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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 12

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-17



Jeremiah 11:1-23 and Jeremiah 12:1-17

THERE is no visible break between these two chapters. They seem to summarise the history of a particular episode in the prophet’s career. At the same time, the style is so peculiar that it is not so easy as it might appear at a first glance to determine exactly what it is that the section has to tell us. When we come to take a closer look at it, we find a thoroughly characteristic mixture of direct narrative and soliloquy, of statement of facts and reflection upon those facts, of aspiration and prayer and prophecy, of self-communing and communing with God. Careful analysis may perhaps furnish us with a clue to the disentanglement of the general sense and drift of this characteristic medley. We may thus hope to get a clearer insight into the bearing of this old world oracle upon our own needs and perplexities, our sins and the fruit of our sins, what we have done and what we may expect as the consequence of our doings. For the Word of God is "quick and powerful." Its outward form and vesture may change with the passing of time; but its substance never changes. The old interpreters die, but the Word lives, and its life is a life of power. By that Word men live in their successive generations; it is at once creative and regulative; it is the seed of life in man, and it is the law of that life. Apart from the Divine Word, man would be no more than a brute gifted with understanding, but denied all answer to the higher cravings of soul and spirit; a being whose conscious life was a mere mockery; a self-tormentor, tantalised with vain surmises, tortured with ever-recurring problems; longing for light, and beset with never-lifting clouds of impenetrable darkness; the one sole instance, among the myriads of sentient beings, of a creature whose wants Nature refuses to satisfy, and whose lot it is to consume forever in the fires of hopeless desire.

The sovran Lord, who is the Eternal Wisdom, has not made such a mistake. He provides satisfaction for all His creatures, according to the varying degrees of their capacity, according to their rank in the scale of being, so that all may rejoice in the fulness and the freedom of a happy life for their allotted time. Man is no exception to the universal rule. His whole constitution, as God has fashioned it, is such that he can find his perfect satisfaction in the Word of the Lord. And the depth of his dissatisfaction, the poignancy and the bitterness of his disappointment and disgust at himself and at the world in which he finds himself, are the strongest evidence that he has sought satisfaction in things that cannot satisfy; that he has foolishly endeavoured to feed his soul upon ashes, to still the cravings of his spirit with something other than that Word of God which is the Bread of Life.

You will observe that the discourse we are to consider, is headed: "The word that fell to Jeremiah from Iahvah" (lit. "from with," that is, "from the presence of" the Eternal), "saying." I think that expression "saying" covers all that follows, to the end of the discourse. The prophet’s preaching the Law, and the consequences of that preaching as regarded himself: his experience of the stubbornness and treachery of the people; the varying moods of his own mind under that bitter experience; his reflections upon the condition of Judah, and the condition of Judah’s ill-minded neighbours; his forecasts of the after course of events as determined by the unchanging will of a righteous God; all these things seem to. be included in the scope of that "Word from the presence of Iahvah," which the prophet is about to put on record. You will see that it is not a single utterance of a precise and definite message, which he might have delivered in a few moments of time before a single audience of his countrymen. The Word of the Lord is progressively revealed; it begins with a thought in the prophet’s mind, but its entire content is unfolded gradually, as he proceeds to act upon that thought or Divine impulse; it is, as it were, evolved as the result of collision between the prophet and his hearers; it emerges into clear light out of the darkness of storm and conflict; a conflict both internal and external; a conflict within, between his own contending emotions and impulses and sympathies; and a conflict without, between an unpopular teacher, and a wayward and corrupt and incorrigible people. "From with Iahvah." There may be strife and tumult and the darkness of ignorance and passion upon earth; but the star of truth shines in the firmament of heaven, and the eye of the inspired man sees it. This is his difference from his fellows.

"Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak ye unto the men of Judah, and upon the dwellers in Jerusalem! And say thou unto them, Thus saith Iahvah, the God of Israel, Accursed are the men that hear not the words of this covenant, which I lay on your fathers, in the day that I brought them forth from the land of Egypt, from the furnace of iron, saying, Hearken unto My voice, and do these things, according to all that I shall charge you: that ye may become for Me a people, and that I Myself may become for you a God. That I may make good" (vid. infra) "the oath which I sware to your forefathers, that I would give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it now is" (or simply, "today"). "And I answered and said, Amen, Iahvah!" {Jeremiah 11:1-5} "Hear ye speak ye unto the men of Judah!" The occasion referred to is that memorable crisis in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, when Hilkiah the high priest had "found the book of the law in the house of the Lord," {2 Kings 22:8 sqq.} and the pious king had read in the hearing of the assembled people those fervid exhortations to obedience, those promises fraught with all manner of blessing, those terrible denunciations of wrath and ruin reserved for rebellion and apostasy, which we may still read in the closing chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. {Deuteronomy 27:1-26, sq.} Jeremiah is recalling the events of his own ministry, and passes in rapid review from the time of his preaching upon the Book of the Law, to the Chaldean invasion in the reign of Jehoiachin. {Jeremiah 13:18 sqq.} He recalls the solemn occasion when the king and people bound themselves by oath to observe the law of their God; when "the king stood upon the platform, and made the covenant before Iahvah, that he would follow Iahvah, and keep his commandments, and his laws and his statutes, with whole heart and with whole soul; to make good the words of this covenant that were written upon this roll; and all the people stood to the covenant." {2 Kings 23:3} At or soon after this great meeting, the prophet gives, in the name of Iahvah, an emphatic approval to the public undertaking; and bids the leaders in the movement not to rest contented with this good beginning, but to impress the obligation more deeply upon the community at large, by sending a mission of properly qualified persons, including himself, which should at once enforce the reforms necessitated by the covenant of strict obedience to the Law, and reconcile the people both of the capital and of the rural towns and hamlets to the sudden and sweeping changes demanded of them, by showing their entire consonance with the Divine precepts. "Hear ye"-princes and priests-"the words of this covenant; and speak ye unto the men of Judah!" Then follows, in brief, the prophet’s own commission, which is to reiterate, with all the force of his impassioned rhetoric, the awful menaces of the Sacred Book: "Cursed be the men that hear not the words of this covenant!" Now again, in these last years of their national existence, the chosen people are to hear an authoritative proclamation of that Divine Law upon which all their weal depends; the Law given them at the outset of their history, when the memory of the great deliverance was yet fresh in their minds; the Law which was the condition of their peculiar relation to the Universal God. At Sinai they had solemnly undertaken to observe that Law: and Iahweh had fulfilled His promise to their "fathers"-to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-and had given them a goodly land, in which they had now been established for at least six hundred years. The Divine truth and righteousness were manifest upon a retrospect of this long period of eventful history; and Jeremiah could not withhold his inward assent, in the formula prescribed by the Book of the Law, {Deuteronomy 27:15 sqq.} to the perfect justice of the sentence: "Cursed be the men that hear not the words of this covenant." "And I answered and said, Amen, Iahvah!" So to this true Israelite, thus deeply communing with his own spirit, two things had become clear as day. The one was the absolute righteousness of God’s entire dealing with Israel, from first to last; the righteousness of disaster and overthrow as well as of victory and prosperity: the other was his own present duty to bring this truth home to the hearts and consciences of his fellow countrymen. This is how he states the fact: "And Iahvah said unto me, Proclaim thou all these words in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear ye the words of this covenant and do them. For I earnestly adjured your fathers, when I brought them up from the land of Egypt" ("and I have done so continually") "even unto this very day, saying, Obey ye My voice! And they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear; and they walked, each and all, in the hardness of their wicked heart. So I brought upon them all the threats" (lit., "words") "of this covenant, which I had charged them to keep, and they kept it not." {Jeremiah 11:6-8} God is always self-consistent; man is often inconsistent with himself; God is eternally true, man is ever giving fresh proofs of his natural faithlessness. God is not only just in keeping His promises; He is also merciful, in labouring ever to induce man to be self-consistent, and true to moral obligations. And Divine mercy is revealed alike in the pleadings of the Holy Spirit by the mouth of prophets, by the voice of conscience, and in the retribution that overtakes persistence in evil. The Divine Law is life and health to them that keep it; it is death to them that break it. "Thou, Lord, art merciful: for thou rewardest every man according to his works."

The relation of the One God to this one people was neither accidental nor arbitrary. It is sometimes spoken of as a thing glaringly unjust to the other nations of the ancient world, that the Father of all should have chosen Israel only to be the recipient of His special favours. Sometimes it is demanded, as an unanswerable dilemma, How could the Universal God be the God of the Jews, in the restricted sense implied by the Old Testament histories? But difficulties of this kind rest upon misunderstanding, due to a slavishly literal interpretation of certain passages, and inability to take a comprehensive view of the general drift and tenor of the Old Testament writings as they bear upon this subject. God’s choice of Israel was proof of His love for mankind. He did not select one people because He was indifferent or hostile to all other peoples; but because He wished to bring all the nations of the earth to the knowledge of Himself, and the observance of His law. The words of our prophet show that he was profoundly convinced that the favour of Iahvah had from the outset depended upon the obedience of Israel: "Hearken unto My voice, and do these things that ye may become for Me a people, and that I Myself may become for you a God." How strangely must such words have sounded in the ears of people who believed, as the masses both in town and country appear for the most part to have done, that Iahvah as the ancestral god was bound by an indissoluble tie to Israel, and that He could not suffer the nation to perish without incurring irreparable loss, if not extinction, for Himself! It is as if the prophet had said: You call yourselves the people of God; but it is not so much that you are His people, as that you may become such by doing His will. You suppose that Iahvah, the Eternal, the Creator, is to you what Chemosh is to Moab, or Molech to Ammon, or Baal to Tyre; but that is just what He is not. If you entertain such ideas of Iahvah, you are worshipping a figment of your own carnal imaginations; your god is not the universal God, but a gross unspiritual idol. It is only upon your fulfilment of His conditions, only upon your yielding an inward assent to His law, a hearty acceptance to His rule of life, that He Himself - the One only God-can truly become your God. In accepting His law, you accept Him, and in rejecting His law, you reject Him; for His law is a reflection of Himself; a revelation, so far as such can be made to a creature like man, of His essential being and character. Therefore think not that you can worship Him by mere external rites; for the true worship is "righteousness, and holiness of life."

