The passage opens with an ominous tone: Woe! The voice is that of the prophet Jeremiah however the words are Yahweh's.
The spotlight of judgment is focused on "the shepherds." While actual shepherds were among the poor and lowly in ancient Near Eastern societies, "shepherd" was also a term used to refer to a king. It is kings -- specifically the kings of Judah -- who are the objects of judgment in Jeremiah 23:1.
Shepherds are responsible for protecting and providing sustenance for their flocks, keeping peace within the flock, defending against attackers, searching for sheep that have gone astray, and rescuing those who are in danger. The shepherd, and by analogy the king, is expected to act for the well-being of the sheep. Yet the opening verse of Jeremiah 23 accuses the shepherds of destroying and scattering God's sheep!
God's anger is aroused by the "evil doings" of the descendants of King David who ruled Judah. These shepherds likely include:
Each king has failed in his duty to "execute justice in the morning and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed" (Jeremiah 21:12a). In contrast to King Josiah (640-609 BCE) who "judged the cause of the poor and the needy" (Jeremiah 22:16), the "eyes and heart" of Josiah's heirs are set on "dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence" (Jeremiah 22:17).
God's "Woe!" is out of compassion for the victims of these self-serving shepherds. God vows to attend to the shepherds who have failed to attend to God's flock (Jeremiah 23:2). Injustice, inequity and oppression have become the way of the land and now shape the behavior of God's people. Divine judgment is presented as a necessary response to an intolerable situation.
One would expect God's condemnation of the shepherds to be followed by an announcement of consequences -- some description of how God will "attend to" the current leadership -- but none is mentioned. Instead, God vows to assume the role of shepherd personally and "gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them" (Jeremiah 23:3).
The driving away sounds like a description of the people of Judah being taken into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (597 and 587 BCE). Who is responsible for this driving away? Two interlocking answers are given:
God's claim to have driven them away to other lands (see also Jeremiah 29:14; 32:37) is set within a vow to "bring them back to their fold." God's dealing with "evil doings" is related to God creating a new habitation. Echoing Genesis 1:28, this new fold is described as a place where the fullness of human dignity is restored. It will be a community where conditions allow them to "be fruitful and multiply."
The chaos of injustice under the shepherds who cared only for themselves will be removed. God will be their shepherd, and then God will raise up shepherds who will care for the people.
Under new leadership the people will no longer fear or be dismayed. (This encouragement also appears in Deuteronomy 1:21; 31:8; Joshua 8:1; 10:25). The attending (pqd; verse 2) that the people did not receive from the shepherds, whom God then had to attend to (pqd; v. 2), will no longer be missing (pqd; v. 4). The same Hebrew root (pqd) ties the failure, the judgment and the future hope together.
In these verses, through judgment and promise God announces "regime change" in Judah. The passage does not depict nor does it ponder the death, destruction and massive dislocation of the Exile. It attributes the Exile to royal malfeasance and to divine house-cleaning.
The Babylonian defeat of Judah is neither a tribute to Babylonian moral superiority nor a sign of divine abandonment. The judging of the leadership is tied to the work of shepherding: how have you provided for protection and sustenance, promoted peace, searched for and rescued the lost?
In verse 4, God promises to raise up new shepherds for the fold. Where will these leaders come from? Indeed, where will the shepherds come from in our own time? How will these shepherds be different from the former shepherds?
There is no special breed of human shepherd. It is ordinary men and women who must choose to be good shepherds. And it is up to ordinary men and women to flock to those shepherds whose attentiveness to justice, protection, mercy, and righteousness mirror God's shepherding.
Jeremiah prophesied in the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reign of the final king, Zedekiah. While Zedekiah's name means "my righteousness is the LORD," his reign was far from righteous.
Judah's experience with bad shepherding -- as well as our own -- can foster cynicism about leaders. God confronts despair, announcing that there will be a ruler rightly called "the LORD is our righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:6).
This "righteous Branch" (Jeremiah 23:5, see also Jeremiah 33:14-16) is not identified. Elsewhere the "Branch" appears to be Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12).
It is important to recognize two dimensions of this promise. First, God promises to continue working through the ages to raise up shepherds who will "deal wisely and ...execute justice and righteousness in the land" (Jeremiah 23:5). And secondly, God promises a fullness of righteousness reigning through Jesus Christ, the good shepherd for us all.