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The Consequences of Rebelling against God -- Jeremiah 12:1-13

Jeremiah, you have no idea how bad things will get.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 12:1-13

This is last of our lessons in Jeremiah that focuses exclusively on the destructive rebellion against God. Jeremiah complains that God hasn't brought this destruction about yet. God replies that Jeremiah has been oblivious to the things happening around him; Jeremiah doesn't really want to see the consequences for rejecting God's covenant of life.

If you have raced with runners and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? (12:5)

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

There is nothing original about this idea. I've found all sorts of books and articles that riff on the old phrase "What you don't know can't hurt you". (The idea was that if you don't know about something, you won't worry about it, which is better for you.) Well, we all know that what you don't know really can hurt you. (I can't recommend any activities about this because every one involves physical pain.)

Have you ever had these thoughts run through your mind:

  • "I wonder if that stovetop is still hot?"

  • "I wonder if that exposed electrical wire is live?"

  • "I wonder if I turned the oven off?"

  • "I wonder if that food item is still any good?"

What are examples of times in your life when something you weren't sure about turned out to cause you some pain?

And of course, we can make this a lot more serious:

  • "I wonder if that charity I'm supporting is using my donations wisely?"

  • "I wonder if my kids' friends are being good influences?"

  • "I wonder if the candidate I voted for is representing me rightly?"

  • "I wonder if my church is consistently teaching God's Word?"

Guess what: find out! There were people living in Jeremiah's Jerusalem who just assumed that everything happening around them was on the up-and-up. That they were following God appropriately. That people were being treated fairly. Truth was being taught rightly. It never crossed their minds to maybe check on that. "I had no idea" is not a valid excuse among God's people. In other words, what you don't know can hurt you. God wants us to take the time to be aware of ourselves and our world.

A Non-Woke Discussion about Inequality

And, Strangely Enough, a VBS Tie-in

I'm still workshopping this (sorry), but the deadline is here. Here's a half-baked idea that I know you can improve if you like the topic.

I've been very confused by this recent social media trend in which anyone who acknowledges social inequalities must be woke. Newsflash: inequality exists. It exists all over the world. It exists from region to region, from city to city. We visited a city in Honduras where the mayor took us on a walking tour and illustrated the progress in the city by pointing out that we did not have an armed escort with us. Don't tell me that inequality doesn't exist. What it means and what to do about it? That's where the political debate actually lies.

And I'll go even further. Some inequality in our world exists due to oppression. (Aside: the world is a lot bigger than America.) I recently watched a BBC report on North Korea. It's about 20 minutes long and it's really depressing, but it's worth the watch.

For the sake of preserving his regime, the leader of North Korea has closed its borders to everything -- including critical foodstuffs -- to keep defectors in and outside news out. People are dying in the streets of starvation due to the utter callousness of the leaders.

Your topic (which will probably require some ahead-of-time research): what are examples in the world today of people advancing their own wealth or power at the expense of others?

[Group leader note: know the soapboxes represented in your group and try to steer around them. There are real problems in our world that demand Christian empathy and intervention; it's a shame when we ignore them to gripe about political agendas.]

This sort of inequality and oppression is what's happening in Jeremiah's Jerusalem. And God is furious. Here's a key difference between Jeremiah's Jerusalem and Kim's Pyongyang: North Korea is atheist. People are nothing more than cogs. Judah was supposedly filled with faithful Jews! They should have known better!

In other words, the point of this topic is to rile us up so that we're as upset about what was happening in Jerusalem as God was. But I also want us to go through this lesson with our response in mind. A lot of people look at injustice and wonder "How could God allow this? What is God going to do about it?" In Jeremiah's day, the answer was that God was going to make an example out of the wicked Jews by punishing them severely. But today, something very important has changed: the Holy Spirit in believers.

There's a great song by Matthew West (that's somehow a decade old) that puts a different spin on that question: "God, why don't you do something about it? He said I did, I created you." Let's not just mourn the presence of sin in our world -- let's do something about it.

Parents, that was our VBS theme this week: shine Jesus' light. The kids were challenged to look at the world around them and shine Jesus' light on it. Here are the basic points:

  • When life feels dark, shine Jesus' light!

  • When people don't get along, shine Jesus' light!

  • When good things happen, shine Jesus' light!

  • When people are sad, shine Jesus' light!

  • When people need help, shine Jesus' light!

(Editor's note: this is the Group 2023 VBS Stellar VBS. Your church may not have done it.)

We may not be able to solve the tragic scenario playing out in North Korea, but we can help people in McDuffie County and the kids in your kids' classes. We can help HOI improve the lives of the people living around them in Honduras. We can support local ministries like Manna and global ministries like Hunger Relief.

What might your family do this summer to make your community better?


Where We Are in Jeremiah

I told you that we have one more lesson about "the problem", and then next week we start focusing on "the solution".

Last week, we read about the terrible sins God's people were committing in Jerusalem. The following chapters go into excruciating detail about what the consequences will be. (Really -- it's a tough read.)

Smack in the middle of all of the talk of destruction and punishment is one of everybody's favorite passages in Jeremiah:

9:23 “‘This is what the Lord says: The wise person should not boast in his wisdom; the strong should not boast in his strength; the wealthy should not boast in his wealth. 24 But the one who boasts should boast in this: that he understands and knows me— that I am the Lord, showing faithful love, justice, and righteousness on the earth, for I delight in these things.

We usually get a warm fuzzy when we read this passage (which we never read in context). And we should! It means the same thing in context as it does out of context. But in context, the emphasis is on the people who boast in the wrong things. They will experience the righteousness of God as God pours out His justice on them for their unfaithfulness.

There are lots of ways you could illustrate this; my favorite is the angry momma bear. You DO NOT want to mess with angry momma bear. But if you're her cub, you don't have anything to worry about. So it is with God -- He's a wonderful, caring Father. But if you're doing harm to His beloved creations, He will mess you up.

But there's a particular event that seems to set up this week's passage: the people had plotted against Jeremiah to shut him up (11:18-23). They didn't like what he was saying, and they didn't want to hear it. Apparently, they had threatened to kill Jeremiah! God responded by saying He would defend Jeremiah and punish his enemies.

But apparently Jeremiah thought God was taking too long, and this led Jeremiah into a much wider view of things. Jeremiah has delivered all of these messages of judgment and is wondering why God hasn't dropped the hammer yet. These wicked people deserve what's coming to them, so why are they still fat and happy right now?

If the standard timelines are right, Jeremiah is saying this in the final years of Josiah's reign. He has implemented a lot of reforms, but we're starting to realize that a lot of the people in the upper classes have reformed in word only. They love all of this religion stuff. It makes them feel all good inside. Granted, they've had to omit some things and reinterpret some things to get their religion to jive with their lifestyles, but they've been happy to do that.

That, of course, just makes God even more upset.


This Week's Big Idea: What American Churchgoers Believe

In this week's passage, God says to Jeremiah that His people have turned against Him. He doesn't go into specifics about what that means (this week, at least), but He really doesn't have to. I think this could be an amazing topic of discussion: what would it look like for God's people to turn against Him? And I'm not talking about people who reject their faith -- I'm talking about people who are going to church and think of themselves as good Christians.

Here's one possible answer:

I've mentioned the Ligonier "State of Theology in America" survey before. Well, I just read an article by a columnist who was completely befuddled by it, and I am quite sympathetic to his approach and confusion. What he did was restrict the results to people who attended church services weekly. So, like, super-Christians. I'd not studied the data in that way.

Here are survey results from people who attend Christian worship services weekly:

  • 56% believe that God is always learning and adapting

  • 47% believe that Jesus is not God incarnate

  • 40% believe that the Holy Spirit can compel unbiblical behavior

  • 20% that the Bible is not always accurate

  • 22% believe that salvation is not through faith alone in Christ alone

  • 67% believe that God accepts worship from all religions

Whatever "turning against God" looks like, that's gotta be part of it.

What do you think? In what ways could those beliefs be understood as turning against God?

Bonus Big Idea: Is God Paying Attention?

Survey of Ecclesiastes

All of the complaints Jeremiah is going to make to God sound a lot like observations Solomon made in Book of Ecclesiastes. We studied that a few years ago:

Let me copy my summary from the introductory post:

"Ecclesiastes is basically going to end where Proverbs begins and where Job ends: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." When Solomon attempted to understand life through his very limited perspective, only considering what he could see with his eyes and hear with his ears, he ended in a very dark place. A place that was actually full of folly(!) because Solomon didn't have all of the facts (just like Job). The best way to find meaning in life is to realize that God gives life meaning, and so we must find meaning in Him.

Outline of Ecclesiastes:

  1. Everything is futile (1:1-11)

  2. Wisdom is futile (1:12-18)

  3. Pleasures are futile (2:1-11)

  4. Folly is futile (2:12-16)

  5. Toil is futile (2:17-26)

  6. Time is futile (3:1-22)

  7. Relationships are futile (4:1-12)

  8. Advancement is futile (4:13-16)

  9. Vows are futile (5:1-7)

  10. Riches are futile (5:8-6:12)

  11. Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  12. Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)

  13. Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)

  14. Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

  15. Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)

  16. Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)

  17. Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)

Throughout those depressing subtitles are short bursts of hope. Like in life, we will discover hope in the midst of our observations of futility. And in fact, those places the author gives us lines of hope help us understand where to look for hope and how we miss it."

I also leaned heavily on the Bible Project's approach to Ecclesiastes because I really like how they put it side-by-side with Proverbs and Job, demonstrating how it filled in a unique part of the human search for meaning.

Long and short: God is always paying attention, and God will never let the wicked "get away with" anything. But justice and judgment belong to God, not to us, so we are to trust Him with the outcome and entrust Him with our very limited perspective of the world around us.


Part 1: Why, Lord? (Jeremiah 12:1-4)

12 You will be righteous, Lord, even if I bring a case against you. Yet, I wish to contend with you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the treacherous live at ease? 2 You planted them, and they have taken root. They have grown and produced fruit. You are ever on their lips, but far from their conscience. 3 As for you, Lord, you know me; you see me. You test whether my heart is with you. Drag the wicked away like sheep to slaughter and set them apart for the day of killing. 4 How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? Because of the evil of its residents, animals and birds have been swept away, for the people have said, “He cannot see what our end will be.”

Here's another way of translating verse 1 that might be a little clearer:

You've always been fair, even when I've brought a complaint to you. And I have a complaint about the way you're doing things.

This more-or-less matches the way Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes (see above). But there is a huge, HUGE difference between the two books: Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as an observation about life. Jeremiah is actually bold enough to say these things to God! In a way, you could say this is more like Job because Jeremiah's complaint seems to be initially tipped by a threat against his own life, but ultimately Jeremiah steps back into a wider view of things, which is more along the lines of what Solomon did.

This seems to be Jeremiah's line of thinking:

God, these people who threatened my life that You said You would punish, they seem to be just fine. And while I'm thinking about, all of those people You sent me to preach against and proclaim their punishment for all of the terrible things they've done, they all seem to be just fine. In fact, everybody seems just fine except for me. Would You care to explain Yourself?

I love verse 2:

These people are thoroughly enjoying the benefits of being the People of God, but they are only paying lip service to You. Can't You see through this?

Which leads directly into verse 3:

But I'm not paying You lip service. You know that because You watch me like a hawk, and You don't seem to be watching them at all. I would like You to start watching them and start doing something about them.

And what would Jeremiah like done? Dragging those wicked people away to slaughter. A bit tough dramatic? Yeah. But let's remember -- this is poetry. Take another look at the Imprecatory Psalms (as in Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 94, 137, 139 and 143). "Pour out your rage on them, and let your burning anger overtake them." (Ps 69:24) What we said when we studied those Psalms (sorry -- I haven't gone that far back yet in my posts) was (1) David's anger was against actual sin, not imagined sin; (2) David was calling on God to act, not taking justice into his own hands. Jeremiah is just taking a page out of David's celebrated playbook.

But I'm also going to give Jeremiah a "pass" in this respect: in 11:19, we read that Jeremiah's enemies (who were from his hometown on Anathoth!) thought of him as a "lamb led to slaughter". He was just casting it back on them.

What's most interesting to me is verse 4. Jeremiah is mourning the natural cost of the people's sin. Y'all know that I'm a big fan of wildlife, and I could very quickly jump onto a soapbox about how human actions have destroyed so many habitats and resulted in the deaths of countless animals to the great detriment of that ecosystem. But that's not what Jeremiah is complaining about here. God has earlier indicated that famine and drought were part of the punishment for the people's sin (8:13, etc.) -- my guess is that those things have already started. Who suffers first from famine and drought? The poor, the marginalized, and the wildlife. Drought takes out all of the plants -- including those eaten by animals and by people. And that creates a feedback loop that results in the starvation of the most food-insecure. The wealthy can ignore those conditions until their money runs out.

Apparently, things had started getting bad around Jerusalem, and the people were ignoring it. Jeremiah wanted to know how bad God would let things get before He pulled the plug on Jerusalem. [Aside: this is a powerful and tragic reminder that the sin of some will always cause suffering to others. This is one reason why God hates sin so much]

The final line -- "He cannot see what our end will be" -- is obscure. Here are some of the proposed meanings:

  • "Jeremiah will be dead before too long"

  • "God doesn't know how this is going to turn out"

  • "God is all bark and no bite"

  • "God can't see what happens to us"

I personally think that a reasonable translation that makes sense in context is "God does not see what we are doing". In other words, the people have been emboldened by their seemingly "getting away with" their sinful actions.

Jeremiah is upset with God at where things are. Have you ever been there? Well, God is about to respond to Jeremiah ...


Part 2: What, You Think This is Bad? (Jeremiah 12:5-6)

5 If you have raced with runners and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in a peaceful land, what will you do in the thickets of the Jordan? 6 Even your brothers—your own father’s family— even they were treacherous to you; even they have cried out loudly after you. Do not have confidence in them, though they speak well of you.

Let's start with verse 6. God reminds Jeremiah about the conspiracy we read about in chapter 11 -- a conspiracy among the people in Jeremiah's hometown of Anathoth to kill him. But here's God's point: Jeremiah was totally oblivious to that conspiracy. God had to reveal it to Jeremiah so Jeremiah wouldn't get himself killed by taking a break from his prophet job in a refuge at home.

"Jeremiah, this is just getting started."

But I think this is also God trying to get Jeremiah's head back on straight. "Jeremiah, you have no idea how bad things have already gotten. You're running a race against third graders, and the only reason you've survived this long is My direct intervention. What are you going to do when you actually start racing your real enemies?"

Jesus said a very powerful thing on the road to Calvary:

For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:31)

For all of their wickedness, the Romans had brought peace and stability to the land. Imagine how things would go if there were civil war, anarchy, and catastrophic famine? [If banks had collapsed, if the power grid had failed, if all of the computer networks had been hacked?]

Jeremiah was already complaining about how terrible things were, and we were still in the reign of "Good King Josiah"! After his death, the kings were going to get significantly worse. Jeremiah needed to stop feeling sorry for himself post haste.

The next section will reveal exactly what God means by this.

Here's one way to translate this to our day:

If you think it's hard to share Jesus now -- when we have free speech, to pay the church's bills now -- when the economy is the strongest in the world, to be a Christian now -- when we have freedom of religion, how's it gonna be when those conditions are no longer true?

This is the kind of soul-searching question that I think we need to ask more often. How committed are you really to Jesus?


Part 3: They'll Get What's Coming to Them (Jeremiah 12:7-13)

7 I have abandoned my house; I have deserted my inheritance. I have handed the love of my life over to her enemies. 8 My inheritance has behaved toward me like a lion in the forest. She has roared against me. Therefore, I hate her. 9 Is my inheritance like a hyena to me? Are birds of prey circling her? Go, gather all the wild animals; bring them to devour her. 10 Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled my plot of land. They have turned my desirable plot into a desolate wasteland. 11 They have made it a desolation. It mourns, desolate, before me. All the land is desolate, but no one takes it to heart. 12 Over all the barren heights in the wilderness the destroyers have come, for the Lord has a sword that devours from one end of the earth to the other. No one has peace. 13 They have sown wheat but harvested thorns. They have exhausted themselves but have no profit. Be put to shame by your harvests because of the Lord’s burning anger.