The progress of the reforming movement, which was doubtless powerfully stimulated by the preaching of Jeremiah, is briefly sketched in the chapter of the book of Kings, to which I have already referred. {2 Kings 23:1-37} That summary of the good deeds of king Josiah records apparently a very complete extirpation of the various forms of idolatry, and even a slaughter of the idol priests upon their own altars. Heathenism, it would seem, could hardly have been practised again, at least openly, during the twelve remaining years of Josiah. But although a zealous king might enforce outward conformity to the Law, and although the earnest preaching of prophets like Zephaniah and Jeremiah might have considerable effect with the better part of the people, the fact remained that those whose hearts were really open to the word of the Lord were still, as always, a small minority; and the tendency to apostasy, though checked, was far from being rooted up. Here and there the forbidden rites were secretly observed; and the harsh measures which had accompanied their public suppression may very probably have intensified the attachment of many to the local forms of worship. Sincere conversions are not effected by violence; and the martyrdom of devotees may give new life even to degraded and utterly immoral superstitions. The transient nature of Josiah’s reformation, radical as it may have appeared at the time to the principal agents engaged in it, is evident from the testimony of Jeremiah himself. "And Iahvah said unto me, There exists a conspiracy among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They have returned to the old sins of their fathers, who refused to hear My words; and they too have gone away after other gods, to serve them the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant, which I made with their forefathers. Therefore thus saith Iahvah, Behold I am about to bring unto them an evil from which they cannot get forth; and they will cry unto Me, and I will not listen unto them. And the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry unto the gods to whom they burn incense" (i.e., now; ptcp.); "and they will yield them no help at all in the time of their evil. For many as thy cities are thy gods become, O Judah! and many as the streets of Jerusalem have ye appointed altars to the Shame, altars for burning incense to the Baal. And as for thee, intercede thou not for this people, nor lift up for them outcry" (i.e., mourning) "and intercession; for I intend not to hearken, in the time when they call unto Me, in the time of their evil" (Jeremiah 11:9-14). All this appears to indicate the course of the prophet’s reflection, after it had become clear to him that the reformation was illusory, and that his own labours had failed of their purpose. He calls the relapse of the people a plot or conspiracy; thereby suggesting, perhaps, the secrecy with which the prohibited worships were at first revived, and the intrigues of the unfaithful nobles and priests and prophets, in order to bring about a reversal of the policy of reform, and a return to the old system; and certainly suggesting that the heart of the nation, as a whole, was disloyal to its Heavenly King, and that its renewed apostasy was a wicked disavowal of lawful allegiance, and an act of unpardonable treason against God.

But the word further signifies that a bond has been entered into, a bond which is the exact antithesis of the covenant with Iahvah; and it implies that this bond has about it a fatal strength and permanence, involving as its necessary consequence the ruin of the nation. Breaking covenant with Iahvah meant making a covenant with other gods; it was impossible to do the one thing without the other. And that is as true now, under totally different conditions, as it was in the land of Judah, twenty-four centuries ago. If you have broken faith with God in Christ it is because you have entered into an agreement with another; it is because you have foolishly taken the tempter at his word, and accepted his conditions, and surrendered to his proposals, and preferred his promises to the promises of God. It is because, against all reason, against conscience, against the Holy Spirit, against the witness of God’s Word, against the witness of His Saints and Confessors in all ages, you have believed that a Being less than the Eternal God could ensure your weal and make you happy. And now your heart is no longer at unity in itself, and your allegiance is no longer single and undivided. "Many as thy cities are thy gods become, O Judah!" The soul that is not unified and harmonised by the fear of the One God, is torn and distracted by a thousand contending passions: and vainly seeks peace and deliverance by worship at a thousand unholy shrines. But Mammon and Belial and Ashtaroth and the whole rout of unclean spirits, whose seductions have lured you astray, will fail you at last; and in the hour of bitter need, you will learn too late that there is no god but God, and no peace nor safety nor joy but in Him.

It is futile to pray for those who have deliberately cast off the covenant of Iahvah, and made a covenant with His adversary. "Intercede not for this people, nor lift up outcry and intercession for them!" Prayer cannot save, nothing can save, the impenitent; and there is a state of mind in which one’s own prayer is turned into sin; the state of mind in which a man prays, merely to appease God, and escape the fire, but without a thought of forsaking sin, without the faintest aspiration after holiness. There is a degree of guilt upon which sentence is already passed, which is "unto death," and for which intercession is interdicted alike by the Apostle of the New as to the prophet of the Old Covenant.

"What availeth it My beloved, that she fulfilleth her intent in Mine house? Can vows and hallowed flesh make thine evil to pass from thee? Then mightest thou indeed rejoice" (Jeremiah 11:15). Such appears to be the true sense of this verse, the only difficult one in the chapter. The prophet had evidently the same thought in his mind as in Jeremiah 11:11: "I will bring unto them an evil, from which they cannot get forth; and they will cry unto Me, and I will not hearken unto them." The words also recall those of Isaiah: {Isaiah 1:11 sqq} "For what to Me are your many sacrifices, saith Iahvah? When ye enter in to see My face, who hath sought this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more a vain oblation; loathly incense it is to Me!" The term which I have rendered "intent," usually denotes an evil intention; so that, like Isaiah, our prophet implies that the popular worship is not only futile but sinful. So true it is that "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination"; {Proverbs 28:9} or, as the Psalmist puts the same truth, "If I incline unto wickedness with my heart, the Lord will not hear me."

