The Loneliest Number
“One is the loneliest. One is the loneliest. One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do It's just no good anymore since you went away”
These familiar words are from one of Three Dog Night’s hit songs, appropriately named “One.” But they could just as easily summarize the prophet Jeremiah’s lament to God:
O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? (Jer 15:15-18 ESV)
I sat alone.
Ministry, whether it be as a profession or as the call that comes to each follower of Jesus, can be a lonely business. For the most part, we don’t like being alone—or more specifically, we don’t like being singled out. Maybe you remember those times in school when the teacher asked how many people got a certain answer, and you realized you were the only one holding up your hand. No matter how confident you were in your answer, being the only one with their hand raised caused you to have your doubts. Or perhaps you have bad memories of being the last kid picked for a game on the playground. Every eye was on you, and yet you felt incredibly alone.
Jeremiah is alone, and the reason for his isolation is his faithfulness to God’s word. He writes his own psalm of lament, and doesn’t waste time getting to the point. He asks God to “remember” him, “visit” him, and to “take vengeance” on his enemies. He knows the story of his people. He knows that the Scriptures say that when the people cried out in Egypt, God “remembered,” and God “knew.” And so Jeremiah is asking for another divine visitation, he is asking for divine vengeance. He’s letting God know that “it’s just no good anymore since you went away.”
However, God has a word to speak here as well.
God doesn’t give Jeremiah the old line from Seinfeld, “It’s not you, it’s me.” He tells Jeremiah quite frankly that if there is distance between the two of them, the fault lies with the prophet.
Therefore thus says the Lord: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (Jer 15:15-21)
Jeremiah has been giving too much concern to the words of his detractors, and not enough thought to the words God has given him to speak. God still has a place for Jeremiah, still has a purpose for him, but Jeremiah needs to return to God in order to find the restoration he is seeking.
I wonder if there are times when we feel like Jeremiah. I wonder if there are times when we feel like the world is against us, like we are all alone, and the reason why is because we are trying to do the right thing. Those moments will always be hurtful, but they don’t have to define us. In those moments, it’s helpful to remember that God told us from the very beginning that we would face opposition. God’s words to Jeremiah are rebuke, but also reassurance. “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you.” It’s reassurance following a rebuke, but it’s also a reminder. It’s a reminder because the words echo God’s call to Jeremiah:
And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you. (Jer 1:18-19)
“They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” We will spend a lot of time down in the dumps if we get hung up on the fact that people fight against us. The only way to get over it, the only way to fulfill our purpose as the people of God is if we focus not on the ones arrayed against us, but on the One who is with us.
As followers of Jesus, we will often feel like Jeremiah. Jesus has asked us to take up our cross daily and follow him. Never forget that even if they nail you to that cross, they shall not prevail over you. Jesus’s story didn’t end with the cross, and neither will yours.