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Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Jeremiah 23

 

 

Verse 1
JEREMIAH 23

PROPHECY OF CHRIST AND A DENUNCIATION OF FALSE PROPHETS

By far the most important thing in this chapter is the glorious prophecy of Jesus Christ in Jeremiah 23:5-6. Beginning in Jeremiah 23:9 and extending to the end of the chapter is a lengthy discourse against the false prophets

The location of this chapter is significant. Jeremiah had just concluded the chapter in which he had severely denounced the sins of the terminal kings of Judah, with the exception of Zedekiah, during whose reign this chapter was evidently written. Since he was the reigning monarch, it is not surprising that his name does not occur here. Ash noted that scholars generally agree in dating this chapter in the reign of Zedekiah.[1] However some believe that it was possible that the prophecy of Messiah came before Zedekiah came to the throne, and that this probably influenced Zedekiah in the choice of a throne name so closely resembling the glorious title, "The Lord Our Righteousness" mentioned in 5:6. Zedekiah means "The Lord is righteous."

This whole chapter is "A prophetic vision which viewed the Jews as already in a state of dispersion, which they were suffering as a punishment for the reckless conduct of their shepherds (rulers)."[2]

Jeremiah 23:1-4

"Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith Jehovah. Therefore thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, against the shepherds that feed my people; ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith Jehovah. And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply. And I will set up shepherds over them, who shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking, saith Jehovah."

"Shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep ..." (Jeremiah 23:1). "Whither I have driven them ..." (Jeremiah 23:3). Throughout the Bible the same action is often attributed to multiple sources. Here the sheep were scattered by the false shepherds, but God also states that he had scattered them. "The same act may be referred to man or to God, according to the light in which we regard it."[3] Judicial hardening, for example, is done by God, and by Satan, and by men themselves. In the New Testament the crucifixion of Christ is said to have been done by (1) God; (2) by Christ; (3) by Satan; (4) by the Jews; (5) by the Romans, etc.

"The remnant of my flock out of all the countries ... and will bring them to their fold ..." (Jeremiah 23:3). This is a prophecy of the return of the righteous remnant from Babylon to Canaan, which in time, of course, duly came to pass; but there are two things that forbid the limitation of this prophecy to the physical return of a relatively few Jews from Baylonian captivity. These are: (1) the very limited number who returned, not from all the countries, but from Babylon only, and (2) the proximity of the passage to the glorious prophecy of the Messiah in the same breath. The fulfillment of this prophecy in its fuller significance occurred not in the pitiful remnant that returned from Babylon, but in the glorious ingathering into the fold of God of both Jews and Gentiles alike in the kingdom of Christ. As Cheyne expressed it, "To be in Christ is to be in the true Canaan."[4]

"I will set up shepherds over them who shall feed them, and they shall fear no more ..." (Jeremiah 23:4) Barnes and others find this to be, "A prophecy of the post-exilic leaders such as Nehemiah, Ezra, the Maccabees, etc."[5] But this is by no means a satisfactory explanation of the prophecy. It is impossible to believe that during all the wars and dislocations of the inter-testamental period the people of God did not "fear any more." There are most certainly overtones of the kingdom of heaven in the prophecy here.

"The remnant of my flock ..." (Jeremiah 23:3). The doctrine of a righteous remnant appears extensively in the Old Testament. It is found in Isaiah 1:9; 37:4; Micah 4:7; 7:18, and in Jeremiah here, and in Jeremiah 24 and Jeremiah 40-44. One of the sons of Isaiah was named, "A remnant shall return," being in fact a double prophecy, not merely of the captivity, but also of the return to Palestine of a small remnant. The name of that son was Shear-Jashub, (Isaiah 7:3; 10:21). Until there is proof that Isaiah did not live until after the exile, the critics will never establish their false allegation that the doctrine of a remnant did not exist prior to the exile.

"Nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking ..." (Jeremiah 23:4) Harrison thought that these words meant that, "None of them shall go astray, because responsible shepherds shall lead them and attend to their welfare."[6] If that is indeed what the passage means, it is further proof that only in Messianic times may the fulfillment be expected. Certainly in the long ages prior to the coming of Messiah, the Old Israel became more sinful than ever, sinking into the utter rigidity of God's judicial hardening; and those official "shepherds" of the people, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were revealed as the false shepherds of Zechariah, and who engineered the crucifixion of the Son of God Himself. No, we cannot find the fulfillment of the promise of those noble shepherds of Jeremiah 23:4 anywhere in ancient Israel. Also, alas, there were many religious communities during the reign of Messiah which still suffered from the fatal leadership of evil shepherds.

Verse 5
PROPHECY OF THE RIGHTEOUS BRANCH

"Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king, and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called: Jehovah our Righteousness. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that they shall no more say, As Jehovah liveth, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, As Jehovah liveth, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I had driven them. And they shall dwell in their own land."

"A righteous Branch ..." (Jeremiah 23:5). Without any doubt whatever, this is a promise of the Holy Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The near-unanimous opinion of the greatest scholars of a thousand years has held this passage to be a prophecy of Jesus the Christ the Son of God. The words of it cannot possibly refer to any one else. Who else, among all the people ever born, could honestly be called JEHOVAH OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS?

We shall cite only a few examples of what well-known writers have said and are still saying about this passage.

The announcement concerns the ideal king Messiah.[7] Messiah is here called THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, because he is Jehovah; and he is our righteousness because he justifies us by his merits.[8] As a title, BRANCH traces the human and divine ancestry of Messiah and focuses upon the kingly and priestly natures of the Messianic task.[9] In Jeremiah 23:5-8, we have the promise of Messiah.[10] Under the just scepter of Messiah, all Israel will reach the destiny designed for it by the Lord.[11] We have not many prophecies of Christ in Jeremiah, but here is a very illustrious one. Doubtless the prophet speaks of him and of no other man.[12] Some scholars question this oracle, feeling that messianism was not a significant element in Jeremiah's thought. But how can we know that? when the concept of messianism is found here, in Jeremiah 33:15-16; Jeremiah 3:15-18, and in Jeremiah 31:31-34; and this is surely an instance of a direct reference to the messianic King.[13] The title BRANCH here has much in common semantically with "seed" (Genesis 3:15), the Davidic Son (2 Samuel 7), and with Isaiah's Servant of the Lord ... Here is the highest fulfillment of the Seed of Woman, the Son of David, and the Servant of the Lord.[14] This title, The Plant, is here unmistakably applied to the Messianic King.[15]

There are at least a hundred other references in this writer's library that could be added to these; but these are sufficient for the moment.

We should be aware, however, that Satan is never content to allow any holy prophecy of the Son of God to remain unchallenged in the sacred scriptures; and there constantly surfaces evidence of satanic objections to every prophecy in the Word of God. Note the following paragraph.

"The concept of the coming king is not of major importance in Jeremiah. The Christian is tempted to find a reference to Christ here. Others suggest Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:23)."[16]

It seems strange that such a comment as this should come from a former Bible professor in a Christian university. He strongly implies here that there is no reference to Christ in this passage, an interpretation that must be rejected. And who are those "others" who suggest Zerubbabel? Zerubbabel was no king in any sense of the word. Who are the `others'? They are those who try to edit Christ out of every prophecy in the Bible. (See my dissertation on Zerubbabel in Vol. 3 of my commentaries on the minor prophets, pp. 188f.) Zerubbabel was a deputy of Darius the Great, king of Babylon, and being a favorite of that monarch was permitted to lead a group back to Jerusalem, where he served the king of Babylon as governor of Judah. He was of the seed of David all right, but as a son of Shealtiel, he was the legal heir to the non-existent throne of Israel, but was absolutely unqualified to sit on David's throne because of the prohibition of Jeremiah 22:30.

