Top Ten Pro-life Passages #7 // Jeremiah 1
The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ [Jeremiah 1:4-5 NIV]
So far various insights have emerged from the Old Testament regarding the unborn child, including God’s intimate involvement in the creation of every child in the womb, both in terms of physical formation (Job 10) and moral character (Psalms 51:5; 139:13–16). God makes all people with the same care and attention he lavishes on a Jacob, a Job or a David (Job 31:13–15). We have also seen how a person’s character is evident before birth (Gen 25:22–26). In a related way the Old Testament also traces vocation back to the womb. This is particularly seen in the lives of Samson and Jeremiah.
In Judges 13 the nation of Israel is at a pretty low ebb. They need a deliverer. And God provides, in the person of Samson. But unlike previous judges, such as Gideon, Samson is called from the womb: the announcement of his birth and his calling happen simultaneously. The angel of the LORD informs Samson’s mother that “the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5).
Nazirite vows were usually voluntary, so this is already unusual. Even more astonishingly, Samson’s vocation begins while he is as an unborn child. This is why his mother must temporarily adhere to Nazirite observations for the sake of the child growing inside her (Judges 13:4, 7) – she is essentially being instructed “to create a Nazirite environment for the fetus in the womb.” Judges 13 gives us a biblical glimpse of the extraordinary, organic, vital connection between mother and her unborn child. The narrative gives us confidence that Samson’s mother follows the angel’s instructions, in contrast to Samson himself, who appears to show little regard for his Nazirite status as he grows up.
If Samson fails to live up to his high calling and prenatal commission, the prophet Jeremiah presents a different story. The longest single book in the Old Testament begins with God’s formation and sanctification of Jeremiah as an unborn child.
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
This aspect makes Jeremiah’s calling distinct from the call narrative of other prophets such as Samuel (1 Samuel 3); Isaiah (Isaiah 6) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1–2). Notice how this understanding is not the result of Jeremiah’s own reflections, but a revelation directly from God (Jeremiah 1:4).
It is sometimes argued that Jeremiah 1:5 is only concerned with God’s foreknowledge of the prophet before he was conceived, and so it is irrelevant to understanding the unborn child. But it is really both/and. Of course God – being outside time – knows Jeremiah long before he was formed in the womb. Several people in the Bible are spoken of before their conception, e.g., Isaac (Gen 17:15–21; 18:9–15); Samuel (1 Sam 1:11, 17–20, 27); Solomon (1 Chronicles 22:9); Josiah (1 Kings 13:2) and of course John the Baptist (Luke 1:13–17) and Jesus (Luke 1:31–35; 2:21). But notice that the second “before” relates to the time before Jeremiah was born, but while he was still within the womb – the Hebrew could equally be translated “before you emerged from the womb.”
Further confirmation of God’s in utero preparation comes in Jeremiah 20:14–18, where, much like Job, he wishes he had never been born, even that he had been killed as an unborn child (Jeremiah 20:17). Jeremiah is acutely aware that it was within the womb that he was set apart to be a prophet, thus his desire amounts to a radical renunciation of his vocation at the point of its very origin (cf. Job 3:3). This of course was not God’s desire for Jeremiah – or any child – we have no record in the Bible of anyone seeking to kill their unborn child, in stark contrast to our own “progressive” society.
God’s creative work and sovereign purposes are well captured by the word “form” in Jeremiah 1:5. This is the same root as the word “potter” in Jeremiah 18, where God is pictured as moulding his people’s future throughout history. “Form” is also the verb used in Genesis 2:7 for Adam’s creation, so although Jeremiah is made by God for a particular mission (as the Servant of the Lord is in Isaiah 49:5, using the same word), this does not detract from God’s formation of all people in the womb (see also Jeremiah 10:16 = 51:19).
Jeremiah is shaped and sanctified to be “a prophet to the nations.” Biblical scholars are divided as to whether this is primarily a negative or positive role, but in reality we see both aspects in the book (judgement of nations: Jeremiah 1:10; 10:25; 25:15; 46–51 and hope for the nations: Jeremiah 3:17; 4:2, 16; 16:19). As prophet to the nations Jeremiah anticipates the vocation of the great “Apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul, a fellow Benjaminite (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5), who is also called from his mother’s womb to fulfil God’s saving purposes in his generation (Galatians 1:13–16).
Just as God had a plan in mind for Jeremiah and Paul, God has a purpose for every single life conceived on this planet. Ending the life of any child in the womb not only destroys an image-bearing human, it also opposes God’s good purposes.
 Susan Niditch, Judges: A Commentary, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 143.  It is unclear anyway what this would change: if God knows people before they come into existence, then surely he also knows people – the verb indicates an intimate, personal relationship – while they are inside the womb!