Jeremiah Questions The Delay In The Punishment And Asks Why The Wicked Continue To Prosper, Seeking God’s Judgment On Them (Jeremiah 12:1-4).
‘You are righteous, O YHWH, when I contend with you,
Yet would I reason the cause with you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are all they at ease who deal very treacherously?’
Jeremiah’s response was to accept the justice of YHWH’s decision in the face of his plea, but to demonstrate his dissatisfaction at the delay in the judgment. By this time he had been under constant threat of death, and had endured many trials. He comes before YHWH to ‘reason the cause’ with Him. He is faced with the age-old problem as to why the wicked are allowed to continue flourishing. Why is it that those who are most treacherous still find themselves ‘at ease’. For other treatments of the same question compare Job 21:7 ff.; Psalms 73:3-18.
‘You have planted them, yes, they have taken root;
They grow, yes, they bring forth fruit;
You are near in their mouth,
And far from their heart.’
He describes their flourishing in the terms used earlier of the flourishing of the olive tree which had represented Israel in their earlier days (Jeremiah 11:16-17). They were YHWH’s planting (compare Jeremiah 11:17), they took root and grew, they produced fruit, (they looked indeed like a green olive tree still flourishing), but all the while, whilst they honoured YHWH with their lips, their hearts were far from Him (compare Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9). Their worship was not genuine.
‘But you, O YHWH, know me;
You see me, and try my heart towards you;
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
And prepare them for the day of slaughter.’
In contrast Jeremiah’s heart was firmly towards YHWH. He was confident that YHWH saw his ways and tried his heart, and ‘knew’ him through and through, indeed as His chosen one (he was confident in his calling). And he therefore calls on YHWH to act against his adversaries, who have so treated a prophet of YHWH Let it not be him who is the pet lamb led to the slaughter (Jeremiah 11:19), but let that be true of his adversaries, not as pet lambs, but as sheep dragged out from the flock, and prepared ready for slaughter.
We should note here that this was not a cry for personal vengeance. It was a call on YHWH to act in defence of His prophet who was being sacrilegiously treated by those who should have paid him honour. Thereby they had sinned directly against YHWH and were acting in deliberate rebellion against Him. It was not for Jeremiah to consider forgiving them It was a sin that only God could call to account (and only God could forgive).
‘How long will the land mourn,
And the herbs of the whole country wither?
For the wickedness of those who dwell in it,
The beasts are consumed, and the birds;
Because they said,
“He will not see our latter end.”
He then supports his prayer with the evidence. It is because of these people and their attitudes and activities, in which in their complacency they think that they will be allowed to continue long after Jeremiah has gone (‘he will not see our latter end’), that the land was mourning and the vegetation was withering. It was because of them that the innocent animals and birds were being consumed by the disaster coming on the land. It was because they were self-confident and yet total hypocrites.
This plea assumes either that there had been great drought (compare Jeremiah 14:1), or that marauding invaders had already been present in the land. For quite apart from the activities of the great nations such as Assyria, Egypt and Babylon, and seemingly of the Scythians, they would be subject to quarrels with neighbouring countries, and raids by marauding bands of nomads. War of one kind or another was an ever present threat (compare 2 Samuel 11:1) quite apart from the regular incursions by Babylon.
‘He will not see our latter end.’ This may indicate that this would be because he was dead, or be expressing the confidence that what he sees about their latter end is not true. After all, the other prophets were prophesying ‘peace’. Alternately the ‘He’ might be YHWH in which case the idea is that they are being punished because they had assumed that like their chosen gods YHWH could not see what they were doing.
YHWH Responds With A Warning To Jeremiah That He Will Yet Face Worse Things Than This (Jeremiah 12:5-6).
YHWH calls on Jeremiah to recognise that what he has endured up to now is as nothing compared with what lies ahead. Up until now he has only had to face the footmen (the local opposition or the lower level authorities), in the future he will have to face the horses (the higher powers that be, including the king, in Jerusalem). Up to now he has been comparatively at ease, shortly he must enter the jungle with its wild beasts. To serve God is not always a guarantee that life will be easy and prosperous. ‘it is through much tribulation that we must enter under the Kingly Rule of God’ (Acts 14:22).
‘If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,
Then how can you contend with horses?
And though in a land of peace you are secure,
Yet how will you do in the pride of the Jordan?’