"A flourishing olive, fair with shapely fruit, did Iahvah call thy name. To the sound of a great uproar will He set her on fire; and his hanging boughs will crackle" ("in the flames"). "And Iahvah Sabaoth, that planted thee, Himself hath pronounced evil upon thee; because of the evil of the house of Israel and the house of Judah, which they have done to themselves" {Jeremiah 4:18; Jeremiah 7:19} "in provoking Me, in burning incense to the Baal" (Jeremiah 11:16-17). The figure of the olive seems a very natural one, {cf. Romans 11:17} when we remember the beauty, and the utility for which that tree is famous in Eastern lands. "Iahvah called thy name"; that is, called thee into determinate being; endowed thee at thine origin with certain characteristic qualities. Thine original constitution, as thou didst leave thy Maker’s hand, was fair and good. Israel among the nations was as beautiful to the eye as the olive among trees; and his "fruit," his doings, were a glory to God and a blessing to men, like that precious oil, for "which God and man honour" the olive {Judges 9:9; Zechariah 4:3; Hosea 14:7} But now the noble stock had degenerated; the "green olive tree," planted in the very court of Iahvah’s house, had become no better than a barren wilding, fit only for the fire. The thought is essentially similar to that of an earlier discourse: "I planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed; how then hast thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto Me?" {Jeremiah 2:21} Here, there is an abrupt transition, which forcibly expresses the suddenness of the destruction that must devour this degenerate people: "To the sound of a great uproar"-the din of invading armies "he will set her" (the beloved, symbolised by the tree) "on fire; and his" (the olive’s) "hanging boughs will crackle in the flames." And this fierce work of a barbarous soldiery is no chance calamity; it is the execution of a Divine judgment: "Iahvah Sabaoth Himself hath pronounced evil upon thee." And yet further, it is the nation’s own doing; the two houses of Israel have persistently laboured for their own ruin; they have brought it upon themselves. Man is himself the author of his own weal and woe; and they who are not "working out their own salvation," are working out their own destruction.

"And it was Iahvah that gave me knowledge, so that I well knew; at that time, Thou didst show me their doings. But, for myself, like a favourite" (lit. tame, friendly, gentle: Jeremiah 3:4) "lamb that is led to the slaughter, I wist not that against me they had laid a plot. ‘Let us fell the tree in its prime, and let us cut him off out of the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’ Yea, but Iahvah Sabaoth judgeth righteously, trieth reins and heart. I shall see Thy vengeance on them; for unto Thee have I laid bare my cause. Therefore thus said Iahvah: Upon the men of Anathoth that were seeking thy life, saying, Thou shalt not prophesy in the name of Iahvah, that thou die not by our hand:-therefore thus said Iahvah Sabaoth, Behold I am about to visit it upon them: the young men will die by the sword; their sons and their daughters will die by the famine. And a remnant they shall not have: for I will bring an evil unto the men of Anathoth, the year of their visitation" (Jeremiah 11:18-23).

The prophet, it would seem, had made the round of the country places, and come to Anathoth, on his return journey to Jerusalem. Here, in his native town, he proclaimed to his own people that same solemn message which he had delivered to the country at large. It is very probable that the preceding verses (Jeremiah 11:9-17) contain the substance of his address to his kinsfolk and acquaintance; an address which stirred them, not to repentance towards God, but to murderous wrath against His prophet. A plot was laid for Jeremiah’s life by his own neighbours and even his own family; {Jeremiah 12:6} and he owed his escape to some providential circumstance, some "lucky accident," as men might say, which revealed to him their unsuspected perfidy. What the event was which thus suddenly disclosed the hidden danger, is not recorded; and the whole episode is rather alluded to than described. But it is clear that the prophet knew nothing about the plot, until it was ripe for execution. He was as wholly unconscious of the death prepared for him, as a petted lamb on the way to the altar. "Then"-when his fate seemed sure-then it was that something happened by which "Iahvah gave him knowledge," and "showed him their doing": The thought or saying attributed to his enemies, "Let us fell the tree (s) in the prime thereof!" may contain a sarcastic allusion really made to the prophet’s own warning (Jeremiah 11:16): "A flourishing olive, fair with shapely fruit, did Iahvah call thy name: to the noise of a great uproar will He set it on fire, and the branches thereof shall crackle in the flames." The words that follow (Jeremiah 11:20), "yea, but" (or, and yet) "Iahvah Sabaoth judgeth righteously; trieth reins and heart," {cf. Jeremiah 20:12} is the prophet’s reply, in the form of an unexpressed thought, or a hurried ejaculation upon discovering their deadly malice. The timely warning which he had received, was fresh proof to him of the truth that human designs are, after all that their authors can do, dependent on the will of an Unseen Arbiter of events; and the Divine justice, thus manifested towards himself, inspired a conviction that those hardened and bloodthirsty sinners would, sooner or later, experience in their own destruction that display of the same Divine attribute which was necessary to its complete manifestation. It was this conviction, rather than personal resentment, however excusable under the circumstances that feeling would have been, which led Jeremiah to exclaim: "I shall see Thy vengeance on them, for unto Thee have I laid bare my cause."

