In chapters 11-20, Jeremiah proclaims the Lord’s judgment on people who have broken their covenant with the Lord. He does so, not of his own volition, but at God’s call. When he pronounces the Lord’s judgment on the people, he is being faithful to his call.
This section includes several laments by Jeremiah (11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:10, 15-18; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-12, 14-18).
Lament is an important part of Hebrew life. People respond to calamities such as illness, death, or guilt by physical forms of lament (wearing sackcloth or ashes, fasting, or beating their breast). Laments by prophets take the form of the spoken and/or written word. A number of the psalms also contain laments (Psalms 2:3; 12:4; 35:25; 71:11).
Some people refer to Jeremiah’s laments as confessions, but they are really complaints. His laments typically consist of two parts:
• A complaint, specifying an injustice.
• A petition, asking that the injustice be corrected
These laments reflect the bind in which Jeremiah finds himself. He has been called by God to proclaim a message of judgment, but the people to whom he proclaims this message are hostile rather than receptive. Jeremiah, therefore, has only two options: He can offend God by refusing to proclaim judgment or he can offend the people by obeying God. Jeremiah has chosen to obey, but he is very unhappy at finding himself an offense among his community. His laments are complaints to God about finding himself, a righteous person, in this unenviable position.
In some cases (11:21-23; 12:5-17; 15:11-14, 19-21), God responds to Jeremiah’s laments, but not in every case. In other cases, God makes his own lament (12:7-13; 14:2-6, 17-18; 15:5-9; 18:13-17).
Our text (11:18-20) is the first of Jeremiah’s laments, prompted by a threat to his life. It is followed by God’s response, promising vindication (11:21-23). Then follows Jeremiah’s second lament, prompted by the prosperity of the wicked and his own unhappy situation (12:1-4). It is followed by God’s response, in which God assures Jeremiah that he understands the situation full well and will act appropriately (12:5-17).
JEREMIAH 11:18. YOU SHOWED ME THEIR DOINGS
18Yahweh gave me knowledge of it, and I knew it: then you showed me their doings.
What was it that the Lord made known to Jeremiah? It was that the people of Anathoth are seeking Jeremiah’s life (Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown—he owns a field there; 32:7-9). The people of Anathoth have decided regarding Jeremiah: “You shall not prophesy in the name of Yahweh, that you not die by our hand” (v. 21). This apparently came as a surprise to Jeremiah, who had no idea that his life was in danger until Yahweh revealed that to him.
How could these people be so foolish as to reject the words of God’s prophet? Simple! They didn’t acknowledge that his words came from the Lord. They thought of themselves as God’s people, worthy of God’s blessings. Jeremiah was warning them that, because of their sin, they could expect punishment instead. They weren’t willing to believe that. They wanted to kill him to put a stop to his uncomfortable words.
To see an example of Jeremiah’s uncomfortable words, read the beginning part of this chapter, verses 1-17. It isn’t difficult to imagine why the people would want to stop his preaching. In addition, “His appeals to surrender to Babylon had already made him a traitor in the eyes of his people” (Huey, 136; see also Stulman, 125; Bracke, 110).
JEREMIAH 11:19. A GENTLE LAMB LED TO THE SLAUGHTER
19 But I was like a gentle lamb that is led to the slaughter; and I didn’t know that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered.
“But I was like a gentle lamb that is led to the slaughter; and I didn’t know that they had devised devices against me” (v. 19a). Jeremiah had no idea what his adversaries were planning. He was like a “lamb that is led to the slaughter”—completely unaware of the catastrophe that awaited him just around the corner.
Isaiah also uses the image of “a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7). However, Isaiah’s lamb is different from this one. This lamb is ignorant. Isaiah’s lamb is silent.
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered” (v. 19b). Without fruit to provide a seed, the tree can never propagate. To destroy a tree with its fruit is utterly and forever to destroy it. These people from Anathoth want to destroy Jeremiah utterly and completely. He is not married and has no children. They want to insure that he will never have children. They want to wipe out every memory of Jeremiah. They want to make it as if he had never existed.
The people of Israel would consider that to be an especially terrible fate. They think of people living on through their children. They want to deny Jeremiah that possibility.
Ironically, Jeremiah earlier prophesied, “Yahweh called your name, A green olive tree, beautiful with goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he has kindled fire on it, and its branches are broken” (Jeremiah 11:16). In other words, Jeremiah used the image of the destruction of a tree to tell these people that God would utterly and completely destroy them. As a result, they want to utterly and completely destroy him.
JEREMIAH 11:20. I SHALL SEE YOUR VENGEANCE ON THEM
20 But, Yahweh of Armies, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, I shall see your vengeance on them; for to you have I revealed my cause.
“But, Yahweh of Armies, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind” (v. 20a). Jeremiah begins his appeal with a tribute to the Lord of hosts, who judges righteously. That is the basis of Jeremiah’s hope—that the Lord will judge righteously. Jeremiah has tried to do what the Lord called him to do, which makes him a righteous man—but it also makes him a marked man. It is because Jeremiah acted righteously that the people of Anathoth want to kill him. Now Jeremiah is trusting that the Lord, by judging righteously, will vindicate him.
Jeremiah couches his appeal as if he were in a courtroom facing the judge’s bench. He looks to Judge Yahweh, who tries cases based not on rules of evidence (which can lead to a faulty conclusion) but on the content of the person’s heart and mind (which the Lord can see clearly, making it possible for him to render a perfectly just verdict).
“I shall see your vengeance on them; for to you have I revealed my cause” (v. 20b). Jeremiah asks the Lord to punish those who seek Jeremiah’s life. This is not an unusual plea for Jeremiah. He frequently asks for the Lord to vindicate him by punishing his enemies (11:20; 12:3; 15:15; 17:18; 18:21-22; 20:12). Requests for the Lord to punish enemies are also common on lament psalms (Psalms 3:7; 6:10; 7:6).
To his credit, Jeremiah doesn’t seek to punish his enemies himself. He trusts the Lord to do what is right, and he is willing to leave the matter of vengeance in the Lord’s hands.
JEREMIAH 11:21-23. GOD’S RESPONSE
In these verses, the Lord responds to Jeremiah. He promises to punish the offenders. The young men will die by the sword and their families will die by famine. Not even a remnant will remain. Those who wanted to cut off Jeremiah utterly and completely will instead be cut off utterly and completely.
“The manner in which Yahweh’s word against Anathoth was fulfilled is not known, but according to Ezra 2:23 a hundred and twenty-eight men of Anathoth returned from the exile, presumably to build again in a village that had been destroyed by the Babylonians” (Thompson 352).
JEREMIAH 12:1-6. JEREMIAH’S SECOND LAMENT
Even though the Lord has assured Jeremiah that he will see justice, Jeremiah has not yet seen justice implemented. Therefore he continues to complain about injustices.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25 (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan