Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
Jeremiah’s critique of leaders is born from his compassion for the people.
“Woe!” This passage begins with the cry that marks an oracle of destruction. It is a hook that the audience can’t ignore.
Jeremiah has his eye fixed in particular on the leaders: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1). The shepherd is a common ancient metaphor for leaders, and for kings in particular. That leaders bear more responsibility than their people for social fate and for social injustice is a view shared by the prophet Ezekiel, who employs this same metaphor to speak of the exile of Judah in Babylon (Ezekiel 34).
There is a persistent ethical thread throughout the Hebrew Bible: God requires the community to be ruled with justice and righteousness, which is manifested in the treatment of the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 22:3-4). But rulers who seek their own fortune, who expand their houses and enrich their coffers at the expense of the poor are in egregious violation of God’s covenant, and will be held accountable (Jeremiah 22:13-17).
In the contemporary context, political and religious leaders give us ample opportunity to consider how corruption at the highest levels leads to the increasing devastation of the poor and the marginalized. Recent White House policies aimed at deterring immigration are separating immigrant families at the United States borders. The trauma this poses for children and their families is an example of a breach of care for the alien and the poor.
In this passage, the social disintegration of the exile at the hands of the Babylonian empire is the responsibility of rulers: “It is you [shepherds] who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and have not attended to them” (Jeremiah 23:2). The prophet wrestles with the question of who is to blame for suffering and political trauma, and offers two answers: It is you [shepherds] who have driven them into exile (Jeremiah 23:2) and it is I [God] who have driven them into exile (Jeremiah 23:3). There is a poetic cadence to this repetition that on the one hand holds corrupt leadership accountable for their oppression of the poor, but also insists that it is God who is ultimately powerful. This is a tension that Jeremiah carefully holds.
The people are sheep
The prophet speaks with a sense of tenderness on behalf of the people. God is the shepherd who will ultimately redeem the people. There is a double-cast to the image; the corruption and failure of Judah’s political leaders is a foil for the compassion of God. The metaphor of shepherding has a tone of tenderness and care, evident in God’s insistent claims of personal possession: the people are “my pasture”, “my people”, “my flock.” The pacific quality echoes Psalm 23, the famous poem about the divine shepherd who is a source of comfort and life.
God will become their shepherd. While corrupt leadership has “scattered” the sheep, God will “gather the remnant of my flock,” emphasizing that God will act as the good shepherd, as a model of just rule and care. Jesus is described in these terms in this week’s lectionary passage from the Gospel Mark. Jesus sees that the crowd of people are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion on them. He begins to teach them, which suggests that he is taking up that role of shepherd (Mark 6:34).
God’s compassionate care for the exiled community of Judah is a promise of renewal and flourishing. The phrase “they shall be fruitful and multiply” echoes the Priestly blessing of creation in Genesis 1:28 (compare with Jeremiah 3:16; Ezekiel 36:11). God’s reign will bring an end to fear, and comes with a promise, “nor shall any be missing.” This sense is echoed in the New Testament parable of the shepherd who relentlessly seeks out even the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). Every single sheep belongs in the fold of God, even those who are now scattered and given up for lost. This passage might be read as a vision of hope for those alienated from their homes, separated from their families, or experiencing social marginalization, especially immigrants, refugees, and aliens.
The righteous branch
With the exile (597 and 587 BCE) and the destruction of Jerusalem (587 BCE), a very real end had come for Judah. But not all hope is gone. How is it possible to live in hope in a time of devastation? For Jeremiah, this is possible by looking both backward and forward. Jeremiah looks back to the reign of David and the promise of relationship God makes through David’s line (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). By looking backward, Jeremiah also looks forward: “The days are surely coming!” Honoring that traditional covenant, God will “raise up for David a righteous branch,” a new king whose reign will be marked by justice and righteousness.
This righteousness will be manifested not just by a lack of war, but will be palpable “in the land.” While the reclamation and resettlement of people is first in Jeremiah’s mind, there is simultaneously a vision that peace involves the more-than-human world. Jeremiah appeals to the land: “O land, land, land / hear the word of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 22:29), and his vision of restoration repeats the word “land” five times in four verses (Jeremiah 23:5-8). This causes the reader to ask how war and political trauma disrupt not just human lives, but the health of the larger ecological community. It should encourage contemporary audiences to seek restoration for people and land alike.