Jeremiah 12 – Running with Footmen and Horses
A. Jeremiah’s question and God’s answer.
1. (1-4) Jeremiah’s question to God.
Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You;
Yet let me talk with You about Your judgments.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?
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.
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.
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.”
a. Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments: Jeremiah wanted to ask God a question, and he did so in an appropriate way – first recognizing and submitting to God’s righteousness.
b. Why does the way of the wicked prosper: Jeremiah asked a question that Asaph also asked (Psalm 73). Hopefully without pride, Jeremiah understood that he was righteous and most of those in Judah and Jerusalem were wicked. Yet they seemed to prosper, while Jeremiah often suffered.
i. “This is that noble question which hath exercised the wits and molested the minds of many wise men, both within and without the Church.” (Trapp)
ii. “The whole book of Jeremiah shows that there is a moral law operating in the world, but the prophet, smarting at this time under the attack on his life (Jeremiah 11:21), impatiently clamoured for God to hasten up His process of judgment.” (Cundall)
c. You have planted them: Jeremiah considered that the wicked could not enjoy any prosperity or pleasure unless God allowed it. The fruit they enjoyed ultimately came from God in one way or another.
d. You are near in their mouth but far from their mind: The people Jeremiah had in mind were those who made an outward profession of religion but did not really care about God and the things of God.
e. But You, O LORD, know me; You have seen me, and You have tested my heart toward You: Jeremiah contrasted his life with the life of the wicked – perhaps those who threatened him (Jeremiah 11:18-19). He knew that his life and heart were tested before God in a way that their lives did not seem to be.
f. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter: In the previous chapter, Jeremiah felt that he was like a sheep for the slaughter (Jeremiah 11:19). He prayed that the wicked would now be put in that same place.
i. “In asking him to ‘set them apart [i.e., “sanctify them”] for the day of slaughter,’ Jeremiah is comparing the wicked to animal sacrifices.” (Feinberg)
g. How long will the land mourn: Jeremiah felt that because God did not answer the wicked with judgment, it brought mourning even to the land. Their careless attitude (He will not see our final end) had an effect even upon the natural world.
2. (5-6) God’s answer to Jeremiah.
“If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you,
Then how can you contend with horses?
And if in the land of peace,
In which you trusted, they wearied you,
Then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan?
For even your brothers, the house of your father,
Even they have dealt treacherously with you;
Yes, they have called a multitude after you.
Do not believe them,
Even though they speak smooth words to you.”
a. If you have run with the footmen and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses: God’s answer to Jeremiah was both powerful and profound. Without directly answering the question (a more complete answer is given in Psalm 73), God encouraged Jeremiah to regard his present challenge as a preparation for greater challenges to come.
i. Jeremiah was certainly in a challenge – like a hard-fought race with the footmen. There was a sense of spiritual and mental and emotional exertion involved with the persecution from his fellow villagers from Anathoth and his question regarding the prosperity of the wicked and why God did not seem to deliver justice to them.
ii. Yet even with the appreciation of that challenge, there were greater challenges to come. By analogy, Jeremiah could expect to run against horses in the future. He needed to learn how to trust God and to draw on His strength in his present challenge, in order to prepare him for the greater challenges in the future.
iii. If he found it difficult in Anathoth, how would he fare in Jerusalem? Later on, Jeremiah would have to spend a night in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-3), confinement in a cistern (Jeremiah 38:6), and imprisonment in the court of the guard (Jeremiah 28:13). “The troubles he was having in Anathoth were nothing compared to the troubles he would have later in Jerusalem, Babylon, or Egypt.” (Ryken)
b. And if in the land of peace, in which you trust, they wearied you, then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan: This analogy supplies the same lesson as the analogy of the footmen and the horses. The present circumstance is a challenge, yet a greater one waits.
i. “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.” (Ryken)
ii. “The effect of the questions must have been that of emphasizing the prophet’s sense of his own weakness, and thus driving him to yet completer dependence upon God.” (Morgan)
iii. “God never calls us to content with horsemen, until He has trained us by the lesser strain of contending with footmen.” (Morgan)
iv. “He seems to have been a little afraid of the people among whom he dwelt. They had evidently persecuted him very much, mocked at him, and laughed him to scorn; but God tells him to make his face like flint, and not to care for them, for, says he, If thou art afraid of them, ‘How wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?’ This ought to be a rebuke to every Christian who is subject to the fear of man.” (Spurgeon)
v. Floodplain of the Jordan: “The region surrounding the Jordan was a place of jungle growth, the lair of lions (cf. Jeremiah 49:19; 50:44).” (Thompson)
c. For even your brothers, the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you: For Jeremiah, the smaller challenge was the adversity and hatred he faced from the men of Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:21), men of his own village and family. The greater challenge was the multitude they had called against him.
d. Do not believe them, even though they speak smooth words to you: The open adversity was another example of the smaller challenge; the bigger challenge would be the smooth words and flattery others would use against Jeremiah.
B. Judah and her enemies.
1. (7-8) God abandons His people to their enemies.
“I have forsaken My house, I have left My heritage;
I have given the dearly beloved of My soul into the hand of her enemies.
My heritage is to Me like a lion in the forest;
It cries out against Me;
Therefore I have hated it.
My heritage is to Me like a speckled vulture;
The vultures all around are against her.
Come, assemble all the beasts of the field,
Bring them to devour!”
a. I have forsaken My house, I have left My heritage: Jeremiah spoke to the future when God will give His dearly beloved people into the hand of her enemies.
i. “The reference to house is not to the temple but to the people. My house is parallel to my heritage (inheritance), a familiar designation for the people of Israel in the Old Testament.” (Thompson)
b. My heritage to Me is like a lion in the forest; it cries out against Me; therefore I have hated it: According to Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:9, Judah was supposed to be God’s lion. They fulfilled the lion-like role, but they roared against God instead of for Him – it was a roar of rebellion.
i. “The people are enraged against me; they roar like a furious lion against their God. They have proceeded to the most open acts of the most flagrant iniquity.” (Clarke)
ii. “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, at least for a time. He was going to disinherit them.” (Ryken)
c. My heritage is to Me like a speckled vulture: The idea is of a bird that looks different and is therefore troubled by the other birds. Judah would be set upon by the surrounding nations.
i. “Rebellious Judah will now be as conspicuous as a speckled bird, whose unusual plumage provokes the enmity of other predators.” (Harrison)
2. (10-13) The mournful harvest of the land.
“Many rulers have destroyed My vineyard,
They have trodden My portion underfoot;
They have made My pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.
They have made it desolate;
Desolate, it mourns to Me;
The whole land is made desolate,
Because no one takes it to heart.
The plunderers have come
On all the desolate heights in the wilderness,
For the sword of the LORD shall devour
From one end of the land to the other end of the land;
No flesh shall have peace.
They have sown wheat but reaped thorns;
They have put themselves to pain but do not profit.
But be ashamed of your harvest
Because of the fierce anger of the LORD.”
a. They have made it desolate; desolate, it mourns to Me: When the judgment comes upon the land of Judah, it will make the land desolate – because there will be no one to care for it (no one takes it to heart).
i. The KJV has Jeremiah 12:10 as Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard. The Hebrew uses the familiar figure of a shepherd (pastor) as a leader of people, not necessarily spiritually. Trapp notes, “Those who before were called beasts (Jeremiah 12:9), are here called pastors – viz., Nebuchadnezzar’s captains.”
ii. “The Hebrew text plays strong on the word waste [desolate] in verses 10 and 11. It is impossible to catch the strong assonance in English, but the effect in Hebrew is striking. There is a sense of completeness and finality about the words.” (Thompson)
b. But be ashamed of your harvest because of the fierce anger of the LORD: God spoke to the invading Babylonians, warning them that they should take no pleasure or satisfaction in their harvest upon the cities and land of Judah. They would have to reckon with the fierce anger of the LORD.
i. “All their projects shall fail: none of their enterprises shall succeed. They are enemies to God, and therefore cannot have his blessing.” (Clarke)
3. (14-15) A promise of retribution and a promise of restoration.
Thus says the LORD: “Against all My evil neighbors who touch the inheritance which I have caused My people Israel to inherit—behold, I will pluck them out of their land and pluck out the house of Judah from among them. Then it shall be, after I have plucked them out, that I will return and have compassion on them and bring them back, everyone to his heritage and everyone to his land.
a. I will pluck them out of their land: God warned those would attack and exile Israel, that He would also dispossess them of their land. Even though God used them as an instrument of His judgment, He would nevertheless judge them for their evil and brutality against Judah.
i. God called these nations My evil neighbors – yet He would use them to chastise His people. “God often uses one wicked nation to scourge another; and afterwards scourges the scourger by some other scourge. In some places a felon who was condemned to be hanged is made the common hangman for the county; he himself being still under the sentence of death.” (Clarke)
b. And pluck out the house of Judah from among them: God would deal with the invaders (the Babylonian Empire); but He would also take care of His people, and bring them back (pluck out) a remnant to return to the land and the promise once again.
c. I will return and have compassion on them and bring them back, everyone to his heritage and everyone to his land: The promise of exile and judgment was sure; but so was the promise of compassion and return. Jeremiah need not despair at the seeming prosperity of the wicked and trouble of the righteous; God would move all things according to His perfect plan.
4. (16-17) A merciful promise to the nations.
And it shall be, if they will learn carefully the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the LORD lives,’ as they taught My people to swear by Baal, then they shall be established in the midst of My people. But if they do not obey, I will utterly pluck up and destroy that nation,” says the LORD.
a. If they will learn carefully the ways of My people: God made a remarkable offer to Babylonians and to any who opposed His people. If they would turn to Him and swear by His name, then they could be established in the midst of My people. They could share in the blessing and goodness of God among His people.
i. “He also holds out to pagan peoples the blessings of the covenant relationship if only they will repudiate the Baal deities and swear by the living God.” (Harrison)
ii. This reminds us that God’s regard for Israel was never based on race or ethnicity. It was based on love and faithfulness to Yahweh. Any nation who would honor the LORD in this way would gain the same benefits as belonged to ethnic Israel.
iii. “It is remarkable to observe that these ‘evil neighbours’ (Jeremiah 12:14) are promised a share in a glorious future, following a chastisement similar to that inflicted upon His covenant-people, providing they accept the testimony of Judah to her Saviour-God.” (Cundall)
b. But if they do not obey, I will utterly pluck up and destroy that nation: The blessing for turning to the LORD was great; but the price for rejecting God was also great. They could expect the judgment of God, no matter their present prosperity or superiority.
i. “The tartness of the threatening maketh us best taste the sweetness of the promise.” (Trapp)