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There are three divisions in this chapter: (Jeremiah 12:1-6) which register's Jeremiah's complaint, (Jeremiah 12:7-13) which recounts God's judgment upon Judah and her enemies, and (Jeremiah 12:14-17) that promises the return of Israel from captivity and the conversion of Gentiles, both of which events are conditional.
Wherefore... doth the wicked prosper
(Jeremiah 12:1)? Jeremiah got to the point at once; and the problem here presented before the Lord in faith and humility was indeed an old one. Habakkuk had struggled with it; the patriarch Job (Job 21:7) was perplexed by it; and the Book of Psalms devotes at least two chapters to a discussion of it (Ps. 37 and Ps. 73).
Men of every generation, even the most devoted and faithful of Christians, have found this same question to be a perplexing and difficult problem. As Dummelow noted, however, "It was a question that especially exercised men of the pre-Christian dispensations; because they had no clear understanding of the eternal and spiritual rewards promised to Christians, thinking principally of physical and material rewards to be received in the service of God."F1
The Christian religion does indeed give complete and satisfactory answers to this question; and the reason that many in the current era have difficulty with the problem derives from a failure to study the Scriptures. We shall explore the answer a little later; but, first, we shall note the answer that God made available to Jeremiah.
Wherefore are they at ease who deal treacherously
(Jeremiah 12:1)? Evidently, Jeremiah here had in mind the treacherous plans of his fellow-countrymen to murder him. On the other hand, Jeremiah, as God certainly knew, was an honorable and faithful believer.
Thou hast planted them
(Jeremiah 12:2). A complicating factor in the problem for Jeremiah was the fact that God's blessings were evidently being enjoyed by those evil men. They were flourishing and prospering, as the Psalmist put it, like the green bay tree!
Pull them out
(Jeremiah 12:3). Pleading their wickedness and his own faithfulness, as reasons for his request, Jeremiah pleaded with God to Pull them out ... The original here is very strong; it is, literally, `tear them out.'F2 Smith paraphrased Jeremiah's words thus, Lord, drag these fat scoundrels out of the flock and sacrifice them, and make examples of them.F3
The indignation of Jeremiah is evident in his words here. Green has a paraphrase, thus:
"Why do the wicked prosper? Why is crookedness a prime prerequisite for success in this world? Lord, you plant these scoundrels, and they grow. Why? They are pious frauds who mouth words of religion but have no real love for you in their hearts."F4
He shall not see our latter end
(Jeremiah 12:4). This is a disputed text, but we believe it refers to the attitude of wicked men who were flaunting their rebellion against God in the boast that God would have nothing to do with their end, or taunting Jeremiah with the brag that they would last longer than Jeremiah would, or that Jeremiah would die before they did.
GOD'S ANSWER TO JEREMIAH
God's answer to Jeremiah is somewhat shocking. The Lord rebuked him, and we might paraphrase the meaning of this paragraph in this manner:
Look, Jeremiah, why should you be bothered about the prosperity of wicked men? If, in your race for me, you have been worn out by men, what are you going to do when you have to run against horses? If you have trouble feeling secure on level ground, what is going to happen to you when you have to pass through the "pride of the Jordan?" You have hardly seen anything at all yet. Buckle your seat belt, the worst is yet to come!
This might not be all that God said to Jeremiah, because, in Jer. 12:4, it appears that God also might have mentioned the "latter end" of the wicked. Certainly, in the Old Testament, this was the inspired answer to the problem Jeremiah was having with the prosperity of the wicked. The Psalmist was tempted to stumble on the problem that troubled Jeremiah; but he confessed that the truth appeared to him, "When I went into the sanctuary of God, and considered their latter end." (Psalms 73:17). The ultimate fate of the wicked nullifies and cancels out all of the earthly joys and prosperities of evil men; and that sublime truth was surely available to all of God's children living in that dispensation.
The pride of Jordan
(Jeremiah 12:5). The `pride of Jordan' referred to the rank growth of trees, shrubs and vegetation that grew on both sides of the Jordan river, especially between the Sea of Tiberias and Lake Merom, and which afforded a shelter for wild boars, lions, bears and tigers.F5
These two verses stress the fact that, after all, prosperous wickedness is a very ordinary problem that should not discourage any one.
Today, lions are almost never seen west of the Euphrates river, having disappeared from the `pride of Jordan'; but, "The bones of lions have been found in the gravel of the bed of the Jordan."F6 It is always a mistake to understand conditions as they exit now as an indication of what the conditions were thousands of years ago. The critics did when they questioned the account in Acts that relates Paul's shaking off a poisonous snake into the fire. Of course, the snakes have indeed disappeared from Malta; but they have also disappeared from Manhattan Island, and for exactly the same reason, namely, the vast increase in the population.
THE CHRISTIAN ANSWER
We have already noted that much more satisfactory answers to the problem of the prosperity of evil men which somewhat perplexed Jeremiah are available in the teaching of Christianity in addition to the answers available under the Old Covenant.
A. The values focused upon in Christianity are not temporal and physical at all, but eternal. People who suffer persecution, defeat, frustration, hardship, or even physical suffering and death are commanded to remember, "Great is your reward in heaven!" (Matthew 5:12).
B. The favor and prosperity enjoyed by wicked men are not marks of God's approval but an indication of his mercy; for God "Is longsuffering ... not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Peter 3:9).
C. God's world is an orderly world; and there are certain rewards and penalties that derive from that order. It happens that in many instances wicked men are more skilled in adjusting to God's order than are righteous persons. Jesus noted that, "The sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light." (Luke 16:8). No doubt this fact sometimes contributes to the prosperity of evil men.
D. The great fact is that the rewards of eternal life are so great, surpassing even the utmost limits of human imagination, that whatever the sufferings, sorrows, and limitations may fall upon our earth-life, all such things shall be canceled and nullified by the glories of eternal life. As Paul put it: "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed" (Romans 8:18).
E. It all turns on the difference in time and eternity. When the two are compared, an entire earthly life is less than a fraction of a second compared to a billion years. To win the great prize of Eternal Glory with Christ is more than worth bearing the burdens of whatever disasters our earth-life is capable of bringing upon us. No recipient of such a blessing should be troubled by whatever pleasures and prosperities may be enjoyed by the wicked for the brief season of earthly life.
GOD'S REJECTION OF THE CHOSEN PEOPLE
I have forsaken my house
(Jeremiah 12:7). The word house in the Old Testament is almost invariably used of the temple; and we believe that is what it means here. R. Payne Smith declared the meaning here to be, Not the temple, but Israel and Judah;F7 and since then, many scholars have followed his lead. Thompson attempted to justify the interpretation by pointing out that it is parallel to `my heritage' in the next clause;F8 and while it is true enough that adjacent clauses are indeed often parallel in the Bible, they are not always so. Sharpen the arrows, take up the shields (Jeremiah 51:11) is one of many examples; and we believe the parallelism here is another. Matthew Henry agreed with this and gave the meaning of forsaken my house as, A reference to the temple, which had been his palace; but they had polluted it and forced God out of it.F9
It is certainly true that God did indeed forsake the temple; and God gives an account of his doing so in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 10:17). Furthermore, God never more returned to any earthly temple; but he did come with the rushing sound of a mighty wind on the day of Pentecost to dwell in his true temple, the Church of our Lord.
Thus the two teachings in Jer. 12:7 are (1) the Lord removed his presence, or Spirit, from the Jewish temple, and (2) he forsook the apostate nation, the "righteous remnant" alone being excepted.
She hath uttered her voice against me
(Jeremiah 12:8). In context, this means that the Chosen People had roared like a lion against God Himself! Judah had not merely become disobedient, but had become intractable and fierce like an untamed lion.F10 She had uttered vicious blasphemies against him and had preferred the reprobate worship of the Baalim to the way of the Lord.
Is my heritage unto me as a speckled bird of prey? are the birds of prey against her round about
(Jeremiah 12:9)? The Hebrew word here rendered `bird of prey' in both places means `a carrion bird,' ... probably some kind of vulture is meant.F11 Birds attack other birds of unfamiliar plumage; so Israel, differing from other nations, is attacked by them.F12 At any rate, the total destruction of the Once Chosen nation is prophetically announced in the figure of the beasts of the field being called in to eat her remains.
Because no man layeth it to heart
(Jeremiah 12:11). This actually should be translated, `Because no man laid it to heart'; had the people laid it to heart this sad state of things would have been averted.F13 It was the indifference and unconcern of the Chosen People that led to their ruin.
THE RETURN OF CAPTIVES, JUDGMENT OF NEIGHBORS
God's neighbors mentioned in Jer. 12:1 were identified by Dummelow as "The Syrians, Edomites, and Moabites."F14 The promise that upon the condition of their repentance and conversion that they would be built up in the midst of God's people (Jeremiah 12:16) was, in fact, to be the privilege of all pagan nations under the reign of the Messiah, an event definitely foreshadowed here by this mention of Gentiles becoming God's children in the midst of his people, which under the New Israel would be composed of people of "every nation and tribe and tongue and people" (Revelation 14:6).
The promise of this last paragraph "is Messianic";F15 but it should be noted that all of the promised blessings of God, whether to the "righteous remnant" destined to return from Babylon, or to the Gentiles who in the future will be "in the midst of" God's people, are absolutely conditional.
If they will diligently learn the ways of God's people... then shall they be built up in the midst of my people. if they will not hear ... then will I pluck up, etc
(Jeremiah 12:16-17) Thus it is stated both negatively and positively. There is no such thing, nor has there ever been, nor shall there ever be any such as the blessing of God which does not meet the condition set forth here.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.