Christian; he will be subjected to as many trials in his spirit as trials in his flesh. This much I know, if it be not so with all of you it is so with me. I have to speak today to myself; and whilst I shall be endeavouring to encourage those who are distressed and down-hearted, I shall be preaching, I trust, to myself, for I need something which shall cheer my heart–why I cannot tell, wherefore I do not know, but I have a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me; my soul is cast down within me, I feel as if I had rather die than live; all that God hath done by me seems to be forgotten, and my spirit flags and my courage breaks down with the thought of that which is to come. I need your prayers; I need God’s Holy Spirit; and I felt that I could not preach today, unless I should preach in such a way as to encourage you and to encourage myself in the good work and labour of the Lord Jesus Christ. What a precious promise to the young Christian, or to the old Christian attacked by lowness of spirits and distress of mind! “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy redeemer the Holy One of Israel”’10
The OED traces this word as far back as A.D. 1780 in English (1762 in French).
Philip Schaff, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible., Philadelphia; New York; Chicago: American Sunday-School Union, 1880, pg. 429.
G. Findlay, ‘Jeremiah’, in Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, John A. Selbie, et al., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909, pg. 434.
G. S. S. Thomson and J. G. McConville, ‘Jeremiah’, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary, Leicester, England: IVP, 1996, pg. 552.
James Hastings, ed., The Greater Men and Women of the Bible: Hezekiah-Malachi, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1915, pg. 233.
Ibid., pg. 236.
C. Von Orelli and David Francis Roberts, ‘Jeremiah’, ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1915, pg. 1589.
Schaff, pg. 429.
T. K. Cheyne, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones , London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1909, pg. iv.
C. H. Spurgeon, ‘Fear not’, in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 3., London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1857, pp. 389-390.