The first picture is of a fugitive being chased down. Up to this point in time Jeremiah has only been ‘chased’ by men on foot, and yet he has clearly found that wearisome. What then is he going to do when he is chased down by horsemen, as in the future he surely will be? In other words while he has had trouble dealing with those in authority at lower levels, he will shortly be brought to the attention of the court. The idea of contending with horses might have in mind Elijah’s running before Ahab’s chariot to the gates of Jezreel (1 Kings 18:46).
The second picture, which illustrates the same idea and confirms it, is of having to leave a part of the land where there was peace and security, and where he would not have to face obstacles, a land which was relatively free from wild beasts, to enter a land where lions, bears and other wild beasts roamed relatively freely, and vegetation was at its thickest. The Pride of Jordan was the name given to the marshy thicket country on the verge of the Jordan in the Arabah (Jordan Gulf), which was a favourite haunt of wild animals, including especially lions (Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44; Zechariah 11:3).
‘For even your brothers,
And the house of your father,
Even they have dealt treacherously with you,
Even they have cried aloud after you.
Believe them not,
Though they speak fair words to you.’
But what would be worst of all would be that he would be betrayed by his own family, and possibly already was being. Even his brothers and his father’s house, the one place where he should have been secure and at peace, would have turned against him, leading the chase against him, shouting after him and raising a hue and cry. Thus he must in the future trust no one, not even his closest family. This needs, of course, to be taken in parallel with the fact that the people were at the time totally untrustworthy, even to each other (Jeremiah 9:8). It is always necessary to count the cost of serving God.
We should at this point possibly give a reminder that tenses in Hebrew verbs are not similar to the tenses that we find in Latin, Greek and English. Rather than having a past tenses and a future tense, indicating chronological sequence, they had a complete tense (often called ‘perfect’ and indicating an action that was certain and complete, and therefore usually, although not always in the past) and an incomplete tense (often called ‘imperfect’, which would be present or future because uncertain and incomplete). They expressed the completeness and certainty of the action, or otherwise. Thus the so-called ‘perfect tense’ could express the future as it was seen to be perfectly complete in the mind of God though His prophet.
YHWH Has Forsaken His House And Rejected His Heritage Because Of What It Has Become, And Their Evil Neighbours Will Also Be Punished, But Even For Them There Will Be Hope In The Future If They Turn To YHWH (Jeremiah 12:7-17).
In Jeremiah 11:15 YHWH had asked what right ‘His beloved’ had in His house when she had done evil deeds. Now He declared that He had forsaken His house and had rejected His heritage, and had in effect given the beloved of his soul into the hands of their enemies. As a result Judah would be invaded by her neighbours and devastated. But then He warned that those very neighbours would also be brought into judgment and would themselves be exiled, only to be restored later and given the opportunity to become worshippers of YHWH. This prophecy would appear to reflect the time towards the end of Jehoiakim’s reign when, after he had withheld tribute, Babylon urged all Judah’s neighbours to begin to ravage Judah, along with local Babylonian contingents (2 Kings 24:2).
There is a reminder here that in all that YHWH did to His people, His final purpose was for them to be a witness to the nations, something later remarkably fulfilled at Pentecost and through the early Jewish church.
YHWH Has Forsaken His House And Rejected His Heritage.
‘I have forsaken my house,
I have cast off my heritage,
I have given the dearly beloved of my soul,
Into the hand of her enemies.’
It is an open question whether ‘I have forsaken My house’ is speaking about the Temple, as suggested by Jeremiah 11:15, or whether it signifies the people of Judah in parallel with ‘My heritage’. In view of Jeremiah 11:15, which clearly refers to the Temple, and with that being also the only other place where Judah are called YHWH’s beloved we would favour the former, but it makes little difference to the overall impact which is that Judah have been cast off and forsaken and will be handed over to their enemies. The idea of Judah being YHWH’s heritage looks back to their deliverance from Egypt (see verses below). The idea of Judah as the ‘dearly beloved of YHWH’s soul’ indicates just how much Judah’s desertion had cost Him, and how hard it was for Him to hand her over to her enemies. Because of His underlying compassion God’s judgments are not easy for Him to carry out.
This was an assurance, in the face of the warning that He had given Jeremiah that he would be forsaken by his own household, that He too was a loser in the situation. He too was losing His House and His people Whom He loved.
