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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 23

 

 

Verse 1-2

The Failure of the Worthless Shepherds (Jeremiah 23:1-2).

YHWH passes His verdict on the false rulers who have failed His people. Note the dual double repetition of ‘the word of YHWH’ in Jeremiah 23:1-4 indicating the seriousness of His words, two referring to His judgments, and two to His restorative activity.

Jeremiah 23:1

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy,

And scatter the sheep of my pasture! The word of YHWH.”

A woe is declared on the rulers who have destroyed and scattered, and are destroying and scattering, (literally ‘the destroying and scattering ones of’) the sheep of YHWH’s pasture, the people of the land. And this is the ‘sure and certain word of YHWH’. Such ‘woes’ are a common prophetic way of describing a situation which God will visit in judgment (see Jeremiah 22:13; Isaiah 3:9-11; Isaiah 5:8-25; Isaiah 10:1 etc; Ezekiel 13:3; Ezekiel 34:2; Micah 2:1). In contrast YHWH is depicted as the true Shepherd of His people (‘the sheep of My pasture’, ‘My flock’ (Jeremiah 23:2)). He had appointed under-shepherds, but they had failed.

Jeremiah 23:2

‘Therefore thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who feed my people,

“You have scattered my flock,

And driven them away,

And have not visited them.

Behold, I will visit on you the evil of your doings,

The word of YHWH.”

But YHWH will call these under-shepherds to account. For whereas they should have been feeding His people they have in fact scattered them and driven them away, and have failed to care for them and watch over them (to ‘visit’ them). And because of that YHWH will ‘visit’ on the under-shepherds the evil of their doings. (Note the play in words on the term ‘visit’). And this is the sure and certain ‘word of YHWH’.

The scattering of His people was widespread in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Elam, etc. See Isaiah 11:11. But when the land was open and available many would return.


Verses 1-8

The Promise Of The Coming Son Of David Who Will Triumph And Rule Wisely (Jeremiah 23:1-8).

Having disabused the people’s minds about the likelihood of any of their current kings being the anticipated deliverer of the house of David, Jeremiah now promises that one day such a figure will come, but he only does it after he has first given his verdict on the present ‘shepherds’ (rulers) of Israel who are responsible for the fact that the flock has been or will be scattered among the nations. A ‘woe’ is declared on them and they are revealed to be worthless. They will thus be visited in judgment for their failure. But then the remnant of the flock will be restored to the land and will have good shepherds placed over them, and the days are coming when there will be raised up from David a righteous Branch (or Shoot) who will rule wisely and exercise justice and righteousness. He will be called ‘YHWH our righteousness’. And in that day men will no longer speak of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but of Israel’s deliverance, both from the north country, and from wherever they have been driven. And they will once again dwell in their own land.

Initially, of course, this was fulfilled in the return after the exile and the establishment of the Jews in Palestine under Zerubabbel, and this in readiness for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was indeed YHWH our righteousness, and Who established His Kingly Rule over all who responded to Him. Comparison should be made with Ezekiel 34:1-31 and Ezekiel 37:21-28 which contain parallel ideas leading up to the coming Son of David.


Verse 3-4

YHWH Will In The Future Restore The Remnant Of His Flock From Exile And They Will Be Fruitful And Multiply, And He Will Set Up True Shepherds Over Them (Jeremiah 23:3-4).

It is made clear here that exiles will return from all parts, and will establish a well populated country. There is no good reason for doubting that this did happen, for by the time of Jesus both Galilee and Judaea were well populated. Our knowledge is limited to those of whom records were kept, but our knowledge of the inter-testamental years is very sparse.

Jeremiah 23:3

“And I will gather the remnant of my flock,

Out of all the countries where I have driven them,

And will bring them again to their pastures,

And they will be fruitful and multiply.”

For when the time comes YHWH will gather the remnant of His flock out of all the countries where he has driven them (note, however, that it is only the remnant. Not all will come, and many will be no more), and He will bring them again to the land of their inheritance and there they will be fruitful and multiply. Note here that while in Jeremiah 23:2 it was the faithless under-shepherds who had driven them away, here YHWH claims Himself to have driven them away. We have here the human and divine sides of history. Man brings evil on a city, but ‘can evil come on a city and YHWH has not done it?’ (Amos 3:6). Human history and God’s divine plan and purpose march on side by side. All the evil is on man’s side, but the working out of the situation is God’s.

(Thus in Isaiah 10:5; Isaiah 10:7; Isaiah 10:12; Isaiah 10:15 YHWH makes clear that He had made use of the Assyrians but was not responsible for the fact that they had gone too far).

Because of the limited records that we have we can think in terms of the restoration as only being from Babylon, but that was only the beginning. The outworking of history indicates that once they were free to do so many also came from other parts where they had been exiled. And the fact that they were fruitful and multiplied is brought out when we consider the constituents of the land in the days of our Lord Jesus Christ. By His day the land was well populated and at peace, and they had come from many places.

Jeremiah 23:4

“And I will set up shepherds over them,

Who will feed them,

And they will fear no more, nor be dismayed,

Nor will any be lacking,

The word of YHWH.”

And YHWH would set up reliable shepherds over them who would feed them, and they would no more be fearful and dismayed, nor would they be lacking in care and attention. We have only a glimpse of such shepherds in Zerubabbel, Ezra, Nehemiah, the Maccabees, and so on. These were recognised as ‘good’ shepherds who cared for the sheep and turned them from idols. And this too was guaranteed by the prophetic ‘word of YHWH’.


