Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2016
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Commentary
Because Jeremiah 23 is about leadership, Americans may not have to squint very hard to see parallels between it and their current political situation. Having survived a bruising presidential campaign, they (as well as citizens of all nations) may even be ready to hear the gospel that God embeds in this text.
Jeremiah 23 begins with an ominous “Woe!” Keith Murphy points out that it’s the kind of language mourners used. David Petersen says, “If an oracle began with a woe, then the prophet seemed to be saying that someone or some group was as good as dead.”
Jeremiah focuses such sad language, of course, on Israel’s “shepherds.” Yet while most shepherds tended flocks of sheep, the shepherds about whom the prophet writes are primarily Judah’s kings and other leaders. Shepherds were supposed to protect and feed their flocks, keep peace within them, defend them against attackers, search for sheep who’d left the flock and rescue sheep that were in danger. They were, in other words, to promote the well-being of those whom they were charged with caring for.
God expected God’s people’s kings to care for God’s people in similar ways. Yet instead of holding them together, these kings, God accuses them in our text, have scattered and destroyed God’s people. In all likelihood, writes Elna Solvang, these shepherds include Shallum/Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Coniah/Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.
Scholars note there’s word play involved in verse 2b. Because Israel’s shepherds have failed, says the prophet there, to “bestow care on,” literally “attend to” (peqad) their sheep, God will “bestow punishment,” literally “attend to” (poqed) to them. Because, in other words, Israel’s shepherds have failed to pay positive attention to their people, God will pay a kind of negative attention to those leaders. They are as good as dead.
Those shepherds have, after all, according to verse 2, “scattered … and driven away” the flock that is God’s Israelite people. Instead of looking back, this seems to anticipate King Nebuchadnezzar driving the Israelites into exile in 597 and 587 BCE.
Yet in verse 3 God seems to add an interesting twist to the source of that scattering. There, after all, God seems to take some credit for having driven Israel into exile. This at least implies that Israel’s “scattering,” her exile, is actually God’s punishment for her rebellion. God’s using wicked people, including Israel and Babylon’s leaders, to carry out God’s purposes and plans.
While the 21st century has few monarchs who wield much real authority anymore, its shepherd-leaders are no less flawed than 6th century BCE Israel’s. As a result, those who preach and teach Jeremiah 23 may want to quickly jump to examples of the way our political leaders have exercised poor and even harmful leadership.
Yet it’s even more appropriate for us to begin by admitting that about our colleagues and ourselves as well. Religious leaders, including Christian ones, must admit we’ve not always properly cared for those for whom God has called us to serve. Perhaps Jeremiah 23’s preachers and teachers can even be publicly honest about the scattering affect some of our own words and actions have had on the people whom we shepherd.
But, of course, all leaders share some responsibility for the well-being of those we lead. Leaders of democratic governments and societies bear some responsibility for the people they lead. Even members of the church bear some responsibility for our neighbors, both within and outside the church.
Jeremiah 23 reminds us that God takes such leadership responsibilities very seriously. Where we’ve failed to attend to those whom God expects us to attend to, we deserve nothing less than what God gave Israel’s leaders. Where we’ve failed to care for those under our charge, we deserve punishment. Where we’ve scattered rather than united people, we’ve made God angry.
And yet God does not leave either God’s shepherds or sheep without hope. In verses 4 and following, God promises to do for God’s Israelite people what their shepherd-leaders have failed to do for them. First, God promises in verse 3 to be Israel’s shepherd. “I myself (italics added),” God says there, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.”
Of course, her shepherds have mistreated Israel so badly that only a “remnant” remains to be gathered. Yet God promises to bring that remnant home where it will, in Genesis’ language, live out its creational mandate to be fruitful and multiply.
Once God has done that, God promises in a perhaps surprising twist to raise up “shepherds over them who will tend” (4) God’s flock. This suggests God will somehow restore Israel’s monarchy. These kings will so fulfill their shepherding tasks that their people will no longer be afraid, disappointed or even scattered.
Of course, one problem with that glorious promise is that God didn’t seem to keep it. After all, not long after Jeremiah made these lavish promises, Israel became occupied territory again. Zedekiah became Judah’s last king. Israel largely essentially disappeared as any kind of national entity.
Yet while this remains puzzling to those who read it 2,500 years later, the end of Jeremiah 23 is less puzzling. It, in fact, proclaims boundless hope. “The days are coming,” says the Lord in verses 5 and 6, “When I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.”
This coming king, insists the prophet, will be a descendant of King David. Instead of failing to attend to the sheep God gives him, he will wisely promote and execute justice and righteousness in the land. What’s more, this coming king, “the Lord,” Israel’s “righteousness will protect and rule both Judah and Israel.
This describes something for which so many, perhaps especially Jewish people, still deeply and sometimes desperately long. In fact, elements of this text make up part of Jewish expectations of who the coming Messiah will be and what he will do.
Yet Christians do believe a better King has already come. It’s just that, as my colleague Scott Hoezee wrote in an earlier posting on this text, “he came in diapers and ended up being glorified on a cross … Both the king and the kingdom he established were of a different nature than what David and Solomon had established but at the end of the cosmic day, its glory did (and does) outstrip the gilded buildings of stone and cedar.”
It is that leadership that invites all leaders, but perhaps especially Christian ones, to exercise leadership that imitates Christ’s. The Holy Spirit, after all, fully equips us to lead in ways that encourage and enable those for whom we care to be fruitful and increase in number. The Spirit empowers us to tend to our various “flocks” in ways that allows them to not fear, but be at peace. That Spirit also equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to lead in ways that are just and right.
In her fascinating book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin says Abraham Lincoln’s greatness as a leader partly consisted in his knowledge of ways to reduce sadness and stress — not only in himself, but also in others. Lincoln was, in other words, a good “shepherd” of the people he lead.
“Time and again,” Goodwin writes on page xvii, “he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights.”
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