12 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?
2 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.
3 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!
4 How long will the land lie parched
and the grass in every field be withered?
Because those who live in it are wicked,
the animals and birds have perished.
Moreover, the people are saying,
“He will not see what happens to us.”
5 “If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,
how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?
6 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.
(Jeremiah 12:1-6 NIV)
In yesterday’s passage, we saw the outward manifestations of the people’s hardened hearts via an actual conspiracy to silence Jeremiah and his prophetic work. Jeremiah appealed not to an earthly judge, but to the Lord, the Righteous Judge of all. God answered and remained faithful to His promise to be with Jeremiah and protect him (1:8).
In today’s text, we see Jeremiah ask the same question again, this time framing his question in the larger context of “why does evil flourish?”. Every generation asks this question when trying to reconcile God’s righteousness with the seeming prosperity of those who openly and knowingly practice their sins before Him. The ancient saint Job, the writers of the Psalms, the prophet Habakkuk all asked this same question. We are in good company when we ponder these hard dilemmas.
We can learn much from Jeremiah’s opening statement in verse 1: “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.”. We should not be afraid to bring life’s hard questions before the Lord. Before we do bring those seemingly unanswerable contradictions before the Almighty Judge of heaven and earth, we must first believe and proclaim that the Lord is righteous before ever hearing His proclamation on the subject.
In other words, God is right, no matter what His answer.
Some scholars see verse 1 as Jeremiah switching places with God, with Jeremiah being the judge, and the Lord being on trial for dereliction of duty (not holding evildoers accountable for their actions). Considering Jeremiah’s prior confessions of God’s righteousness and his opening statement of verse 1, Jeremiah’s tone seems to be more like a humble and soulful “Help me understand, Lord!” rather than a condemning and demanding “How can you allow this to happen, God?”.
In verse 2, Jeremiah reminds God that He planted these people (Jeremiah 2:21), and now they are thriving and producing fruit (albeit rotten fruit). While their words spoke of the Lord, their hearts have been entirely disconnected from Him.
In verse 3, Jeremiah recalls the Lord’s evaluation of his heart as good. Jeremiah then asks the Lord to carry out the sentence they had planned for Jeremiah on the evildoers. Jeremiah is saying, “Punish them for their evil, and don’t allow me, who is following You, Lord, to suffer for doing good.”
In verse 4, Jeremiah sees the impact of the evildoers everywhere, even in nature. The Apostle Paul felt this same impact of sin on the world as he wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22 NIV).
In verses 5 – 6, the Lord answers Jeremiah, but it’s not at all what we would expect. From the Lord’s perspective, He had already answered Jeremiah and reminded Jeremiah that He would protect him and punish those who sought his life.
The Lord answers Jeremiah’s question with His own set of questions. Each of the Lord’s questions points out that this is just the beginning of the difficulty that Jeremiah will experience:
- If Jeremiah is struggling to keep up in a metaphorical foot race, how will he compete with “horses” when the army from the north shows up?
- If Jeremiah stumbles on level ground (with these threats), how will he remain steadfast on his feet when he enters the thickets of Jordan where man-eating lions prowl (when the trials get even harder)?
- If Jeremiah thought it was tough to endure the threats of the other priests of his hometown, how will he survive when he faces ridicule and betrayal from his own flesh and blood, his family?
Jeremiah: “Lord, life is really hard – they want to kill me.”
God: “Be encouraged, Jeremiah. These trials are just a taste of what is to come – it gets much worse.”
How’s that for encouragement?
The Lord had called Jeremiah to stand firm for Him, and to proclaim His words to His people. The Lord did not promise success and fame; He only promised to be with Jeremiah along the journey.
May we trust in God’s promise to keep us and protect us, knowing that we will face trials, some by our sin, and many others through no fault of our own.
May we press deeply into the Lord during those trials, trusting that His grace is sufficient to see us through.