That’s not fair! How many young people have screamed this in frustration to a parent, a teacher, or a friend? But it is not just young people crying out and becoming jaded by life and the injustices that they see and experience. O. T. scholar Robert Davidson relates a profound truth about life and the challenges that we constantly face. “To have confidence in God, however, does not mean that all problems are solved.”[i] There remains challenges and perplexities that at times cause great unrest, disappointment and at times even anger in our souls. Here in the book of Jeremiah the prophet is struggling with the injustices that he is experiencing. He has faithfully declared God’s message of impending judgment, and yet nothing is happening. Evil still persists, and now his life is in danger. What is he to do?
Jeremiah does what we all need to do. He takes his concerns to the right person and comes to God in prayer. This part of the narrative is like opening up Jeremiah’s spiritual diary. He pours out his frustrations and uncertainties before the Lord. In Jeremiah 12 we see an authentic exchange in prayer between the hardships and perplexities experienced by the prophet and God’s response in challenge and promise.
There are three exchanges of dialogue in this chapter that reveals an authentic faith and God’s response. Jeremiah is challenged and then strengthened by God. We discover in the biblical text that the pain God is bearing as He is not indifferent to our sin.
THE FIRST EXCHANGE IN AUTHENTIC FAITH IS THE CRY OF PERPLEXITY IN THE CONFUSING MOMENTS IN LIFE
What is our response when what we believe seems to conflict with our current reality? We may be serving God wholeheartedly, but things are not working out like we think they ought to. Maybe we are struggling at this moment, confused, and overwhelmed by what is happening to us. We may be wondering why God is not answering our prayers at this point. We see others living careless lives thriving while we are trying hard to obey God and life seems to be in reverse. We question. We know that God is loving and good, but why does he allow evil to not only survive in our world but also thrive? When this question is no longer theoretical but becomes our experience, we gain insight into the pain that Jeremiah was experiencing in our text. He is struggling with God’s call and the cost of obedience. His life is in jeopardy. He’s being attacked by some of the closest people to him. People that he knows and has grown up with. They have now turned against him and are plotting to kill him. God assures Jeremiah that they will not succeed in their plot, but Jeremiah questions why God allows these things to happen. Why isn’t God dealing with the injustices he is currently seeing? Listen to Jeremiah’s complaint.
You are always righteous, LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts.
Yet you know me, LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you. Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter![ii]
God had just explained to Jeremiah that the people in his hometown of Anathoth who were threatening to kill him would be punished.
Therefore this is what the LORD says about the people of Anathoth who are threatening to kill you, saying, ‘Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD or you will die by our hands’- therefore this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish them. Their young men will die by the sword, their sons and daughters by famine.
Not even a remnant will be left to them, because I will bring disaster on the people of Anathoth in the year of their punishment.[iii]
Jeremiah was not satisfied with that answer and challenged God regarding His tolerance of evil for any length of time. People are generally intolerant, impatient with injustice and pain when it is perpetrated against us. We can become demanding, wanting God to work immediately in life’s injustices. Jeremiah was questioning, even as many question why is it that evil people, particularly those who are hypocrites, are enjoying God’s blessings, while faithful people are suffering. Jeremiah states that it was God who had planted them and allowed them to flourish. Why? It seemed to contradict everything in God’s covenantal agreement with His people. We know that many question God’s fairness when the wicked prospered while the righteous suffered. If God is righteous, why this seeming contradiction? We know that Job complained about the righteous experiencing suffering, while the wicked flourished. We know that Asaph felt this deeply as expressed in Psalm 73.
Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.[iv]
What is he saying? He was having a struggle with his faith over what he perceived to be the contradiction as framed in God’s covenant. Tremper Longman explain the struggle that these Old Testament believers had in light of God’s covenant obligations.
The very structure of the covenant seemed to underline the blessings that would come on the righteous who obeyed God and the curses that would afflict those who did not (Deut. 27-28). A book like Proverbs also pointed to the good life for the wise and the reverse for the wicked. As for Jeremiah, his questions arose in his own situation where he was obeying God’s command to speak the divine word to a sinful people who not only rejected his message but wanted to harm him. Where was God’s righteousness in this situation?[v]
While Asaph understood that justice would eventually come and that God’s delays were not inconsistent with His justice, God will ultimately judge the wicked as he later states.
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.[vi]
Though Asaph was content, Jeremiah continued to complain. He wanted God to write the final chapter on human evil RIGHT AWAY! Many Christians feel the same way. We have heard that God will judge every deed, whether open or secret. We know that all the enemies of God will be put to shame at the final judgment. Still, we are discouraged by the triumph of evil in our times. We long for the day when murderers, rapists, racists, child molesters, persecutors of the church, and perpetrators of genocide will face divine judgment.[vii]
These are legitimate emotions and questions, but one of the developments of faith is when we entrust all of our despair to God, knowing that God is both just and loving.
