JEREMIAH 21:11 – 22:30: THE CONTEXT
The material in Jeremiah 21:11 – 22:30 provides the background for understanding 23:1-6. This section is composed of the following parts:
• 21:11-14: God calls for justice and threatens judgment.
• 22:1-10: God calls for repentance and threatens judgment.
• 22:11-17: Judgment on Shallum (King Jehoahaz).
• 22:18-23: Judgment on Eliakim (King Jehoiakim).
• 22:24-30: Judgment on Coniah (King Jehoiachin).
A review would be helpful. The last five kings of Judah prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. were Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.
JOSIAH was the last good king prior to the Babylonian Exile. He is best known for instituting religious reforms after a scroll containing part or all of the Torah was discovered and brought to him. Responding to what he found in that scroll, Josiah tore down the “high places”—places of pagan worship—and led his people to worship Yahweh. However, he led his army against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who was allied with the Assyrians against the Babylonians, and was killed in a battle at Meggido.
JEHOAHAZ (also known as Shallum, 22:11-17), Josiah’s fourth son, succeeded Josiah as king. He ruled only three months before being deposed by the Egyptians, who installed Jehoiakim on the throne. He died in exile in Egypt.
JEHOIAKIM (also known as Eliakim), Josiah’s second son, was installed on the throne by Neco of Egypt, but became a Babylonian vassal when Babylonia defeated Egypt. Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylonia in an attempt to re-establish an alliance with Egypt, but succeeded only in provoking a siege by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 598 B.C. in which many Jews died, probably to include Jehoiakim.
JEHOIACHIN (also known as Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim, reigned only three months before Nebuchadnezzar exiled him to Babylon.
ZEDEKIAH (also known as Mattaniah) was chosen by Nebuchadnezzar to succeed Jehoiachin and reigned eleven years. “He did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, according to all that Jehoiakim had done” (2 Kings 24:19). He rebelled against Babylonia, hoping to re-establish an alliance with Egypt, but succeeded only in provoking a siege by Babylonia in 586 B.C. that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the deaths of many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, and the exile of most of the rest of the populace.
Three of these five kings are mentioned by name in Jeremiah 22. These are the “shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of (Yahweh’s) pasture” (23:1). The odd thing is that Zedekiah is not mentioned, because he was the last in this succession of bad kings.
JEREMIAH 23:1-2. WOE TO SHEPHERDS WHO SCATTER THE SHEEP
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says Yahweh. 2Therefore thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who feed my people: You have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited (Hebrew: pa·qad) them; behold, I will visit (Hebrew: pa·qad) on you the evil of your doings, says Yahweh.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says Yahweh” (v. 1). Shepherding was a lowly occupation, involving long hours, hard and dangerous work, and modest pay. However, people respected the attentiveness shown by good shepherds to their sheep. Sheep are not very smart. Absent good leadership, they are inclined to wander away on their own. They are defenseless against predators such as lions or bears. They need a shepherd to lead them to water and pasture—and to guard them against a host of dangers.
Because of the care that shepherds took with their sheep, shepherds became a metaphor for other leaders, such as kings, priests, and prophets (2 Samuel 5:2; Psalm 78:71; Isaiah 44:28; Jeremiah 2:8), and for God (Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52; 80:1)—although references to kings as shepherds are often negative (Ezekiel 34). The New Testament speaks of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10).
In this verse, the Lord pronounces a woe on shepherds (meaning kings or other leaders, such as priests or prophets—see 2:8) who “scatter the sheep of my pasture.” The sheep in this instance are the people of Israel.
“Therefore thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who feed my people: You have scattered my flock, and driven them away” (v. 2a). Note the personal tone. It is “my people” and “my flock.” In verse 1, it was “my pasture.”
Scattering sheep isn’t something that shepherds do, because shepherds can’t defend a flock of sheep once it becomes scattered. Predators, such as lions or bears, scatter sheep to remove them from the shepherd’s protection. After the sheep are scattered, a predator will kill sheep on the fringes—far from the protection of the shepherd. For a shepherd to scatter the sheep would be a pernicious act, like a police officer committing a burglary or a judge taking a bribe—an act of sheer treachery—a betrayal of the shepherd’s calling.
In this case, of course, the Lord is talking about the kings of Judah, who are supposed to e shepherds, but who have led the Lord’s people from one disaster to another (see “The Context” above).
“and have not visited (pa·qad) them; behold, I will visit (pa·qad) on you the evil of your doings, says Yahweh” (v. 2b). This word, pa·qad, can be used positively or negatively, and is used both ways here. The kings (and other leaders) have not pa·qad (attended to—taken care of) the Lord’s people, so the Lord will pa·qad (attend to—punish) the kings.
