by Chris Holmes
One thing is clear from this section of the book of Jeremiah: the prophet was active during a time of political instability. Jerusalem is threatened by a new superpower, the Babylonians. Some kings of Judah have tried to assert their independence while others formed political alliances with other rulers in the region to evade Babylon. Eventually, Babylon will capture Jerusalem and carry captives back to a foreign land, starting what is known as the Babylonian Exile.
We can imagine how the people of Judah felt during this time. Some probably felt powerless, subject to the whims of one political leader or another. Some supported the efforts of Judah’s kings to secure political alliances with other kingdoms. Others feared this would only add fuel to the fire of Babylon’s force. Some advocated for peaceful resignation to the inevitable defeat of Judah. Others advocated for resistance, refusing to submit to the yoke of Babylon. It was a time of anxiety, fear, and political divisiveness. No one knew exactly what the future held or how long this period would last.
In our passage today, Jeremiah is trying to give a word of comfort and hope amidst the chaos. Jeremiah combines words of judgment against Judah’s faithless rulers and words of hope promising the end of exile and the rise of faithful rulers. God promises to “raise up for David a righteous Branch.” “Branch” is a title for the messiah in other biblical writings, and verses 5 and 6 point to a future king who will rule wisely and justly. The passage ends with another bold prediction: the return from exile will replace the exodus from Egypt as the definitive event displaying God’s power, saving purposes, and care for the people of Judah.
I can see clear points of connection between this passage and what we are all living right now. While not as traumatic or destructive as the Babylonian exile, our efforts to self-quarantine and obey stay-at-home orders feel like a period of exile for many. We have been scattered from people and places that we love. Many feel isolated and alone. And some just feel overwhelmed, desperate to return to “normal.” Likewise, we know some of the political divisiveness that lies behind the verses from Jeremiah 23. Many feel beholden to the decisions of political leaders. And there is significant disagreement about the wisdom or expediency of those decisions.
The promises that God makes in verses 3 and 4 can bring us hope as well. First, God promises that the period of exile will end. God will eventually bring back the people from the places to which they have been scattered. At some point in the future, they will again “be fruitful and multiply,” an allusion to God’s original promise to Abraham and Jacob (see Gen 17:1–8, 20; 28:3; 48:4).
Second, God promises to replace the
shepherds. According to this passage, faithful shepherds are those who “attend” to the needs of the sheep. The Hebrew root translated as “attend” in verse 2 occurs three times in these four verses. The faithless shepherds do not attend, they do not pay attention to, the sheep. As a result, the passage insists that God will pay attention to the deeds of these faithless shepherds. Finally, near the end of verse 4, God promises, “nor shall any [of the sheep] be missing.” The same Hebrew root occurs in this promise: none of the sheep will be left unattended.
We don’t know when our time of exile will end. But we can be confident that it will end. And I think God is already in the business of raising up faithful shepherds. But we don’t need to wait for local or national elections for these leaders. I sense this morning that God is calling us, all of us, to be faithful shepherds. How might God be calling you to attend to those in your circle of influence? Who is fearful or dismayed? This morning, I invite you to write down the names of two or three people that God might be calling you to attend to. And then, pick up the phone and give them a call.