THE SECOND EXCHANGE IS GOD’S RESPONDING CHALLENGE IN PERPLEXING TIMES
There are times that God speaks words of encouragement and affirmation; but there are other moments when God rebukes and challenges us to grow up. I believe that God loves to answer our questions, but not our demands for accountability to us. What we discover in Scripture is that God refuses to be questioned as if He is accountable to us. His response is a question directed at us. We are always accountable to Him; He is never accountable to us. God’s response to Jeremiah, and to Job in their charges come in the form of a question.
If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in the safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?[viii]
Here we find two metaphors to challenge the frustration and pain, but also the faintheartedness of Jeremiah. We often get discouraged by opposition. God is calling us to the battle, to stand against the evil day and learn to trust God. We need to be spiritually equipped with His armor to overcome such opposition.
The first metaphor is quite easy to understand as running against men is far easier than running against the speed of horses. In other words, God is saying to Jeremiah and to us that if the present challenges we are faced with is wearing us out, how will we be able to stand against ever greater challenges? God is calling Jeremiah and us to step up and not give up because of the greater challenges ahead. If we expect God to use us in significant ways, then we need to arm our minds with the greater battles that will come with that.
The second metaphor needs a little understanding regarding the terrain in Israel. The land around Anathoth was relatively safe. The thickets near the Jordan river were filled with danger. Before the exile, lions prowled in this vegetation. In other words this was dangerous country. Jeremiah was about to experience even greater dangers ahead. The message both for Jeremiah and ourselves is that we need to get stronger in order to handle the pressure that are coming. We need to be ‘strong in the Lord and in His mighty power’ (cf. Ephesians 6:10). While Jeremiah felt like giving up, God challenged him to become stronger.
Anyone who gets discouraged, downtrodden, and defeated over little things will never fulfill his divine calling. If even little disappointments tempt Jeremiah to leave his calling, how will he cope with real persecution? God had great things in store for Jeremiah. But he would never achieve them unless he was willing to persevere in the little things. He had to be willing to race with men before he could compete with horses.
The same is true for every Christian. If you complain about the simple things God has already asked you to do, then you lack the spiritual strength to do what he wants you to do next. If your troubles keep you from doing the Lord’s work now, you will never have the strength to do it later. If you want to do some great thing for God, then you must begin by doing the little things for God. And the only way to do little things for God is to do them by the strength of the Holy Spirit.[ix]
God pointed out that Jeremiah would not be able to find comfort and support from his family. The persecution which had begun at home would grow greater. As Jeremiah’s scope of ministry continued to expand, so also the scope of persecution would expand to include the leadership of the nation. Jeremiah would find himself at odds with the king and the leaders in the land. Here we see that God warns Jeremiah from trusting his own family.
Your relatives, members of your own family – even they have betrayed you; they have raised a loud cry against you. Do not trust them, though they speak well of you.[x]
THE THIRD EXCHANGE IS GOD’S PROMISES AND WARNINGS OF GREATER CHALLENGES AND SPHERE OF MINISTRY AHEAD
While Jeremiah brings his heartache and complaint against God’s justice, God opens His heart to the prophet, and to us, about why His righteous judgment has been slow in coming. God knows from firsthand experience how fickle our love is for Him.
So, why does God withhold his anger for so long? God desires repentance and reconciliation, even when we refuse to respond to God’s call. What occurs is abandonment and estrangement. We turn against God. In one sense we gain this insight from the New Testament regarding why God delays His judgment. Peter states it this way.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.[xi]
The apostle Paul explains God’s loving kindness in delaying what our sin deserves in his letter to the Roman church.
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness intended to lead you to repentance?
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.[xii]
But what is it costing God for us to be in rebellion against Him? Here we gain insight into the pain our sin inflicts upon God.
A. The anguish of God.
Here we see God’s response to the actions of those He loves. Here in the conclusion of this chapter are two powerful emotional realities about God. His anger toward sin and all it does in destroying ourselves and others. The second is His incredible compassion and the price that He pays to bring about our restoration.
One of the most profound expression of it is found in the book of Hosea, where the people have been unfaithful to God, and yet God is conflicted between what is the right thing to do and his love and compassion.
My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them.
‘How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? [These were the names of other cities destroyed when God brought fire from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah.]
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man’- the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities.[xiii]
When God shows compassion, it is never at the expense of His justice, rather He suffers in our place. He takes the penalty upon Himself.
2. The Anger of God.
I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies.
My inheritance has become to me like a lion in the forest. She roars at me; therefore I hate her.
Has not my inheritance become to me like a speckled bird of prey that other birds surround and attack? Go and gather all the wild beasts; bring them to devour.[xiv]
We are reminded that though God is about to discipline His people, they are still valued and cherished by God.