Verse 5-6

The Coming Son Of David (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

The fact is now brought out that one day a Son of David would arise from the house of David who would restore His people’s fortunes and establish the everlasting Kingly Rule of God. It is a regular promise in Scripture, commencing with the promises made to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-13; 2 Samuel 7:16 and confirmed, for example, in Jeremiah 30:9; Jeremiah 33:15-17; Isaiah 9:5-6; Isaiah 11:1-4; Isaiah 16:5; Isaiah 55:3; Ezekiel 34:1-31; Ezekiel 37:21-28; Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:11.

Jeremiah 23:5

“Behold, the days are coming,

The word of YHWH,

That I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,

And he will reign as king and deal wisely,

And will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Following the restoration promised by YHWH will be the coming days when He will raise up to David a righteous Branch (or Shoot), a Branch of righteousness (Jeremiah 33:15), a Branch which will grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1), in other words a sprouting from the shoot, we might say ‘a chip off the old block’ although emphasising the derivation of the one from the other, and He will reign as king and deal wisely, and will execute justice and righteousness in the land (compare Isaiah 11:2-4; Isaiah 9:5-6), precisely what the current kings had failed to do (Jeremiah 22:2-4). And this too was the guaranteed ‘word of YHWH’. Note that the ‘word of YHWH’ has guaranteed the whole process.

There was an initial fulfilment of this in Zerubabbel, ‘Behold the man whose name is The Branch, (the one who has sprouted from the stock of David), and he will grow up out of his place, and he will build the temple of the Lord’ (Zechariah 6:12), but it was only as a shadow of what was coming. It awaited its final fulfilment in our Lord Jesus Christ Who was not only the Branch, but also the whole Vine from which other branches would grow (John 15:1-6). He came and established the Kingly Rule of God in justice and righteousness (Luke 1:32-33; Luke 1:69; Luke 2:11), and appointed twelve men to sit on the thrones of the house of David (Psalms 122:4-5) ruling as servants over His people (Matthew 19:28-29). He was a greater than David (Mark 12:35-37), and His Kingly Rule was not directly of this world (John 18:37), for He ruled over a people not an area of land (Acts 2:36; Matthew 28:18-20).


Verses 6-8

The Coming Salvation Of His People (Jeremiah 23:6-8).

And when this son of David came Judah would be delivered and Israel would dwell in safety. They would be free and independent under His rule. This was partly fulfilled in Jesus’ establishment of His ‘congregation’ (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 21:43; compare John 15:1-6) who would be the heavy laden who would find rest and ease to their souls (Matthew 11:28-30) and ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21). But it would only find its complete fulfilment in the eternal kingdom.

And ‘He will be called YHWH our Righteousness (Tsidkenu)’. For He will be made unto them Wisdom from God, even Righteousness, Sanctification and Redemption (1 Corinthians 1,30). He will clothe them with the garments of salvation and cover them with the robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). He will be their Saviour (Luke 2:11; Acts 5:31; 2 Timothy 1:10). And it will be both an accounted righteousness (Genesis 15:6) and an imparted righteousness. Both have always been necessary for those who would serve God. That was why sacrifices and offerings were provided, and the Law was to be written in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

Jeremiah 23:6

“In his days Judah will be saved,

And Israel will dwell safely,

And this is his name by which he will be called,

YHWH our righteousness.”

The picture here is of Judah and Israel as a free and independent people ruled over by their king who will Himself be righteous and will instil into them the righteousness of God. It will finally be fulfilled in the everlasting kingdom. But we may see a partial fulfilment now. As is made clear in Isaiah (Isaiah 45:8; Isaiah 46:13; Isaiah 51:5-6; Isaiah 51:8; Isaiah 59:17) the concepts of righteousness and salvation go hand in hand, there could be no salvation without righteousness, and there could be no righteousness without salvation, for to be truly His they must have righteousness imputed to them (Genesis 15:6) and righteousness imparted to them, and thereby they would be saved and would dwell in safety and at peace with God.

There is a play here on the name of Zedekiah which actually means ‘YHWH is righteous’. And the point being made is that unlike Zedekiah He will be truly righteous, and truly a producer of righteousness. He will be what Zedekiah should have been. It may be that Zedekiah chose this name as his throne name precisely because of Jeremiah’s prophecy, or it may be that Nebuchadrezzar had a sense of humour.

Jeremiah 23:7-8

‘Therefore, behold, the days are coming, the word of YHWH, that they will no more say, “As YHWH lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but, “As YHWH lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries where I had driven them.” And they will dwell in their own land.”

Compare Jeremiah 16:14-15. This was prophesied more than once. Thus while the coming Exile appeared to be, and was, a catastrophe they were in the hands of the living God, and from it He would produce a new deliverance which would be so wonderful that they would no longer hark back to the deliverance from Egypt, but would look back to their deliverance from exile in all the countries to which they had been driven. And they would dwell again in their own land. And it was on such a deliverance that the Jews looked back in the time of Jesus. But in Jesus Christ the vision would extend outwards and He would become a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6-7; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 60:1-3) as well as the glory of His people Israel (Luke 2:32; Isaiah 60:1). And the final fulfilment awaits the everlasting kingdom when Abraham and all God’s people will finally receive the land for which they were looking (Hebrews 11:10-14).


