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November 24, 2013
Jeremiah 23:1-6

For the feast of Christ the King or The Reign of Christ we return briefly to a reading from Jeremiah. This text is one of the first relating to the period after the deportation of 598 BCE, at the beginning of the reign of king Zedekiah. It is remarkable that this glimpse of Jeremiah’s early response to that deportation moves quickly from a strong condemnation of leaders to a vision of restoration.

The human ‘shepherds’ mentioned in v. 1 embrace not only the priests of Israel and some kings, but also false prophets. Jeremiah came up against all three as he first warned of the Babylonian invasion and then urged Israelites to settle down in captivity (Jeremiah 29). The effects of failed leadership are noted in v. 4: the people were ‘afraid’ and some went ‘missing’. From twentieth century experience, the latter is an ominous word recalling the worst injustices of some Southern American countries, in various African lands and the Middle East. Closer to home, it recalls the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous people since the coming of Europeans to this shore. In the context of the oracle, Jeremiah’s ‘woe’ is not merely personal condemnation, but it is also divine curse. Jeremiah elaborates on the demise of the shepherds in 25:34-38.

Of the various images of the people of God, that of ‘sheep’ in a pasture is one of the richest for it characterizes both the people and the nourishing environment of their covenant with God. This image places emphasis on the community rather than the individual believer. ‘My pasture’ (v. 1) points to the significant individual within this metaphor, namely God the shepherd, an image familiar from Psalm 23 but which is also found in the prophets, especially Jeremiah. Its origins may well go further back. The failure of the human shepherds is all the greater when placed in contrast to the dependability of the divine shepherd. Metaphors for the divine are expressions from human experience that attempt to express something that is beyond human grasp. In this case they seek to express a trust in God who holds all things in God’s hand.

A play on words in v. 2 contrasts the failure of Israel’s leaders to ‘attend’ to (KJV ‘visit’) the needs of the people with the intention of God to ‘attend’ to them on account of their evil deeds. Perhaps the ‘attention’ of God which Jeremiah had mind was the deportation of the royal family, nobles and craftsmen, and other leaders mentioned in 2 Kgs 24:8-17.

One of several innovations in this chapter is Jeremiah’s reference to the remnant. It appears that Isaiah’s conception of the remnant, fashioned from the Assyrian captivity in the eighth century (Isa 10:20-22), emphasized that only a few would return. It was primarily an image of destruction. Jeremiah, however, uses it as an image of hope with the positive vision of exiles returning from every land (Jer 40:11).

The vision of restoration of the exiles (v. 3) is not just a return to good grazing ‘pasture’ but to a fruitful, growing community. This contrasts sharply with the vision in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in chapter 29, apparently coming from the same historical setting (see commentary for Pentecost 21). There, Jeremiah expected fertility and increase in lands outside Israel. Equally the language of a ‘remnant’ scattered in exile contrasts with the reality of burgeoning diaspora communities of Judeans, many of whom did not return to Israel. There seem to be two contrasting viewpoints of the exile here.

The words ‘I myself shall gather’ (v. 3) portray the restoration as the direct result of the divine shepherd’s care. We should not read this as in opposition to texts that speak of human agency, such as that of king Cyrus (Isa 44:28; 54:1), who also is described as shepherd. Rather, we are to discern the hand of God within human action directed toward justice. The partnership of human and divine is further illustrated in the role of true ‘shepherd leaders’ for the people (Jer 23:4) whom God will ‘raise up’, and who will ‘tend’ the people in God’s name.

A new oracle begins at v. 5. The formula ‘The days are surely coming’, originally used to refer to divine judgment, is adapted in Jeremiah to divine salvation (e.g. Jer 16:14-15). Once again, the text moves from the collective to the individual with its vision of a new king like David (v. 5), a person of wisdom, justice and righteousness. Verses 5-6 appear again in Jer 33:15-16, and the ideas are elaborated in 37:21-28. Jeremiah takes the image of a righteous Davidic prince from Isa 9:6-7 and 16:5. It appears again in Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25, but is otherwise rare. It is Jeremiah who first presents this prince as a branch issuing from the Davidic line. Through this king, Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely. These verses do not speak of the individual salvation familiar to Christians, but of the collective ‘shalom’ of God in the earth (Jer 29:7). The naming of God’s saving prince, ‘The LORD our righteousness’, is unique to Jeremiah but follows a pattern familiar from the naming of the sons of the prophet Isaiah, e.g. ‘a remnant shall return’ (Isa 7:3) and possibly ‘God with us’ (Immanuel; Isa 7:14).

Note that Jeremiah makes no use of the language of ‘messiah’ (i.e. of God’s anointed one), here or elsewhere. Indeed, in all the prophetic books, apart from the late text in Dan 9:24-26, there are only two references to the Lord’s anointed: Isa 45:1 and 61:1. The first of these refers to a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, while the latter is the text by which Jesus identifies himself and his mission (see Luke 4:21). The choice of this Jeremiah text for the feast of Christ the King or The Reign of Christ is a reminder that we Christians need to be aware that our ‘messianic’ reading of such texts sometimes depends on connections that were not intended originally. Our understanding of Jesus as messiah in turn depends on our investigation of originally non-messianic texts such as Jeremiah 23.On the other hand the choice of this text from Jeremiah is a firm reminder of the nature of divine care. In Jesus Christ, all that is inherent in God’s dominion over creation finds its fulfillment.

Psalm: Luke 1:68-79

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