He had appealed to the Judge of all the earth, that doeth right; and he knew the innocency of his own heart in the quarrel. He was certain, therefore, that his cause would one day be vindicated, when that ruin overtook his enemies, of which he had warned them in vain. Looked at in this light, his words are a confident assertion of the Divine justice, not a cry for vengeance. They reveal what we may perhaps call the human basis of the formal prophecy which follows; they show by what steps the prophet’s mind was led on to the utterance of a sentence of destruction upon the men of Anathoth. That Jeremiah’s invectives and threatenings of wrath and ruin should provoke hatred and opposition was perhaps not wonderful. Men in general are slow to recognise their own moral shortcomings, to believe evil of themselves; and they are apt to prefer advisers whose optimism, though ill-founded and misleading, is pleasant and reassuring and confirmatory of their own prejudices. But it does seem strange that it should have been reserved for the men of his own birthplace, his own "brethren and his father’s house," to carry opposition to the point of meditated murder. Once more Jeremiah stands before us, a visible type of Him whose Divine wisdom declared that a prophet finds no honour in his own country, and whose life was attempted on that Sabbath day at Nazareth. {Luke 4:24 sqq.}

The sentence was pronounced, but the cloud of dejection was not at once lifted from the soul of the seer. He knew that justice must in the end overtake the guilty; but, in the meantime, "his enemies lived and were mighty," and their criminal designs against himself remained unnoticed and unpunished. The more he brooded over it, the more difficult it seemed to reconcile their prosperous immunity with the justice of God. He has given us the course of his reflections upon this painful question, ever suggested anew by the facts of life, never sufficiently answered by toiling reason. "Too righteous art Thou, Iahvah, for me to contend with Thee: I will but lay arguments before Thee" (i.e., argue the case forensically). "Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are they undisturbed, all that deal very treacherously? Thou plantest them, yea, they take root; they grow ever, yea, they bear fruit: Thou art nigh in their mouth, and far from their reins. And Thou, Iahvah, knowest me; Thou seest me, and triest mine heart in Thy mind. Separate them like sheep for the slaughter, and consecrate them for the day of killing! How long shall the land mourn, and the herbage of all the country wither? From the evil of the dwellers therein, beasts and birds perish: for they have said (or, thought), "He cannot see our end". {Jeremiah 12:1-4} It is not merely that his would be murderers thrive; it is that they take the holy Name upon their unclean lips; it is that they are hypocrites combining a pretended respect for God, with an inward and thorough indifference to God. He is nigh in their mouth and far from their reins. They "honour Him with their lips, but have removed their heart far from Him; and their worship of Him is a mere human commandment, learned by rote". {Isaiah 29:13} They swear by His Name, when they are bent on deception. {Jeremiah 5:2} It is all this which especially rouses the prophet’s indignation; and contrasting therewith his own conscious integrity and faithfulness to the Divine law, he calls upon Divine justice to judge between himself and them: "Pull them out like sheep for slaughter, and consecrate them" (set them apart from the rest of the flock) "for the day of killing!" It has been said that Jeremiah throughout this whole paragraph speaks not as a prophet, but as a private individual; and that in this verse especially he "gives way to the natural man, and asks the life of his enemies". {1 Kings 3:11 Job 31:30} This is perhaps a tenable opinion. We have to bear in mind the difference of standpoint between the writers of the Old Covenant and those of the New. Not much is said by the former about the forgiveness of injuries, about withholding the hand from vengeance. The most ancient law, indeed, contained a noble precept, which pointed in this direction: "If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him." {Exodus 23:4-5} And in the Book of Proverbs we read: "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, And let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown." But the impression of magnanimity thus produced is somewhat diminished by the reason which is added immediately: "Lest the Lord see it and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him": a motive of which the best that can be said is that it is characteristic of the imperfect morality of the time. {Proverbs 24:17 sq.} The same objection may be taken to that other famous passage of the same book: "If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat: And if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, And the Lord shall reward thee". {Proverbs 25:21 sq.} The reflection that the relief of his necessities will mortify and humiliate an enemy to the utmost, which is what seems to have been originally meant by "heaping coals of fire upon his head," however practically useful in checking the wild impulses of a hot-blooded and vindictive race, such as the Hebrews were, and such as their kindred the Bedawi Arabs have remained to this day under a system of faith which has not said, "Love your enemies"; and however capable of a new application in the more enlightened spirit of Christianity; {Romans 12:19 sqq.} is undoubtedly a motive marked by the limitations of Old Testament ethical thought. And edifying as they may prove to be, when understood in that purely spiritual and universal sense, to which the Church has lent her authority, how many of the psalms were, in their primary intention, agonising cries for vengeance: prayers that the human victim of oppression and wrong might "see his desire upon his enemies"? All this must be borne in mind; but there are other considerations also which must not be omitted, if we would get at the exact sense of our prophet in the passage before us.