Verses 9-12

1). Jeremiah Explains How Difficult He Is Finding It To Proclaim YHWH’s Holy Words Against The Prophets And Outlines The Consequences Of Their Prophesying On The Land. YHWH Himself Then Declares What The Consequences Will Be On The Prophets Themselves (Jeremiah 23:9-12).

Jeremiah’s diatribe against the prophets commences with an expression of the effect that what he is being called on to do is having on him. The ‘holy words’ that YHWH has given him to say against the prophets have affected him deeply, for he is only too well aware of who it is that the people put their trust in, and of what the people’s view of them is as those who are ‘holy to YHWH’. He knows that he is taking on the very people whom the people see as revealing to them YHWH’s mind, and must publicly declare them to be ungodly, profane and polluted, and the impression that we gain is that he himself did also see them as having a kind of ‘holiness’ which was why he needed ‘holy words’ with which to combat them.

Jeremiah 23:9

‘CONCERNING THE PROPHETS.

My heart within me is disturbed (broken),

All my bones shake.

I am like a drunken man,

And like a man whom wine has overcome,

Because of YHWH,

And because of his holy words.’

The passage opens in an unusual way with a heading, ‘concerning the prophets’ demonstrating the importance that Jeremiah placed on this particular passage. Compare the later ‘concerning Egypt’ (Jeremiah 46:2), ‘concerning Moab’ (Jeremiah 48:1) and so on of other nations. In other words the guild of prophets were seen as on a parallel with great nations. Such was their importance.

The heading then introduces a long diatribe against these prophets, one which commences with an expression demonstrating Jeremiah’s concerns and how vividly and deeply they were affecting him. The conversation will, however, very quickly be taken over by YHWH speaking through him.

Jeremiah begins by describing the effect on him of both YHWH and of ‘His holy words’ which he has to pronounce. The burden imposed on him by them seemingly constantly oppressed him, and clearly affected him deeply. He was not finding the ministry to which he was called easy. There may have been a number of reasons for this, but in context the main reason was undoubtedly that of the problem of having to deal with the ‘holiness’ of the prophets, something about which he may well have been uncertain. (We can compare how difficult we may ourselves find it to distinguish between those who truly have the Holy Spirit and those who simply make great claims about it, fearful lest we cause despite to the Holy Spirit). But along with that were a number of related reasons:

· Firstly he was deeply upset because he did not find it easy having to oppose the whole prophetic guild whom everyone saw as ‘YHWH’s messengers’ and as ‘holy’ and ‘untouchable’, especially as it was they who had the confidence of the people. Having to expound against them ‘YHWH’s holy words’ was not something that he found to be easy. In view of the long passage ahead devoted to his words against the prophets this would appear to have been a primary reason for his distress.

· Secondly he would be distressed because he did not find it easy to have to recognise that there was a curse on his own native land as a result of the activities of those prophets (Jeremiah 23:10). He knew that he had to proclaim it but it was not something that came easily.

· Thirdly he would be distressed at the thought of the people’s spiritual condition, which arose as a further consequence of the activities of the prophets, and would be deeply upset at the thought of what was coming on them (Jeremiah 23:10).

So concern about the ‘holiness’ of his opponents, awareness of the curse on the land, and anguish at the people’s spiritual condition would all, in a sensitive and essentially loving man, have contributed to his distress. Indeed had they not done so he would hardly have been a suitable person to carry YHWH’s ‘burden’.

Thus we learn that these factors disturb his mind and will (‘heart’) and cause his inner self to shake, (the bones were seen as representing men’s inner self), with the result that he senses himself as behaving like a drunken man, reeling under the words that he has to proclaim. But he is not drunk with wine, he is rather filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), not however in order to sing (even though he would sometimes do that when he worshipped in the Temple) but in order that he might convey YHWH’s message.

It may also partly be because he contrasts ‘the holy words’ which he himself has received from YHWH with their supposed ‘holy’ words, and shudders as he does so. That would have added to his distress as he thought of the way in which it would be seen by the people as both sets of adversaries claiming to wield ‘holy words’. It gave him a new sense of what his ‘holy words’ involved, the very truth of YHWH, and he longed that the people might appreciate the fact. Indeed he may have found it difficult that the prophets even dared to speak such words in the face of the holy words of YHWH. He probably saw their attempts as the equivalent of blasphemy, because they were downgrading the word of God, were interfering in a sphere into which they had no right to enter, and were uttering things that they had no right to say.

Jeremiah 23:10-11

‘For the land is full of adulterers,

For because of the curse the land mourns,

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,

Yes, in my house have I found their wickedness,

The word of YHWH.”

