The Shepherd Gathers His Flock

I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more…declares the LORD” (vv. 3–4).

- Jeremiah 23:1–8

Chapter 22 of Jeremiah ends poorly for King Josiah’s line. Although the prophet told these rulers that they would succeed if they obeyed God’s law (vv. 1–4), Jeremiah knew Josiah’s sons would not listen. Thus, in verses 5–30 he states the failures of Shallum (Jehoahaz; see 2 Kings 23:28–30; 1 Chron. 3:15), Jehoiakim, and Coniah (Jehoiachin; see 2 Kings 24:8–9), which were evident (2 Chron. 36:1–10). The prophet skips Zedekiah, Judah’s last king before the exile, but he also had this ruler’s failure in mind. After all, he seems to have preached the oracles of Jeremiah 22 in Zedekiah’s palace (chap. 21).

The king’s primary responsibility in ancient Judah was to lead the people in obeying God’s law (Deut. 17:14–20), and today’s passage presents the leadership failures of Josiah’s sons. Kings in the ancient Near East saw themselves as shepherds, and Judah’s kings had destroyed and scattered the people they were supposed to shepherd (Jer. 23:1). The Hebrew word translated as “destroy” in Jeremiah 23:1 means “lose” or “allow to go astray.” Instead of attending to the spiritual needs of their sheep, the wicked sons of Josiah did nothing when the people wandered away from the Lord. This failure was particularly grievous considering that the people were ultimately the flock of God. Covenant members are the Lord’s sheep—they are His “flock”—and leaders are but undershepherds who are to guide God’s lambs according to the rules of the great Shepherd.

Even though the kings committed great evil in leading the people astray, the Judahites were culpable as well. Thus, God would exile the people. But that would not be the end of the story because He would bring a remnant back to the land (vv. 3–4). The multitude would go into exile, and the covenant community would be purified. Only the righteous few would return to Judah. Things may get dark for the people of God at times, but John Calvin reminds us in his commentary on today’s passage that God has “ever been the preserver of his Church; and thus his gratuitous adoption, by which he had chosen the seed of Abraham, never fails. But this adoption is effectual only as to the remnant.”

In the restoration, the Lord promised to give His people good shepherds (v. 4). Righteous men such as Ezra and Nehemiah, who taught God’s law to Judah after the exile (Ezra 7:1– 10; Neh. 1), fulfilled this prophecy. Yet more would be needed. David’s righteous Branch alone could finally reconcile God and His people (Jer. 23:5–6).

Coram Deo

Today’s passage should be sobering to any leader, especially those who shepherd the flock of God. Though we cannot escape the guilt of our own sin by blaming others, the Lord’s undershepherds will be judged if they neglect their shepherding duties or lead the sheep astray. Whether we are formally ordained to teach God’s Word or simply pass it on to our children at home, we must take care that we understand it properly and apply it graciously and correctly.

Passages for Further Study

Numbers 27:12–23
2 Samuel 5:1–5
Ezekiel 34
James 3:1

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