Thus says the Lord concerning the men of Anathoth, who seek your life, and say, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand.”- Jeremiah 11:21
The priesthood was a very lucrative “business” to be involved with. Even in Jesus’ day the priesthood consisted of the wealthy elites who persecuted and oppressed those who did not cooperate with their stranglehold of control on society, the temple, and the profits made on the sacrificial system. (Remember Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple while quoting Jeremiah’s words from Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the Lord.”)
Jeremiah was putting his life at risk by breaking rank with the priests and his own family’s priestly “business”. Even though the priests had managed to lose and replace the words of the law of God by 623 BC, they had not lost, renounced, or replaced themselves as overseers and beneficiaries of the sacrifices and offerings (food, drink, money, clothing, and other possessions) brought to them by the people, which the words of the law of God had prescribed. In other words, the priests had kept the benefits, but discarded the purpose.
The priests were still getting paid, but were not doing the work. In fact, the priests had expanded their temple “business” by opening new locations at many shrines and high places on the street corners of Jerusalem and in towns across Judah (Jer. 11:13; 2 Chr. 28:24-25). This priestly business had been very, very good to Jeremiah’s priestly family, but now Jeremiah was acting out of line with the priestly business policies. By condemning the cultic high places and calling the people back to the “words of the covenant”, Jeremiah was not being politically correct.
At first, Jeremiah was blindsided by the priesthood’s rejection of his ministry. In Jeremiah’s thinking it was unfair for the priesthood to come against him just because he was actually doing the work of the Lord and proclaiming the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah complained to God saying,
I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us cut him off from the land of the living,That his name be remembered no more.”But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind,Let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.- Jeremiah 11:19-20
The Lord responds to Jeremiah’s prayer by declaring that he will bring judgment on the people of Anathoth (Jer. 11:22-23), but it will happen in “the year of their punishment” (11:23) - not right away. Jeremiah will have to continue his ministry while opposition from the priesthood continues as well. Jeremiah’s cry for justice will have to wait until the Lord is ready to bring judgment to the false priests.
Hearing this, Jeremiah then followed up with another complaint, asking again that those opposing his ministry be eliminated. He begins by appealing to God’s righteousness - the characteristic of God that would most surely understand Jeremiah’s oppression at the hands of the ungodly. Jeremiah asks the Lord why the wicked still prosper in their corrupt priestly “business” while he suffers:
Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper?Why do all who are treacherous thrive?- Jeremiah 12:1
Jeremiah tells the Lord that while those who oppose him seem to serve him, it is in appearance only, and they are actually far from him. Jeremiah compares himself to these godless men and reminds the Lord that his heart is very close to him. The Lord knows Jeremiah’s heart, because the Lord has tested him. According to Jeremiah’s logic, since there is such a stark difference between the evil oppressors and himself, the Lord should simply do away with them:
You are near in their mouth and far from their heart.But you, O Lord, know me; you see me, and test my heart toward you. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.- Jeremiah 12:2-3
The Lord’s reply was not as sympathetic as Jeremiah had hoped. In fact, it came back as an accusation of Jeremiah’s failure to endure. The Lord challenged Jeremiah to step up his game, because there were bigger battles to be faced than dealing with mere men who were masquerading as priests while making vain threats toward God’s prophet. The Lord tells Jeremiah:
If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out,how can you compete with horses?If you stumble in a safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan? - Jeremiah 12:5
In his response, the Lord points out Jeremiah’s weak endurance and shaky stability - especially considering the promises that God had given him. The mere words of the wicked priests were driving Jeremiah’s soul out of God’s rest and causing him to stumble into the captivity of their false reality. Even as a man of God, given the strength and rest of God, Jeremiah was failing to remain in that place of strength and rest. He was instead, entering the competition as a mere man “racing” against other mere men. The Lord’s intention for his prophet was that he be strong and confident in the power of the Lord - and from that place of strength and rest be able to successfully run even with horses (just as Elijah had - 1 Kings 18:45-46).
The Lord also points out that Jeremiah was stumbling even on a relatively smooth road merely because of some verbal threats. What would Jeremiah do when those threats became physical and involved public mocking, stocks, prison, deep pits, and starvation? The Lord asked his prophet, “if you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan” - where the land was dangerous, overgrown with thick vegetation like a jungle, and a home to lions?
Jeremiah was stumbling from just the small amount of opposition he faced in 622 BC - but he would have to continue to speak reality and truth to his generation for another 36 years, as the society continued to decline into deeper and deeper social oppression. And then, after four hard decades of his ministry being rejected, the Babylonians would finally arrive to burn the city and temple. The events Jeremiah would face in the coming years would be nothing compared to a few threats from the priests and want-to-be prophets who opposed him early on.
The Lord concludes his rebuke with some inside information that Jeremiah had not fully understood. Apparently Jeremiah had figured out that the priests of his hometown of Anathoth were against him, but what he didn’t know was that he could not even trust his own family. The Lord tells Jeremiah that even if his relatives speak well of him in public, they are not to be trusted, because some of them had already betrayed him and were crying out against him:
Your relatives, members of your own family— even they have betrayed you; they have raised a loud cry against you.Do not trust them, though they speak well of you.- Jeremiah 12:6
This was not the only time the Lord would need to remind Jeremiah to return to his place of peace, rest, and strength. For years, Jeremiah continued to proclaim the Word of God to his generation, encouraging friends, family, kings, priests, prophets, and the public to trust the Lord and obey his Word. Jeremiah was able to remain faithful to his calling because he made a practice of constantly returning to the place of God’s rest in his soul and maintained the fortress of the knowledge of God in his mind - no matter what the response to his preaching.
Thus says the LORD:“Stand by the roads, and look,and ask for the ancient paths,where the good way is; and walk in it,and find rest for your souls.”But they said, “We will not walk in it.”- Jeremiah 6:16