For the idea of Israel/Judah as ‘My heritage’ see Deuteronomy 4:20; Deuteronomy 9:29; Deuteronomy 32:9; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51; 1 Kings 8:53; Psalms 33:12; Psalms 78:62; Psalms 78:71; Psalms 94:5; Psalms 94:14; Psalms 106:5; Psalms 106:40; Isaiah 19:25; Isaiah 47:6; Isaiah 63:17; Joel 2:17; Joel 3:2; Micah 7:18. It will be noted that the idea is not found in the traditionally later prophets, perhaps because the people were no longer seen in that way, having been ‘cast off’.
‘My heritage is become to me,
Like a lion in the forest.
She has uttered her voice against me,
Therefore I have hated her (loved her less).’
In this startling image Judah are seen as standing like a belligerent lion, roaring at YHWH as though He was their enemy. His heritage had so turned against Him and were so lost to all that was good, that she defied Him to His face. This was why YHWH’s love for her was waning (the word for ‘hated’ regularly means ‘loved less’, as Jacob loved Rachel and loved Leah less. He did not actually hate Leah - Genesis 29:30-31). His case was similar to Jeremiah’s. God never calls on us to face what He has not faced Himself.
In Consequence His Heritage Is At His Behest Surrounded By Enemies Who Will One And All Press In On His Vineyard To Destroy It.
‘Is my heritage to me like a speckled bird of prey?
Are the birds of prey against her round about?
Go you, assemble all the beasts of the field,
Bring them to devour.
It is a well known natural phenomenon that when a strange bird which is different in some way from all the others comes among other birds they will pursue it with loud cries and even attack it. The distinction and strangeness of this particular bird is brought out here by describing it as ‘speckled’. In consequence the other unspeckled birds of prey (warrior nations) are seen as turning on speckled Judah. And to further her mortification the scavengers among the wild beasts (further war-like nations on the lookout for booty) are called in as well to assist in devouring her (compare Isaiah 56:9). Poor speckled Judah, she is to be the victim of them all.
Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,
They have trodden my portion under foot,
They have made my pleasant portion,
A desolate wilderness.
The picture now changes from birds of prey to shepherds, representing the kings of the nations, who often described themselves as the shepherds of their people (compare Isaiah 31:4; Isaiah 44:28; Micah 5:5; Nahum 3:18). Many ‘shepherds’ will come in and tread YHWH’s portion, His land, under foot. Indeed they will make His pleasant portion desolate because His people have brought it on themselves.
‘They have made it a desolation,
It mourns unto me, being desolate,
The whole land is made desolate,
Because no man lays it to heart.’
The total desolation of the land that is coming is brought out by the threefold repetition. It is made desolate, it mourns because it is desolate, the whole land is made desolate. And this happens because no one cares, no one comes to Judah’s aid. All her alliances have collapsed in the face of her behaviour.
‘Destroyers are come on all the bare heights in the wilderness,
For the sword of YHWH devours,
From the one end of the land even to the other end of the land,
No flesh has peace.
The invasion will be so massive that every square centimetre of land will be covered, even the bare heights of the wilderness which, with their idol sanctuaries, have had their part to play in Judah’s sins. And there the sword of YHWH, wielded by their enemies, will devour the people from one end of the land to the other. No one will have peace and wellbeing. All will be targets.
‘They have sown wheat, and have reaped thorns,
They have put themselves to pain, and profit nothing,
And you will be ashamed of your fruits,
Because of the fierce anger of YHWH.’
In Jeremiah 4:3 they had been warned not to sow among thorns. But they had not listened and had sown their wheat among the thorns. Now therefore when they went to reap they found themselves reaping thorns. The idea is of course parabolic. Because they had failed to purify their lives, they are reaping what is both useless and painful. Thus all the efforts that they had put into profiting their lives are now revealed to have produced nothing. All is despoiled. And what is more they will be ashamed of the fruits of their lives, their sin and idolatry, because they are aware that as a result the fierce anger of YHWH is directed against them.
However, it would be just as true physically. Shut up in their besieged cities their fields would become beset by thorns which would choke out the carefully sown grain. All their labours would be in vain, and there would only be shame when the harvest was considered, except that in the end there would be no harvest. For those who survived would be carried away captive when their cities were taken. What happens to us spiritually very often affects our physical lives in the same way.
