All over the world the church celebrates the reign of Christ the King today. For many of us, that is very good news because we live in places where there is huge controversy over the leadership of our countries. Whether it’s Hong Kong where protestors clash with police over increasing communist control, or it’s Canada where old pictures of Prime Minister Trudeau in blackface raise questions about his fitness for office, or it’s England where the rough-hewn ways of Boris Johnson make Brexit even more difficult, or it’s America where the country is divided over President Trump’s international dealings, people everywhere are questioning the leadership of their country.
Into this cultural moment steps the prophet Jeremiah with a word from the Lord about “the shepherds” of Israel. It’s a word of sharp criticism about shepherds who don’t tend their flock, a word of promise that God will replace those shepherds with better ones, and, most significantly, a Messianic promise about the ideal Leader who will come sometime in the future. It’s a word of warning that today’s leaders would do well to heed, and it’s word of hope for those who despair about the possibilities of ever finding a leader who will do the right thing.
There can be little doubt that the shepherds about whom Jeremiah speaks are the kings of Judah. That interpretation is in line with the well-known Near Eastern custom of calling Kings “shepherds.” And in the previous chapter God has indicted the most recent kings of Judah—Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin—so one would expect to hear a similar indictment of Zedekiah, the next king in the line of Israel’s Game of Thrones. Instead, we get a summary judgment of all of them, followed by a description of the ideal king whose name will be “the Lord our Righteousness,” which is almost exactly what the name Zedekiah meant. Instead of the failed kings of Judah, God will send a King who will be absolutely righteous.
How had those earthly kings failed? They had not “bestowed care” on their flock, the people of God. As a result, the flock had scattered and was being destroyed. In a stinging verdict of poetic justice, God says that because they “have not bestowed care…, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done….” In both instances, the word “bestow” is the same word in the Hebrew. The divine punishment of those failed kings will fit their sins exactly. They have not been just, but God will be.
Indeed, that was precisely the sin of those kings, as indicated in God’s description of the ideal king in verses 5-6. They did not rule justly. As one scholar put it, kings were responsible “for the maintenance of justice and order in the community, a responsibility that often seemed to get lost in the shuffle of military endeavors, political maneuvering, and economic aggrandizement.” They were more committed to maintaining their own power and prosperity than to caring for the common people, especially the marginalized.
If you think that last phrase is a bit of left leaning political commentary, listen to the way Psalm 72 talks about the ideal king. “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. He will bring prosperity to the people…. He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death….”
In addition to visiting justice upon the failed kings, God will provide new and better ones. Indeed, says the Lord, “I myself 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….” Clearly, this is a reference to the Exile, which was caused by the failed kings (as well as the sinful people), but was done by God himself (“I have driven them”). When Yahweh brings the remnant back to the Land, he will provide better shepherds who will do what Kings were supposed to do—“tend them” so they “will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any of them be missing….”
But after centuries of experience, there was a dawning realization that no human leader can shepherd properly, something we ought to know all too well many centuries later. Only God can tend his flock like a shepherd. And that’s the background of the most explicit Messianic prophecy in Jeremiah. “The day is coming (a typical introduction to a prophecy, indicating its certainty) when I will raise up to David a righteous branch….” This is a reference to the word of God to David in II Samuel 7 that “your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
With the fall of Judah and the end of the line of David, it looked as though that promise was a thing of the past. But here God says it is a thing of the future. After all those failed kings in the line of David, God would raise up in that line “a righteous Branch,” a new shoot from the stump that looked dead. It looked like the end had come, and it had, but it was not the End of the Line of David.
What would make that king “righteous?” Two things—he will reign wisely and he will save his people. The wisdom of this King will be demonstrated in the fact that he will always do what is right and just. I think of the story of Solomon and the two mothers, one with a live son and the other with a dead one. In an impossibly complicated situation, Solomon’s legendary wisdom enabled him to make a decision that was just and right. Those two women appealed to the king for justice, and he did the right thing for them. This greatest Son of David will rule his people with justice and righteousness particularly for the oppressed (see Psalm 72 and Jesus’ first sermon in his home town in Luke 4:18, 19). Under his reign, all God’s people will flourish.
We still await the earthly manifestation of that righteous reign, but we have experienced the second work of that righteous king. He has saved his people, so that they live in safety. Most of the Jewish people are still awaiting that salvation, because they are focused on the liberation and security of physical and ethnic Judah and Israel. Most Christians believe that the church is the new Israel and Jesus has already accomplished their salvation. The Jews have always looked for a political and military Messiah, and they rejected Jesus because he didn’t fill the bill. We believe Jesus brought a kingdom that was not of this world and gave a different kind of salvation.
Jesus was a different kind of King, as demonstrated most vividly as he died on the cross (see the Gospel reading for today, Luke 23:33-43). The sign over his head said, ”This is the King of the Jews,” and the Jews along with the Roman soldiers mocked him because he so clearly wasn’t. But he showed his royalty when he forgave those who hung him there and welcomed a criminal into his kingdom in paradise. His was a kingdom not of power and glory, but of mercy and grace.
That helps us see the full meaning of the name given to the Branch of David, “The Lord Our Righteousness.” It surely means that this promised King, sent by the Lord, will embody all the righteousness God always wanted in his appointed kings. Among all the other things he will be, he will be first and foremost righteous. After all these centuries of questioning God and challenging God and blaming God for all the “bad” things God has done or allowed, we can look at this new King of grace and mercy and know that the Lord is Righteousness in person.
But could this ancient Hebrew title also be a reference to the New Testament doctrine of imputed righteousness? We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but now there is “a righteousness from God [that] comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… (Romans 3:21, 22 and see Philippians 3:9).” The Lord Jesus is our righteousness before God. Because of his finished work, we live in eternal safety.
However we interpret that ancient title, Jesus made it very clear that he was the fulfillment of Jeremiah 23 and that he has a flock much larger than Judah and Israel. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:14-16)
Here in the US we are in the heat of political races. Candidates have wildly different platforms and promise a whole variety outcomes if they are elected. Can you imagine a politician who stood for just one thing—righteousness? Can you envision a candidate who said, “I promise to be righteous and to do justice and righteousness for all our citizens regardless of their status in society?” Do you think such a candidate would be elected? Would anyone believe such a person? With centuries of evidence that no leader is righteous, I don’t think so. But we can believe God and trust in “the righteous Branch.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 24, 2019
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Commentary