We must remember that he is laying a case before God. He has admitted at the outset that God is absolutely just, in spite of and in view of the fact that his murderous enemies are prosperous and unpunished. When he pleads his own sincerity and purity of heart, in contrast with the lip service of his adversaries, it is perhaps that God may grant, not so much their perdition, as the salvation of the country from the evils they have brought and are bringing upon it. Ascribing the troubles already present and those which are yet to come, the desolations which he sees and those which he foresees, to their steady persistence in wickedness, he asks, How long must this continue? Would it not be better, would it not be more consonant with Divine wisdom and righteousness to purify the land of its fatal taint by the sudden destruction of those heinous and hardened offenders, who scoff at the very idea of a true forecast of their "end" (Jeremiah 12:4)? But this is not all. There would be more apparent force in the allegation we are discussing if it were. The cry to heaven for an immediate act of retributive justice is not the last thing recorded of the prophet’s experience on this occasion. He goes on to relate, for our satisfaction, the Divine answer to his questionings, which seems to have satisfied his own troubled mind. "If thou hast run with but footracers, and they have wearied thee, how then wilt thou compete with the coursers? And if thy confidence be in a land of peace" (or, "a quiet land"), "how then wilt thou do in the thickets" (jungles) "of Jordan? For even thine own brethren and thy father’s house, even they will deal treacherously with thee; even they will cry aloud after thee: trust thou not in them, though they speak thee fair!" {Jeremiah 12:5-6} The metaphors convey a rebuke of impatience and premature discouragement. Hitzig aptly quotes Demosthenes: "If they cannot face the candle, what will they do when they see the sun?" (Plut. de vitioso pudore, c. 5) It is "the voice of the prophet’s better feeling, and of victorious self possession," adds the critic; and we, who earnestly believe that, of the two voices which plead against each other in the heart of man, the voice that whispers good is the voice of God, find it not hard to accept this statement in that sense. The prophet is giving us the upshot of his reflection upon the terrible danger from which he had been mercifully preserved; and we see that his thoughts were guided to the conclusion that, having once accepted the Divine Call, it would be unworthy to abdicate his mission on the first signal of danger. Great as that danger had been, he now, in his calmer hour, perceives that, if he is to fulfil his high vocation, he must be prepared to face even worse things. With serious irony he asks himself if a runner who is overcome with a footrace can hope to outstrip horses? or how a man, who is only bold where no danger is, will face the perils that lurk in the jungles of the Jordan? He remembers that he has to fight a more arduous battle and on a greater scene. Jerusalem is more than Anathoth; and "the kings of Judah and the princes thereof" are mightier adversaries than the conspirators of a country town. And his present escape is an earnest of deliverance on the wider field: "They shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail against thee: for I am with thee, said Iahvah, to deliver thee". {see Jeremiah 1:17-19} But to a deeply affectionate and sensitive nature like Jeremiah’s, the thought of being forsaken by his own kindred might well appear as a trial worse than death. This is the "contending with horses," the struggle that is almost beyond the powers of man to endure; this is the deadly peril, like that of venturing into the lion-haunted thickets of Jordan, which he clearly foresees as awaiting him: "For even thine own brethren and thy father’s house, even they will deal treacherously with thee." It would seem that the prophet, with whose "timidity" some critics have not hesitated to find fault, had to renounce all that man holds dear, as a condition of faithfulness to his call. Again we are reminded of One, of whom it is recorded that "Neither did His brethren believe in Him," {St. John 7:5} and that "His friends went out to lay hold on Him, for they said, He is beside Himself". {Mark 3:21} The closeness of the parallel between type and antitype, between the sorrowful prophet and the Man of Sorrows, is seen yet further in the words, "Even they will cry aloud after thee" (lit. "with full cry"). The meaning may be: They will join in the hue and cry of thy pursuers, the mad shouts of "Stop him!" or "Strike him down!" such as may perhaps have rung in the prophet’s ears as he fled from Anathoth. But we may also understand a metaphorical description of the efforts of his family to recall him from the unpopular path on which he had entered; and this perhaps agrees better with the warning: "Trust them not, though they speak thee fair." And understood in this sense, the words coincide with what is told us in the Gospel of the attempt of our Lord’s nearest kin to arrest the progress of His Divine mission, when His mother and His brethren "standing without, sent unto Him, calling Him". {St. Mark 3:31}

The lesson for ourselves is plain. The man who listens to the Divine call, and makes God his portion, must be prepared to surrender everything else. He must be prepared, not only to renounce much which the world accounts good; he must be prepared for all kinds of opposition passive and active, tacit and avowed; he may even find, like Jeremiah, that his foes are the members of his own household. {St. Matthew 10:36} And, like the prophet, his acceptance of the Divine call binds him to close his ears against entreaties and flatteries, against mockery and menace; and to act upon his Master’s word: "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it". {St. Mark 8:34 sq.} "If any man come unto Me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also he cannot be My disciple." {St. Luke 14:26} A great prize is worth a great risk; and eternal life is a prize infinitely great. It is therefore worth the hazard and the sacrifice of all. {St. Luke 18:29 sq.}

The section which follows (Jeremiah 12:7-17) has been supposed to belong to the time of Jehoiakim, and consequently to be out of place here, having been transposed from its original context, because the peculiar Hebrew term which is rendered "dearly beloved" (Jeremiah 12:7), is akin to the term rendered "My beloved," Jeremiah 11:15. But this supposition depends on the assumption that the "historical basis of the section" is to be found in the passage 2 Kings 24:2, which relates briefly that in Jehoiakim’s time plundering bands of Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites overran the country. The prophecy concerning Iahvah’s "evil neighbours" is understood to refer to these marauding inroads, and is accordingly supposed to have been uttered between the eighth and eleventh years of Jehoiakim (Hitzig). It has, however, been pointed out (Naegelsbach) that the prophet does not once name the Chaldeans in the present discourse; which "he invariably does in all discourses subsequent to the decisive battle of Carchemish in the fourth year of Jehoiakim," which gave the Chaldeans the sovereignty of Western Asia. This discourse must, therefore, be of earlier date, and belong either to the first years of Jehoiakim, or to the time immediately subsequent to the eighteenth of Josiah. The history as preserved in Kings and Chronicles is so incomplete that we are not bound to connect the reference to "evil neighbours" with what is so summarily told in 2 Kings 24:2. There may have been other occasions when Judah’s jealous and watchful enemies profited by her internal weakness and dissensions to invade and ravage the land; and throughout the whole period the country was exposed to the danger of plundering raids by the wild nomads of the eastern and southern borders. It is possible, however, that Jeremiah 12:14-17 are a later postscript, added by the prophet when he wrote his book in the fifth or sixth year of Jehoiakim. {Jeremiah 36:9; Jeremiah 36:32}

