Jeremiah 23:1-6 ~ A Shepherd to Tend the Neglected
INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE
This month we’ve been hearing words of hope. We’ve been reading the prophets, like Habakkuk and Malachi, who spoke to people in desperate times and promised them hope. Today we read the words of Jeremiah. Is there anyone here who needs to hear a word of hope today? Then hear the word of the Lord, from Jeremiah 23:1-6…
ONCE THERE WAS A KING, AND A CRISIS OF LEADERSHIP
His name was Zedekiah, king of Judah. His palace was in Jerusalem. The crisis was not that Zedekiah was a weak leader; no, he was strong enough to rebel against the superpower to the north, the Babylonians. And the crisis wasn’t that Zedekiah was getting old or senile; no, he was young and strong. But Zedekiah was the wrong kind of leader. He served himself first. He put his welfare above the welfare of his poor subjects, who were getting poorer because of his leadership.
In those ancient days, kings were called the shepherds of their kingdoms. A good shepherd king would protect and provide like a shepherd protects and provides for his sheep. But that was not Zedekiah. He was strong and young, but he was not good. Once there was a king named Zedekiah, and a crisis of leadership.
ONCE THERE WAS A PROPHET, AND A CRISIS OF FAITH
The prophet’s name was Jeremiah. He saw the crisis brought by Zedekiah’s poor leadership. He saw that crisis leading to a national crisis of faith. Did God care that Zedekiah was leading the nation into ruin? How long would God let this go on? For many years, Jeremiah had been preaching doom and judgment. But now that the darkest hour of king and nation was upon them, Jeremiah gave a new message of faith and hope. He announced the END of one thing, and the BEGINNING of a new thing.
Jeremiah announced the END of Zedekiah’s reign:
It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you… (Jer. 23:2)
And so it was: before the young king would ever see middle age, he saw the Babylonians lay siege to his capital. The enemy captured him and his family. They killed his sons before his very eyes. Then they made sure that was the last thing he would ever see; they blinded the grieving king and took him away into exile where he died. “You have not attended to” your flock, said the Lord. “So I will attend to you.” Thus the prophet told the end of Zedekiah, the bad shepherd king.
Then Jeremiah announced the beginning of a new future: God himself will gather the scattered flock back together. God will raise up new shepherds for them. And the people will no longer be in fear or dismay. And more, God will raise up a good shepherd king. That king will deal wisely; he shall do justice and righteousness in the land. He will be called zekaynoo, meaning “The Lord is our righteousness.” Zeekaynoo will be Judah’s good shepherd in a way that Zedekiah could never be.
So once there was a king, who was such a poor shepherd of his people that he caused a crisis in leadership. And once there was a prophet, who announced the end of that king, and then announced the coming of a new king, a good shepherd.
THE LONGING FOR LEADERSHIP; THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF HUMANITY
That crisis and that prophet were twenty-six hundred years ago, but their story speaks to every generation that has ever suffered a crisis of leadership, or suffered a crisis of faith, or longed for authentic leadership. This week our nation has been remembering the death of a young leader, the assassination of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago. It has been a wistful remembrance. It has been easy to wonder, had Kennedy lived through a first term, and maybe even a second term, how different things might have been.
Or, would things have turned out NOT to be so different? Second terms have not been kind, even to the best of presidents, regardless of political party. In a second term, either the president’s faults will catch up with him, or his critics will. You and I long for leadership from our political leaders, our educational leaders, our spiritual leaders. The problem is, even the best of leaders are only too human. And the more we put them on pedestals, the more they will disappoint us, because they are human, and so are we.
Our inevitable humanity results in an inevitable crisis of leadership. And that brings on a crisis of faith. For when leaders stop serving the people and start serving themselves, then we wonder, “How could God let things get this bad? Will God ever do anything about it? Will God ever save us from the frailties of our leaders?”
But remember, just as there once was a king, there also once was a prophet. In Zedekiah’s leadership crisis, it seemed like the family tree of King David’s descendants had withered down to a stump. But Jeremiah believed new growth would come up from that stump: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer. 23:5)
Did things turn out as Jeremiah had hoped? Not in his lifetime. After the Babylonians burned Jerusalem and killed the princes and carried the blinded king away, Jeremiah stayed behind. Somehow he managed to stay in the ruins of Jerusalem for a few years, preaching hope to those left behind. And then some of the survivors left for Egypt and took Jeremiah with them against his own will. As far as we know, he died there in Egypt. He never lived to see his prophecy of hope come true. He never lived to see the coming of a good shepherd.
THE COMING OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Did Jeremiah know that six hundred years later, someone who called himself the good shepherd would ride into Jerusalem and be greeted by crowds who called him the son of David? Did he know that man would care for others more than he cared for himself? Did he know that man would himself be killed on a cross by foreign conquerors? Did he know that everyone transformed by that man’s life and death and resurrection would declare to the world that Jesus is the good shepherd, the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s hope? No, I don’t think Jeremiah knew that. He didn’t know everything. I think he just knew that God wanted him to prophesy hope.
But if Jeremiah could have seen Jesus six hundred year later, I think he would have noticed the resemblance between the good shepherd he prophesied and the person of Jesus. We sure do. We read Jeremiah’s hope and we point to Jesus. He is the good shepherd king. He executes justice and righteousness. Through him Judah and Israel and all of us are saved. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
THE LORD IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS
Jesus is the one through whom broken relationships are remade into right relationships – that’s righteousness. Our relationship with God, broken by sin and selfishness, is re-created. Our relationship with humanity, twisted by greed and exploitation, is straightened out and made righteous by the Good Shepherd King.
Today is “Christ the King Sunday.” Around the world, believers are declaring that Jesus is the good shepherd king, the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s dream. To a world that thirsts for authentic leadership, to a world that is desperate to follow a real leader, we point to the Good Shepherd.
And more: as we follow the Good Shepherd, we become like him. We become shepherd leaders ourselves. You may not see yourself as a leader. But even a five year old may have a little brother or sister who looks up to him. Don’t sell yourself short and think there is no one who looks up to you. We all have opportunities for leadership, in great ways or small ways.
Our Thursday night men’s group did a wonderful job of teaching how men can be servant leaders at home. And anyone who heard the testimonies from the recent women’s retreat, or who heard today’s stories of the “yard un-sale,” – you heard how those women are also becoming servant leaders.
Today our world is wracked by a crisis of leadership. The best way to meet that crisis is to make the Good Shepherd the leader of your life. Then let that Shepherd lead you to be a shepherd yourself. He may lead you to places you’d rather not go. He may move your hand to touch people and wounds you’d rather not touch. But he is our shepherd King, and we are his people:
- He is humble, so we too are humble.
- He cares for us more than he cares for himself, so we care for others more than we care for ourselves.
- He works for justice and safety and health for his flock, so we too work for justice and safety and health for his flock.
All praise to the King, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd King.
- Douglas E. Murray