He points out that it is in fact because of these ‘holy’ prophets with their ‘holy words’ that the land is full of adultery, something which they were quite happy to recommend under the guise of religious ritual. This was their kind of ‘holiness’, consorting with ‘holy’ prostitutes. The adultery would have been spiritual, indicating a seeking after idols as ‘lovers’, as well as physical in that the very worship encouraged perverted sex (compare Jeremiah 29:23), or indeed both for the two went together. Everywhere people were copulating in the high places as they burned incense to Baal. And it is because of the curse which this behaviour has produced that ‘the land mourns because of the curse’ which is on it (in accordance with Deuteronomy 29:23-24; Isaiah 24:6-7; Amos 4:7-9), something which results in the pastures of the grazing lands being dried up (the ‘wilderness’ was where they grazed their cattle and sheep as opposed to the arable land on which they grew their crops). Furthermore the course that they recommended was evil (their course is evil) and what they put their strength and efforts and great influence into bringing about was not right (their might was not right). And that was because both priests and prophets were ‘profane’, that is, irreligious, polluted and godless, having been led astray by false teaching. Note in this regard the combination of prophets and priests, those who professed an inspired ‘word’ from YHWH, and those who supposedly expounded the Law. In the face of this what hope was there for the people? And it should be noted that YHWH Himself testifies to their wickedness as revealed in their activities in the Temple, and does it ‘by His sure and certain word’. This wickedness again included not only their idolatrous worship, but also the perverted sex with cult prostitutes, and the sex between worshippers, all aimed at persuading the gods to make the land fertile, something which had manifestly failed, together with their acceptance without protest of injustice and oppression. The prophets meanwhile no doubt kept a look out for the best looking girls, using their exalted office as a means of influencing them in their favour. A similar position is taken today by modern servants of idolatry, singers, sports personalities and the like, and even some religious personalities. They will all share the fate of these prophets.

Jeremiah 23:12

“For which reason their way will be to them as slippery places in the darkness,

They will be driven on, and fall in them,

For I will bring evil on them,

Even the year of their visitation,

The word of YHWH.”

But the consequences for these prophets will be that they will find themselves walking in slippery places in the darkness, and being driven on and falling in them, because YHWH was bringing about their downfall. The idea would be a familiar one with them. Many a man’s body had been discovered when morning came because in seeking to descend slippery slopes in the darkness he had fallen to his death (compare Psalms 35:5-6; Psalms 73:2; Isaiah 8:22), and many would have experienced such dangers for themselves, and the awfulness, having slipped, of falling into darkness. But in that case, unlike here, they had not been driven on by YHWH. Here it is different. For it was YHWH’s intention to bring evil on them and visit them with His judgment in ‘the year of their visitation’ which is coming. And this is the sure and certain word of YHWH.


Verses 9-40

Jeremiah’s Diatribe Against The Prophets, Headed As ‘Concerning The Prophets’ (Jeremiah 23:9-40).

Having set right the vision of the future, Jeremiah now turns on those who had been distorting that vision in one way or another, the prophetic guild. Like the current ‘sons of David’ they too were inadequate. These were men who claimed to speak ‘the word of YHWH’ in the Name of YHWH in His very house (the Temple), but spoke all manner of falsehood and ungodliness in that Name. It was not that they did not conceive of themselves as genuine. Indeed we will soon learn of at least two who were prepared to die horrible deaths at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar because of their prophecies of his coming downfall (Jeremiah 29:21-22), but we also learn at the same time learn that they spoke lies and their lives were dishonourable (Jeremiah 29:23).

It is immediately made apparent how difficult Jeremiah is finding his task to be (Jeremiah 23:9). In order partly to understand that we have to appreciate two things, and the first is the ‘holiness’ seen as connected with ‘prophets’. In spite of the boldness of various prophets through the ages in the face of arrogant kings of Israel/Judah the number who were actually killed by the authorities were comparatively few. We see them coming boldly into the presence of the most of evil kings and walking away unscathed (it was not Ahab who sought to kill Elijah, but Jezebel, who was not rooted in Yahwism). And the reason why this was so was because they were seen as relatively sacrosanct as ‘the prophets of YHWH’. It was considered that to attack them would be to directly attack YHWH. Like the vessels in the sanctuary they were ‘holy, set apart to YHWH’ and therefore untouchable except by those appointed by YHWH.

In our own day we see Jeremiah’s opponents as ‘false prophets’, but we must remember that to the people of Jeremiah’s day they were ‘the prophets of YHWH’ to whom they went for ‘a word from YHWH’, and it was Jeremiah who was questionable.. The other prophets were seen as YHWH’s mouthpiece and totally untouchable. They were ‘holy’, that is they directly represented YHWH, and therefore to attack them was to attack YHWH. Even kings walked warily when they dealt with such men. Thus when Jeremiah took them on he knew that he was taking his whole life and reputation in his hands with this spirited attack upon them. And that is why he saw his words spoken against the prophets as especially ‘holy’. To deal with such ‘holy’ men required special holiness.

His invective can be divided up into four subsections in which there is an intermingling of Jeremiah’s prophetic words with the actual words of YHWH:

1. Jeremiah 23:9-12 in which Jeremiah explains how difficult he is finding it to proclaim YHWH’s holy words against the prophets, even to the point of shivering and quaking. But he then outlines what the consequences of their prophesying will be on the land (Jeremiah 23:10). YHWH Himself then steps in and declares what the consequences will be on the prophets themselves (Jeremiah 23:12). Note the twofold emphasis on the sure and certain ‘word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH).

2. Jeremiah 23:13-20 in which YHWH calumniates the prophets (Jeremiah 23:13-15) and questions what they teach (Jeremiah 23:16-18), explaining again what the results of their prophesying will be (Jeremiah 23:19-20) and emphasising that they were not sent or enlightened by Himself (Jeremiah 23:16). They had not stood in the Council of YHWH (Jeremiah 23:18; Jeremiah 23:22).

3. je r23:21-32 in which YHWH rejects the testimony of the false prophets and reveals Himself as the all-knowing One (Jeremiah 23:23-24), condemning the Temple prophets as false dreamers who cause the people to err in contrast with those who have the true word of YHWH which is like a fire and a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:25-32).

