Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The sequence of the several sections is not very clear, and possibly we have a series of detailed prophecies put together without system. Jeremiah 12:1-3 seem to continue the address to the men of Anathoth, Jeremiah 12:4 points to a drought, Jeremiah 12:12 to the invasion of the Chaldeans, Jeremiah 12:14 to the “evil neighbours”—Edomites, Moabites, and others—who exulted in the fall of Judah.
Righteous art thou, O LORD, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?(1) Yet let me talk with thee.—The soul of the prophet is vexed, as had been the soul of Job (Jeremiah 21:7), of Asaph (Psalms 73), and others, by the apparent anomalies of the divine government. He owns as a general truth that God is righteous, “yet,” he adds, I will speak (or argue) my cause (literally, causes) with Thee. He will question the divine Judge till his doubt is removed. And the question is the ever-recurring one, Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? (Comp. Psalm 37:1; Psalm 73:3.) The “treacherous dealing” implies a reference to the conspirators of the previous chapter.
Wherefore are all they happy . . .—Better, at rest, or secure.
Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root: they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins.(2) Thou hast planted them.—The words express, of course, the questioning distrust of the prophet. The wicked flourish, so that one would think God had indeed planted them. Yet all the while they were mocking Him with hypocritical worship (here we have an echo of Isaiah 29:13), uttering His name with their lips while He was far from that innermost being which the Hebrew symbolised by the “reins.”
But thou, O LORD, knowest me: thou hast seen me, and tried mine heart toward thee: pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter.(3) Thou, O Lord, knowest me.—Like all faithful sufferers from evil-doers before and after him, the prophet appeals to the righteous Judge, who knows how falsely he has been accused. In words in which the natural impatience of suffering shows itself as clearly as in the complaints of Psalms 69, 109, he asks that the judgment may be immediate, open, terrible. As if recalling the very phrase which he had himself but lately used (Jeremiah 11:19), he prays that they too may be as “sheep for the slaughter,” dragged or torn away from their security to the righteous penalty of their wrong.
Prepare.—Better, devote. The Hebrew word, as in Jeremiah 6:4, involves the idea of consecration.
How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? the beasts are consumed, and the birds; because they said, He shall not see our last end.(4) How long shall the land mourn . . .—The Hebrew punctuation gives a different division, How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of the whole field (i.e., all the open country) wither? For the wickedness of them that dwell therein, cattle and birds perish, for, say they, he (i.e., the prophet) will not see our latter end (i.e., we shall outlive him, though he prophesies our destruction). A slightly different reading, however, adopted by the LXX. and by some modern scholars, would give for the last clause, “He (God) seeth not our ways,” i.e., will leave us unpunished. The opening words point to a time of distress, probably of drought and famine. But out of this wretchedness, the men who were Jeremiah’s enemies—the forestallers, and monopolists, and usurers of the time—continued to enrich themselves, and scornfully defied all his warnings.
If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?(5) If thou hast run with the footmen.—The prophet is compelled to make answer to himself, and the voice of Jehovah is heard in his inmost soul rebuking his impatience. What are the petty troubles that fall on him compared with what others suffer, with what might come on himself? The thought is not unlike that with which St. Paul comforts the Corinthians (1Corinthians 10:13), or what we find in Hebrews 12:4. The meaning of the first clause is plain enough. The man who was wearied in a foot-race should not venture (as Elijah, e.g., had done, 1Kings 18:46) to measure his speed against that of horses. The latter (“the swelling of Jordan”) suggests the thoughts of the turbid stream of the river overflowing its banks in the time of harvest (Joshua 3:15; 1Chronicles 12:15). In Zechariah 11:3, however, the same phrase (there translated “the pride of Jordan”) is used apparently in connection with the lions and other beasts of prey that haunted the jungle on its banks (Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44), and that may be the thought here. Commentators differ, and there are no data for deciding. In any case, there is no need for the interpolated words of the English Version. The sentence should run, “In a land of peace thou art secure (i.e., it is easy to be tranquil when danger is not pressing). What wilt thou in the swelling (or, amid the pride) of Jordan?
