Standing Tall Before the Man

It’s time for my Sunday Reflection, in which I post some of my thoughts on almost any issue connected to writing, faith or life in general.

In Jeremiah 12, the prophet asks God “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (12:1). It’s not a new question, of course, and it prompts an interesting response.

When God begins his answer in v5, he asks in return, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”

I’ve always found this a striking response. God suggests to Jeremiah that if he really wants to have a discussion about justice with God, he’d better be prepared. For some reason, this makes me think of Full Metal Jacket, specifically where Matthew Modine’s character, ‘Private Joker,’ is being questioned by a high-ranking officer about the conflicting messages on his helmet. After Modine gives a less than satisfactory answer for this officer, he tells Modine to get his act together (paraphrased for general audiences), or else he will ‘stand tall before the man.’

My brother and I always found this line amusing, in part because of the officer’s tone & consternation with Modine, but also because it sounded ominous in a sort of vague way. We were never exactly sure what standing tall before the man meant, but we knew it wasn’t good.

Well, I think God is telling Jeremiah here that if he’d like to engage God in a conversation about God’s justice, he’d better prepare to ‘stand tall before the man.’ God proceeds to suggest that justice is coming to Judah in the form of severe judgement for her faithlessness, which is a kind of ‘you want to talk about justice, OK let’s talk about justice’ answer.

I think there are lessons here for us. One might be that given our wobbly moral compasses, impugning or even questioning God’s governance of the universe is perhaps a bit audacious. Another might be that when we do, we are worried about the wrong things and asking the wrong questions. Instead of wondering why people we don’t admire or respect succeed more than we do, or why even overtly wicked people haven’t yet been called to account, maybe we should worry more about ourselves and pursuing God’s mercy while there is time and opportunity to receive it.

I do think God addresses Jeremiah’s question in the Bible, though not directly in Jeremiah 12. Justice will be done, and wickedness will be punished, but not necessarily on our timetable, and not necessarily even in this world. Nevertheless, the scales will one day be balanced, and when that happens, we will all of us have to stand tall before the man.