Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
The book of Jeremiah is set during a turbulent period when Babylon twice invaded Judah (598 and 587 BCE), destroying Jerusalem and its temple and deporting large numbers of Judeans.
Much of the blame for these traumatic events is placed on Judah’s failed leadership.
Immediately before our passage, God condemns the three prior kings of Judah, who had governed unjustly and exploited their people (Jeremiah 22:1-30). Jeremiah 23:1-6 continues these reflections on the future of the Davidic monarchy. Verses 1-4 promise to remove the current failed leaders and replace them with better ones. Verses 5-6 look forward to the appearance of a new, righteous king.
“Shepherd” was a common metaphor for kingship in the ancient world (for example, 2 Samuel 7:7-8; 1 Kings 22:17-18). Just as shepherds care for their flocks, so rulers should ensure the wellbeing of their people. Jeremiah 23:1-2 uses this metaphor to denounce the leadership of recent Judean kings. Instead of keeping their sheep together, they “scatter” and “drive them away.” The latter verb (Hebrew n-d-kh) works at both levels of the metaphor. It can refer to sheep who are separated from their flock (Deuteronomy 22:1; Ezekiel 34:4) and also to political exiles (Deuteronomy 30:1, 4; Isaiah 56:8). Its use in Jeremiah 23 suggests that the Babylonian exile has begun and blames it on Judah’s leaders.
Jeremiah 23:2 contains other wordplays. The same Hebrew verb (p-q-d) denotes both the shepherd’s lack of care for the flock and God’s punishment of the shepherds. (It appears again in verse 4, with the meaning “be missing.”) The NRSV nicely translates the wordplay: “You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings” (emphasis added). As frequently happens in biblical prophetic literature, God’s punishment is tailored to fit the crime.1 In the same line, the word “evil” sounds a lot like the word “shepherd” in Hebrew (roa‘/ro‘eh). The pun emphasizes how badly Judah’s shepherds/rulers have perverted their authority.
With the evil shepherds out of the picture, God acts as shepherd in Jeremiah 23:3. Like “attend to” in verse 2, the verb “gather” (q-b-ts) can be used for both sheep (Isaiah 40:11; Micah 2:12) and exiles (Deuteronomy 30:3-4; Isaiah 56:8). Surprisingly, God now claims to have “driven” (n-d-kh) the sheep/people away—the action which for which the rulers were blamed in verse 2. This paradox lies at the heart of Jeremiah’s theological reflection. The exile happened because of the sins of the people and their rulers, yet God is also responsible for its destructiveness. Because the flock has been reduced to a “remnant,” God will give them pasture where they may “be fruitful and multiply.” This allusion to Genesis 1:28 portrays the restoration of the exiles as a new creation. Having restored the exiles’ fortunes, God promises to raise new shepherd/rulers in Jeremiah 23:4. Although the text recognizes all too well the dangers of unjust human leadership, it still dares to imagine that just leadership is possible, and that humans may thrive under it.
In Jeremiah 23:5-6, God promises a new king in the Davidic line, referred to metaphorically as a “branch.” (NRSV capitalizes “Branch” as if it were a name, perhaps influenced by Zechariah 6:12, but nothing in Jeremiah 23:5 demands this interpretation.) Although this single ruler contrasts with the plural “shepherds” in the previous verses, the two prophecies share the same underlying promise of future leadership. In both cases, it is brought about by divine action (“I will raise up,” verses 4 and 5).
The arboreal metaphor in Jeremiah 23:5 is influenced by Isaiah 11:1, which promises “a shoot … from the stump of Jesse [David’s father].” Both texts emphasize that the new king’s reign will be characterized by “justice” and “righteousness” (Isaiah 11:4-5; Jeremiah 23:5). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, this pair of words describes an equitable social order in which everyone has access to the resources needed to thrive, and members of socially vulnerable classes are protected from exploitation. Kings are responsible for maintaining such a social order (see 2 Kings 10:9; Psalm 72:1-2). As made clear throughout Jeremiah, however, the Davidic rulers leading up to the exile failed to create this kind of society. To emphasize the different character of the new king, the root ts-d-q (“righteous”) is repeated three times in Jeremiah 23:5-6. In fact, the king’s throne name will be yhwh-tsidqenu, “the LORD is our righteousness.” This is a subtle critique of Zedekiah, the final king of Judah, whose name means “the LORD is my righteousness,” and who is frequently condemned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21:7; 24:8; 32:3-5).2
Several decades later, Jeremiah’s promise influenced another prophet. Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12-13 announce the coming of God’s servant, named “Branch,” who would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. These texts expressed hope that Zerubbabel, a descendant of David and post-exilic governor of Judah, would become king and restore the Judean monarchy. Those promises never materialized, and Judah remained part of the Persian empire for another 200 years. Indeed, the hopes for just leadership expressed in Jeremiah are seldom fulfilled by real humans. In our current historical moment, we face an acute crisis of corrupt, unjust governance worldwide. As we reflect on Jeremiah’s words on Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, our perpetual disappointment in our leaders only increases our longing for the promised rule of God and a truly transformed world.
But we must continue to strive, however imperfectly, to achieve justice in this world on this side of the consummation of God’s reign (or eschaton). Wise and equitable human leadership is essential to this endeavor. Jeremiah 23 offers a model for criticizing leaders who fall short of this standard, and it challenges us not to succumb to cynicism but to maintain hope for the possibility of leaders who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
1 Patrick D. Miller Jr., Sin and Judgment in the Prophets (Atlanta: SBL, 1982).
2 Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 258.