For even thy brethren, and the house of thy father, even they have dealt treacherously with thee; yea, they have called a multitude after thee: believe them not, though they speak fair words unto thee.(6) Thy brethren.—It is not certain whether we are to think actually of the sons of the same father, or only of the men of Anathoth (Jeremiah 11:23), as belonging to the same section of the priesthood. The language of Jeremiah 9:5 favours the more literal rendering. In any case, it is interesting to note that the proverb which our Lord more than once quotes, “A prophet is not without honour save in his own country and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57; Luke 4:24; John 4:44), probably had its origin in the sad experience of Jeremiah.
They have called a multitude after thee.—Better, have shouted a full shout (in our English phrase, “have raised a hue and cry”) after thee.
I have forsaken mine house, I have left mine heritage; I have given the dearly beloved of my soul into the hand of her enemies.(7) I have forsaken mine house.—The speaker is clearly Jehovah, but the connection with what precedes is not clear. Possibly we have, in this chapter, what in the writings of a poet would be called fragmentary pieces, written at intervals, and representing different phases of thought, and afterwards arranged without the devices of headings and titles and spaces with which modern bookmaking has made us familiar. So far as a sequence of thought is traceable, it is this, “Thou complainest of thine own sufferings, but there are worse things yet in store for thee; and what after all are thine, as compared with those that I, Jehovah, have brought upon mine heritage, dear as it is to me?”
I have left.—Better, I have cast away.
Into the hand.—Literally, the palm, as given over utterly, unable to resist, and not needing the “grasp” of the whole hand.
Mine heritage is unto me as a lion in the forest; it crieth out against me: therefore have I hated it.(8) As a lion in the forest.—i.e., fierce, wild, untamed, uttering its sharp yells of passion. That mood was utterly unlovable, and therefore, speaking after the manner of men, the love which Jehovah had once felt for it was turned to hatred.
Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.(9) Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird.—The Hebrew is interrogative, Is mine heritage . . .? Are the birds come round about against her? The word for “bird” in both cases means a “bird of prey” (Isaiah 46:11; Genesis 15:11), and the “speckled bird” is probably, but not certainly, some less common species of vulture. The image was probably suggested by something the prophet had observed, birds of prey of one species collecting and attacking a solitary stranger of another, joined by the “beasts of the field,” the wolves and jackals and hyænas, who scent their prey. The word “speckled,” perhaps, points to the bird attacked as being of more goodly plumage than the others (one, it may be, of the kingfishers that abound in Palestine), and therefore treated as a stranger and an enemy. The fact is one which strikes every observer of bird life (Tac. Ann. vi. 28; Sueton. Cæs. c. 81).
Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.(10) Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard.—The use of the word “pastors,” with all its modern spiritual associations, instead of “shepherds” (Jeremiah is the only book in the Old Testament, it may be noted, in which the word occurs), is peculiarly unhappy in this passage, where the “pastors” are reckless and destructive. Here the image (as in Jeremiah 6:3) is that of the shepherds of a wild, nomadic tribe (who represent the Chaldean and other invaders), breaking down the fence of the vineyard, and taking in their flocks to browse upon the tender shoots of the vine. The thought is the same as that of the “boar out of the wood” of Psalm 80:13, but the “shepherds” are introduced to bring in the thought of the organisation and systematic plan of destruction.
They have made it desolate, and being desolate it mourneth unto me; the whole land is made desolate, because no man layeth it to heart.(11) They have made it desolate.—The Hebrew is impersonal. “One has made it . . . ,” i.e., it is made desolate. As in other poetry of strong emotion, the prophet dwells with a strange solemn iteration on the same sound—“desolate,” “desolate,” “desolate”—thrice in the same breath. The Hebrew word shemâma, so uttered, must have sounded like a wail of lamentation.
Because no man layeth it to heart.—Better, no man laid it . . . The neglect of the past was bearing fruit in the misery of the present.
The spoilers are come upon all high places through the wilderness: for the sword of the LORD shall devour from the one end of the land even to the other end of the land: no flesh shall have peace.(12) All high places.—i.e., the bare treeless heights so often chosen as the site of an idolatrous sanctuary.
The sword of the Lord.—As in the cry of “the sword of Jehovah and of Gideon” (Judges 7:18) all man’s work in war is thought of as instrumental in working out a Will mightier than his own. The sword of the Chaldean invader was, after all, His sword. The thought was more or less the common inheritance of Israel, but it had recently received a special prominence from Deuteronomy 32:41.
No flesh shall have peace.—The context limits the prediction to the offenders of the cities of Judah. As peace was for the Israelite the sum and substance of all blessedness, so its absence was the extremest of all maledictions. “Flesh” is used, as in Genesis 6:3, for man’s nature as evil and corrupt.
They have sown wheat, but shall reap thorns: they have put themselves to pain, but shall not profit: and they shall be ashamed of your revenues because of the fierce anger of the LORD.(13) But shall reap thorns.—Better, have reaped thorns; and so in the next clause they have profited nothing. This which is truer to the Hebrew is also truer to the Prophet’s meaning. The sentence of failure is already written on everything. The best plans are marred, the “wheat” turned to “thorns.” The words are obviously of the nature of a proverbial saying, of the same type as that of Haggai 1:6.
They shall be ashamed.—The word is imperative, be ashamed.
Revenues.—The word had not acquired, at the time of the translation of 1611, the exclusively financial sense which now attaches to it, and was used as equivalent to increase or “produce” generally. By some commentators the words are referred to the conquerors, who are to be ashamed of their scanty spoil; by others to the conquered, who are to find all their hopes of increase disappointed. The latter seems preferable.
Thus saith the LORD against all mine evil neighbours, that 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.(14) Thus saith the Lord.—The introduction of a new message from Jehovah, speaking through the prophet, is indicated by the usual formula.
Mine evil neighbours.—These were the neighbouring nations—Edomites, Moabites, Hagarenes—who rejoiced in the fall of Judah, and attacked her in her weakness (2Kings 24:2; Psalm 83:6-9; Psalm 137:7). In the midst of his burning indignation against the sins of his own people the prophet is still a patriot, and is yet more indignant at those who attack her. For them, too, there shall be a like chastisement (comp. Jeremiah 25:18-26), but not for them so signal a deliverance as that in store for Judah. They should be “plucked out” from their own land, Judah from the land of its exile.
And it shall come to pass, after that I have plucked them out I will return, and have compassion on them, and will bring them again, every man to his heritage, and every man to his land.(15) I will return, and have compassion on them.—The words refer, as Jeremiah 12:16 shows, not to Judah only, but to the “evil neighbours.” For them also there is hope, and that hope is bound up with the return of Judah. Strong as was the prophet’s desire for retribution, it is overpowered by the new love shed abroad in his soul, and he sees that it does not exclude, even in their case, the pity and the yearning that look beyond it for an ultimate restoration.
And it shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, The LORD liveth; as they taught my people to swear by Baal; then shall they be built in the midst of my people.(16) To swear by my name.—There is an obvious reference to the hopes expressed in Jeremiah 4:2. To acknowledge Jehovah in all the most solemn forms of adjuration (comp. Jeremiah 5:2; Psalm 63:11), and to do this, not hypocritically, but in the spirit of reverence and righteousness, was the ideal state of the restored Judah. To be led by her example of faith and holiness, instead of leading her to acknowledge Baal by like forms of speech as they had done, was the ideal state of the nations round about her. In this hope the prophet was echoing that of Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2.
But if they will not obey, I will utterly pluck up and destroy that nation, saith the LORD.(17) I will utterly pluck up.—In this, as in the preceding verse, there is an obvious reference to the prophet’s calling as described in Jeremiah 1:10, the self-same word being used as that which is there rendered “root out.” The adverb “utterly” answers to the usual Hebrew reduplication of emphasis.