Jeremiah might be the best prophet to lead us into Advent. This might seem like an odd thing to say since he’s generally not known as a very hopeful person. However, most of his ministry happens during the lead-up to the Babylonian exile and through it. He tells of the coming doom for the people who have been unfaithful covenant partners with God. His calling is a difficult one, and he answers it reluctantly. Because of his usual doom and gloom vibe, scholars disagree on whether this section of the book was originally from the prophet or was an addition made after the exile. After all, Jeremiah goes right back to his message of despair after chapter 33. There’s currently no way to know, so for our sake, we’ll move forward with the view that these words are spoken through the prophet and in the assumed context of war and exile.
Many of the prophets write poetically and rely on wordplay, which always gets lost in translation. In verse 15, “branch” and “spring up” are the noun and verb forms of the Hebrew word zemach, and the word “righteous” is zedeqah. The King of Judah at this time had been set up by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had brought Judah into Exile.[i] This king’s name was “Zedekiah.” Zedekiah means “Yahweh is righteousness.” Zedekiah himself was not a good king and didn’t live up to his name.[ii][ii]
This play on the current king’s name is essential since this is a prophecy regarding the hoped-for king. This coming king will “execute justice and righteousness.” And the city that will be restored because of his leadership will be called “the LORD is our Righteousness” (v. 16). There’s a slight move in the prophet’s thinking with this point. In chapter 23, the prophet says almost the same thing that he says in our passage regarding the coming days of a new king from David’s line. In 23:6, Jeremiah says that this future king will be called “the LORD is our righteousness.” It’s a subtle movement in the oracles, but its meaning is substantial. Not only will the coming king be called “the LORD is our righteousness” (23:6) the city (people) that he saves will receive the same name (33:16).[iii]
In his best moments as a king after God’s own heart, King David was the shepherd king, a king who led the people to be the people that God had intended them to be. This is the type of king that the prophetic hope longs for. Not only is the king to do/execute justice, but the king is also to lead the community to be a people who actively do justice themselves. Thus, not only will this king be called righteous and just, the people will be called righteous and just as well.
Our text, like much of the Old Testament, has righteousness and justice going hand in hand. Righteousness refers to uprightness in the eyes of God, which is to be in right relationship with God and with each other. Justice is not about retribution as we so often diminish it in our society; it is about restoration. Specifically, it is about restoration to right relationship or community. Even the retributive acts of God that Jeremiah so often speaks of is always with restoration as the goal.
If we continue in the assumption that these words were spoken and written around the Babylonian exile, the clear message of this text is hope for a leader that not only comes from the line of David but comes and rules as David, the shepherd king. Amid exile, these are no longer just people who have been led astray by their kings; they are people who have experienced the horrors of war, slaughter, and imprisonment. They are a people in deep despair. Jeremiah, as we’ve said, is the voice of despair most of his ministry. While these verses seem to be only good news, behind the text are people of despair, not hope.
Even the first words of the first verse communicate that the hopefulness of this passage is eschatological. “The days are surely coming” means the day isn’t here yet. And while we may sit on the other side of this text and proclaim that the hoped-for shepherd king has come, we’d be missing the true message of this story if we ignore the deep pain and despair behind the text. What can help illustrate this is for us to consider that this hoped-for king didn’t come until some 500 years later. The people of despair who heard or read these words originally never saw the coming of this king.
Ignoring the pain and despair of the original audience when approaching this text would kind of be like how many of us Christians don’t celebrate Advent. We’d much prefer to go ahead and get our joyful celebration going. But the purpose of Advent is to help us sit in the real human despair present in the world. Even for those who proclaimed last week on Christ the King Sunday that the shepherd king arrived two thousand years ago and is still reigning, we wait in hopeful expectation. And waiting in hopeful anticipation isn’t easy, especially for those who have experienced the horrors of injustice. Many followers of Jesus have come and gone living their lives in hopeful expectation of his second advent. Many have died because they dared to proclaim him as Lord.
Advent is certainly a time for hope, love, joy, and peace. But it is those things amid brokenness and despair. The world doesn’t ignore the brokenness and hopelessness of human existence. The church called righteousness and justice shouldn’t either.
[i] According to 2 Kings 24.
[ii] Alex Varughese & Mitchel Modine, Jeremiah 26-52 (Beacon Hill Press, 2010), New Beacon Bible Commentary, 183.