In Justice Remember Mercy


Introduction:  This was written subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Chapters 1–4 are all alphabetic acrostics, chapter 3 a triple acrostic; chapter 5 has 22 verses but is not an acrostic.  Covenantal themes continue with emphasis on an unfaithful people and a faithful God.  The conditional covenant results in unremitting wrath; but because God has also made a promise not dependent on human righteousness, sinners have hope.

I. God afflicts Judah for Their Rebellion—Chapter 1

A. Jerusalem in a desolate condition, physically and religiously, because of the exile (1–9)

This is not described as an impersonal, amoral tragedy, but as a revelation of Judah’s “multitude of transgression,” (5) and that she “sinned grievously” and “became filthy” (8).

B. An unclean adversary has arisen to punish (10, 11)

Those that were forbidden entrance in the Law defile the Sanctuary (10).

C. God himself is the active agent in this punishment (5b, 12–17).

D. Verse 18 is a confession of God’s right in this punishment.

E. Judah’s former “lovers” cannot come to her aid and her enemies exult in her downfall (19, 21).

Verse 20 describes the intense emotional and spiritual anguish that comes from knowing that one’s sin has brought about this abandonment to death and destruction.

F. The righteousness that brings punishment to Judah will also fall on its enemies (21b–22).

II. God as an Angry Enemy Against Judah—Chapter 2 The theme of The Lord’s active engagement against Judah intensifies.

A. God systematically dismantles every aspect of the domestic, social, military, and religious life of Judah:

Princes, kings, priests and prophets, holy days, festivals, tabernacle, altar, walls, gates, bars (1–9).

B. As a body, the city cries and beholds and laments the depths of the devastation and desperation (10–13).

The elders, those that are supposed to be the wise, sit and stare and have no advice, no answers. The young women, whose hope for family, home, and young of their own now see their place of security shattered and they bow to the ground. The observer is so sick that he vomits (11) as he watches babies die in their mothers’ arms.

C. This has been caused by unfaithful prophets who failed to expose and reprimand the people’s sin (verse 14).

They flattered the people and said :”safety” instead of exposing their iniquity to invoke repentance and restoration (14).

D. Enemies revile and claim their victory, but the Lord himself has done it, in accordance with his purpose and faithfulness (15–17).

For the city that once was “the perfection of beauty, a joy of all the earth,” God now has “caused the enemy to rejoice over you.”

E. Jeremiah joins the people in crying to God for mercy to supersede judgment (18–22).

In this section he points out more of the horrors of the Babylonian siege. “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” (20).

III. A Sovereign God who executes his covenant is the only hope—Chapter 3.

A. Jeremiah laments God’s aggression toward him as a righteous one who suffers the judgment with his guilty people (1–18).

Compare Job’s sense of unjust suffering (31:35-37; 35:2,3) and Habakkuk’s perplexity at the use of Babylon to punish Judah (1:12-14). God has seemed to be an invincible foe intent on blocking every path and lying in wait for him as a ferocious animal. Jeremiah also has become an object of ridicule in the city. By verse 18, he has been exhausted of both endurance and hope. “My strength has perished, and my hope from the Lord.”

B. Participation in God’s judgment reminds Jeremiah of the promises of lovingkindness for those with a changed heart (19–38).

