You will be in the right, O LORD,when I lay charges against you;
but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
2 You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit;
you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.
3 But you, O LORD, know me; You see me and test me– my heart is with you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
4 How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither?
For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away,
and because people said, “He is blind to our ways.”
The question of theodicy, how can the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer is one that the bible wrestle with again and again, and here Jeremiah lays it before God. Jeremiah lays out the difference between himself as the righteous one and the ‘wicked ones’ who believe that God is blind to their ways and Jeremiah is ready for God to judge. Jeremiah is worn out, tired and brokenhearted and is ready to be done with it, ready for God to judge his opponents not knowing how long of a journey he still has before him. While most commentators see God’s response as harsh, that has as much to do with the tone they hear it in as the words themselves (that and they way they divide the text which I will address below). I hear it somewhat differently
5 If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?
6 For even your kinsfolk and your own family, even they have dealt treacherously with you;
they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you.
God’s response to Jeremiah is one of warning of what is still to come. Jeremiah’s journey is not going to be an easy one going forward with betrayal coming even from his own household. Jeremiah this is probably one of those points where Jeremiah needs to be heard and hear that God is still active. In Jeremiah it is often difficult to know where God is speaking and where Jeremiah is speaking. Two of the scholars I respect greatly see God speaking from verse 5 through the end of the chapter, (Brueggemann 1998, 102-123) (Elizabeth Acthemeier, et.al 1999, VI:679f.) but I am going to propose a different reading with Jeremiah picking up at verse 7
7 I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies.
8 My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest;
she has lifted up her voice against me– therefore I hate her.
9 Is the hyena greedy for my heritage at my command?
Are the birds of prey all around her?
Go, assemble all the wild animals;
bring them to devour her.
10 Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,
they have trampled down my portion,
they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.
11 They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me.
The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart.
12 Upon all the bare heights in the desert spoilers have come;
for the sword of the LORD devours from one end of the land to the other;
no one shall be safe.
13 They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns,
they have tired themselves out but profit nothing.
They shall be ashamed of their harvests because of the fierce anger of the LORD.
Jeremiah no longer is concerned for his relations, his family, his heritage. He feels betrayed and so he is ready to surrender them to the consequences of their actions. He is ready for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field to pick over the bones of his homeland, his own village and his family. Jeremiah at this point sees no hope, all he can see is the betrayal and devastation that is coming. The prophet’s broken heart has left him in a state of absolute depression where there is no longer any profit, any joy.
14 Thus says the LORD concerning all my evil neighbors who touch the heritage that I have given my people Israel to inherit: I am about to pluck them up from their land, and I will pluck up the house of Judah from among them. 15 And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, everyone of them. 16 And then, if they will diligently learn 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 built up in the midst of my people. 17 But if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the LORD.
God desires God’s people back. There is no easy way around what is coming, even in the reforms of Josiah at the time Jeremiah begins his time as a prophet only brought about superficial changes and God desires something much deeper. The only way a new relationship can begin is for the old one to die so a new one can take it’s place. The Babylonian exile, while an event of horror in the memory of the Jewish people was also a time where they went through a process that they re-identified who they were in their relationship with the Lord. The Lord is unwilling to sit by and not be active, the Lord can no longer abide the way things are where the treacherous thrive and the guilty prosper, yet God still loves the people and desires to have compassion on them and wants them to live out of their identity.