By Ken Yates
Sometimes when I read about certain people in the Bible, they seem to be superhuman. One of those people is the prophet Jeremiah. His ministry was one of suffering. The Lord asked him to do many things that were very difficult. There is a reason he is known as the “weeping prophet.” I look at his life and conclude that I couldn’t have done what he did, and I don’t understand how he was able to make such sacrifices.
I get a little bit of comfort, however, when I read that at least on one occasion, he was a little bit more like me. It is recorded in Jeremiah 12. Jeremiah knows that most of the people in his country hate him because he faithfully preached the word of God to them. But in chapter 11, the Lord tells him that even the people in his small hometown are plotting to kill him. This seems to drive Jeremiah to a crisis of faith.
TAKING THE LORD TO COURT
Jeremiah says that he wants to plead his case to the Lord. He acknowledges that the Lord is righteous, but he looks at his life and can’t understand why the Lord is allowing certain things. Specifically, he does not think it is righteous that the wicked around him prosper. Why are they so happy (Jer 12:1-2)?
Perhaps Jeremiah is thinking about the people in his hometown who are wanting to kill him. The Lord has told Jeremiah not to marry. He would have no children. Especially in the ancient world, children were considered some of the greatest blessings a man could have. Those who wanted him dead were enjoying many things. We can imagine that they had successful businesses of various kinds. Jeremiah, on the other hand, does not. He is occupied with doing the things the Lord has commanded him to do.
Jeremiah points out, as he pleads his case with the Lord, that the Lord allows such men to experience such blessings. God has planted them in the land like fruit bearing trees. Their blessings seem to pour forth, like the produce of a healthy tree planted by a flowing river. This is the case even though their hearts are far from God. They have no concern for the things of the Lord.
God does not deal with Jeremiah in this way. He puts the prophet to the test. The prophet goes through all kinds of difficulties as a result of that testing. The Lord wants to know if Jeremiah’s heart will remain faithful to Him (12:3). But hasn’t Jeremiah shown that faithfulness? Why is there a need for God to bless His enemies so abundantly and withhold so many blessings from him?
Then Jeremiah asks a completely understandable question.
WHY NOT PUNISH THEM NOW?
As a prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah knows that there will be a resurrection of the dead. He knows that there will come an eternal kingdom in which the promised Messiah will reign. He also knows that God will reward believers for their faithfulness when they enter that kingdom. But Jeremiah has questions about what he is seeing in his present circumstances.
Why doesn’t God punish the evildoers of his day now? Their sin is causing such havoc in the country of Judah. Their actions hurt other people. If Jeremiah is thinking about the conspirators in his hometown, they are even threatening his life. And he is a prophet doing the Lord’s work.
The Lord had the power to put an end to this. Jeremiah wants Him to take these wicked men out and kill them like sheep that are slaughtered. After all, such men live as if God will never hold them accountable (12:3-4). Wouldn’t such a punishment be a warning to people living wickedly today and make them more willing to listen to the message Jeremiah proclaimed?
As I said, Jeremiah seems like a superhero for what he endured. I can relate to him here more than I can in the other parts of his book. I think I can understand how he felt. Even today, when we see the evil all around us, it is natural to wonder why so many who excel in such evil experience so many earthly blessings. Even though we realize they will give an account of their actions before Christ, either at the Judgment Seat of Christ if they are believers or the Great White Throne Judgment if they are unbelievers, why does God allow them to prosper that way here and now?
Perhaps we have all thought like Jeremiah did on this occasion. Lord, I would love to see a lightning bolt come out of the sky and strike a few of these people.
Jeremiah, of course, knows the answer to the turmoil he is facing when he thinks about certain people around him. He knows that God is going to judge the nation for its sin. The blessings they are enjoying will soon end if they don’t repent. The Lord is being gracious towards them, giving them the opportunity to do so. Jeremiah is simply losing patience, as probably most of us would have done had we been in his shoes.
But it appears the real problem Jeremiah has concerns his own lot in life. Is it really necessary for him to go through all the difficulties he is going through? It would be easier to accept what he is seeing if things went a little more smoothly in his case. Why does God make things so hard for him? Jeremiah, after all, is the good guy here.
Jeremiah gets his answer.
WHAT ABOUT ME?
Jeremiah wonders why the Lord is dealing so harshly with him. What possible purpose could his difficulties have, especially in light of how easy the enemies of the Lord have it?
What the Lord tells him is probably not what Jeremiah wants to hear. God tells him his lot in life is going to get worse. He compares Jeremiah’s current difficulties to running with men. When you run with other men, you get tired. That is what Jeremiah is experiencing.
But in the future, he will get more tired. The Lord will have him run with horses. That is much harder, indeed.
Then, the Lord gives him another illustration. His life in the present can be compared to walking in a land full of peace. There is no danger. The path is clear. In the future, he will be told to walk in the tall grasses that surround the Jordan River after it has flooded. In the time of Jeremiah, lions would hide in the brush. Walking there was not only very difficult, it was much more dangerous (12:5).
Jeremiah wonders why his life is so hard. The Lord tells him that he hasn’t seen anything yet.
The point is clear. The Lord puts Jeremiah to the test through difficulties because He knows His prophet would face even more difficult days ahead. His trials are preparing him for the future. They are teaching him endurance. They are toughening him up.
We know the rest of the story. Jeremiah would indeed be called to run with horses and walk in the region of a flooded Jordan, figuratively speaking. He would see his people die of famine, disease, and war. He would see parents eat their children because they were starving. He would see his nation conquered by the Babylonians, the temple of God destroyed, and those that survived taken away as slaves. God was preparing him for his ministry in those days.
LESSONS FOR US
This account in Jeremiah’s life is a great lesson for believers today. First of all, it shows that the men and women we read about in the Bible are just like us. Even the best of them had questions when their faith seemed to falter. We all have feet of clay. God can use people like us.
The NT teaches us that difficulties in our lives are also used by the Lord to toughen us up, to teach us to endure. James, Paul, and Peter all teach the same truths (Rom 5:3; Jas 1:1-2; 2 Pet 1:6). The Lord knows what we will face in the future. He is in the business of training His children to face those challenges. Jeremiah had the privilege of being used by the Lord in some of the darkest days of Judah’s history. Who knows how the Lord may want to use us? He desires that we be ready for the days ahead and gives us the necessary training.
But I think there is something else we can realize when we look at the life of Jeremiah. We have such a great advantage over him. Yes, he knew about the coming kingdom of God and rewards in that kingdom. But how much did he know about the sufferings of the coming Christ? Whatever he knew, we today have such a clearer picture of them. Jeremiah could not read in the Gospels about the life and passion of the Lord as we can.
That certainly puts our difficulties in perspective. The book of Hebrews tells us that (Heb 12:2-4). When we see the wicked prosper, and we go through hard times, we know that is what Jesus experienced. We can look at Him. Jeremiah was simply told God was preparing him for what he would see. In the same way, God wants to prepare us. But we also see He is making us more like Him.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.