This chapter opens with a conversation between Jeremiah and the Lord that sounds similar to the initial exchange between Habakkuk and the Lord (Habakkuk 1). Jeremiah expresses consternation and frustration that God, who is a God of justice, doesn’t seem to be dealing with the prosperous but wicked people in Judah. He calls on God to punish these hypocrites whose wickedness is adversely impacting the whole land (1-4). The Lord responds with a mild rebuke to Jeremiah (5), a warning not to trust his family and friends (6) and a promise to bring in foreigners to lay waste His people and their land (7-13). Then the Lord also pledges to “uproot” the nations that uproot his people, offering them the hope of resettlement if they forsake their gods and turn to Him (14-17).
The chapter break between 11 and 12 obscures the fact that chapter 12 seems to be a continuation of the information in chapter 11. Jeremiah is warned by God that the people in his hometown (Anathoth) are plotting to take him out (11:18-23). God promises that he will punish these conspirators in the future (“I will bring disaster on them men of Anathoth in the year of their punishment”—23). Jeremiah hears this promise but is still troubled that his adversaries are doing so well in the present (they currently “prosper” and live “at ease”—12:1). On the other hand, Jeremiah complains that his life is painful and difficult. When he prays, “You know me, O Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you” (3), he is arguing that God, who tests the heart, knows that he has been faithful (not “faithless” like his tormentors—1). He calls out for God to act without delay (“How long…”—4).
Jeremiah’s complaint has to do with the way God seems to be allowing “injustice” to persist and prevail in spite of the fact that God is “always righteous” (1). Jeremiah raises the issue of God’s “justice” (1). How can God allow the wicked to remain “planted” and “rooted” (2) when they deserve to be uprooted (see 1:10 for the first mention of this theme? Jeremiah wonders, “How long do I have to wait?”
The answer to Jeremiah’s question has already been given. At the close of chapter 9, the Lord declares, “I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight” (9:24). God’s loyal love towards His people moves Him to delay the swift exercise of his justice, giving them time to repent. Peter brings out this same truth: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What seems to be injustice is actually extended mercy.
God answers Jeremiah’s complaint with both an exhortation (5) and an explanation (5-17). The exhortation rebuke’s Jeremiah for being thrown off balance by this situation. The Lord asks two questions: “If you been worn out racing men, how will you keep up with horses? If you’ve stumbled with the terrain is open and flat, how will you stay on your feet when its rough and rugged?” In other words, God is telling Jeremiah that there will be harder issues to make sense of in the future. He hasn’t seen anything yet. God evidently expected Jeremiah to handle this situation better.
The chapter gives us a sad indictment on God’s people, showing us what moves God to “hate” the ones he “loves” (7-8) and “uproot” (14) the ones he “planted” (2). The Jews still have an outward form of religion (but have denied its power—2 Tim. 3:5). God’s name is “always on their lips” but He is “far from their hearts” (2); they sound spiritually connected to Him but are “wicked” and “faithless” (1). They don’t have faith that God knows or cares about them and their future: “He will not see what happens to us” (4).
Just as they are disingenuous with the Lord, they are hypocritical with Jeremiah; God warns Jeremiah “Do not trust them, though they speak well of you” (6). Those who have lost their spiritual integrity with the Lord are capable of all kinds of duplicity. Jeremiah had been naïve, unaware of the Jews’ plot against him (11:18). Now he is painfully aware of the evil intentions of his countrymen. He calls upon the Lord to deal severely with them: “Drag them off like sheep to be butchered” (3). In truth, Jeremiah is conflicted about the Israelites (just like the Lord is—7-8). At times he wants God to judge them harshly; at other times he is broken up by the judgment that is coming upon them (9:1). This inner struggle is understandable, as Jeremiah’s personal and pastoral feelings collide inside him. He is able to give vent to both without contradiction or without trying to homogenize them into more neutral sentiments. (Whereas I once saw Jeremiah as “unstable” emotionally, I am now seeing him as authentic and “normal.”)
God, who delights in justice (1, 9:24), will bring severe justice upon the nation of Israel (7-13) and the surrounding nations (14-17). He will bring “destroyers”(12), led by many “shepherds” (10—a reference to leaders). Here is another warning of military devastation brought upon the nation. If Jeremiah stumbled to keep his spiritual and emotional footing when dealing with the covert attacks of his family and countrymen (5-6), he will soon have to deal with a much larger challenge: the invasion of the Babylonians. God’s justice against his sinful people will leave the land “laid waste” (11). His justice will also bring devastation on the “wicked neighbours”—the surrounding nations (14). These nations had taken part in pillaging Israel; now they will be pillaged.
But as God delights in “kindness” as well as justice (9:24), he will give the nations a chance to be restored—if they “learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying ‘As surely as the Lord lives’” (16). I’m amazed at how God can delight in kindness, righteousness and justice—at the same time and all the time.
(This song by Andrew Peterson conveys a longing for God’s justice to come ASAP. It also acknowledges that when we pray for the “reckoning” we don’t really know what we are asking. God’s judgment will be overwhelming. The only safe refuge from it is found in a trusting, obedient relationship with the Righteous Judge Himself, which comes through faith in His Son, Jesus.)