Shepherds, prophets and a king

One of the most disturbing trends in our world today is a departure from truth. The decision makers and thought leaders in our country have largely accepted the atheistic evolutionary view of our world and mankind. There is remarkable faith exercised in the ‘god’ of atheism, a faith that is largely based on wishful thinking: Stephen Hawking believes that something came from nothing and Richard Dawkins believes that the complexity and information contained in our remarkable biological systems came though unguided and chaotic processes. In contrast the Christian faith is an evidence-based belief founded on the person, the claims and the actions of Jesus Christ. Moreover it is entirely consistent with the world in which we inhabit, a world that by its laws, its complexity and its rational intelligibility demands a creator. The apostle John wrote his gospel so that his readers would examine the evidence and believe the Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God and in believing would have life in his name. The Christian who is tune with God produces fruit: love, joy peace, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, faith and self-control. Atheism produces fruit too, but it is bitter and poisonous. When there is no basis for morality, sorrow and tragedy soon follow.  Our children are now taught the prevailing view that the sinful nature that is within them is natural and that its tendencies are to be celebrated and fostered – this brings disaster to individuals and to society.

In Jeremiah’s day there was a similar false religion that had infected the minds of the people. Rather than listening to the truthful pronouncements of prophets such as Jeremiah, the people listened to the false prophets of Baal. In this chapter there is a significant focus on the lies of false prophets but there is a wonderful hope for Israel of a coming Messiah.

1. The righteous branch

The people had followed false prophets – this resulted them being ‘scattered.’ In fact this was quite literally what had happened: the northern tribes had been scattered by the Assyrians and now Judah was to be exiled by the Babylonians. But there was hope! The false shepherds would come under God’s judgment: ‘‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord’ (verse 2).  Not only that, but God would restore his people: ‘‘I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.’ This would be accompanied by the appointment of good shepherds: I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.’

I’m struck by the repeated telling in the Bible of God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt. It was a remarkable event in Israel’s history: they were slaves under the control of the super-power of Egypt, there was no hope for release, but release came! It was a supernatural and remarkable rescue. The rescue required from the scattering of the nation would however be more notable than the escape from Egypt! ‘7 ‘So then, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when people will no longer say, “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,” but they will say, “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” It’s tempting to assume that this statement makes reference to the return of Israelites form Babylon after the 70 years of exile, but this return, whilst being a remarkable event was actually pretty low key and has never been equated with the escape from Egypt. In Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts, he recounts Israel’s history and spends considerable time recounting the circumstances of the escape from Egypt – he does not even mention the return from Babylon after 70 years exile. In view of this it seems with little doubt that the time for Israel’s remarkable return to the land is yet to be fully realised. Within the lifetime of many who attend West Street church, many Jews have returned to the land – this is a remarkable fact of history and is surely consistent with Jeremiah’s prophecy but it does not qualify as a fulfilment as the modern state of Israel is still in fear of its enemies and it has not acquired the favourable shepherds spoken of in verse 4. But there is an even more significant absence in Israel today – there is no king from David’s line. One day there will be! Verse 5: ‘Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and shall deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the Land. 6In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord, is our righteousness.’ It must have been a wonderful experience for Jeremiah to deliver these words. In spite of the gloom of his message of coming judgment, there was hope! Despite the succession of wicked kings, there would be a new king from David’s line. This pronouncement however called for faith in the word of God.  The previous chapter of Jeremiah indicated that Jehoiachin was the last in line – none of his offspring would sit on David’s throne – how then could a king come from David’s line? You will remember that Mary wondered too how she, a virgin could bear the Messiah, in simple faith she declared ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37).’ This does not mean that God’s pronouncements are inconsistent and he somehow, in his infinite power, makes two mutually inconsistent statements true – it means that what he says is true and will come to pass, no matter how impossible this may seem to us. Abraham discovered this when God promised him a son in his old age – humanly it was impossible for him and his wife Sarah to have a son, but Abraham had learned to believe what God said, neither more nor less. When he did doubt and try to ‘help’ God by sleeping with his servant, he brought problems and distress on himself (and many others). No word from God will ever fail! In light of this, a hope remains for Israel to this day! Some people ask how we can be sure of this. We can be certain simply because Jeremiah is the one prophet in his day who could be relied upon to speak God’s truth! He spoke on behalf of God and spoke the truth. We must not doubt his word or re-interpret what he says to fit our theological systems, we must not make the same mistake as Judah.

This coming king is described as the ‘righteous branch.’ Some commentators have translated this as the ‘legitimate shoot.’ The term ‘branch’ became synonymous with the anticipated Messiah – Zechariah simply refers to him as ‘the Branch’:  ‘I am going to bring my servant, the Branch (Zechariah 3:8).’ And Isaiah mentions the branch too: ‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit (Isaiah 11).’ Jesse of course was the father of king David. From our point in history we can look back to the coming of the Messiah and his offer of God’s eternal kingdom to his people Israel. Their response? Rejection and murder of the Messiah. How could they ever recover from that! Surely it was all over for Israel – and rightly so! But God is faithful to his word. The apostle Paul asked, did God reject his people? And answered his own question: By no means! Why? Because God is faithful to his word. This is the message to Judah in this chapter and this is the message to us too.

2. Lying prophets

In some ways I wish that Jeremiah chapter 23 was written with the bad news first and the good news of the coming Messiah last, but it isn’t! We’ve had the good news now we turn to the bad news!

The issue in Judah was misrepresentation of the truth. This was happening on a grand scale. It was largely the appointed priests and prophets of the nation who were responsible for the propagation of false prophecy and lies, but the people were responsible too.