But Those Invaders Will Themselves Also Be Called To Account And Will Be Exiled.
From this point on it is YHWH Who is speaking. It will be noticeable how often His words mingle with the words of Jeremiah. For the truth is that the two are one, because when Jeremiah speaks he speaks ‘the word of YHWH’.
The stress here is on the fact that it has to be remembered what these invaders have done. They have committed sacrilege. They have attacked YHWH’s heritage (Jeremiah 12:7-8)! They have taken possession of His firstfruits (Jeremiah 2:3)! They have thus given evidence that although physically circumcised they are not circumcised in heart (Jeremiah 9:25-26). And as a result they have dared to ‘touch’ something sacred, the land which YHWH not only gave to Israel/Judah as an inheritance, but ‘caused them to inherit’. It had been YHWH’s will that Israel/Judah should inherit it. It will therefore be necessary for the invaders also to be punished because they have opposed YHWH.
“Thus says YHWH against all my evil neighbours,
Who touch the inheritance which I have caused my people Israel to inherit,
Behold, I will pluck them up from off their land,
And will pluck up the house of Judah from among them.”
Because they have done the things described above, the invading neighbours also will be plucked from their land and carried away into exile, just as Judah is to be plucked up. All will be treated in the same way, Judah because she had destroyed the covenant, the remainder because they had without compunction touched what was sacred, YHWH’s people. It is not said that they would all be exiled to Babylon, only that they would be turned out of their own lands, and there can be little doubt from their histories that this was literally fulfilled.
Some see ‘I will pluck up the house of Judah from among them’ as referring to Judah/Israel’s later deliverance from exile with the idea that the neighbouring nations will languish while the people of Judah are delivered. However, as in Jeremiah 12:15 all are to be restored to their lands it appears to us more likely that it is the coming exile of the house of Judah that is in mind.
Afterwards, However, YHWH Will Have Compassion On Them And Restore Them To Their Lands.
But as happens so often in the prophets, after the judgment comes mercy. Some time in the future YHWH will have compassion on these neighbouring nations, and on Judah, and will restore them to their lands.
“And it will come about after I have plucked them up,
That I will return and have compassion on them,
And I will bring them again, every man to his heritage,
And every man to his land.”
YHWH’s compassion is not only for His people, it is for all peoples. Thus after these peoples have been plucked up, they will be returned again to the place of their inheritance and to their land. The decrees of Cyrus that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and its surrounding areas also allowed for the return of other peoples to their own lands. And there would be an even greater fulfilment for those who respond to the call of Christ when they inherit their portion in the new Heaven and the new earth and are at peace with God.
Then If They Listen To His People And Turn To YHWH They Will Be Built Up Among Them, But If They Refuse To Listen They Will Be Plucked Up And Destroyed.
‘And it will come about, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people,
To swear by my name, ‘As YHWH lives’,
Even as they taught my people to swear by Baal,
Then will they be built up in the midst of my people.
But if they will not hear, then will I pluck up that nation,
Plucking up and destroying it, the word of YHWH.”
And once the people have returned to their own land they will once more have before their eyes the witness and testimony of Israel. Then if they will respond to that teaching, and will learn to swear by the living God (nations always swore in court by the god whom they saw as most important), in the same way as they had taught Israel to swear by Baal, then they would be built up in the midst of His people. This was initially allowing for the many proselytes who would later become Jews in the inter-testamental period, including both Edomites who had fled to southern Judah and had been forced to become Jews under John Hyrcanus, and Gentiles in and around Galilee who were similarly ‘persuaded’ to become Jews in the days of the Maccabees. It would also find fulfilment in the witness of the early Jewish church through which large numbers of the peoples responded voluntarily to YHWH, and to Jesus Christ, the son of David. The new Israel of God became the foundation on which they were built and the household of which they became a part.
Such response would depend on the faith of the hearers, and thus those who did not respond would again be plucked up and destroyed. And this was the word of YHWH. It will be noted how what is spoken of here lays the foundation for the preaching of the Gospel, when salvation will depend on responsive faith, and rejection of salvation will ensure judgment. It is promising a fulfilment of all YHWH’s promises of salvation for the Gentiles (see Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 12". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany