The prophet doubts not but it would be of use to others to know what had passed between God and his soul, what temptations he had been assaulted with and how he had got over them; and therefore he here tells us,
I. What liberty he humbly took, and was graciously allowed him, to reason with God concerning his judgments, Jer. 12:1. He is about to plead with God, not to quarrel with him, or find fault with his proceedings, but to enquire into the meaning of them, that he might more and more see reason to be satisfied in them, and might have wherewith to answer both his own and others’ objections against them. The works of the Lord, and the reasons of them, are sought out even of those that have pleasure therein. Ps. 111:2. We may not strive with our Maker, but we may reason with him. The prophet lays down a truth of unquestionable certainty, which he resolves to abide by in managing this argument: Righteous art thou, O Lord! when I plead with thee. Thus he arms himself against the temptation wherewith he was assaulted, to envy the prosperity of the wicked, before he entered into a parley with it. Note, When we are most in the dark concerning the meaning of God’s dispensations we must still resolve to keep up right thoughts of God, and must be confident of this, that he never did, nor ever will do, the least wrong to any of his creatures; even when his judgments are unsearchable as a great deep, and altogether unaccountable, yet his righteousness is as conspicuous and immovable as the great mountains, Ps. 36:6. Though sometimes clouds and darkness are round about him, yet justice and judgment are always the habitation of his throne, Ps. 97:2. When we find it hard to understand particular providences we must have recourse to general truths as our first principles, and abide by them; however dark the providence may be, the Lord is righteous; see Ps. 73:1. And we must acknowledge it to him, as the prophet here, even when we plead with him, as those that have no thoughts of contending but of learning, being fully assured that he will be justified when he speaks. Note, However we may see cause for our own information to plead with God, yet it becomes us to own that, whatever he says or does, he is in the right.
II. What it was in the dispensations of divine Providence that he stumbled at and that he thought would bear a debate. It was that which has been a temptation to many wise and good men, and such a one as they have with difficulty got over. They see the designs and projects of wicked people successful: The way of the wicked prospers; they compass their malicious designs and gain their point. They see their affairs and concerns in a good posture: They are happy, happy as the world can make them, though they deal treacherously, very treacherously, both with God and man. Hypocrites are chiefly meant (as appears, Jer. 12:2), who dissemble in their good professions, and depart from their good beginnings and good promises, and in both they deal treacherously, very treacherously. It has been said that men cannot expect to prosper who are unjust and dishonest in their dealings; but these deal treacherously, and yet they are happy. The prophet shows (Jer. 12:2) both their prosperity and their abuse of their prosperity. 1. God had been very indulgent to them and they were got beforehand in the world: “They are planted in a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and thou hast planted them! nay, thou didst cast out the heathen to plant them,” Ps. 44:2; 80:8. Many a tree is planted that yet never grows nor comes to any thing; but they have taken root; their prosperity seems to be confirmed and settled. They take root in the earth, for there they fix themselves, and thence they draw the sap of all their satisfaction. Many trees however take root which yet never come on; but these grow, yea they bring forth fruit; their families are built up, they live high, and spend at a great rate; and all this was owing to the benignity of the divine Providence, which smiled upon them, Ps. 73:7. 2. Thus God had favoured them, though they had dealt treacherously with him: Thou art near in their mouth and far from their reins. This was no uncharitable censure, for he spoke by the Spirit of prophecy, without which it is not safe to charge men with hypocrisy whose appearances are plausible. Observe, (1.) Thought they cared not for thinking of God, nor had any sincere affection to him, yet they could easily persuade themselves to speak of him frequently and with an air of seriousness. Piety from the teeth outward is no difficult thing. Many speak the language of Israel that are not Israelites indeed. (2.) Though they had on all occasions the name of God ready in their mouth, and accustomed themselves to those forms of speech that savoured of piety, yet they could not persuade themselves to keep up the fear of God in their hearts. The form of godliness should engage us to keep up the power of it; but with them it did not do so.
III. What comfort he had in appealing to God concerning his own integrity (Jer. 12:3): But thou, O Lord! knowest me. Probably the wicked men he complains of were forward to reproach and censure him (Jer. 18:18), in reference to which this was his comfort, that God was a witness of his integrity. God knew he was not such a one as they were (who had God near in their mouths, but far from their reins), nor such a one as they took him to be, and represented him, a deceiver and a false prophet; those that thus abused him did not know him, 1 Cor. 2:8. “But thou, O Lord! knowest me, though they think me not worth their notice.” 1. Observe what the matter is concerning which he appeals to God: Thou knowest my heart towards thee. Note, We are as our hearts are, and our hearts are good or bad according as they are, or are not, towards God; and this is that therefore concerning which we should examine ourselves, that we may approve ourselves to God. 2. The cognizance to which he appeals: “Thou knowest me better than I know myself, not by hearsay or report, for thou hast seen me, not with a transient glance, but thou hast tried my heart.” God’s knowledge of us is as clear and exact and certain as if he had made the most strict scrutiny. Note, The God with whom we have to do perfectly knows how our hearts are towards him. He knows both the guile of the hypocrite and the sincerity of the upright.
IV. He prays that God would turn his hand against these wicked people, and not suffer them to prosper always, though they had prospered long: “Let some judgment come to pull them out of this fat pasture as sheep for the slaughter, that it may appear their long prosperity was but like the feeding of lambs in a large place, to prepare them for the day of slaughter,” Hos. 4:16. God suffered them to prosper that by their pride and luxury they might fill up the measure of their iniquity and so be ripened for destruction; and therefore he thinks it a piece of necessary justice that they should fall into mischief themselves, because they had done so much mischief to others, that they should be pulled out of their land, because they had brought ruin upon the land, and the longer they continued in it the more hurt they did, as the plagues of their generation (Jer. 12:4): “How long shall the land mourn. (as it does under the judgments of God inflicted upon it) for the wickedness of those that dwell therein? Lord, shall those prosper themselves that ruin all about them?” 1. See here what the judgment was which the land was now groaning under: The herbs of every field wither (the grass is burnt up and all the products of the earth fail), and then it follows of course, the beasts are consumed, and the birds, 1 Kgs. 18:5. This was the effect of a long drought, or want of rain, which happened, as it should seem, at the latter end of Josiah’s reign and the beginning of Jehoiakim’s; it is mentioned Jer. 3:3; 8:13; 9:10, 12, and more fully afterwards, Jer. 14:1-22 If they would have been brought to repentance by this less judgment, the greater would have been prevented. Now why was it that this fruitful land was turned into barrenness, but for the wickedness of those that dwelt therein? Ps. 107:34. Therefore the prophet prays that these wicked people might die for their own sin, and that the whole nation might not suffer for it. 2. See here what was the language of their wickedness: They said, He shall not see our last end, either, (1.) God himself shall not. Atheism is the root of hypocrisy. God is far from their reins, though near in their mouth, because they say, How doth God know? Ps. 73:11; Job 22:13. He knows not what way we take nor what it will end in. Or, (2.) Jeremiah shall not see our last end; whatever he pretends, when he asks us what shall be in the end hereof he cannot himself foresee it. They look upon him as a false prophet. Or, “whatever it is, he shall not live to see it, for we will be the death of him,” Jer. 11:21. Note, [1.] Men’s setting their latter end at a great distance, or looking upon it as uncertain, is at the bottom of all their wickedness, Lam. 1:9. [2.] The whole creation groans under the burden of the sin of man, Rom. 8:22. It is for this that the earth mourns (so it may be read); cursed is the ground for thy sake.
V. He acquaints us with the answer God gave to those complaints of his, Jer. 12:5, 6. We often find the prophets admonished, whose business it was to admonish others, as Isa. 8:11. Ministers have lessons to learn as well as lessons to teach, and must themselves hear God’s voice and preach to themselves. Jeremiah complained much of the wickedness of the men of Anathoth, and that, notwithstanding that, they prospered. Now, this seems to be an answer to that complaint. 1. It is allowed that he had cause to complain (Jer. 12:6): “Thy brethren, the priests of Anathoth, who are of the house of thy father, who ought to have protected thee and pretended to do so, even they have dealt treacherously with thee, have been false to thee, and, under colour of friendship, have designedly done thee all the mischief they could; they have called a multitude after thee, raised the mob upon thee, to whom they have endeavoured, by all arts possible, to render thee despicable or odious, while at the same time they pretended that they had no design to persecute thee nor to deprive thee of thy liberty. They are indeed such as thou canst not believe, though they speak fair words to thee. They seem to be thy friends, but are really thy enemies.” Note, God’s faithful servants must not think it at all strange if their foes be those of their own house (Matt. 10:36), and if those they expect kindness from prove such as they can put no confidence in, Mic. 7:5. 2. Yet he is told that he carried the matter too far. (1.) He laid the unkindness of his countrymen too much to heart. They wearied him, because it was in a land of peace wherein he trusted, Jer. 12:5. It was very grievous to him to be thus hated and abused by his own kindred. He was disturbed in his mind by it; his spirit was sunk and overwhelmed with it, so that he was in great agitation and distress about it. Nay, he was discouraged in his work by it, began to be weary of prophesying, and to think of giving it up. (2.) He did not consider that this was but the beginning of his sorrow, and that he had sorer trials yet before him; and, whereas he should endeavour by a patient bearing of this trouble to prepare himself for greater, by his uneasiness under this he did but unfit himself for what further lay before him: If thou hast run with the footmen and they have wearied thee, and run thee quite out of breath,then how wilt thou contend with horses? If the injuries done him by the men of Anathoth made such an impression upon him, what would he do when the princes and chief priests at Jerusalem should set upon him with their power, as they did afterwards? Jer. 20:2; 32:2. If he was so soon tired in a land of peace, where there was little noise or peril, what would he do in the swellings of Jordan, when that overflows all its banks and frightens even lions out of their thickets? Jer. 49:19. Note, [1.] While we are in this world we must expect troubles, and difficulties. Our life is a race, a warfare; we are in danger of being run down. [2.] God’s usual method being to begin with smaller trials, it is our wisdom to expect greater than any we have yet met with. We may be called out to contend with horsemen, and the sons of Anak may perhaps be reserved for the last encounter. [3.] It highly concerns us to prepare for such trials and to consider what we should do in them. How shall we preserve our integrity and peace when we come to the swellings of Jordan? [4.] In order to our preparation for further and greater trials, we are concerned to approve ourselves well in present smaller trials, to keep up our spirits, keep hold of the promise, keep in our way, with our eye upon the prize, so run that we may obtain it. Some good interpreters understand this as spoken to the people, who were very secure and fearless of the threatened judgments. If they have been so humbled and impoverished by smaller calamities, so wasted by the Assyrians,—if the Ammonites and Moabites, who were their brethren, and with whom they were in league, proved false to them (as undoubtedly they would),—then how would they be able to deal with such a powerful adversary as the Chaldeans would be? How would they bear up their head against that invasion which should come like the swelling of Jordan?