Summary: Bad shepherds versus the Righteous Branch.
A SHEPHERD ORACLE
Peter writes to the elders of the church, ‘Shepherd the flock of God, exercising oversight… not as exercising lordship over them, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd has been manifested, you shall receive the unfading crown of glory’ (1 Peter 5:2-4). These were instructions which Peter had also received from the Lord Jesus: ‘Feed my lambs… shepherd my sheep… feed my sheep’ (John 21:15-17).
Jeremiah, in the passage before us, writes of shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep. “This is the word of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1).
They are shepherds who are not truly shepherding the people (cf. Psalm 23:5), pastors who are not leading them to pasture (cf. Psalm 23:2), gatherers who have driven them away and scattered them. Tragically, Jeremiah is writing of the Davidic kings of Judah, and has an ironic message from the LORD for them: because you have not dealt right with my flock, I will deal against you the evil of your doings. “This is the word of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:2).
So what will God do with us when we lack leadership in our churches, and have in our midst those who would seek to devour us (John 10:10) and lead us astray (Matthew 24:24)? If we are truly His, He will discipline us (Hebrews 12:6), but He will not cast off forever (Lamentations 3:31-32). When we are as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36), He will accept responsibility for the driving out (cf. Jeremiah 27:6), and will personally take care to gather again His people and bring them back to the fold (Jeremiah 23:3).
We are familiar with this idea from Psalm 23:3 – the LORD ‘restores’ us – or ‘brings us back’ – a concept which those who have been backslidden will well understand. The lost sheep is restored to the flock (Luke 15:4-6). The lost flock is restored to the land (cf. Jeremiah 23:7-8).
Furthermore, the LORD sets up shepherds who will do their job right: who will feed the flock. The sheep shall not fear any more (cf. Psalm 23:4), neither shall they be dismayed. Not only will they lack nothing (cf. Psalm 23:1), but none of their number will be lacking (cf. Romans 11:25-26). “This is the word of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:4).
“Behold… the word of the LORD,” (Jeremiah 23:5). Now the prophet uses the image of a righteous Branch growing out of a felled tree – which so wonderfully typifies God’s dealings with His people. Just when the tree of David seems to be left without hope, without offspring, this Branch emerges to establish justice and righteousness in the world (cf. Psalm 72:1-2). At a time when it seemed that the kingdom of Judah was being cut to its very roots, there could be no greater reassurance (cf. Isaiah 11:1).
The last king of Judah was Zedekiah, whose name means ‘my righteousness is the LORD’ – which is somewhat ironic since it is on record that he did what was evil in the eyes of the LORD, and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet ‘who spoke the word of the LORD’ (2 Chronicles 36:11-12).
In a deliberate play on words, the name of the rightful king in Jeremiah’s prophecy – the one who brings salvation, and a safe dwelling place for His people (cf. Psalm 23:6) - is ‘the LORD our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:6). This King is Jesus, and He becomes our righteousness - making us righteous - when we put our trust in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).