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Proper 11B 1st Reading

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Whoa! Hold up! Wait a Minute! Stop right there! All of these phrases elicit and expect an immediate response. The hearer is urged to pause and see what is the reason for these exclamations of caution. Few people would use these phrases without reason and most of us simply trust that, when we hear a phrase of this sort, there is need to pay attention to what is going to be said next.

Prophetic exclamations in the Old Testaments can begin with similar phrases, calling people to pay attention to what is coming next. In our passage for today, Jeremiah 23:1 beings with הוֹי (hôwy), a Hebrew word which can be translated as: Woe!, Alas!, O!, or Ah!. Jeremiah is calling the people to attention, calling them to pause and take caution, as what is about to be said will have an impact on their lives and futures.

The word of prophecy that Jeremiah speaks is a scary word for some, especially for those who interpret the shepherds of this passage as the church leaders, then and now. The LORD, YHWH, is calling out the shepherds, accusing them of destroying and scattering the sheep for whom they were supposed to be caring. Those who were meant to gather, instead were scattering the flock. This can sound quite condemning, like God is calling the church leaders onto the carpet for their misdeeds. After all, scattering is not usually something that happens by accident. To scatter, actions or forces that caused the scattering must be present. The shepherds Jeremiah was proclaiming to were actively participating in the division and exile of God’s flock and God was not happy with that.

After declaring the current problem, the Lord then declares the consequences. In speaking to the shepherds who shepherd God’s people by scattering them, God declares that exactly what they had done to the flock, God will do to them. Since the shepherds did not attend or care well for the people, then the Lord will attend to the shepherds for their failings. The play on words throughout the prophecy gives poetic power: what the shepherds had sowed in their failure to attend to the flock, they will reap the same measure in God’s attending to them. This is the just recompense for their failure to obey the call to shepherd and attend the flock well.

Human shepherds of Jeremiah’s day had not been faithful to shepherd the flock well, so now God intervenes. God binds Godself to the role of shepherd, declaring that the scattered will be gathered and will become one flock again. Jer 23:3 echoes the creation story of Genesis (specifically, Gen 1:28) in the decree that the newly gathered flock will be fruitful and multiply. God will restore order to creation, restoring the flock of humans to their original blessed purpose: to be fruitful and multiply. No longer would destruction and exile be the norm once God acted. This beautifully ties into the Psalm reading for this week, Psalm 23. Imagery of the Lord as shepherd and of the care and protection that the flock is given when the Lord cares for them is intimately intertwined between the two passages. The connection also reminds us that we should not over individualize what this passage expects of shepherds, because only God can truly fit this bill of the perfect shepherd.

Yet, even though God steps into the mess that human shepherds have made, God does not stay in a micro-managing role. God steps back again, allowing new human shepherds to rise up who will shepherd the flock better than those before them. Under these new shepherds, the flock will not have reason to fear nor be dismayed. Under these new shepherds, not one member of the flock will be scattered or missing. The idyllic era of a rightly ordered creation will see God’s promises come to fruition.

The prophetic promise comes to an exciting conclusion as God takes God’s provision for good shepherds even further. God promises to raise up a king that will finally, truly fulfill all that the godly kings of old were supposed to fulfill but did not. This righteous Branch of David will deal with the flock with wisdom, justice and righteousness. Once the flock and the shepherds/leaders are brought back into the supreme purposes that God had given each, then the people of God (Judah and Israel) will be well attended, living saved and in safety.

In the time and place that this text was spoken, this message would have been intensely political in nature. The shepherds mentioned here, in context, would have referred to the kings and political leaders which had ruled over Judah and Israel and not the church leaders. The name for the promised king to come in v. 6, “The LORD (YHWH) is our righteousness,” is an intentional play on the name of the current king of Jeremiah’s context, King Zedekiah. Zedekiah means “YHWH is righteous.” This was a political jab at Zedekiah, since his reign as king was not faithful to the meaning of his own name. Some people of Jeremiah’s time might have thought that Zedekiah was not the legitimate king, preferring Jehoiachin instead. If Jeremiah believed this, then this could be Jeremiah supporting Jehoiachin and the restoration of the Davidic dynasty as Judah’s rightful leader, instead of supporting the puppet king Zedekiah.

This section of Jeremiah 23 concludes an entire section on Judah’s kings which started in Jer 21:11. Jeremiah 21 and 22 show specifically how Judah’s kings have failed as shepherds, giving us a better understanding of shepherds as more than church leaders in this context. Jeremiah 23:1-2 gives the final condemnation on the failure of the kings to reign as God intended a human king to reign over God’s people. The hope for Judah’s future can only come if God raises up a righteous king over them.

Shepherds who fail to follow God’s order in the creation promises, whether spiritual or political in realm, are those who scatter and divide the flock instead of caring for its unification. May the ecclesiastical and political ramifications of Jeremiah’s prophecy speak clearly to our churches today.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down, International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 200.

[2] J.A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 489-491.

About the Contributor

CJ Childs

Chaplain, Emory University Hospital, Atlanta, GA