    1. In verses 19 and 20 he asks God to remember the things that Jeremiah calls to mind: the bitterness of the providences toward him. Verse 21 provides a transition, “But this I call to mind.” The judgments will not last forever, for they are intended to humble the hearts of the people, display their absolute dependence on divine interruption of deserved judgment, and the engagement with covenantal graces.
    2. God’s steadfast love never ends – compare with Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” One who is convinced that he is included in the covenant of grace may find hope in every situation even when most downcast (22–24).
      • First, he calls to mind the many displays of God’s lovingkindness in his dealing with Judah. He recalls the steady flow of undeserved blessing both in the giving of temporal advantage in the land, political organization, and numerous victories over threatening opponents. He recalls the revealed manner of worship and approach given by God in promise of a final and absolutely secured end of sin and iniquity.
      • He sees that such mercy continues day by day: “They are new every morning” (23). Though judgment presently reigns, a true prophet is among the people. Such severity that appears like a rejection of promises is a means of restoring the hearts to their only source of stability, joy, and hope for the future.
      • Not only does he recall the blessings granted by the Lord, both in the past and in the present, but he looks at the Lord Himself as his portion. Jeremiah looks not only to the blessings, but to the Blesser; he hopes in a personal knowledge of God himself. “The Lord is my portion” (24).
    1. He will know that the favor of God is better than all earthly comforts and pleasures and will never, therefore, cease seeking the Lord’s salvation (25, 26). Rather than bemoan the terror of the immediate situation, waiting for the infinite glory of a divinely-wrought salvation should put to flight the terrors of the present. Without murmuring or complaining (“silently”) one should wait for the “salvation of the Lord” (26).
    2. When discipline and chastening come, the true seeker of God, the one that values the knowledge of God above all things, will accept these things without murmuring and with confidence that God’s steadfast love will finally be his portion. (26-33). Jeremiah contemplates the truthfulness of several incongruities that, from a merely temporal perspective, seem impossible to reconcile.
      • Youth should be a time of unburdened adventure and freedom to explore, but it is “good to bear the yoke in youth.
      • One bearing such a yoke should not resist and object but sit alone in silence, for God himself has put this yoke on him (28).
      • Rather than speak or reason against the situation he should “put his mouth in the dust,” for under this yoke and sitting without complaint or excuse, “there is hope” (29).
      • Even to the “smiter,” an active infliction of hostile aggression designed to harm, he turns his cheek. Reproach is now falling on the One who is waiting patiently, not complaining, not objecting, the One given to divine wisdom and indulging divine hope (30). “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps. Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth. Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
      • He does this, even though evidence to the contrary is gathering both volume and intensity, with the conviction the “the Lord will not reject forever” (31). Rejection will serve a redemptive purpose and will be the path for the greater demonstration of the utterly faithful execution of God’s unbreakable vows and oaths of covenant (Hebrews 6:17-19).
      • God causes grief but will respond to the grief he has caused with “compassion according to his abundant lovingkindness” (32). Grief is designed to be considered seriously as that which could be our lot forever, but seen in the light of his “abundant lovingkindness” it is nothing and indeed is itself a mercy if it shows the path to redeeming grace (32).
      • Though it is indeed “from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth” (38), God has not willed in his purity and in his revelation to man in the unfallen state any kind of calamity other than that which follows upon disobedience (Genesis 2:16). His revealed will, plainly spoken, was that obedience would lead to continued life in the divine presence. All calamity has come from the sin of Adam, the consequent corruption of all posterity, intensified by the accumulation of actual transgression of every individual member of humanity. God’s affliction of humanity is not unjust deprivation or defrauding of rights. Rather these things come from the word of a just sovereign in exactly the way he has determined that his justice as well as his lovingkindness should be manifested. “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (37).
    1. Verses 34 and 35, therefore, show that God hates injustice in human relationships. The insertion of this idea here means either, a) that the reason for this severe judgment is that the society has become thoroughly unjust and should be destroyed, or, b) God’s infliction of punishment is a righteous judgment on his part although he does it through an instrument that uses its power for cruelty and injustice. [See James 1:12–18 for an argument that shows God’s purposes are righteous though we might turn his Providential testing into an occasion for evil.]
    2. God gives both blessing and cursing in the moral affairs of humans. He is sovereign in the granting of his mercy and irreproachable in the manifestation of judgment for sin. None should complain at chastening when we remember the depth and persistence of our sin (37–39).

C. We should resolve, in light of judgmental calamity, to examine our ways and return to the Lord. The depth of God’s punishment should inform us of the ugliness of our sin (39–51).