There is, in reality, a close connection of thought between Jeremiah 12:7 sqq. and what precedes. The relations of the prophet to his own family are made to symbolise the relations of Iahvah to His rebellious people; just as a former prophet finds in his own merciful treatment of a faithless wife a parable of Iahvah’s dealings with faithless Israel. "I have forsaken My house, I have cast away My domain; I have given My soul’s love into the grasp of her foes. My domain hath become to Me like the lion in the wood; she hath given utterance with her voice against Me; therefore I hate her." It is Iahvah who still speaks, as in Jeremiah 12:6; the "house" is His holy house, the temple; the land is His domain, the land of Judah; His "soul’s love," is the Jewish people. Yet the expressions, "my house," "my domain," "my soul’s love," equally suit the prophet’s own family and their estate; the mention of the "lion in the wood" and its threatening roar, and the enmity provoked thereby, recalls what was said about the "wilds of the Jordan" in Jeremiah 12:5, and the full outcry of his kindred after the prophet in Jeremiah 12:6: and the solemn words "I have forsaken Mine house, I have cast away My domain I hate her," clearly correspond with the sentence of destruction upon Anathoth, Jeremiah 11:21 sqq. The double reference of the language becomes intelligible when we remember that in rejecting His messengers, Israel, nay mankind, rejects God, and that words and deeds done and uttered by Divine authority may be ascribed directly to God Himself. And regarded in the light of the prophet’s commission "to pluck up and to break down, and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" nations and kingdoms, {Jeremiah 1:10} all that is here said may be taken to be the prophet’s own deliverance concerning his country. This, at all events, is the case with Jeremiah 12:12-13.

"What! do I see my domain (all) vultures (and) hyenas? Are the vultures all around her? Go ye, assemble all the beasts of the field! Bring them to devour" (Jeremiah 12:9). The questions express astonishment at an unlooked for and unwelcome spectacle. The loss of Divine favour has exposed Judah to the active hostility of man; and her neighbours eagerly fall upon her, like birds and beasts of prey, swarming over a helpless quarry. It is-so the prophet puts it-it is as if a proclamation had gone forth to the wolves and jackals of the desert, bidding them come and devour the fallen carcase. In another oracle he speaks of the heathen as "devouring Jacob." {Jeremiah 10:25} The people of Iahvah are their natural prey Psalms 14:4: "who eat up My people as they eat bread"; but they are not suffered to devour them, until they have forfeited His protection.

The image is now exchanged for another, which approximates more nearly to the fact portrayed. "Many shepherds have marred My vineyard; they have trodden down My portion; they have turned My pleasant portion into a desolate wilderness. He" (the foe, the instrument of this ruin) "hath made it a desolation; it mourneth against Me, being desolate; desolated is all the land, for there is no man that giveth heed" (Jeremiah 12:10-11). As in an earlier discourse, Jeremiah 6:3, the invaders are now compared to hordes of nomad shepherds, who enter the land with their flocks and herds, and make havoc of the crops and pastures. From time immemorial the wandering Bedawis have been a terror to the settled peasantry of the East, whose way of life they despise as ignoble and unworthy of free men. Of this traditional enmity we perhaps hear a far-off echo in the story of Cain the tiller of the ground and Abel the keeper of sheep; and certainly in the statement that "every shepherd was an abomination unto the Egyptians". {Genesis 46:34} The picture of utter desolateness, which the prophet suggests by a four-fold repetition, is probably sketched from a scene which he had himself witnessed; if it be not rather a representation of the actual condition of the country at the time of his writing. That the latter is the case might naturally be inferred from a consideration of the whole passage; and the twelfth verse seems to lend much support to this view: "Over all bare hills in the wilderness have come ravagers; for Iahvah hath a devouring sword: from land’s end to land’s end no flesh hath peace." The language indeed recalls that of Jeremiah 4:10-11; and the entire description might be taken as an ideal picture of the ruin that must ensue upon Iahvah’s rejection of the land and people, especially if the closing verses (Jeremiah 12:14-17) be considered as a later addition to the prophecy, made in the light of accomplished facts. But, upon the whole, it would seem to be more probable that the prophet is here reading the moral of present or recent experience. He affirms (Jeremiah 12:11) that the affliction of the country is really a punishment for the religious blindness of the nation: "there is no man that layeth to heart" the Divine teaching of events as interpreted by himself (cf. Jeremiah 12:4). The fact that we are unable, in the scantiness of the records of the time, to specify the particular troubles to which allusion is made, is no great objection to this view, which is at least effectively illustrated by the brief statement of 2 Kings 24:2. The reflection appended in Jeremiah 12:13 points in the same direction: "They have sown wheat, and have reaped thorns; they have put themselves to pain" (or, "exhausted themselves") "without profit," (or, "made themselves sick with unprofitable toil"); "and they are ashamed of their produce" (ingatherings), "through the heat of the wrath of Iahyah." When the enemy had ravaged the crops, thorns would naturally spring up on the wasted lands; and "the heat of the wrath of Iahvah" appears to have been further manifested in a parching drought, which ruined what the enemy had left untouched (Jeremiah 12:4, chapter 14).

