Honestly, I am taken by surprise by God’s remarks. Was it meant to be an encouragement to the prophet, Jeremiah? It was supposed to be. However, in our modern context, most people would not have regarded such a response to Jeremiah’s cry and dilemma as an encouragement. Some people might even consider it to be harsh and insensitive.
What prompted God to make this response? Earlier, Jeremiah had asked: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jeremiah 12:1).
These are legitimate questions. Many people, from philosophers to paupers, have asked these questions throughout history. I have often asked myself these troubling questions. I do not think that I will ever stop asking these same questions even though I have the answers from a biblical perspective.
Jeremiah had even better reasons than us to ask such questions in view of his circumstances. God had given him a commission. It is probably the worst kind of mission that anybody can imagine. From the onset of his call, God told Jeremiah that He would make him “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls.” You might be tempted to think that this is a great promise until you realise the reason. Jeremiah would face insurmountable opposition from “the kings, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land” (Jeremiah 1:18).
Jeremiah prophesied warnings and judgement if the people of Judah failed to repent from their idolatry, injustice, deceit and treachery. The prophet used some very pungent and deeply offensive words. For example, he taunted the idol worshippers by comparing their idols to “scarecrows in a cucumber field” (Jeremiah10:5) and calling them “stupid and foolish” (Jeremiah 10:8). Mind you, these are not Jeremiah’s own words, but God’s. The LORD had put His words in Jeremiah’s mouth and instructed him, “Whatever I command you, you shall speak” (Jeremiah 1:7, 9). He got into many troubles because of God’s words. The people were so offended that they sought to kill Jeremiah (Jeremiah 191:19-21).
Jeremiah did not just speak God’s words. He also bore the grief of God and the emotional burden of the sins of his people. Despite his faithfulness, he saw no fruit in his prophetic ministry. The wicked continued to prosper and the treacherous thrive. Jeremiah was overcome with disappointment and discouragement. The cumulative effect of all these drove him to the edge. Finally, he blurted out those searching questions.
God answered Jeremiah with His own set of questions - "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”
Essentially, God was saying, “If you think that this is bad, brace yourself for worse things to come. Keep on running!” I wonder how well such response would sit with the people in our time. We are so accustomed to always finding the most diplomatic ways to say difficult things for fear of offending people. Sometimes, the best approach is to say it as it is – kindly, of course - without beating around the bush. I notice that in the bible, God and His apostles and prophets do not mince their words.
As you continue to read the book of Jeremiah, you would notice that things did not get any better for the prophet. Instead, it got worse. Jeremiah faced worse plights. The court officials accused him of treason for prophesying the imminent destruction of Judah and persuading the king and all the people to surrender to the Babylonians. They captured him, beat him and imprisoned him. After his release, Jeremiah was once again in hot soup. He was thrown into a cistern for continuing with his explosive rhetoric.
Over the course of three decades, Jeremiah repeatedly got into serious troubles in the service of the LORD. He had hardly any support from the people around him. Sustained only by the grace of God, Jeremiah raced with the horses.
Few people acknowledge Jeremiah as their hero. Most people would choose Joseph, Moses, Joshua or Daniel. Perhaps it is because we understand so little about the complexity of his ministry and the man himself except that he cut a melancholic figure. But this weeping prophet is an impressive character and overcomer.
So often, at the first sign of difficulty or trouble, our instinctive response is to seek relief and cry out to God for deliverance. However, God’s will may be quite the opposite. We may be just embarking on a journey that God has devised for us.
We dislike tests and trials, and afflictions and adversities. But these are part and parcel of the Christian journey. Sometimes, God may choose to deliver us, but usually He would allow us to go through trying moments to develop our tenacity and resilience.
Are you going through some difficult challenges now? Like Jeremiah, God may be saying to you: "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”
God is raising up a people who would rule and reign with Him in eternity; not just to live with Him. These are the overcomers. We do well to understand that our earthly pilgrimage is a time of training and testing to prepare us to serve the great King in eternity. Notice the emphasis on patient endurance and perseverance in the Scripture. Notice Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The promises of eternal life and heavenly rewards are given only to those who conquer, overcome and are victorious.
Overcomers are characterised by grit, tenacity and resilience. God invites us to run with the horses so that we can be counted among the overcomers.
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua