I N the little village of Anathoth, not very far from Jerusalem, a boy was learning his lessons and playing his games, very much like other boys, except perhaps that, as he was the son of a priest, he had more difficult lessons to learn and less time for play.
Jeremiah, for this was the boy's name, was quick to learn. He knew all about the history of his people and how God had led them and helped them, and as he grew bigger and stronger two things grew greater and stronger in his heart as well—his love for his country and his love for God.
Then one day a wonderful thing happened. God's message came to him telling him he was to be God's messenger, who was to go and speak to the people of his nation. It must have been an awesome moment for the boy when he first heard God's voice; but Jeremiah found words to answer, although they were halting and rather fearful.
"Ah, Lord God!" he said, "behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child."
But God's message came again clear and plain. "Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee."
And even as Jeremiah listened, God's finger was laid upon his mouth, and the message was written in his heart.
He was alone when he heard God's voice. Perhaps he was in one of the village gardens which lay bleak and bare in the wintery light, and then suddenly a beautiful sight caught his eye. It was an almond tree, covered with pure white blossoms, called in his language "the waker," because it wakes up and puts out its flowers when all the other trees and plants are still in their winter sleep.
"Jeremiah, what seest thou?" came God's voice again.
"I see a rod of an almond tree," answered Jeremiah.
He had been feeling rather bewildered, and longed for a sign that he was indeed to be God's messenger, and this was the sign God sent. As the white almond blossom was awake while everything else seemed dead or sleeping, so God said that He, the great Waker or Watcher, would fulfil every one of His words. After that God taught him by another sign that evil days were in store for his country: that a heathen nation would come sweeping down from the north, and would destroy Jerusalem and carry the people away captive.
This, then, was the message which Jeremiah was to carry to the people: to warn them that God would punish them for all their wrongdoing. It was a hard message to take; the people, he knew, would be very angry, and his own heart was heavy with sorrow to think that all this evil was to happen to his beloved land.
But no better messenger could have been chosen. He was quite fearless and steadfast as a rock. Nothing could stop him from his work or tempt him to keep silence.
At first, however, things were not so difficult for the young prophet. The good King Josiah was reigning, and he had tried to make the people give up their idols and all their evil ways, and he was glad that Jeremiah should bring God's message and cry it aloud.
But the more the people listened, the more angry they became. They hated to be told that God meant to punish them, and yet they would do nothing to show Him that they wanted Him to forgive them.
Instead of that they planned how they could silence the voice that spoke the message; and so Jeremiah was obliged to flee away from his own village and hide himself from those who wanted to kill him.
Then followed more evil days. The good King was killed in battle, all he had tried to do was swept away, and the people needed God's warning message more than ever.
And the message came. One day a strange figure appeared in the streets of Jerusalem. The people knew from his robe that he was a priest, but why did he wear such a dirty, ragged girdle? A man's girdle was the chief part of his dress, and it was a shame to the city that a priest should be seen in the streets wearing one as soiled and torn as that.
Then the man in the ragged girdle began to speak to them, and his words were like whips. The soiled, unlovely girdle was like the people themselves, he said. God had meant them to be clean and beautiful; and instead, they were stained with their ugly sins, not fit to belong to God. Would nothing make them repent and turn to God? Then, suddenly, he took a clay jar and dashed it to pieces on the rock.
"Look," he cried, "that is how God will break you and your city."
But it was all of no use. The people first scoffed and then grew angry, and in their rage they seized Jeremiah and put him in the stocks where all the passers-by might mock at him.
"See the mad prophet!" they cried in derision.
It was easy to laugh at the prophet, but in a very short time a feeling of uneasiness began to spread amongst the people of Jerusalem. It looked as if there might be truth in the prophet's warning. From the north came news that the King of Babylon was marching on his conquering way, and who knew where he would stop?
There was no warning voice crying in the streets of Jerusalem now. Jeremiah was shut up by the king's order, but even in prison he was writing the message which he could no longer cry aloud. And when the message was written it was carried to the king.
Now the king was sitting in his winter palace and a fire was burning on the hearth when the prophet's message was read to him. And, like his people, he would not listen. In a great rage he seized the roll of writing and cut it in pieces with a penknife, and then threw the pieces into the fire to be burned.
Again it was easy enough to destroy the message, but that did not serve to stop the punishment that was coming nearer and nearer. Jerusalem could not hold out against the mighty hosts of Babylon which came sweeping on to overwhelm it, and ere long the people were taken captive and carried away to distant Babylon. Only a poor little remnant was left behind.
It might have been thought that those who were left would have listened now to God's messenger as he still cried to them to repent and to look forward to the time when the captives would return and God would remember His promise to set on the throne of David the King of all the earth. But it was not so. More hardships were in store for Jeremiah.
He was an old man now, worn out with suffering and great sorrow; but to silence him once for all, he was lowered into a horrible pit which had been dug in the courtyard of the palace to drain off the rain water. There was not enough water in it to drown him, but there was deep wet mud at the bottom, and into this he sank; and they left him there, without food, to die.
But he was not to die yet. A slave of the court who loved him managed to get a rope and some old rags, and these he lowered into the pit, bidding Jeremiah put the rags as pads under his arms and then slip the cords over them, ready to be drawn up.
"So they drew up Jeremiah with cords."
His life was saved, but only to endure fresh sorrows and suffering. Again Jerusalem was besieged, and this time when the conquerors left the city was laid in ruins, the walls were broken down, and the beautiful temple was burned to the ground, while the old prophet was carried away from the land which he loved to die in a strange country among a strange people.
Was his life a failure? It seemed so in man's eyes, but God who had shown him the sign of the white almond rod, God the Waker and Watcher, looked down upon the work of His messenger and was satisfied, for "he that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."