Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
Leadership is a buzzword in many disciplines these days: business, law, medicine, education, politics, and congregational life.
The study of leadership has become a sub-discipline in many academic and professional fields, and in the past ten years it has become a major component of various Master of Divinity curricula.
As we enter into a new political season, pundits from all perspectives will be pontificating on what makes for a good leader. Politicians will blame the nation’s woes on the policy decisions or leadership styles of their opponents, while lauding their own leadership experience. While leadership as a discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon, the concern for upright leaders remains timeless.
The shepherd metaphor for leadership that Jeremiah uses here has a long history in the biblical and ancient Near Eastern tradition. The prologue to Hammurabi’s law code lauds him as “the shepherd, selected by the god Enlil, he who heaps high and plenty.”1 The Hebrew Bible applies the shepherd metaphor to both God (e.g., Psalm 23) and humans (e.g., Ezekiel 34). In the Christian tradition, Jesus uses the shepherd metaphor to refer to the masses who were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34), and the metaphor inspired our standard designation of clergy as pastors who tend their congregational flocks.
The Ancient Near Eastern Game of Thrones
The years of the prophet Jeremiah’s activity were the most turbulent time for the leaders of ancient Judah. The seats of power in the ancient Near East had shifted. The Assyrian imperial dominance of the past hundred years was waning, and the Babylonian empire was on the rise. Assyria and Egypt, who had once been rivals, now had a tenuous alliance to vainly attempt to buffer Babylonian expansion. This international upheaval left the kings in the small nation of Judah with some very difficult decisions.
King Josiah perceptively realized that Babylon would be the winner of this ancient Near Eastern game of thrones. His confidence, however, precipitated his untimely death as he led troops to intercept the Egyptian army at Megiddo 609 BCE. By 605 BCE, the Babylonian empire conquered what remained of Assyria’s empire and began moving their interests southwards to the borders of Egypt.
The kings who followed Josiah — Jehoiakim, Jehoachin, and Zedekiah — were in a very precarious predicament. Would they pay taxes to the new empire in Babylon, whose territory extended over a wide range and whose capitol was far away? Or would they side with Egypt in the conflict, a nation that was much closer to their own borders? Which imperial alliance would yield the most benefit for the people of Judah? Could there even be an opportunity for Judah to stand independently of these empires, not paying taxation to either one?
Around 600 BCE, one of Judah’s shepherds, Jehoiakim, chose poorly and withheld tribute from Babylon, angering the Babylonians who invaded Jerusalem shortly after Jehoiakim’s death. The Babylonians took his successor, Jehoiachin, into exile with the upper class leaders of Jerusalem, and replaced him with Zedekiah. Zedekiah, however, was another bad shepherd, who by 590 BCE, decided to withhold tribute once again to Babylon, against the advisement of Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 27:4-8).
Jeremiah 23:1-6 as a Model of Prophetic Leadership
The first two verses of this passage address Jehoiakim’s and Zedekiah’s failed leadership that led to exile. A shepherd’s role was to gather the sheep together and protect them. The shepherds of Judah, however, made policy decisions that placed the people in peril and ultimately led to their exile.
Many scholars view verses 3-6 as a later post-exilic redaction, especially because of the emphasis on a renewed Davidic line.2 The restoration oracle in verses 7-8 that follows also seems to support this view. As the text stands in its final form, two aspects of prophetic leadership emerge: the ability and willingness to speak truth to power and, perhaps more importantly, the recognition of the need to express a future hope to an exiled people. This stands in harmony with Jeremiah’s mission as it is outlined in 1:10: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
As the book presents it, Jeremiah’s prophetic leadership consisted of critique for past and present ills balanced with constructive hope for the future. Verses 3-4 promise the rise of multiple good shepherds who will help YHWH gather the exiled flock and return them to their homeland. The return from exile would, in essence, be a new creation where the people will once again be fruitful and multiply (verse 3).
The words in verses 5-6 creatively express both critique and hope. Here, the writer envisions a new leader whose name would be YHWH Zedekenu, “the LORD is our righteousness.” This epithet recalls Zedekiah’s name, which means “the LORD is my righteousness.”
With one phrase, the passage reminds the reader of Zedekiah’s failed leadership while offering a vision for new leadership. The change in the pronoun in the name from first person singular to first person plural also seems significant. While Zedekiah’s leadership may have been primarily self-serving, the new leader would extend God’s righteousness to the entire community.
Cultivating a Prophetic Vision for Leadership
What then might we learn from this passage as we prepare to teach or preach? First, I think it could tell us something about our own leadership potential promises and pitfalls. It could call the Christian community to its prophetic ministry to urge our current leadership to reevaluate our policy decisions in both religious and secular community settings. Do these decisions threaten to divide and disperse people, sending them into exile? Or do these policy decisions offer the hope of bringing people together and engendering productivity?
The message, however, is not only or primarily for religious or political leaders. It is a message of optimistic realism to those of us just making our way through life. It would be tempting, especially in a political season, to fixate on verses 1-2, to completely remain in a critical mode that fosters apathy and cynicism. Verses 3-6 however, temper the judgment on current leadership with a hope and optimism that there is a possibility of good, pure, and productive leadership that can lead to communal wholeness, holiness, and creativity.
1Roth, Martha T. Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 77.
2Brueggemann, Walter, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 206.