Question: "What did God mean when He said, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," in Jeremiah 1:5?"
Answer: The calling of the prophet Jeremiah included these life-altering words from the Lord: “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 1:5).
The Hebrew word translated “formed” in Jeremiah 1:5 is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 as part of God’s creative act in forming Adam, the first human, from the dust of the ground. The term is typically used to describe a potter’s process of molding clay into unique and useful pottery, as in Jeremiah 18:2–4. A master potter knows the creation he plans to form before he sits at his wheel to work, just as God knew Jeremiah before He ever started shaping him in His mother’s womb. God had set His sights on Jeremiah with plans to create him uniquely to be a spokesperson for the Word of the Lord.
The Hebrew verb translated “knew” in Jeremiah 1:5 means more than mere intellectual knowledge. It is used to describe the most intimate of relationships. Before Jeremiah was conceived in his mother’s womb, the Lord was thinking about him in the most profoundly personal way. Even before Jeremiah’s conception and birth, God chose him to be set apart as a minister of God’s Word to the nations.
Prior to his birth, Jeremiah had been “set apart,” which means he was “sanctified, made holy, consecrated.” This “setting apart” indicates the dedication of an object or individual to a specific use. In the Bible, people or items “set apart” for use by God include the Sabbath day (Exodus 16:23; 20:8), the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 29:44; 40:9), and the priests (Exodus 29:1; 30:30). God knew Jeremiah intimately before conception. He placed His mark upon Him in the womb, reserving him for the specialized task of a prophet.
God also formed the prophet Isaiah “in the womb to be his servant” (Isaiah 49:5). The psalmist acknowledged that “from birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:10). And the apostle Paul testified that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace” (Galatians 1:15).
As the Lord set His sights on Jeremiah, choosing him to be a prophet, so Paul taught that God set His love upon us: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:29–30). God’s purpose in calling people to salvation is that they be conformed into the image of His Son (Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:49; Colossians 3:10; 1 John 3:2). As the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” so He says to us today, “Whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3).
Jeremiah heard the Lord say, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” as the prophet was receiving his call. At first, Jeremiah responded with self-doubt. “O Sovereign LORD,” Jeremiah said, “I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!” (Jeremiah 1:6, NLT). Jeremiah felt inadequate, ineloquent, and too inexperienced to be God’s ambassador. But the Lord reassured Jeremiah, encouraging him simply to be faithful. “Do not be afraid,” declared the Lord, “for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8).
God touched Jeremiah, putting His words in his mouth (Jeremiah 1:9), and from then on the prophet never doubted the authenticity of his call. The experience changed Jeremiah forever. Throughout his lifetime, Jeremiah proclaimed the Word of the Lord to Judah, and his ministry extended to the Gentile nations.
As believers, we can know that God is the master designer of our lives. He is the potter molding, shaping, and engineering the purpose and destiny of our story. We are all formed by His hand (Isaiah 64:8). God knew us intimately before He formed us in the womb. He chose us in Christ. He will be with us always to fulfill His purpose through our lives: “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9, NLT; see also Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11).