Jane Austen and Jeremiah 20:7

The Lord provided for me on Saturday morning. I was preparing to preach Jeremiah 19–20, and I was really stuck on Jeremiah 20:7, which reads in the ESV, “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed . . .”

Some scholars say that Jeremiah is verging on the blasphemous. More liberal interpreters suggest that because this terminology is used elsewhere to describe sexual assault, Jeremiah is saying that the way the LORD has abused him that way. Balderdash! But what exactly is going on here?

That’s what I was wrestling with, when two of my favorite people, my 8 and 6 year old sons, came to me saying, “Dad, can we read?”

We’re reading through the Harry Potter stories, and we’ve recently started book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s Saturday and Sunday’s coming–that is, the sermon is hanging over my head! And I’m puzzling my way through this text with no idea what to make of it. I’m thankful that it’s so hard to say “no” to my sons, because it was in saying, “sure, guys, let’s read,” that the Lord provided for me.

I’ve listened to the (fabulous) audiobooks of the Harry Potter stories, so I know where things are going. Reading back through them aloud to my boys, I’m seeing how J. K. Rowling is setting her little traps for us, prepping us for her delightful surprises. No sooner had I begun to read this account of the escaped Sirius Black than I sensed the Lord giving me insight into what Jeremiah meant when he said the LORD had deceived him.

I didn’t want to give plot spoilers on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban since my sons would hear the sermon, so I decided to illustrate the same idea with a novel I’ve heard J. K. Rowling loves, Jane Austen’s Emma.

Here’s the intro from the sermon:

In Jane Austen’s Emma, the author subtly misleads her audience. Austen misleads her audience by recounting Emma’s thoughts and impressions, and Emma is usually wrong. It is not as though Austen is unfair to her audience, however, for she supplies a reliable character, someone the audience can trust, in Mr. Knightly. Mr. Knightly regularly tells Emma that she is wrong, but Emma insists that she is right, and Emma is a delightful and sympathetic character through whose eyes the audience sees the story unfolding. So it is only natural for the audience to suspect what Emma suspects.

One aspect of this is what happens with another character in the novel, Jane Fairfax. Emma sees some suspicious things about Jane, and she jumps to some mistaken conclusions that fit the evidence she has but are nevertheless wrong. By giving us only Emma’s perspective, Austen shows us things that will enable us to understand everything when she reveals that Jane Fairfax is not in love with and loved by her best friend’s husband but rather she is in love with and loved by Frank Churchill. From her limited perspective, Emma thought there was something between Jane and her best friend’s husband, and the audience thinks so too. Once all is revealed, however, everything falls into place and the audience sees, with Emma, that all along what Emma took to be evidence of something between Jane and her best friend’s husband was actually evidence of the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

We could say to Jane Austen what Jeremiah says to the Lord in Jeremiah 20:7, “You deceived me and I was deceived; you seized me and you prevailed.”

Austen knows more than we do, and she overpowers us with her subtle misdirections. She herself has not lied to us; rather, she has chosen to present us with Emma’s unreliable interpretations. And Jane Austen has not done this to us with malicious intent but with a loving intent. She has not set out to deceive us so that she can take advantage of us. She has good purposes in mind. She wants to teach us not to jump to uncharitable conclusions, and she gives us that lesson in the form of a charming story that delights us with a wonderful surprise at the end. She is teaching us not to be fools, and she teaches us that lesson in a way that pleases us and affirms us that she loves us.

And then when we came to Jeremiah 20:7 as we worked through Jeremiah 19–20:

I contend that Jeremiah is saying that the Lord has deceived him the same way I described Jane Austen deceiving her audience in Emma in the introduction of this sermon. Jeremiah is not accusing the Lord of wrongdoing.

Perhaps he is saying that he was mislead about how desperate the situation was; perhaps he means to say that though the Lord revealed to him that he would be an adversary to the people, he assumed (wrongly!) that he would be used to lead the people to repentance.

Perhaps he has seen some good fruit, which the Lord gave him to encourage him and keep him going, but which he concluded might mean that the people might actually repent. The reality has turned out, however, to be as the Lord told him at the beginning (Jer 1:17–19). He is the people’s adversary. They are not going to repent.

So I think in saying that the Lord deceived him, Jeremiah is saying that if he had realized that it would be this bad, he never would have agreed to do what the Lord called him to do. When he says that the Lord is stronger than he, that the Lord prevailed upon him, he is acknowledging that the Lord knew things he could not know, that the Lord controlled what information Jeremiah had access to, and that the Lord manipulated the circumstances such that Jeremiah did what the Lord wanted him to do.

I think the NET Bible captures the sense of the verse:

Lord, you coerced me into being a prophet,
and I allowed you to do it.
You overcame my resistance and prevailed over me.
Now I have become a constant laughingstock.
Everyone ridicules me (Jer 20:7, NET).

Not that the Lord has done anything wrong, but that the Lord has done what good authors do for good reasons. Good authors will allow their readers to be deceived so that they can surprise and delight their readers, the way J. K. Rowling does in the first of the Harry Potter books by allowing her audience to think that Snape is trying to kill Harry, when actually it was Quirrell.

Authors like Rowling and Austen are imitating the delightful surprises God builds into the great story for his people.

God will surprise and delight through the plot twists of the story. The Lord uses the authorial deceptions that Jeremiah is alluding to here to lay the groundwork for something better than Jeremiah ever could have imagined: the fulfillment of the exile in the death and resurrection of Jesus. All this judgment that Jeremiah is prophesying will be visited in 586BC, an event that is a type pointing forward to the cross.

God is writing the story of the world so that it culminates in Jesus.

I’m thankful that my sons interrupted my sermon prep, and I’m thankful that the Lord used them to lead me to this understanding of Jeremiah 20:7. I’m thankful, too, for J. K. Rowling and Jane Austen, who imitate the great Artist, the Lord himself.

If you’re interested, here’s the sermon: Jeremiah 19–20, “A Burning in My Bones”

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  1. Pastor/Dr. Hamilton,

    I am about three commentaries from completing my first round of commentaries on each book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Jeremiah. This is an exciting time! As a young seminarian, I am convinced that getting an early jump on a trustworthy library for our family is a good idea.

    I have benefited from your preaching series through Jeremiah, so I wanted to ask, “In preparation for your sermons, what would be the first commentary to which you would turn on Jeremiah? Or, which commentary have you found to be the most helpful on a text?

    As an aside, thank you for your post on baptism and church membership. As a presbyterian, I thoroughly appreciated the honesty and commitment and obedience to King Jesus on the issue. May your congregation grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ!

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