4. Jeremiah 23:33-40 in which YHWH tells Jeremiah that he himself must no longer have a burden for the people (Jeremiah 23:33) and then forbids the false prophets, on pain of severe punishment, from falsely claiming that they have a similar burden from Him, (the kind of burden that the genuine prophets had had in the past - Isaiah 13:1 and often; Nahum 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1), .


Verses 13-22

2). YHWH Calumniates The False Prophets And Questions What They Teach, Explaining What The Results Of Their Prophesying Will Be, And Emphasising That They Were Not Sent Or Enlightened By Him (Jeremiah 23:13-22).

Jeremiah now compares the prophets of Judah with the prophets who had brought doom on Israel, people who had no doubt become a byword in Judah as evidence of prophets who could go astray. And he sees little to choose between them. They walk in the same evil ways, and encourage others to do so as well, with the result that instead of converting the people from wickedness they make them worse. Indeed they were making them like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which were destroyed by YHWH for their extreme wickedness in the time of Abraham (Genesis 18-19), and were now synonymous with evil.

As a result YHWH will feed them with a bitter diet, because that is precisely the consequence of the type of teaching that they provide, a teaching which certainly does not come from Him but is simply a vision from their own hearts. They proclaim ‘peace and wellbeing’, and promise to those who are stubborn in heart that ‘no evil will come on them’. But they can only do this because, whatever they may profess, they have not stood in the council of YHWH. Had they done so they would have known that a tempest was coming forth which would burst on their heads, as a result of the anger of YHWH, a tempest which would not cease until all that He purposes has been brought about. They may not at present understand this, but eventually they will understand it perfectly because it will have happened to them. And that is why if they had genuinely stood in His council they would rather be seeking to turn the people to YHWH’s word and away from evil, because they would have known.

Jeremiah 23:13-14

“And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria,

They prophesied by Baal, and caused my people Israel to err.

In the prophets of Jerusalem also I have seen a horrible thing,

They commit adultery, and walk in lies,

And they strengthen the hands of evildoers,

So that none returns from his wickedness,

They are all of them become to me as Sodom,

And their inhabitants as Gomorrah.”

All agreed that there had been folly in the prophets of Samaria. Those prophets had supported the folly of their priests who had set up images in their temples, and they had had their own priesthood, and their own feasts, and had indulged in a syncretistic Yahwism which included consorting with Baal and Asherah and other gods and goddesses. Thus it had come as no surprise to Judah that YHWH should brand them as fools and punish them. Their view would be that they had deserved it for having forsaken Temple worship and having deserted the son of David. But, they would have thought, surely it was different in Judah. There they had the one Temple, and the legitimate priesthood, and regularly celebrated the feasts established by Moses, and while it was certainly necessary for them to admit that they had modernised it a little by the introduction of novelties such as nature gods in order to satisfy everyone, all in all they were confident that they gave YHWH what they thought He wanted, daily sacrifices, offerings of incense, and priestly recognition. What more could any God want?

But Jeremiah soon disillusions them. That was precisely Jeremiah’s point, that he had seen ‘a horrible thing’ in Jerusalem, the place which should especially have been kept free from all taint. While it may be that the folly of their prophets was not outwardly like that of Israel, it was just as real underneath. It was revealed in their spiritual and physical adultery, their willingness to countenance the worship of ‘Baal (Lord) YHWH’ and Asherah, the way that they deceived the people with lies under the guise of prophecy, and the way in which they prophesied in support of influential and powerful men, in order that they might achieve their ends, ‘strengthening the hands of evildoers’. And the result was that none returned from their wickedness because instead of making them feel guilty and repentant, the false prophets were encouraging them in their sins. Thus no one was returning from his wickedness to YHWH. And the consequence was that He saw them as being as wicked as Sodom and Gomorrah, which was not on the whole a good thing if one thought of what had happened to them.

Indeed as we have seen earlier, YHWH considered that they were doubly guilty because they had failed to take notice of the warning given as a result of what had happened to their northern cousins (Jeremiah 3:6-10).

Jeremiah 23:15

‘Therefore thus says YHWH 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,

Ungodliness is gone forth into all the land.

And it was because from these ‘prophets of Jerusalem’ (as contrasted and compared with the ‘prophets of Samaria’) had gone forward ungodliness into all the land, that YHWH of the hosts of Heaven and earth had decreed concerning these prophets that they should feed on wormwood and drink of gall (compare Jeremiah 9:15), in other words would experience bitter things.

Both wormwood and gall had the same characteristic, that they were very bitter, and even poisonous, and both regularly symbolised awful judgment (see for the wormwood varieties of plant Amos 5:7; Amos 6:12; Proverbs 5:4; Lamentation Jeremiah 3:15. For the gall plant see Jeremiah 8:14; Hosea 10:14; Deuteronomy 29:18; Amos 6:12; Lamentations 3:19). Drinking gall probably has in mind an extract from the colocynth gourd fruit.

Jeremiah 23:16

‘Thus says YHWH of hosts,

“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you,

They teach you what is vain,

They speak a vision of their own heart,

And not out of the mouth of YHWH.”

So through Jeremiah YHWH now called on His people to turn their backs on these false prophets and not to listen to them, because their preaching was empty and was useless, and because their visions came from their own hearts and not out of the mouth of YHWH. But He would have known that He was talking to a brick wall because the people were smug in what they saw as their perfect acceptability. And meanwhile Jeremiah must have been feeling it very deeply, especially when the people attacked him for being unfair to the false prophets.

Note the characteristics of a false prophet:

1. He teaches what is empty and useless (although very pleasing to the ear). Jeremiah 23:16.

2. He does not receive his message from God (Jeremiah 23:16; Jeremiah 23:18; Jeremiah 23:21).

3. He makes false promises to those who treat God lightly (Jeremiah 23:17).

4. He ignores it when men are being stubborn in their opposition to God’s ways (Jeremiah 23:17).

5. He fails to turn the people from their evil ways leaving them self-satisfied (Jeremiah 23:14; Jeremiah 23:22).

Jeremiah 23:17

“They say continually to those who despise me,

‘YHWH has said, You will have peace,’

And to every one who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart,

They say, ‘No evil will come upon you’.”

And these prophets were continually proclaiming to the very people who demonstrated by their injustice and oppression that they despised YHWH, that they would have peace and well-being. And to those who stubbornly refused to obey YHWH’s covenant they were giving the assurance that ‘No evil will come on you’. How foolish they were. For had they really seen into YHWH’s mind they would have known that the very opposite was true. However, the people enjoyed their message for it coincided with their own thinking that they were perfectly satisfactory to God and could carry on doing just what they wanted.

There is an interesting hint in the verb ‘they say’ of the difference in their activity from that of genuine prophets. It is a different word from that used of when YHWH’s prophets speak, perhaps suggesting that these prophets speak glibly on their own initiative. They speak from their own wisdom and not from the wisdom of YHWH.

Jeremiah 23:18

“For who has stood in the council of YHWH,

That he should perceive and hear his word?

Who has marked my word,

And heard it?”

YHWH now lays down His challenge. Which of them had stood in the Heavenly Council as His ways were being unveiled? Which of them had really perceived and heard His word? Which of them had taken note of His word and heard it? And the answer was none of them (apart of course from Jeremiah), for had they done so they would have seen things very differently.

The ‘Heavenly council’ in Hebrew thought consisted of YHWH’s court in the heavenlies where He was surrounded by holy beings. It was a council from which only true prophets could obtain the facts without distortion. See 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1-2; Job 15:8; Psalms 82:1; Psalms 89:6-7; Isaiah 6:1-8; Amos 3:7.

Jeremiah 23:19

“Behold, the tempest of YHWH,

Wrath, is gone forth,

Yes, a whirling tempest,

It will burst on the head of the wicked.”

And what had been the verdict of this Heavenly Council? It had been that the wrath of YHWH would come forth like a great tempest (a tempest of YHWH), yes like a whirling tempest, and it would burst on the all the heads of the wicked. Thus the Heavenly Council had come to a very different decision from that propounded by the false prophets. It had seen a picture of the world being turned upside down because of what was coming on it.

Jeremiah 23:20

“The anger of YHWH will not return,

Until he has executed,

And until he has performed the intents of his heart,

In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.”

And when that tempest began it would not cease until it had run its course. The anger of YHWH would go forth and not return until He had performed the intents of His heart, that is until what He had purposed had been fulfilled. And in later days they would understand it perfectly for they would have experienced it for themselves, and they would have begun to think through the truth of what he was saying (which was why Jeremiah’s prophecies were preserved). ‘The latter days’ simply means ‘later days’, the latter days of their own experience when all that had been warned about had actually happened and they were in exile. In other words their theological graduation would be as a result of having experienced God’s judgment, not from listening to the prophets.


Verses 25-32

YHWH Rejects The Testimony Of The False Jerusalem Prophets And Reveals Himself As The All-knowing One), Condemning The Temple Prophets As False Dreamers Who Cause The People To Err. They Are In Direct Contrast With Those Who Have The True Word Of YHWH Which Is Like A Fire And A Hammer Which Breaks Rock In Pieces (Jeremiah 23:25-32).

YHWH now stresses that He had not sent these prophets and that their words were not to be seen as coming from Him. And He wants all to know that He is not out of touch with things but is perfectly well aware of what they were teaching. After all He fills Heaven and earth. His verdict is therefore that they are teachers of lies and false dreams and He wants everyone to know that He is against them. And He stresses that this is in contrast with the true prophets who have been sent by Him and do receive their word from YHWH and whose word is therefore like a fire and a sledgehammer bringing about His purpose.

Jeremiah 23:21-22

“I did not send these prophets,

Yet they ran,

I did not speak to them,

Yet they prophesied.”

But if they had stood in my council,

Then they would have caused my people to hear my words,

And would have turned them from their evil way,

And from the evil of their doings.”

YHWH wants the people to know that these prophets are running as though they had an urgent message from Him when in fact He had given them no message. They are giving a false impression. And they are ‘prophesying’ even though He had not spoken to them. For the truth was that had they genuinely entered into His Council and listened and heard His words they would have been causing the people to hear those words, and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil doing. This is finally the test of a true prophet, that he causes men’s lives to be changed in accordance with the word of God and the teaching of the Law.

Jeremiah 23:23-24

“Am I a God at hand,

The word of YHWH,

And not a God afar off?

Can any hide himself in secret places,

So that I will not see him?

The word of YHWH.

Do I not fill heaven and earth?

The word of YHWH.”

Let no one think that God was far off and not aware of what was going on. For He is a God Who is at hand (and that is the sure word of YHWH) and not One afar off (so the answer to the question was expected to be YES). Thus no one can hide in a secret place (behind a refuge of lies - see Isaiah 28:7; Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 28:17) preventing YHWH from seeing him. This too is the sure word of YHWH. For after all YHWH fills Heaven and earth. Nothing can be hidden from Him. And this too is the sure word of YHWH. Note the threefold repetition of ‘the word of YHWH’ guaranteeing that absolute certainty of what He is saying. The point is that YHWH knew the whole truth about all prophets. Their dreams were not a mystery to Him. And He was therefore able to declare which were true and which were false.

For the idea of God as far off and out of sight compare Psalms 10:11; Psalms 73:11; Psalms 94:7. It is what foolish men think. How different is the truth, that all things are unbared and open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:13). Compare Genesis 16:13; Psalms 32:6-7; Psalms 73:23-26; Psalms 139:1-2; Psalms 139:7-12; Amos 9:2-4.

Alternately we may see the question as asking whether God was just a local God (a God at hand who could thus be dodged), rather than being a transcendent God, unrestricted in what He could see and inhabiting eternity (‘a God afar off’ likes the High and Lofty One Who inhabits Eternity, compare Isaiah 57:15) so that He can look down and observe everything that happens (Psalms 53:2).

Jeremiah 23:25

” I have heard what the prophets have said,

Who prophesy lies in my name,

Saying,

I have dreamed, I have dreamed.”

And so let no one be deceived. YHWH is fully aware of what the supposed prophets have said, and knows that they have prophesied lies on the basis of their dreams. Note the sarcastic picture of the prophet who arrives declaring sombrely and mysteriously, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed’, trying to give the impression that he has received some great message, when it is in fact a mixture of drugs and wishful thinking.

Dreams were the means by which most lesser prophets received their ‘illumination’ (see Numbers 12:6). And they could contain genuine messages from God. But those who had many dreams and made a great fuss about it should be treated with suspicion. It appears that these prophets were constantly having dreams, and then laying great emphasis on them. It is typical of mankind to prefer dreams to the sure word of God. Such dreams give the impression of being more exciting and pander to what people want to hear, and contribute to the desire to discover certainty in an uncertain word.

Jeremiah 23:26-27

“How long? Is this to be in the heart of the prophets,

Who prophesy lies,

Even the prophets of the deceit of their own heart,

Who think to cause my people to forget my name,

By their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour,

As their fathers forgot my name for Baal?”

YHWH then asks ‘how long?’ That is, how long can this be allowed to go on (or ‘how long will they go on doing this?’). What follows is then asking, can this be allowed to continue? Will they really be allowed to go on having this dependence on dreams which causes them to prophesy their lies? In other words how long can they be allowed to go on dreaming, deceiving themselves in their own hearts, with the intent of making His people forget His Name and follow after Baal? For that is what they are doing. By their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour they are making them forget YHWH’s Name for that of Baal, just as their fathers did.

Jeremiah 23:28

“The prophet who has a dream,

Let him tell a dream,

And he who has my word,

Let him speak my word faithfully.

What is the straw to the wheat?

The word of YHWH.”

He then differentiates the dreamers from the true prophets. Let the prophet who dreams tell his dream. And let the prophet who truly has His word, speak that word faithfully. After all when it comes to choosing who would prefer straw to wheat? This is the sure word of YHWH.

The point is that had the people been honest in their hearts they would have known which was true. They would have discerned wheat from straw. But of course the truth was they did not want to discern. The straw was more comfortable.

And that is why even today God allows truth and error to be proclaimed side by side, because those who have the anointing of God will soon discern truth from falsehood. See the similar argument in 1 John 2:18-29.

Jeremiah 23:29-30

“Is not my word like fire? the word of YHWH,

And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?”

For the true word of God does not need dreams to support it. It is like a fire which burns into men’s very souls removing what is false (the stubble). It is like a sledgehammer which smashes what is hardened so that it is open to truth, and humbles men before God.

Jeremiah 23:30-32

Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, the word of YHWH,

Who steal my words every one from his neighbour.”

“Behold, I am against the prophets, the word of YHWH,

Who use their tongues, and say, ‘He says’.

Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, the word of YHWH,

And do tell them,

And cause my people to err by their lies,

And by their vain boasting.

Yet I did not send them,

Nor did I command them,

Nor do they profit this people at all, the word of YHWH.”

YHWH now three times emphasises that He is against the cult prophets, firstly because their words are second hand borrowing based on common wisdom, secondly because they use their tongues (which is all that their words are based on) freely and then say, ‘YHWH says’ (as though it was the word of YHWH), and thirdly because they have (‘prophesy’) lying dreams, and then tell them to the people, causing them to err as a result of their lies and vain boasting. Thus not only are they making a false claim to be prophets of YHWH when it is all really a sham, but by it they are leading people astray. For the fact is that on the one hand YHWH has neither sent them nor commanded them, and on the other the words that they speak have no profit in them for the people in any way.

Note the careful construction of the verses with the thrice repeated ‘behold I am against the prophets’ as He builds up His case concerning them that they are plagiarists, vain talkers and lying dreamers, and the three fold ‘the word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH) as He underpins the fact, then followed by a fourth.

It will be noted that in this clear indictment of the false prophets their methods are sarcastically reviewed. They either borrow their ideas from the common wisdom (their neighbours), or they simply invent them on their tongues, or they base them on induced dreams. YHWH’s inspiration does not come into it. (The prophets would have claimed otherwise because, like Balaam in Numbers 22-24, they thought that they could enter into the secrets of YHWH by drug induced experiences).


Verses 33-40

Both Jeremiah And The False Prophets Are Forbidden to Use The Phrase, ‘The Burden Of YHWH’ (Jeremiah 23:33-40).

God now puts a blanket ban on speaking of a ‘burden’ from YHWH. This is not just arguing about a technicality (as some have strangely suggested), but is rather indicating that the time for ‘burdens’ from YHWH has passed because the future is now decided. The future is no longer ‘if’ but ‘when’. Thus no prophet must now speak of having a burden about the future. They should rather recognise that YHWH’s fixed and determined will was being done. And this was the case even for Jeremiah. This brings out the fact that the purpose of a prophet’s ‘burden’ (massa - Isaiah 13:1 etc; Nahum 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1) was in order to bring encouragement from YHWH to God’s people in respect of the future in difficult times. It had the aim of providing emotional and spiritual support for them. But once given that there was no further hope or comfort to be offered to them, then for any one of them to pretend to have a ‘burden’ would be deceptive. From now on therefore for either Jeremiah or the other prophets to claim to have a burden from YHWH would be to mislead the people into thinking that there was still hope, when there was in fact none. Furthermore for the false prophets to continue using the idea of the burden of YHWH would be a further insult to YHWH, for He did not give them oracles. Thus to suggest otherwise could only result in their everlasting destruction.

Jeremiah 23:33

“And when this people, or the prophet, or a priest,

Will ask you, saying, ‘What is the burden of YHWH?’

Then you shall say to them,

‘What burden! I will cast you off,’ the word of YHWH.”

In a remarkable statement (compare that of His telling Jeremiah not to pray for the people) YHWH now declares that there will at this time be no more ‘burdens’ (oracles) from YHWH, for a burden suggests that YHWH has a concern for His people whereas at present His only desire is to be disburdened of them. Thus if any of the people, or a prophet, or a priest, come to Jeremiah asking, ‘What is the burden of YHWH?’ (What message of comfort does He have for us?), he must immediately reply, ‘What burden? My intention is to cast you off (disburden Myself of you).’ In other words he is to indicate that He no longer has any words of hope for them, and will not therefore give a prophetic ‘burden’.

Jeremiah 23:34

“And as for the prophet, and the priest, and the people,

Who will say, ‘The burden of YHWH’,

I will even punish that man,

And his house.”

In the same way if either prophet, priest or people claim to have a ‘burden’ from YHWH they will be opening them and their households to punishment for making a false and blasphemous claim.

Jeremiah 23:35-36

“Thus shall you say every one to his neighbour,

And every one to his brother,

What has YHWH answered?’

And, ‘What has YHWH spoken?

And the burden of YHWH you will mention no more,

For every man’s own word will be his burden,

For you have perverted the words of the living God,

Of YHWH of hosts our God.”

So from now on no one must speak of ‘burdens from YHWH’ (impressions laid on them by YHWH acting on His own account). Rather they must use lesser phrases like, ‘has YHWH answered’ or ‘has YHWH spoken’ which indicate attempts to find out what He has to say, without giving the impression that the man is a specially chosen messenger of YHWH. In other words the idea of a burden from YHWH must no longer be considered, for YHWH was giving no more such burdens to His prophets so that any such statement would be a lie. For, He adds sarcastically, otherwise every man will see his own words as ‘a burden from YHWH’ because he perverts the words of the living God. So-called ‘burdens from YHWH’ will be unacceptable because they will simply be perversions of the words of the living God, that is, of ‘YHWH Lord of the hosts of Heaven and earth Who is our God’.

Some see ‘For every man’s own word will be his burden’ as a play on words signifying, not that he will (wrongly) see his own words as a genuine prophetic burden, but that he will find them to be a burden which bows him down.

Jeremiah 23:37-40

“Thus shall you say to the prophet:

‘What has YHWH answered you?

And, What has YHWH spoken?

But if you say, The burden of YHWH,

Therefore thus says YHWH,

Because you say this word, The burden of YHWH,

And I have sent to you, saying,

You shall not say, The burden of YHWH,

Therefore, behold, I will utterly forget you,

And I will cast you off,

And the city which I gave to you and to your fathers,

Away from my presence,

And I will bring an everlasting reproach on you,

And a perpetual shame, which will not be forgotten.’ ”

And the same applied to the prophets. People must not ask them whether they have received ‘a burden from YHWH’, suggesting that they might be genuine prophets who had been particularly and unilaterally impressed by YHWH with a message of hope. They must rather ask, ‘Has YHWH answered you?’ or ‘Has YHWH spoken?’ (That is, have you been able to get in touch with Him?). But if any prophet, or even anyone at all, claims to have received a burden from YHWH (giving the impression that YHWH Himself has sovereignly impressed on them His message) in disobedience to YHWH’s strict command, then YHWH will forget them (dismiss them from His reckoning) and cast them off, together with their city, away from His presence. It will bring on them everlasting reproach, and perpetual and unforgettable shame. Note how they will be involving their city (Jerusalem) in their destruction. No man is an island.

We can compare with this idea of prophets being brought to account Zechariah 13:2-6, even though a different test is used. Compare also Deuteronomy 13 and Deuteronomy 18:20-22. Prophets had to be strictly controlled in what they claimed precisely because of their ability to lead men astray.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 23:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-23.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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