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The Great Speckled Bird

Jeremiah 12

I. Jeremiah’s Moral Perplexity (Jeremiah 12:1-4)

A. God’s righteousness is the reason for Jeremiah’s plea (1).

God has promised that those men of Anathoth who seek Jeremiah’s life will be punished. He does this as the Lord who judges righteously” (11:20).

1. Jeremiah affirms with no equivocation God’s righteousness. That is not under dispute, so Jeremiah’s perplexity is not based on a suspected injustice in God, but in his own inability to perceive how God’s righteousness operates. He has just given clear statement of the judgment by sword and famine, but Jeremiah sees the wicked now prospering. Not unlike the observation of Asaph in Psalm 73 who saw “the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3), Jeremiah sees those “who deal in treachery at ease” (12:1).

2. It is, indeed, the certainty of God’s nature as perfectly just that gives rise to Jeremiah’s desire to “discuss matters of justice with you” (1). The relation between God’s revealed character and the mysteries of providence often leaves us with disturbing questions. The continued unfolding of revelation concerning the nature of God’s redemptive purpose gives greater light at each stage. It finally culminates in the death of Christ according to the eternal purpose of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27–30).

B. How Does God’s righteousness support man’s evil?

1. Jeremiah recognized the sovereignty of God over all persons and things, and despite the hypocrisy and rapaciousness that he saw, confessed, “You have planted them, and they have taken root.” In this fallen world, there is not a constant distinction made between the righteous and the unrighteous in worldly possession or status. If God made immediate and obvious judgment on sin and unrighteousness, the world would be depopulated as in the flood. We would be as Sodom; we would be as Gomorrah. There would be no context for the manifestation of the redemptive purpose of God nor any room made for repentance. “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

2. Jeremiah is astounded that not only have these people found continuity of life but “They grow, they have produced fruit” (2). Their labors have prospered in a way that seems to show the favor of God. Job found the ways of God mysterious when he asked, “Why do the wicked live and become old, yes, become mighty in power? … Their bull breeds without failure; their cow calves without miscarriage. They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance” (Job 21:7, 10, 11). When the gifts of God are viewed only in their temporal setting, the brilliance and infinite superiority of eternal life are obscured. We repent, exert faith, worship, and praise God’s goodness, not for temporal advantage or the possibility of plush living, but for the power of truth and the intrinsic excellence and holiness of God demonstrated on the cross opened to our spiritual understanding by the Holy Spirit.

3. Not only does Jeremiah see their prosperity, he knows their hypocrisy. They feign worship while glorying in false gods; they fake eternal interests while seeking only temporal power, pleasure, and prosperity. “You are near their lips,” Jeremiah noted, but also understood the truth that the Lord was “far from their mind” (2).

C. Jeremiah appeals to God’s choice of him (3) and the spiritual conviction endemic to that choice.

Jeremiah desired to experience God’s knowledge of him. He appealed to the commission given him at his calling.

1. In chapter 1:5 God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I sanctified you.” Jeremiah appealed to his status as having been loved of God, having been set apart by God to bring prophetic urgency to the people and a word of judgment upon their covenantal unfaithfulness. 

2. If he was given the task of plucking up and breaking down, why does it not appear that the unrighteous are suffering their just recompense? 

3. Also along with such knowledge comes the constant awareness of personal sin and need for reformation and further exercises in holy living. God constantly was exercising heart work toward Jeremiah: “You examine my heart’s attitude toward you” (3). How could those around him be so oblivious to the rancid taste of their societal evil and the impurity of their own hearts? Jeremiah’s soul labored under constant assault from the arrogant evil all around him.

4. Jeremiah’s call to the Lord is an extension of 11:20: “But, O Lord of host, who judges righteously, who tries the feelings and the heart, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause.” So keenly sensitized to God’s righteousness and thorough knowledge of the human heart, and unwaveringly committed to the truth of his commission, he wants to see God act in accord with his word and his holiness. Jeremiah continues his expostulation with the Lord.

D. Is it not time for judgment now? (3b)

If his prophecy is the announcement of destroying and overthrowing, is this not the time to “drag them off like sheep for the slaughter?” Should they not even now be set “apart for a day of carnage?”

E. Man’ evil has brought mourning to the natural world.

It appears that there is a threefold assault upon nature from human sin.

1. Nature, originally under the control of man and ready to serve him, has been cursed and will yield its riches only upon the fretful and sweaty work of Man (Genesis 3:17–19). Paul calls this curse to mind in Romans 8:19–22, showing that it will abide until, at the consummation of all things, the sons of God through the ages are revealed.

2. The rapacious attitude of the people of Judah toward their stewardship of the land has brought about abusive treatment, shoddy agricultural principles, and failure to be watchful over the wildlife population (4).

3. God’s judgment is beginning to descend on the land as we see the first elements of a drought that will become severe (chapter 14).

II. God warns Jeremiah not to be naïve.

The aspects of evil that Jeremiah observes do not begin to shine a light on the true character of Judah’s thankless and aggressive, even celebratory, disobedience.

A. The worst is yet to come (5).

Footmen are one thing, horses another. Perplexity even when there is peace will pale into a non-entity when God brings his avengers on Judah. Evil will increase; commensurate with the increasem the display of wrath will be meted out in the hands of godless and idolatrous men. Judah will experience the cruelty of the godless and the holy vengeance of God within the same extended affliction. Throughout this written record of God’s revelation to Jeremiah, layer upon layer of rebelliousness and unfaithfulness to God’s covenantal favors are exposed. The certainty and severity of divine wrath accompanies this revelation of the unfolding depths of rebellion.