We wish to note another serious blunder in the above quotation. The reference to Christians being "Tempted to find Christ" in the passage here implies that Christians might not be as reliable as some other people in arriving at a true interpretation of the Word of God. The opposite of this is true. An apostle of Jesus Christ flatly declared that unless one is indeed a believer in Christ Jesus, "Even to this day, in the reading of the Old Covenant, a veil lieth upon their heart" (2 Corinthians 3:15)! No one who is not a Christian can properly read and interpret the Old Testament. That is the very thing that produces so much irresponsible writing on the Old Testament today.

The futility of seeking a fulfillment of that promise of an ideal king at any time between the captivity and the First Advent of Christ is seen in the prophecy of Hosea who declared that Israel would continue "without king, without prince" (Hosea 3:4) etc. The earthly house of David was terminated in the previous chapter. "But even with the temporal kingship abolished, the sure mercies of David were still sure."[17] Those sure mercies, however, would be accomplished not by some racial group nor in some literal city such as Jerusalem, but in the realization of the Messianic Kingdom of Christ.

"And he shall reign as king ..." (Jeremiah 23:5). He shall reign as king, not as a puppet like Zedekiah, and not as a deputy of the king of Babylon like Zerubbabel.

"He shall be called JEHOVAH OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS ..." (Jeremiah 23:6). Who but Jesus Christ was ever entitled to a name like this? Ten times in the Greek New Testament Jesus is called God. Other than in the instance of a few lunatics has this name ever been applied to any person except our Lord.

We agree with Feinberg that the "forensic righteousness" (imputed righteousness) of the New Testament is not in this passage. Furthermore, we do not believe it is in the New Testament either! The righteousness here is genuine, intrinsic righteousness. How is it, then, called "our righteousness?" This is outlined in seven KJV verses of the N.T.: Romans 3:22,26; Galatians 2:16,20; 3:22; Ephesians 3:12; and Philippians 3:9. In all these verses properly translated, it is affirmed that men are saved by the "faith of Christ'; and it is Christ's righteousness alone that ever saved anyone. How? By God's imputing righteousness to stinking sinners? A thousand times NO! God's way of saving sinners is by transferring the sinners into Christ, after they are willing to renounce themselves or deny themselves and to become identified with Christ, as Christ, and "in Christ" by being baptized into him (Galatians 3:26-27; Romans 6:3-5, and 1 Corinthians 12:13). Thus they partake of a righteousness that is truly genuine in the fullest sense of the word.

"As Jehovah liveth who ... led the seed of the children out of the north country ..." (Jeremiah 23:8). This greater exodus than the coming up out of Egypt was not fulfilled by the handful of returnees from Babylon. In the Exodus from Egypt, the tribe of Judah alone boasted over 600,000; therefore this greater exodus refers to the "innumerable company of the redeemed in Christ" (Revelation 7:9,10).

"And they shall dwell in their own land ..." (Jeremiah 23:8). Again we remember the words of Cheyne already quoted in this chapter, "To be in Christ is to be in the true Canaan." In addition to that, there never was for Israel, either safety or salvation in the old Canaan. Salvation is found nowhere, but nowhere, except in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Before leaving this great prophecy, we should point out that the metaphor also appears in Isaiah 11:1; Zechariah 3:8; 6:11, etc. (See my comments "en loco" which will supplement what is written here.)

CONCERNING THE FALSE PROPHETS

The wisdom of devoting most of the chapter to this subject appears in the fact that every generation has its quota of false prophets, and that such false teachers are the principal reason for the disobedience exhibited continually throughout history by the rebellious race of Adam. Our own generation needs this chapter as desperately as did the generation of Jeremiah. Note also, that despite the fact of the false teachers being the more to blame for the sins of the people, the sinful people also perished nevertheless. As Jesus said, "If the blind lead the blind, they shall both fall into the ditch."

Verse 9
"Concerning the prophets. My heart within me is broken, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of Jehovah, and because of his holy words. For the land is full of adulterers; for because of swearing the land mourneth; the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. And their course is evil, and their might is not right; for both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, saith Jehovah. Wherefore their way shall be unto them as slippery places in the darkness, they shall be driven on, and fall therein; for I will bring evil upon them, even the year of their visitation, saith Jehovah."