Jeremiah first gives his response to the dire situation in Judah: ‘Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a strong man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and his holy words.’ Jeremiah was living at the intersection of God’s truth (of which he was God’s spokesman) and the lies of Judah’s prophets and it was a distinctly uncomfortable place. His heart was broken and at times he felt overcome by the circumstances and felt helpless to bring about change. The impact on the nation was far reaching: ‘The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the wilderness are withered (verse 10).’ Even the land was affected! Why? Because Judah was living under specific promises of God that prescribed God’s judgment for failure and his blessing for faithfulness.  Jeremiah had seen this before – in Samaria, the prophets of the Northern tribes had prophesised by the false god Baal and Israel had been led astray. But now in Judah it was even worse: 14 And among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible: they commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that not one of them turns from their wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.’ Not only had the false prophets spoken lies, but they had encouraged the people to live sinful lives: they had created conditions in which the people were less likely to turn from wickedness. Thus the great city of Jerusalem was fit for the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah. To Judah, Sodom and Gomorrah were a byword for extreme sexual sin, not only that, but they were cities in which such sin was publicly celebrated and embraced: as Isaiah describe Israel, ‘they parade their sin like Sodom (Isaiah 3:9)’. There was no shame of sin in Sodom and Gomorrah, there was pride.

All of this sounds depressingly familiar. The BBC broadcast its Children in Need appeal last Friday – much good has been done by the resources donated by BBC viewers over the years. But did you know that Children in Need supports organisations like ‘Educate and Celebrate.’ This organisation produces material for all age groups and even has a programme for ‘Pride in early years education.’ Early years covers the age group up to 5 years. Their website says: “PRIDE in Early Years Education is a range of picture books, activities and lesson plans to help make children’s centres and nursery schools LGBT+ Friendly. The resources and accompanying training will enable teachers and pupils to explore different families, gender identities and feeling different through the use of beautifully illustrated picture books, activities, films and songs.”  Perhaps like Jeremiah we too find that our hearts are broken within us and our bones tremble.

Jeremiah’s message to the people was unpalatable. The Babylonians were coming, they would destroy the great city of Jerusalem, there would be death, famine and plague. The opportunity  to change this course of events had passed. There was only one way to mitigate the coming judgment: surrender to the enemy! In contrast, the message of the false prophets was hopeful and palatable: ‘it shall be well with you,’ and ‘no disaster will come upon you (Verse 17b).’ The lying prophets certainly spoke from false sources as we shall see later in the chapter, but they also spoke authentic words of the Lord. The issue was that they did not tell the whole story. God would indeed finally bless his people, all would ultimately be well with  them, but the false prophets omitted to remind the people of the consequences of sin. Through Moses, God promised the people blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28-30). Prophets should speak the whole truth or not speak at all! We have a similar (but strangely reversed) phenomenon in the church today. Many Christians who believe the bible to be God’s word, fully accept the words of condemnation for Israel but they are reluctant to accept the words of blessing for Israel. I have no doubt that Jeremiah would have something to say about that!

The issue was that the false prophets had a self-imposed inadequate understanding of God. Jeremiah states: ‘But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word? (verse 18).’ The Lord speaks too: ‘But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds (verse 22).’ At first glance it seems that if only the false prophets had been afforded the benefits given to Jeremiah (of standing in the council of the Lord) then they too would have spoken the truth. But the issue was not that they did not know the truth, the issue was that they did not listen and would not hear. Interestingly the words that are translated ‘council’ mean ‘in deliberation of me.’ The false prophets had not rightly deliberated who God is and they had failed to listen. The lesson for us is clear.

3. False sources and mishandling

A false view of God can have as its source a detraction from God’s word on one side or an addition to it on the other, both are equally dangerous. The false prophets Jeremiah encountered clearly were not telling the people the complete word of God. They were omitting the unpalatable truth of God’s coming judgment, but they were adding to God’s word too: they were propagating lies: fake truth!

There is no doubt that God has communicated his truth through dreams – and not only through prophets or believers. You will recall that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that was from God. A survey of God’s word shows that God has spoken in the Old Testament multiple times through dreams: their occurrence was specific and particular. In the New Testament there is just one occurrence of God speaking through a dream to Joseph (to encourage him not to abandon Mary) – again a specific and particular event. The prophet Joel spoke of a day when God would reveal himself to Israel in a specific way that would involve visions and dreams, Peter referred to this on the day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy and Peter’s reference to it are related to Israel and the ‘Day of the Lord,’ a day that begins with the night period of God’s judgment and ends with the dawn of the kingdom of the Messiah. Thus, this New Testament reference to dreams is not for the church era in which we live. There is thus a danger for churches who indulge people who claim to speak on behalf of the Lord through dreams and visions.

In Jeremiah’s day there were plenty of people who claimed to have dreams from God and who claimed special revelation. The verdict on their pronouncements came from God himself: ‘31 Yes,’ declares the Lord, ‘I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, “The Lord declares.” Those who propagated such things were described as telling lies and behaving recklessly and the effect of such activities was to lead the people astray (verse 32). The lesson is clear!

The final verses of chapter 23 are directed to those who claim to speak on behalf of the Lord. In view of the impending dangers of Babylonian invasion, the people were desperate to know what would happen. Sadly there were plenty of people who were happy to claim authority to speak on God’s behalf. The issue was that God’s true word was being distorted: ‘36 But you must not mention “a message from the Lord” again, because each one’s word becomes their own message. So you distort the words of the living God, the Lord Almighty, our God.’  There was an added judgement to those who did this: ‘40 I will bring on you everlasting disgrace – everlasting shame that will not be forgotten.’

In our era, in which there is a far reaching departure from truth, let’s embrace all of God’s word, neither more nor less will do.