Worthless Words

It seems shocking to read Jeremiah call God unfaithful and deceitful, but isn’t that what we do every time we utter pessimistic, fatalistic, cynical, and despairing words? “What’s the use?” “Nobody cares?” “It’s hopeless!” and even worse, things like “I hate my life” “I wish I were dead!”

Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails? Therefore this is what the LORD says: “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman.” Jeremiah 15:18-19


For many brutal years Jeremiah was faithful to deliver the Word of God burning in his heart (Jeremiah 20:9). But here he gives in to despair and basically accuses God of being unfaithful and a liar. Earlier in this book (Jeremiah 2:13) God called Himself “the spring of living water.” Here Jeremiah calls God “a deceptive brook,” “a spring that fails.” The word translated “deceptive” means deceitful, treacherous, deception, lie, deceptive, disappointing. Like a mirage in the desert that you run to, but there is no water. Or a spring that is not reliable, not something you can count on, not faithful.

To be fair, Jeremiah was given a very tough mission by God. Called to prophesy things no one wanted to hear, he was persecuted and vilified. And he had to do it all alone, as he was commanded not to marry (Jeremiah 16:2). In verse 15:10 he expresses his wish that he had never been born: “Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends!” He is called the “weeping prophet.”¹

It is so very easy to let negative, “worthless words” come out of our mouths in the midst of hard times – or even minor irritations. It is a particular weakness of mine which I struggle against. And God has, and is, using this verse to help me. It seems shocking to read Jeremiah call God unfaithful and deceitful, but isn’t that what we do every time we utter pessimistic, fatalistic, cynical, and despairing words? “What’s the use?” “Nobody cares!” “It’s hopeless!” and even worse, things like “I hate my life” “I wish I were dead!” What is the truth? That God has a good plan and purpose for your life (Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 55:8-11, Romans 8:28), that He disciplines us in order to make us holy so we can be near Him (Hebrews 12:5-6), that He cares deeply for us (1 Peter 5:7, Zephaniah 3:17), that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26, Philippians 4:13), and that He is always with us through everything (Psalm 73:23, Matthew 28:20).

God responds to Jeremiah by telling him that he must repent and utter worthy, not worthless words, and let God restore him – and so must I. But, God is not saying it in a harsh, judgmental way. If we look at the Hebrew words we see that they tell a familiar story of God’s mercy and unfailing love.

The Hebrew word translated “worthy” in this verse is yaqar (יָקָר), which means valuable, costly, precious, and rare. It also refers to honor, glory, and reputation. Worthy words, then, are precious, valuable, costly like treasure. They reflect on the glory, honor, and reputation of our God. In contrast, the Hebrew word translated “worthless” is zalal (זָלַל) which means shake, tremble, quake – which is what we feel like in these situations, that our world is being shaken. But also, zalal means to be worthless, vile, to make light of, to squander, to be loose morally, a glutton, a prodigal. So uttering worthless words are like the prodigal son squandering the precious inheritance given him by the father and sullying the father’s reputation – The Name and The Word made flesh. One of my sweet sisters put it this way: “God has given our words power in the spiritual realm and we speak our reality in much the same way He spoke ours into being. When we don’t use them to speak truth we are truly squandering that opportunity to speak into our lives and honor God.”

When God tells Jeremiah to repent, the word is shuwb ( שׁוּב), to return, turn back, go again home, bring back, restore, refresh, repair. The word is used twice in a row – if you shuwb, then I will shuwb. I believe God is saying to Jeremiah, “if you turn back – start to go home, as the prodigal son did in the parable – then I will run out to greet you and bring you back home and restore you to your rightful place as my son, and you will again be my spokesman, or be as my mouth.” He is saying the same to you and me. When we are overwhelmed in hopelessness and despair, uttering “worthless words,” he will bring us back, restore, refresh, and repair us if we turn to Him. And, oh how I need to be repaired!

Let me remember that Jesus is the spring of Living Water that never runs dry, that never fails, never disappoints. May true and life-giving, light-giving words come from my mouth. Let me proclaim the Truth, the Word, no matter what the situation or hardship. Help me to keep my eyes fixed on the Son shining above the storm.

So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. Luke 15:20 (NLT)

… in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3

See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious (yaqar) cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. Isaiah 28:16


[1] “Jeremiah”, New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale Press, Wheaton, IL 1987.

Image in the Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons: detail from Return of the Prodigal Son 1667-1670 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Oil on canvas, 236 x 262 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington


Author: wrestlingwordblog

I am a retired librarian and emeriti from Western Michigan University. I am married with three grown children and three grandchildren. I love digging for treasure in the Word.

4 thoughts on “Worthless Words”

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