"Concerning the prophets ..." (Jeremiah 23:9). This is the title for the remainder of the chapter.

The message of these false prophets was summarized by Halley. "They delivered their messages `in the name of God,' falsely claiming an authority they did not have. They cried, `Jeremiah is lying; we are prophets of God, and God has told us Jerusalem is safe.' "[18]

"The land is full of adulterers ..." (Jeremiah 23:10). "The adultery referred to here is not merely spiritual adultery in breaking the covenant with God, but it refers to the gross immorality of those godless men."[19] Immorality always leads to godlessness; and the people were whole-heartedly following the evil example of their wicked leaders.

Verse 13
"And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria; they prophesied by Baal, and caused my people to err. In the prophets of Jerusalem also I have seen a terrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies; and they strengthen the hands of evil-doers, so that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them become unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah. Therefore thus saith Jehovah of hosts concerning the prophets: Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and make them drink the water of gall; for from the prophets of Jerusalem is ungodliness gone forth into all the land."

In a word, the evil prophets shall suffer the summary judgment of God. The mention of Sodom and Gomorrah here is significant. Ezekiel even stated that Israel had become "worse" than Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezekiel 16).

"Prophets of Samaria ... prophets of Jerusalem ..." (Jeremiah 23:13-14). Smith analyzed the denunciation of these prophets, noting that, "The prophets of Samaria were open idolaters, whereas the prophets of Jerusalem professed the true faith but led immoral lives and lived in hypocrisy. Therefore they were more strongly condemned than the prophets of Samaria."[20]

Verse 16
"Therefore thus saith Jehovah of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they teach you vanity; they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of Jehovah. They say continually unto them that despise me, Jehovah hath said, Ye shall have peace; and unto everyone that walketh in the stubbornness of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you. For who hath stood in the council of Jehovah, that they should perceive and hear his word? who hath marked my word, and heard it? Behold, the tempest of Jehovah, even his wrath, is gone forth: it shall burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of Jehovah shall not return, until he hath executed, and till he hath performed the intents of his heart: in the latter days ye shall understand it perfectly. I sent not these prophets, yet they ran: I spake not unto them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then had they caused my people to hear my words, and had turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings."

Jeremiah 23:16 carries the meaning that the false prophets, "Gave out the thoughts of their own heart as divine revelation, promising peace and prosperity to all stiff-necked sinners."[21] Were such men popular? Indeed, they were popular among the vast wicked majority of the people. "Here we have the principal earmark of false teaching. False prophets, or teachers, always speak words that quiet the conscience, promise all kinds of good things, and violate with impunity the laws of morality."[22] In our day, the false teachers know nothing except the grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness of God and absolutely nothing about obedience or holiness. Their doctrine is "Smile, something good is going to happen to you" or, "I'm OK, you're OK!"

Jeremiah 23:19-20 occur again almost verbatim in Jeremiah 30:23-24.

"In the latter days ye shall understand it ..." (Jeremiah 23:20). Normally the words. "In the latter days" are used to introduce the subject of the Messianic kingdom, or the eschatological happenings of the end times; but here, "They can hardly mean that. Here they mean that when God's judgment falls upon Judah, the whole nation at that time will understand perfectly what the warnings of Jeremiah and the other prophets were all about."[23] As Jamieson put it, "When the prophesies shall be fulfilled in their Babylonian exile, the people shall consider and see by bitter experience, their sinful folly."[24]

Verse 23
"Am I a God at hand, saith Jehovah, and not a God afar off?. Can any hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him? saith Jehovah. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith Jehovah. I have heard what the prophets have said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed. How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, even the prophets of the deceit of their own heart? that think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers forgat my name for Baal."

"Am I a God at hand, and not a God afar off ..." (Jeremiah 23:23) This is a warning to the false prophets that they cannot hide from God. "He is not like some localized deity whom it is easy to avoid; he is inescapable, the immanent, transcendent, ubiquitous, omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal God; and he has heard all the lies of the false prophets."[25]

"That think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams ..." (Jeremiah 23:27). There are two things of importance here. Note that the false prophets are enemies of God and that they have a purpose, that of causing the people to forget even the name of God. There is nothing innocent about such men, whether in the days of Jeremiah or at the present time.

"Forget my name by their dreams ..." (Jeremiah 23:27). "The superstition that attaches importance to dreams keeps God as entirely out of men's minds as does absolute idolatry."[26] It is true that God, of old times, did speak to some men in dreams; but he "has now spoken unto us through his Son" (Hebrews 1:2). This, of course, forbids our paying any attention whatever to dreams; and, if this is true of dreams, which indeed at one time were utilized by God in bringing messages to men, how much more is it mandatory that men pay no attention whatever to phrenology, palmistry, the signs of the Zodiac, etc., etc., which were never utilized by God in such a manner!

Verse 28
"The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the straw to the wheat? saith Jehovah. Is not my word like a fire, saith Jehovah, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore, Behold, I am against the prophets, saith Jehovah, that steal my words everyone from his neighbor. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith Jehovah, that use their tongues and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy lying dreams, saith Jehovah, and do tell them, and cause my people to err because of their lies, and by their vain boasting: yet I sent them not, nor commanded them; neither do they profit their people at all, saith Jehovah."

"Let him tell a dream ..." (Jeremiah 23:28). This means, `let him tell a dream for what it is, merely a dream, and not the Word of God.'

"What is the wheat to the straw ..." (Jeremiah 23:28). This compares the words of the false prophets to the straw or the chaff, and the Word of God to the wheat.

"Is not my word like a fire ..." (Jeremiah 23:29)? This beautiful metaphor of the Word of God reminds us of Hebrews 4:12, "The Word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart."

Henderson identified three classes of false teachers here: (1) Those who pervert the true Word of God; (2) those who are word merchants, attractive, glib talkers, whose words have a pleasing sound but actually have no solid meaning; and (3) those who specialize in dreams![27]

Verse 33
"And when this people, or a prophet, or a priest, shall ask thee, saying, What is the burden of Jehovah? then shalt thou say unto them, What burden? I will cast you off, saith Jehovah. And as for the prophet, and the priest, and the people, that shall say, The burden of Jehovah, I will even punish that man and his house. Thus shall ye say everyone to his neighbor, and everyone to his brother, What hath Jehovah answered thee? and what hath Jehovah spoken? And the burden of Jehovah shall ye mention no more: for every man's own word shall be his burden; for ye have perverted the words of the living God, of Jehovah of hosts our God. Thus shalt thou say to the prophet, What hath Jehovah answered thee? and, What hath Jehovah spoken? But if ye say, The burden of Jehovah: therefore thus saith Jehovah: because ye say this word, The Burden of Jehovah, and I have sent unto you, saying, Ye shall not say, The Burden of Jehovah; Therefore, Behold, I will utterly forget you, and cast you off, and the city that I gave unto you and to your fathers, away from my presence: and I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten."

The wording of this paragraph is somewhat confusing; but the situation was this: Many of the prophecies of Jeremiah began with the words, "The burden of the Jehovah"; but the people did not believe the prophecies and were annoyed by Jeremiah's continued preaching; so they decided to call him, "You old burden of Jehovah!" Every time they saw him they mockingly asked him, "Well, what is the Burden of Jehovah today?" The mention of the false prophets and the priests who joined in this mockery of the true prophet of God suggests that they had perhaps organized this systematic mockery of Jeremiah.

In various verses of this paragraph, God's answer to this scandalous behavior was: "I will cast you off" (Jeremiah 23:33); "I will punish that man and his house who even uses those mocking words in Jeremiah's presence" (Jeremiah 23:34); to all who mockingly inquired about God's Word, there would be no answer at all. The Word of God shall be denied them, and their mockery shall be their burden before God when they are judged. "Every man's word shall be his own burden" (Jeremiah 23:36); "I will utterly forget you, and I will cast you off, and the city that I gave unto you and to your fathers, away from my presence; and I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten" (Jeremiah 23:40).

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". "http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/view.cgi?book=jer&chapter=023". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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