So, yeah. God's people have turned against Him, so He will turn against them.

I think this description is in direct response to what Jeremiah said earlier -- "Why haven't You brought about Your judgment yet?" "Jeremiah, this is what My judgment looks like. I don't even want to do this because of the utter devastation it will bring on everything, the wicked and the righteous alike, the land and everything that lives in it. Don't be so quick to desire to deal out death and judgment."

And yet these things will happen. They must happen. God tells Jeremiah three times not to pray for the people (7:16, 11:14, 14:11). I really get a sense of "don't try to talk me out of this" here. God is absolutely brokenhearted that He must unleash this judgment on the Promised Land. But He must, and so He will.

[Aside on the importance of the "New Jerusalem". We rightly focus on the human toll of this judgment, but I don't want us to miss that God also cares about the natural toll (in a different way). In the prophets, we get a sense of God's love for the Promised Land, Judea (it's really clear in verses 10 and 11). He wanted to give His people the very best place to live. Judea is (I believe) where the Garden of Eden was, a very special place to God. It hurt Him that this wonderful place was going to be destroyed time and again as a result of His people's sin. But God can take a "long view", so to speak. He knows that when this world has finally been spent in war and destruction, He will recreate it -- bring about a new heaven and earth. Paul says that the very creation is groaning for this renewal (Rom 8). So, yes, the destruction of the Promised Land is something God will do in fulfilling His own righteousness and holiness, but He hates it.]

Verse 8 makes it clear that the people's rebellion was willful. They had turned against God. There are no "innocent misunderstandings" when it comes to how humans attempt to relate to the God of the universe.

Verses 10 or 11 could be literal or figurative. You can probably guess from ecological sensitivities that I lean toward a literal meaning. The people had literally destroyed their own land through their recklessness, irresponsibility, and selfish exploitation. (We've certainly seen it happen time and time again even in our modern "enlightened" world.) But to be honest, it makes just as much sense if God is being figurative/poetic here.

Literal or figurative, the consequence will be literal. Crops will be ruined. Harvests will be shredded. Invading armies will desolate what's left.

[Verse 9's imagery is a bit obscure, but here's basically what God is saying: "My people think of themselves as a predator. But they are surrounded by many worse predators, and those predators are coming for them." This ties to verse 12 which actually functions as an encouragement to Jeremiah -- all of those "fierce beasts" i.e., the rest of the nations, all serve the sovereign will of the Almighty God.]

The Lifeway lesson focuses on how God expected His covenant with the people to be exclusive, and that's absolutely true! Moreso, this chapter is about the consequences for breaking that covenant. But I think chapter 12 goes so far beyond that: "I gave you this covenant for your own good -- look at what happens when you break it."

In that, God isn't just talking about the punishment that He must bring about. He's also talking about when it looks like when people don't live according to God's design. Look at the toll on human relationships. Look at the toll on the well-being of the poor and the marginalized. Look at the toll on people's own hearts. Look at the toll on the world around you. And that's before God brings in famine and drought and war.

This is already a disaster on tragic levels, and things haven't really started getting bad yet.

We live in a country (and a world?) in which people want to be able to make any choice they want and have no consequences. That's not how life works. God, the author of life, knows that. The guidelines and boundaries that God set in place for us are not killjoys -- they're to help us experience the best of this life.

Here are two related questions to help your group process these very difficult realities:

  • In what ways is living according to God's moral laws for our best good?

  • In what ways is worshiping God alone for our best good?

We tend to emphasize the latter in these Sunday School-type discussion, even though we probably understand the former better. This week's passage reminds us that both of those parts of life are important to God, and there are consequences to straying beyond God's bounds in both.

Remember, though, that on this side of the cross, we have a different perspective than the Jews did. We have the influence of the Holy Spirit. We have the whole counsel of God (Old and New Testaments) with a view of how this will all end.

Next week, Lifeway starts picking out some of the more optimistic passages, but they are culled from the midst of relentless declarations of coming judgment. Sadly for Jeremiah, those declarations all came to pass in his lifetime. Many of us are quick to say "Come soon, Lord Jesus!" (and we should!), but I wonder how many of us have the stomach for the terrible things that will happen in the final battle of human rebellion.


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