JEREMIAH 23:3-4. I WILL GATHER THE REMNANT OF MY FLOCK
3 I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will set up shepherds over them, who shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking, says Yahweh.
“I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds” (v. 3a). The Lord will perform the shepherd’s job of gathering the sheep together—of bringing them back to the fold where they will be safe.
Here the Lord gives us a glimpse of the return from exile that will take place once Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians and allows the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem.
“the remnant of my flock.” The word “remnant” is important in both Old and New Testaments. The concept (if not the word itself) was introduced with Noah and the flood. In that story, God destroyed the evil populace, but saved righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9). In that instance, Noah and his family constituted the remnant—the righteous nucleus preserved by God to reestablish the people of God.
The idea behind the remnant is that God will be faithful even when his people are not. The people’s apostasy will not nullify God’s promise. God will sometimes impose a harsh judgment, but for the purpose of purifying rather than destroying. A righteous remnant will survive.
“where I have driven them.” The surprise in this verse is that the Lord acknowledges driving out the flock. In verse 2, the Lord criticized the kings for driving the flock away. But this is not a contradiction. The kings drove the people into sin. The Lord drove the people into exile as a cleansing process—to purge them of their sinful ways.
“and will bring them again to their folds” To a people in exile, this could mean only one thing—a return to their homeland.
“and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (v. 3b). This is language from the creation (Genesis 1:28). It has been the Lord’s intention from the beginning that his people would be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 17:1-8; 48:4).
“I will set up shepherds over them, who shall feed them” (v. 4a). God will not only gather the sheep together once again, but will also raise up shepherds to care for them.
“and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking, says Yahweh” (v. 4b). The result of the Lord’s care will be that his people will no longer need to fear or be dismayed.
JEREMIAH 23:5-6. I WILL RAISE TO DAVID A RIGHTEOUS BRANCH
5 Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will raise to David a righteous (Hebrew: sad·diq—morally upright) Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice (Hebrew: mis·pat) and righteousness (Hebrew: seda·qah) in the land. 6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name by which he shall be called: Yahweh our righteousness.
“Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will raise to David a righteous (sad·diq) Branch“ (v. 5a). This is a promise that the Lord will provide new leadership for his people—a righteous Branch—a morally upright leader. Only a person who has been hungry can really appreciate what it means to have food. So also it takes a person who has suffered under corrupt leadership to really appreciate good leadership—morally upright leadership—a leader who will be as attentive to the needs of the poor as of the rich—a leader as concerned for the people as for his personal welfare.
“and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qah) in the land“ (v. 5b). Justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qah) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
“When we examine the history of Judah after the exile in Babylon, it is difficult to identify who might have been ‘for David a righteous Branch.’ However, we in the church confess that in the fullness of time, God did raise up a righteous Branch, Jesus of Nazareth” (Bracke, 185).
“In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely” (v. 6a). Note the references to both Judah (the southern kingdom) and Israel (the northern kingdom). The northern kingdom ceased to exist with the Assyrian Exile. The southern kingdom ceased to exist with the Babylonian Exile. The mention of Judah and Israel in this verse doesn’t suggest the restoration of dual kingdoms. Instead, it promises salvation to all of God’s chosen people. This salvation won’t be just spiritual—a heavenly salvation—but will involve safety in the here and now.
“and this is his name by which he shall be called: Yahweh our righteousness” (v. 6b). This name, “Yahweh our righteousness,” appears to be a wordplay on the name, Zedekiah, which means “Yahweh is righteousness.” However, Zedekiah was anything but righteous. “He did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:19) and led Judah into an alliance with Egypt against Babylonia that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. The point of this wordplay, then, is that the Lord is supplanting the unrighteous Zedekiah, who failed to live up to his name, with a king who will become truly righteous.
JEREMIAH 23:7-8. THEY SHALL DWELL IN THEIR OWN LAND
7 Therefore, behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that they shall no more say, As Yahweh lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; 8but, As Yahweh lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries where I had driven them. They shall dwell in their own land.
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading. I include them, because they conclude the promises that the Lord made in verses 3-6. Most commentaries treat verses 1-8 as a unit, and it seems appropriate to include verses 7-8 here.
Throughout its history, Israel looked to the Exodus as the seminal moment in its history—the occasion that founded and defined Israel as a nation and a people. Before the Exodus, they had become numerous, but they lived in slavery. They had no indigenous leadership, but were required to do what their Egyptian masters required them to do.
However, the Lord now says that the Exodus will no longer be the defining moment of their history. Their return from the Babylonian Exile will be like the Exodus event. It will restore them as a people—will make it possible for them to recover their identity. It will bring them back to the Promised Land once again. The return from exile will become their new defining moment.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25 (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Pilkington, Christine E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan