Stern Things Without, Tender Things Within

Recently–while working through the books of Jeremiah and Lamentation–I have been struck with the picture Scripture gives us of the tender heart of the prophet. Jeremiah has not been called “the weeping prophet” in vain. He weeps with and for the people who are together suffering for the sins of Judah. The pain of exile weighs heavily on the heart of Jeremiah. However, God had raised him up and called him to speak hard prophetic words to God’s people about the judgment they were experiencing. Jeremiah is resistant to the initial call of God on account of his timid nature. Geerhardus Vos tied together the tenderhearted personality of Jeremiah and the difficult ministry to which God was calling him, when he wrote,

“In Jeremiah’s ministry these things are illustrated with extraordinary clearness, partly owing to the individual temperament of the prophet, partly also to the critical times in which his lot had been cast. His was a retiring, peace-loving disposition, which from the very beginning protested against the Lord’s call to enter upon this public office: “Ah Lord Jehovah, behold I know not how to speak, for I am a child” (1:6). An almost idyllic, pastoral nature, he would have far preferred to lead the quiet priestly life, a shepherd among tranquil sheep. Why was this timid lad chosen to be a fortified brazen wall to his people, to hammer out words of iron against the flinty evil of their hearts? And though he surrendered to God for the sake of God, there always seems to have remained in his mind a scar of the tragic conflict between the stern things without and the tender things within. His soul sometimes found it difficult to enter self-forgetfully into the message. A strange compulsion directed his thought and forced its utterance. He sat alone because of God’s hand, filled with indignation. In painful experience he learned that the way of man is not in himself to order his steps.”

Today, many boast themselves on speaking “words of iron against the flinty evil of the hearts of men” while lacking the “retiring, peace-loving disposition” of Jeremiah. One doesn’t have to look far to stumble across ministers who make offhanded comments in sermons about how so many other preachers are unwilling to boldly speak “the hard truths.” And though it is regretfully true that many ministers are unwilling to speak the hard parts of Scripture, these comments are often attended with a self-aggrandizing tone–a boastful air of superiority. What seems to be lacking in such individuals is the tension between “surrendering to God for the sake of God” while “a scar of the tragic conflict between the stern things without and the tender things within” remains in the mind and heart of the minister.

What the church needs at present is not ministers who will speak soft words to itching ears; nor does it need ministers who speak hard words with hard hearts. Rather, the church need ministers who–like the Lord Jesus Himself–will be marked by gentle and lowly hearts (Matt. 11:29), yet who will warn of the wrath to come (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24, 12:36; 41–42). The church need ministers who, like the Savior, will weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn–while preaching against hypocrisy, self-righteousness, lawlessness, and rebellion. The church needs ministers who can sympathize with God’s people, even as they speak the searching and challenging words of God to them–calling them away from their sin and to the Savior. The church needs men who will hold forth both the warnings and the promises of God, helping others see clearly their need for the one who, though He knew no sin, was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). The church needs tenderhearted ministers who are committed to preaching Christ, “admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ (Col. 1:28). When God raises up such men, the tension they feel between the “stern things without” and the “tender things within” will be evident to all looking onto their ministries. May God raise up such tenderhearted ministers to speak what He wants them to speak in our day.

1. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), p. 289.

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