Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
Before you were born I dedicated you,
A prophet to the nations I appointed you. (Jer. 1:5)
See, I place my words in your mouth (Jer. 1:9b)
Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
To uproot and to tear down,
To destroy and to demolish,
To build and to plant. (Jer. 1:10)
“Before I formed you…I knew you.” Phrases like this have often been mistakenly understood to mean that God has a grand plan for the world. Like a General Contractor, he knows exactly what he is going to do and he does it. We merely follow his orders and, often unknowingly, even unwillingly, we help execute his designs.
But is that the real meaning of Jeremiah?
First, note that God’s words are addressed to Jeremiah. He speaks to his prophet in the second person. He does not talk about Jeremiah as a Frankenstein might discuss his monster. God addresses Jeremiah as a true “Other” (Jean Paul Sartre), a “Thou” (Martin Buber). To recognize Jeremiah in this way is to recognize him as a free being, a co-creator, not a tool. (Unless we have ‘issues’, most of us do not make a habit of talking to our tools.)
Yet God knew Jeremiah before he formed him and dedicated Jeremiah before he was even born. Further, God places his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. How can this be consistent with Jeremiah’s status as a free and independent entity?
One key to unraveling this paradox lies in understanding Jeremiah’s mission: To uproot, to tear down, to destroy, to demolish, to build, to plant. God did not appoint Jeremiah to erect the Kingdom of God on Earth. He is not God’s subcontractor, surely not his architect. That is not how it works!
Jeremiah is not God’s craftsman; rather he is God’s “change agent”. He is the one who raises the old structures and levels the ground to make way for the new. Jeremiah does not impress God’s image upon the world’s clay. Rather he tears down the world’s icons and melts them back into raw material so that the evolutionary/historical process, God’s praxis, can do its work.
God knows the world’s origin: Logos (Gospel of John), the Word of God (i.e. God’s values). God’s Word (capital W) is reflected in the words (small w) that Jeremiah speaks. God puts words into Jeremiah’s mouth but Jeremiah is not God’s bull horn. Jeremiah proclaims God’s values. Without God’s Word, God’s values, Jeremiah would have nothing to proclaim. God being God is what makes it possible for Jeremiah to be Jeremiah.
A similar ontological map can be found in the New Testament Letter to Ephesians: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”
The works are “prepared in advance”; they are the logical and practical consequence of God’s immutable values. But it is up to us to step into those works and perform them so that we might “live in them”. Just so, it is up to Jeremiah to step into the words God offers him.
God knows the worlds origin; God also knows the world’s destiny. Knowing that destiny, he knows everything and everyone that contribute to it…including Jeremiah. But knowing is not controlling. God’s knowledge (Parmenides’ aletheia) is outside of time; it is the spaceless-timeless foundation through which the space-time universe (Parmenides’ doxa) comes to be, on which that universe rests and into which it ultimately resolves itself. God’s eternal knowledge in no way compromises the radical freedom of the events that occur in our space-time universe.
In the non-temporal sense (and only in that sense), we may say that God’s gnosis “precedes” (i.e. precedes logically rather than temporally) his praxis (the world). That is the sense in which God knew Jeremiah before he was formed and dedicated him before he was born.
The function of the free and independent “other” in the space-time universe is to broadcast in words and symbols God’s Word and to remove impediments to the realization of God’s Kingdom in history (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). Whether the other accepts that function and performs it and how the other performs it are matters entirely outside God’s control. The only thing certain is that someone (or some combination of someones) will accept the function and perform it.
The praxis that draws the world toward its destiny is ultimately from God but it requires those who project (speak) God’s vision (words) and act to remove the world’s barriers. The world’s destiny (God) is a lure, not an engraver’s plate. It works like a vacuum, created by what will ultimately but is not yet, the partial negation of what is already. As such, God’s praxis draws the process we call “World” gently, unevenly, often imperceptibly, always unpredictably but inevitably and inexorably toward its destiny.
In the New Testament we encounter John the Baptist, in many ways a later day version of Jeremiah. It is clear from the texts that God also knew John before he was formed and dedicated him before he was born. God also put his words on John’s tongue. John’s mission: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Mt. 3:3)
In fact, the world is in perpetual need of Jeremiahs (and Johns). Like the Tower of Babel, the world’s hardened structures need to be uprooted so that the praxis of God can replace and perfect them. Our Jeremiahs are indeed “appointed over nations and kingdoms” because such social structures must always give way so that something greater and better can take their place: The Kingdom of God. Every earthly kingdom will one day be laid low by some Jeremiah so that ultimately the Kingdom of God may be all in all.
In this context, we may recognize in Jeremiah one of the world’s first true “anarchists”; and in Jeremiah we may be encountering one of the first treatises on anarchist philosophy. Jeremiah rests on the certain belief that the world is inevitably evolving in a positive direction and that our primary job as political actors is to tear down those anti-social social structures that prevent the world from following its natural course, its Tao.
However much we may deny and resist it, we are all in our own ways Jeremiahs. We all uproot the old and plant the new, which God will ultimately harvest. Therefore, we are all known by God before we are formed and we are all dedicated before we are born for we are all called to contribute to the God’s praxis.
We are not God’s tools, nor his robots, not even his employees. Collectively, we are that “other” into whose eyes God perpetually stares. As the true ontological other, we are by nature iconoclasts and as iconoclasts we help ensure the ultimate success of God’s praxis, however much we “know not what we do”.