Thus, then, Jeremiah receives the answer to his doubts in a painfully visible demonstration of what the wrath of Iahvah means. It means drought and famine; it means the exposure of the country, naked and defenceless, to the will of rapacious and vindictive enemies. For Iahvah’s wrongs are far deeper and more bitter than the prophet’s. The misdeeds of individuals are lighter in the balance than the sins of a nation; the treachery of a few persons on a particular occasion is as nothing beside the faithlessness of many generations. The partial evils, therefore, under which the country groans, can only be taken as indications of a far more complete and terrible destruction reserved for final impenitence. The perception of this truth, we may suppose, sufficed for the time to silence the prophet’s complaints; and in the revulsion of feeling inspired by the awful vision of the unimpeded outbreak of Divine wrath, he utters an oracle concerning his country’s destroyers, in which retributive justice is tempered by compassion and mercy. "Thus hath Jehovah said, Upon all Mine evil neighbours, who touch the heritage which I caused My people Israel to inherit: Lo I am about to uproot" {Jeremiah 1:10} "them from off their own land, and the house of Judah will I uproot from their midst. And after I have uprooted them, I will have compassion on them again, and will restore them each to their own heritage and their own land. And if they truly learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘as Iahvah liveth!’ even as they taught My people to swear by the Baal; they shall be rebuilt in the midst of My people. And if they will not hear, I will uproot that nation, utterly and fatally; it is an oracle of Iahvah" (Jeremiah 12:14-17). The preceding section (Jeremiah 12:7-14), as we have seen, rapidly yet vividly sketches the calamities which have ensued and must further ensue upon the Divine desertion of the country. Iahvah has forsaken the land, left her naked to her enemies, for her causeless, capricious, thankless revolt against her Divine Lord. In this forlorn, defenceless condition, all manner of evils befall her; the vineyards and cornfields are ravaged, the goodly land is desolated, by hordes of savage freebooters pouring in from the eastern deserts. These invaders are called Iahvah’s "evil neighbours": an expression which implies, not individuals banded together for purposes of brigandage, but hostile nations. Upon these nations also will the justice of God be vindicated; for that justice is universal in its operation, and cannot therefore be restricted to Israel. Judgment must "begin at the house of God"; but it will not end there. The "evil neighbours," the surrounding heathen kingdoms, have been Iahvah’s instruments for the chastisement of His rebellious people; but they are not on that account exempted from recompense. They too must reap what they have sown. They have insulted Iahvah, by violating His territory; they have indulged their malice and treachery and rapacity, in utter disregard of the rights of neighbours, and the moral claims of kindred peoples. As they have done, so shall it be done unto them. They have laid hands on the possessions of their neighbour, and their own shall be taken from them; "I am about to uproot them from off their own land." {cf. Amos 1:3-15; Amos 2:1-3} And not only so, but "the house of Judah will I pluck up from their midst." The Lord’s people shall be no more exposed to their unneighbourly ill will; the butt of their ridicule, the victim of their malice will be removed to a foreign soil as well as they; but oppressed and oppressors will no longer be together; their new settlements will lie far apart; under the altered state of things, under the shadow of the great conqueror of the future, there will be no opportunity for the old injurious dealings. All alike, Judah and the enemies of Judah, will be subject to the will of the foreign lord. But that is not the end. The Judge of all the earth is merciful as well as just. He is loath to blot whole peoples out of existence, even though they have merited destruction by grievous and prolonged transgression of His laws. Therefore banishment will be followed by restoration, not in the case of Judah only, but of all the expatriated peoples. After enduring the Divine probation of adversity, they will be brought again, by the Divine compassion, "each to their own heritage and their own land." And then, if they will profit by the teaching of Iahvah’s prophets, and "learn the ways," that is, the religion of His people, making their supreme appeal to Iahvah, as the fountain of all truth and the sovran vindicator of right and justice, as hitherto they have appealed to the Baal, and misled Israel into the same profane and futile course; then "they shall be built up," or rebuilt, or brought to great and evergrowing prosperity, "in the midst of My people." Such is to be the blessing of the Gentiles: they shall share in the glorious future that awaits repentant Israel. The present condition of things is to be completely reversed: now Judah sojourns in their midst; then they will be surrounded on every side by the emancipated and triumphant people of God; now they beset Judah with jealousies, suspicions, enmities; then Judah will embrace them all with the arms of an unselfish and protecting love. A last word of warning is added. The doom of the nation that will not accept the Divine teaching will be utter and absolute extermination.

The forecast is plainly of a Messianic nature; it recognises in Iahvah the Saviour, not of a nation, but of the world. It perceives that the disunion and mutual hatred of peoples, as of individuals, is a breach of Divine law; and it proclaims a general return to God, and submission to His guidance in all political as well as private affairs, as the sole cure for the numberless evils that flow from that hatred and disunion. It is only when men have learnt that God is their common Father and Lord that they come to see with the clearness and force of practical conviction that they themselves are all members of one family, bound as such to mutual offices of kindness and charity; it is only when there is a conscious identity of interest with all our fellows, based upon the recognition that all alike are children of God and heirs of eternal life, that true freedom and universal brotherhood become possible for man.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 12". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-12.html.
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