Proper 11 • Jeremiah 23:1–6 • July 22, 2012
By Timothy Dost
Jeremiah 23:1–6 presents a challenge to the preacher of appearing to be too narrow in scope in terms of the law to be useful to the congregation. The lament of Jeremiah, while directed at clergy, can also be applied homiletically as a complaint about generally being unfaithful to one’s calling within the broader priesthood of believers. The gospel here is abundantly clear, with the comfort being that God’s holy people will be assigned shepherds who will care for and about them and more centrally the appearance of a messianic shepherd who will then usher them into a time of security, peace, and safety.
Verse by verse study
Verse 1: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Here we see that the problem is not simply with incompetent shepherds, but with those that destroy and scatter sheep. This could be due to a rapacious and destructive nature that was only interested in personal gain, and not the good of the flock. Luther described this in terms of not attending to the thing as seen through the lens of God’s word, but rather through its appearance and the glory it could impart. The thing a shepherd should be doing is attending to the flock, but these shepherds do not wish to attend to the flock, but only want to appear to be doing so; in fact, they are not shepherds at all. They are accidental and not authentic shepherds, if you will, who want all the prestige of the office but not the inconvenience of the actual duties.
Verse 2: In this verse we see the Lord’s response to those hypocritical shepherds. As they have not attended to the flock but have rather scattered and driven the sheep away, in the same way will the Lord attend to these shepherds. He will scatter and drive them away and destroy them. Or as the New Testament tells us in Matthew 7:15–17, “By their fruits you will know them. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?” I am also reminded of the passage by Paul in I Timothy 1:20 warning Hymenaeus and Alexander not to blaspheme, as well as the text from Philippians 3:19, “their god is their belly, their end is destruction, their glory is in their shame, they have in mind earthly things.”
Verse 3: Here God brings back his flock from all of the scattered places, a much more difficult thing than driving them off. Anybody who has played childhood games like 52-card pickup, or pick-up sticks, knows that systems that are scattered take much more energy to make orderly. This is true of cleaning up a common kitchen spill or broken dish as well. It takes much more care and energy to find all of the broken pieces than it does to drop the dish in the first place. So God invests the energy and time to regather his people and the result is that they will be fruitful and multiply.
Verse 4: Not only will these good things happen for the people, but he will provide new shepherds who will care for them and watch over them so that none are missing. What a comfort this must have been for a people living in such uncertain times. And what a comfort this could be for people living in uncertainty today.
Verse 5: This is a verse that describes the wonderful nature of the Messiah. First, the days are coming, which means that they will actually occur. This, which is so evident to us, was not so apparent to the people of that day. This righteous branch will arise from the house of David. He will be of the royal line and will therefore continue in the well-known promises that had been given to David but not yet fulfilled. Furthermore, the attributes presented in Solomon will also be represented. He will deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. David even charged Solomon with executing justice on several people David had been compelled to show mercy to during his reign (I Kings 2). So here we have the justice of David and the wisdom of his line.
Verse 6: The results of this reign will be both security for Israel, which was under constant external attack, and salvation for Judah, the place where God was truly to be worshipped. The references to both kingdoms speak of a reunification of the shattered reign of David, another miracle of the Righteous Branch and his work. Also the name of that branch will be the name of salvation, “The Lord is our Righteousness.”
Use of the law: While it appears in this text that the law is more or less narrowly tailored to abusive shepherds, we must also remember that there is a role for everybody who believes as members in the priesthood of all believers. Therefore, the text, while talking directly to those who abuse or neglect the flock, can also be about those who neglect their duties in life. “If any does not work, neither should he eat,” is the way Paul puts it in I Thessalonians 3:10. So although this text is primarily about one class of abusive people, it also more generally concerns those who abrogate their responsibilities in life, for example as parents, children, or spouses.
Proclamation of the gospel: The gospel here is obvious. As the righteous branch would come to liberate Israel and Judah, he has also been sent to free us from our sin and lostness and to wisely shepherd us into the kingdom of righteousness and peace. The results of this are not always clear in this life, but they will be abundantly apparent in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We are here sustained by the provision of our shepherd: in Baptism as a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Ghost, in the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the word of God both spoken and received as the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us. Here God provides life and salvation, and we also remember his work on the cross for us.
Life application: As Luther says in his Small Catechism, Tenth Commandment, “we should encourage them to stay and do their duty.” In this Jeremiah text, we see the judgment of the law against those who destroy and scatter by neglecting their duties in life. (Preachers of this text would do well to mention some of the familiar promises that people readily abandon, such as love, honor, and obedience to spouses; honor due to parents and teachers; and the promise of our word to our neighbor.) Another example would concern how we might honor our political obligations in both pluralistic and non-pluralistic societies. Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 13:7, render “honor to whom honor is due.”