B. Don’t trust even your own family.

The hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the human heart extends even to Jeremiah’s family (6). In Psalm 12:2, David warned against being deceived by flattering lips and a double heart. Already had Jeremiah been cautioned about his neighbor and his brothers, even as none in Judah could have confidence in this normal network of true care (9:4, 5).

III. Egregious rebellion calls for extreme discipline (cf. 13:17).

A. The severity of the sin and rebellion is exacerbated by the greatness of the privileges of Judah.

Note the terms of endearment that Yahweh employs: “my house, … my inheritance (3 times), … the beloved of my soul, … my vineyard, … my field, … my pleasant field.” To the generations from Noah, through Shem, on to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then to the families of Jacob’s sons covenantal claims had been promised and enacted. The exodus from Egyptian bondage and the giving of the law, the granting of special laws for civil society as reflections of the moral law, the granting of ceremonial practices to set their minds on a coming Redeemer all had been the privileges of Israel. They were God’s inheritance for he had vested in them revelatory truth and merciful providence. Paul prayed for the recipients of new covenant blessings that they would know “what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). God’s inheritance is in his covenanted people, those who are called to faith according to election. In them the faithfulness of his Son to eternal covenantal promises is sealed and received back into heaven in the presence of the Redeemed.

B. Destruction is wrought by rebellion.

Note also the several terms and images the Lord used in describing the rebellion of Judah (8, 9): “like a lion in the forest [who] roared against me, … like a speckled bird of prey, … many shepherds have ruined my vineyard [and] trampled down my field.” The “speckled bird of prey” is the image of a fierce creature, perhaps a carnivorous sharply taloned, sharp-beaked bird, that is splotched with blood because of its killing its game. This bird of prey is Judah in its rebellious disregard for God’s law, holiness, human life, and pure worship.  “Are the birds of prey against her on every side?” This image reappears in Revelation 19 at the day of final retribution when an angel summons “all the birds that fly in the midst of heaven … ‘that you may eat the flesh of mighty men.’” (Revelation 19:17, 18).  Other creatures of prey now gather against her at the invitation of God, “Go gather all the beasts of the field, bring them to devour.”

C. God’s acts of judgment will render the beloved of Jehovah’s soul desolate.

Verse 7 says, “I have forsaken, … I have abandoned, … I have given.” Verse 8 says, “I have come to hate her.” In verse 9 the creatures of prey are commanded to devour the bird of prey, Judah. 

1. Verses 10 and 11 could describe the spiritual devastation that has come to Judah because of the unfaithful priests, prophets, and kings. In 13:13, 14 a clear word of judgment is issued against these three offices with the threat, “I will dash them against each other.” Chapter 14, verse 18 describes a desolate land through slaughter and through famine for the “prophet and priest have gone roving about in the land that they do not know.” In 15:4 the king Manasseh is mentioned by name for the spiritual devastation of his 55 year reign. Even when he turned back to the Lord, irreversible damage had been done and his son Amon “sacrificed to all the carved images which his father Manasseh had made, and served them” (2 Chronicles 33:1–17, 22).

2. It is also possible that he is calling the Chaldeans the shepherds that have trampled down my field (12:10). He has invited them to come, and their sword has become the “sword of the Lord” (12) that devours the land from one end to the other. Soon “those coming from the north” (13:20) will arrive and show no mercy: “Those for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for famine, to famine; those for captivity, to captivity” (15:2). That was to be Jeremiah’s message. Because of “the magnitude of your iniquity” God announced concerning Judah, “I will scatter them like drifting snow to the desert wind” (13:22, 24).

3. The people were evil, their leaders were evil, and they were under the “fierce anger of the Lord” (13).

IV. Prophecy Against Wicked Neighbors and Restoration of Judah

A. God will bring judgment on those who have wickedly uprooted Judah.

As stated so clearly in Habakkuk (2:5-19), God will punish the nation that indulges their zeal for power and dominance in the rampage against Judah and Jerusalem. See the fulfillment of this in Daniel 5:22–31.

B. God will restore Judah (15). See 2 Chronicles 36:22, 23 and Ezra 1:1–4.

Though he will destroy one generation, even as he did in the wilderness wanderings after miraculous rescue from Egypt, so will this generation be destroyed and the covenantal assurances will continue through another generation. Great privilege designed to intensify joy and righteousness also creates greater responsibility and a more intense judgment (Hebrews 2:1–4; 6:4–8; 10:26–31). But covenant faithfulness will not fail, God’s intended work of redemption will succeed, and the saved will marvel at enlivening and sustaining grace. Paul wrote concerning Israel, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according the the election of grace” (Romans 11:7).

C. God issues a threat for disobedience.

Restoration does not mean that those returning have the law not only on the lips but on the mind and heart (Jeremiah 31:31); they have been chastened so that they will take care, seek God’s blessing, pursue God’s glory, and put aside all false and impure worship. “Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap; not the least grain of it for the whole world.” [Roger Williams].

Sin is always worse than we think:
more ugly, more deadly, more sinister, more stark.
God’s calm patience can make the just shrink,
but wrath from the Holy One targets its mark.

Is wealth today worth the death of hope,
to contend with God’s vengeance, absorb divine fire?
Deceit and hypocrisy enlarge sheol’s scope;
How feckless when lust and religion conspire.

To tender mercies their back was turned,
their covenant privileges found adamantine hearts.
The status of sons and daughters was spurned,
so they gained bitter nectar that the sword imparts.

Though one generation may falter,
God’s promise will always fulfill its intent.
While men start a plan that they alter,
The Lord remains steadfast and will not relent.

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.
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