‘I argue with God. I let Him have a piece of my mind. That’s the kind of relationship I have with Him.’ Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that kind of thing before. They let you in on their propensity to dispute with God as a little bit of prayer-instruction as though bringing your cranky self before the Lord is a badge of being real. Yet, they may fail to see the potential pitfalls of that approach. Yes, God’s great patience is broad enough to deal with the mood swings of His children but as our Most High, thrice holy, Lord of heaven and earth, Father, He still warrants ever-present reverence (cf. Mal. 1:6). That doesn’t mean He is unapproachable. And that doesn’t mean that His saints cannot cast their questions along with their cares at His feet. It simply means that when we do we ought to take a cue from the prophet Jeremiah.
At the end of the previous chapter Jeremiah made us aware of what he had been previously unaware of – the men of his hometown had plotted to murder him. To Jeremiah’s relief God made him privy to it (Jer. 11:18-19) and God told him that He would take care of it (vs.22-23). But that apparently got Jeremiah thinking – which brings us to the opening verse of chapter twelve.
You have to love the respectful way in which Jeremiah framed his forthcoming questions. He said, “Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments” (vs.1a). Before he asked any kind of question he said what wasn’t in question – the Lord’s righteousness. To him that wasn’t open for discussion, which for us is instructive. We can have legitimate questions about God’s dealings and our inability to understand the “why’s” of God’s determinations but we ought to never question the unquestionable or scrutinize the inscrutable; namely, God’s character. So, when dealing with what we don’t know it’s all the more important that we affirm what we do know. After which Jeremiah proceeded to say, “Yet let me talk with You about Your judgments.” That wasn’t shorthand for ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you’; rather, he was looking to God for help satiating the curiosities that were troubling his mind. He wanted to talk, not accuse or blame. It’s a reminder that one can be real without being rude.
No question had seized him except that which is common to man and prophets. Like Asaph (Ps. 73), Job (21:3,7), David (Ps. 37:1), Habakkuk (Hab. 1:2-4) and undoubtedly others, Jeremiah wanted to know: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (vs.1b) With the priestly conspirators of Anathoth most immediately in view Jeremiah asked about the prosperity of the wicked. Things just seem to go well for them. Their investments go up in value. Their blood work comes back good. Their children are on the honor roll at school. They have successful careers. Yet they’re wicked and they deal treacherously! Something seemed askew. Jeremiah knew that the Ancient Near East equivalent of the things mentioned above couldn’t have happened without God’s sovereign predetermination. Even as he said:
You have planted them, yes, they have taken root;
They grow, yes, they bear fruit.
You are near in their mouth
But far from their mind. (vs.2)
To Jeremiah this was paradoxical. God sovereignly superintended the course of history to allow these men to be planted in providentially rich soil and they took root (vs.2a), became well established and fruitful (vs.2b), not spiritually but temporally, even though they were religious hypocrites (vs.2c). Just like the Pharisees who honored God with their lips while having hearts that were far from Him (Mt. 15:8; Isa. 29:13) these men had God near in their mouth but far from their mind (vs.2b). These men looked so much more well off than Jeremiah did and yet they were hypocritical while Jeremiah had been sincere. And it’s on that basis that Jeremiah pleaded further saying:
3 But You, O LORD, know me; You have seen me, And You have tested my heart toward You. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, And prepare them for the day of slaughter.
4 How long will the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither? The beasts and birds are consumed, For the wickedness of those who dwell there, Because they said, “He will not see our final end.”
His heart towards God was known by God, seen by God, and tested by God (Jer. 12:3a). God knew him before he was born (Jer. 1:5) and God knew him now. So Jeremiah, with a clean conscience before God, and not wanting to take vengeance into his own hands, committed vengeance to God: “Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter” (Jer. 12:3b). It’s as though Jeremiah was asking God to do to them what they wanted to do to him (cf. Jer. 11:19). But he didn’t simply leave his case there; he made reference to the effects that the wickedness of the men of Anathoth was having on the land, the vegetation, and the animals. It was the sin of Adam that subjected creation to the corruption of sin; but often times, in time, we can see the direct consequences of man’s sin on his environment. In Jeremiah’s case it was easy – Judah’s rebellion was bringing God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonians, and the siege process, along with the subsequent sacking of the city of Jerusalem, would leave the land ravaged and destroyed (Jer. 12:4a). And this was part of Jeremiah’s case – these men not only wanted to kill him but they were bringing ruin and disaster upon the nation. And by way of one additional reference to himself, he said what they said about him – “He will not see our final end” (vs.4b). In other words, ‘Jeremiah is prophesying about our destruction but he’ll be dead long before we are.’ It’s not hard to see why these guys were described as “the wicked” (v.1b).
That concluded Jeremiah’s case. In case you were wondering, similar to Job, Jeremiah didn’t receive an answer to the rationale behind God’s methodology. If you want a little glimpse of that you can turn to Psalm 73 and see what Asaph saw – what looks like fertile land (Jer. 12:2) is actually a slippery slope (Ps. 73:18). What God did tell Jeremiah in response probably surprised him – but we’ll save that for another day. For now, let us be instructed by the prophet in his prayer closet. God’s people can cast their questions at His feet and commit vengeance to His hands, all the while remembering what must not be forgotten – God is righteous.