Although they are wicked and wayward, they are still his people. They are his prized possession. Again and again God uses the first-person singular possessive pronoun: ‘
my house,’ ‘my inheritance’ (v. 7); ‘my inheritance’ (v. 9); ‘my vineyard,’ ‘my pleasant field’ (v. 10).[xv]
These are terms of endearment. Yet, we also have these shocking statements of God giving them up and allow them to be taken into captivity. Why? Because she is found fighting God.
He goes so far to say, “I hate her”
That verse always sends chills up my spine. What would it mean if God hated us? To turn Paul’s statement in Romans 8 upside down, ‘If God be against us, who can be for us?’[xvi]
Jeremiah does not mean “hate” in the sense of a violent, angry emotion. What it means is that God intended to perform an act of rejecting his people (cf. Romans 9:13), at least for a time. He was going to disinherit them. It is not hard to figure out why God intended to forsake and abandon his beloved. Her behavior had been beastly: “My inheritance has become to me like a lion in the forest. She roars at me” (Jeremiah 12:8). This is the Biblical version of the proverb about biting the hand that feeds you.[xvii]
Now we see the way that God will address this wayward people. God will ultimately work at correcting our lives.
Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland.[xviii]
Most scholars see the Shepherds here as the leaders of the invading armies, particularly Babylon. God is going to allow them to experience war, famine and exile. What terrible sufferings will ensue; all because of their waywardness and sin against God and one another. Sin is ultimately against God, but it also diminishes the person who is perpetrating them, as well as affecting and wounding others. Ultimately, there is a consequence to this behavior.
It will be a wasteland, parched and desolate before me; the whole land will be laid waste because there is no one who cares.
Over all the barren heights in the desert destroyers will swarm, for the sword of the LORD will devour from one end of the land to the other; no one will be safe.[xix]
Here this invading army is called the ‘sword of the Lord.’ God is executing judgment through these foreign armies. Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Thank God! What we are about to see is the incredible nature of God’s grace and call to restore not only Israel, but all peoples.
C. The Compassion of God.
This is what the LORD says: ‘As for all my wicked neighbors who seize the inheritance I gave my people Israel, I will uproot them from their lands and I will uproot the people of Judah from among them.[xx]
Two things are mentioned here. First, God will deliver his people Israel by uprooting them from their captivity, but in the process bring those nations into a time of captivity to reflect upon their own sinful actions.
But after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to their inheritance and their own country.
And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying, ‘As surely as the LORD lives – even as they once taught my people to swear by Baal – then they will be established among my people.
But if any nation does not listen, I will completely uproot and destroy it.’ declares the LORD.[xxi]
God reveals here His amazing compassion for all peoples and nations by returning them to their homeland, based on the condition that they will submit to God and turn from their idolatry and embrace our God.
What lessons can we learn from God’s forbearance and longsuffering while we are in sin? That His delay in judgment is an expression of His mercy calling us to repentance. That God is not willing that any should perish, even as we see here the inclusion of all humanity in the invitation to experience His grace. He desires all of us to be reconciled to Him.
Because our relationship with God is a love relationship, our sins wound his heart.
…No matter what we go through, God has been through worse. God’s lament follows hard on the heels of Jeremiah’s complaint at the beginning of chapter 12. Conspirators were plotting against the prophet to kill him. Even his own family sought to betray him. But God has been through all that. His own household, his own inheritance, his own beloved has roared against him.
God understands our sufferings. Have you been abandoned? Have you been deserted by your spouse? Have your sons and daughters defied you? Is your life filled with ungrateful, hostile people? God understands. He has been through it all before. He knows our pain.[xxii]
Therefore we can come with confidence to the throne of grace to find mercy and help in our time of need. Are you discouraged today, hurting, angry, frustrated, confused? Come to Jesus.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.[xxiii]
[i] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 105-106.
[ii] Jeremiah 12:1-3, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Jeremiah 11:21-23.
[iv] Psalm 73:1-3.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 104.
[vi] Psalm 73:16-18.
[vii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, (Crossway Books, 2001),222.
[viii] Jeremiah 12:5-6.
[ix] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: from sorrow to hope 219-220.
[x] Jeremiah 12: 6.
[xi] 2 Peter 3:9.
[xii] Romans 2:4-5.
[xiii] Hosea 11:7-9.
[xiv] Jeremiah 12:7-9.
[xv] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 224.
[xvi] Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Preaching the Prophets with Honor,” Leadership (Fall 1997), 58 as quoted by Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 224.
[xvii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 225-226.
[xviii] Jeremiah 12:9.
[xix] Jeremiah 12:11-12.
[xx] Jeremiah 12:14.
[xxi] Jeremiah 12:15-17.
[xxii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 225-226.
[xxiii] Matthew 11:28-30.