Bad Shepherds, Good Shepherds, and a Righteous Branch
Jeremiah 23:1-8 reminds us why we need to trust in the ultimate Good Shepherd.
The book of Jeremiah is much more than doom and gloom. It is a realistic book that accurately describes the heart of man as deceitful and desperately wicked, but it is also an exceedingly hopeful book.
In Chapter 29, which we will get to in a few weeks, Jeremiah turns a corner and becomes very positive, and that positivity will be all the more appreciated in light of the 28 very realistic chapters that came before it. See, the good news can’t be fully appreciated without first understanding the bad news. If we don’t understand the bad news about our human nature then we can’t understand, at least not as well, the good news. We will devalue and take God’s amazing grace for granted without first understanding our greatest need.
But even though we have a few more chapters to go before we reach chapter 29, today in chapter 23 we have some very hopeful verses to whet our whistles so to speak.
Jeremiah chapter 23 is about the coming of the Messiah, who’s called the Good Shepherd and the Righteous Branch in this chapter. But in order to see how amazing he is Jeremiah, first contrasts him with…
Shepherds take care of the sheep, at least they’re supposed to. A bad shepherd is one who lets the sheep wander off or one who falls asleep on the job while the sheep get into trouble.
The bad shepherds of verse 1 are really bad.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” This is the Lord’s declaration.
These shepherds, the political and religious leaders of Jeremiah’s day, don’t just neglect their duties, they set out to cause the sheep deliberate harm. They don’t just ignore the sheep, they seek them out but for no good.
Jeremiah 6:13 says these bad shepherds were lying and stealing from their people to make a profit. Jeremiah 5:31 says the priests ruled by their own authority, not God’s, and in some twisted way, the people loved it like this.
What a mess it was then but, of course, it’s not unlike what’s going on in our country. American Christianity is scattered. Many organizations attach the name of Christ to their cause but then they don’t act in Christian ways. Hardly a month goes by when we don’t hear about some well-known pastor caught in an illicit scandal that causes great harm to their congregation—and that’s just the ones that make the papers.
This very week, Mark Driscoll is being called upon to resign, again, for his quick-tempered, arrogant, and domineering attitude toward staff members and congregants. And not that long ago it was discovered that Ravi Zacharias was involved in sinful sexual activities for years but it was covered up by his closest assistants.
These are shameful ways of shepherding. Shepherds aren’t supposed to use their positions of authority to harm the sheep. They are supposed to “tend” to God’s people in a positive way.
Jeremiah 23:2 says,
“Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the shepherds who tend my people: You have scattered my flock, banished them, and have not attended to them. I am about to attend to you because of your evil acts”—this is the Lord’s declaration.
In other words, the bad shepherds are going to get a taste of their own medicine. They’re going to be “tended to” in the same way they tended to God’s people which means God’s going to abandon them and if they cry out for help no one is going to answer.
This makes me think of the parable of the unforgiving servant, who after being forgiven for all his debts by his master, goes and treats his own servants harshly. His master gets angry and puts him in prison where he’s tortured until he can repay what he originally owed. He gets a taste of his own medicine.
On the other hand, there are...
The positive spin on having bad shepherds is that it makes us long all the more for good shepherds. Unfortunately, the track record of finding good shepherds is poor. When Israel demanded a king the people were given Saul who was tall, handsome, and very articulate—the ideal politician. God gave them what they wanted but he didn’t work out so well.
Today we choose those same kinds of qualities over character. We choose strong personalities over depth of character. We choose people who are tough over those who are compassionate. Sadly, we don’t choose the kind of leaders we need any more than the Israelites did.
Thankfully God, who knows exactly what we need, promises to give us good shepherds— but first God has to round up the sheep. In Jeremiah 23:3 God says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands where I have banished them, and I will return them to their grazing land. They will become fruitful and numerous.”
This promise partially fulfills the command made in Gen 1:28 when “God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth.” God has always wanted the earth to be filled with his people. The promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven was partially fulfilled with the return of the remnant.
Once the sheep were rounded up and returned home God promised to give them good shepherds. God says in Jeremiah 23:4,
I will raise up shepherds over them who will tend them. They will no longer be afraid or discouraged, nor will any be missing.” This is the Lord’s declaration.
The remnant began to return home in the 6th century under King Cyrus and continued into the 5th century. And during this time, good shepherds like Ezra and Nehemiah were raised up to lead the people back to their homeland and to watch over them as good shepherds should.
Ezra and Nehemiah helped them rebuild the temple. They pointed the people to scripture and encouraged them to devote themselves to God. They were not perfect leaders, but they were far better than the wicked kings that had led the people into idolatry.
Much later, God gave the church apostles, like Peter, to take care of his sheep. In John 21:15-17, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and after Peter said he did, Jesus told him to prove it by feeding and shepherding his sheep.
And he’s given us elders, too. In 1 Peter 5:2 Peter tells today’s leaders to “Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but willingly, as God would have you; not out of greed for money but eagerly.” Over the years, God has given many, many good shepherds but we still long for the only one ultimate good shepherd— Jesus Christ.
In John 10:11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. Jesus leads and calls and the sheep respond to the shepherd’s voice. When he calls, we answer. Not just initially but whenever Jesus calls.
As a result, Jesus doesn’t permanently lose any sheep. He knows where His lost sheep are and he goes after us and brings us back. A “lost sheep” won’t stay lost for long. He will be found because the perfect Good Shepherd keeps His promises.
Now, in verse 5 Jeremiah shifts metaphors from shepherds to branches.
A Righteous Branch
God’s people don’t need just any old branch, they need a righteous branch. And that’s exactly what God promises to give.
Jeremiah 23:5 says
“Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration— “when I will raise up a Righteous Branch for David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land.”
This branch isn’t just a regular branch, it is a person, an offshoot from King David’s family tree. The branch is the promised one. He’s the wonderful counselor, the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace that Isaiah spoke of.
Isaiah said in chapter 11:1 “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” This is referring to King Jesus.
Jesus, the Righteous Branch will be, according to verse 5, a wise king. His laws will be wise. His speech will be wise. Everything about him will be wise. 1 Cor 1:30 says “It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom from God for us...”
The Righteous Branch will also administer justice in the land. And as we learned last week this is more than just giving proud, arrogant, sinful people what they deserve. It also involves lifting up the poor and needy and defending those who are unable to defend themselves.
And the Righteous Branch will, of course, be righteous. Jeremiah 23:6 says, “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is the name he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”
Jesus the Messiah is the very definition of righteousness and he is called Righteousness because he gives his people what they need— he gives them salvation and peace.
Our greatest need is for a Righteous Branch because we are unable to be righteous ourselves. Some of us are more righteous than others, perhaps, but even the best of the best fall far short of delivering the kind of wise, just, and righteous leadership that we need. And none of us can provide eternal salvation and peace.
Paul speaks of our predicament in Romans 3:10–12…
It is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
That’s a pretty gloomy picture but it’s also a perfectly accurate one, which makes Jesus Christ’s love for us all the more amazing. So take heart. We may not be naturally righteous, but Jesus is and he gives his righteousness providing salvation and peace to all who trust in him.
Jeremiah 23:7–8 says,
“Look, the days are coming”—the Lord’s declaration—“when it will no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought and led the descendants of the house of Israel from the land of the north and from all the other countries where I had banished them.’ They will dwell once more in their own land.”
In other words, when the Israelites returned to their homeland it was an amazing, joyful time. It was even more amazing than when God parted the Red Sea and led them from Egypt. The return from exile set an even higher standard for God’s love for his people and was even more amazing than anything that had come before.
But there is an even greater love that this passage points to which happened at the first coming of Christ. Coming home to a physical kingdom was fantastic and all, but even greater was when Jesus came to earth, called it his “home” and established his eternal kingdom.
With Jesus’ first coming, he began to reign on earth. But his subjects weren’t just Jews, they included Gentiles, too. Then, after his death, people all over the earth began to identify with him as “The Lord Our Righteousness. ” Being led away from exile for the followers of Jesus is even greater than a Jewish exiled person returning to his homeland.
Those of us that trust in Christ have already been justified, and made righteous. But the whole earth is not yet completely filled with his glory, so there remains yet ahead of us an even greater homecoming when all God’s people will rejoice eternally throughout the entire earth.
And if you know the Righteous Branch, The Good Shepherd, as your Savior then you too will rejoice eternally with your King.