D. Those who have persecuted Jeremiah in the midst of his faithfulness to the call of the Lord will be pursued by God to destruction (52–66).

IV. God made the supposed glory of Judah become its shame—chapter 4

A. Gold has become like clay [metaphorically speaking as an image of Judah] (1, 2).

Judah’s preciousness was its status as the covenant people of God. Left to themselves and their indwelling sinful propensities, they violated the covenantal expectations at every point. They ignored the blessings of God’s moral law; they listened to lies rather than the true prophet; they perverted the sacrifices. They no longer look like the virgin daughter of Israel, “fair as the moon, clear as the sun” (Song 6:10), but like a strumpet of the street.

B. Vile beasts like jackals are more compassionate than the mothers of Judah (3, 4, 10).

C. Luxury has changed to pestilential despair (5–9). Dying of hunger will be more painful than dying of the sword.

D. God has brought down the city that seemed impregnable; women boiled their own children for food (10, 11, 12).

E. Unfaithful prophets and priests have contributed to this (13–15).

F. God has scattered the people and no one has come to give them aid. Because the Lord had discontinued his regard for them everywhere they turned for help, every slight shadow of hope for relief failed (17).

Pursuers found them and routed them without hindrance (18, 19). Rather than experience the protection of their God’s hovering covenantal love, they were thrown into the pit of their enemies (20).

G. Edom will receive special punishment for its cruelty (21, 22—cf. Obadiah).

V. Every aspect of Judah’s existence has oppressive difficulties (chapter 5).

Jeremiah lists the grave danger and difficulties of daily life in an abandoned city (1–18).


VI. Jeremiah issues a final prayer built on the eternal perspective of God (19–22).

A. He recognizes the eternity and unchangeableness of God in conjunction with his absolute governance of the world in all its circumstances.

B. He wonders, in light of God’s covenant [otherwise why the words “forget” and “forsake”] why the estrangement of mercies has lasted so long.

C. He asks for a divine action of restoration, for only by such action will rebellious sinners turn.

Jeremiah already had received the revelation of a new covenant [Jeremiah 31:31ff] in which God himself would write his law in the hearts of his people and they would know him, for God himself would teach them.

D. The only reason they would not be restored eventually is if God had utterly rejected them.

In light of the promises to Abraham David and others, Paul explains why such utter abandonment is impossible in Romans 9–11.

VII. Conclusion

A. God is immutably faithful to his own purposes and character (3:37).

B. God’s faithfulness gives certainty to his plans of redemption (See 2 Tim. 1:9ff and Romans 8:26–39).

C. Judgment within a fallen world often involves suffering for the chosen; while this is judgment to the wicked, it is sanctification to the elect (Phil 1:27-30; James 5:7-11).

D. No one is free at any moment from susceptibility to divine punishment, chastening, correction, and none has reason to complain of God’s dealing with him as either harsh or unjust.

E. Infinitely more than Jeremiah, Jesus has suffered a judgment that should have fallen on others (3:52).


Grotesque the sin, grotesque the pain,
In dust and dung the princes live.
With prophets mute and infants slain,
No law restrains or comforts give.

A tortured corpse, a mangled youth!
What human fault has brought this fire?
Both priest and prophet void of truth
Release the flood of sin’s desire.

Invasive grace and vengeful wrath
Reflect a God of mystery.
The fearful way, the fruitful path
Alike express divine decree.

Though bitterness and gall abound,
The covenant of God still stands.
Harsh moans give way to joyful sounds,
For God Himself pays His demands.

The One may say above all men,\
“With bitter herbs he filled my soul.”
The wrath on Him was for my sin,
His mangled body made me whole.

The Lord’s anointed fell before
A flood of wrath unsatisfied.
This holy zeal made him implore
To show such pain as sanctified.

When death and hell both stake their claim,
His lovingkindness stays its course.
Nor death, nor hell, nor sin, nor blame
Can overcome His mercy’s force.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts