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Jeremiah 23:1-6

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Background to the Book of Jeremiah:

Historical Background to the Book:
Jeremiah began his ministry in Jerusalem around 627 BCE and he witnessed the final years of Jerusalem before it fell to Nebuchadrezzar in 597 BCE. While there may be some dispute about the exact dating of his call that is what the author of the Book of Jeremiah wanted us to accept. Jeremiah was a young man who protested to God when he was called (Jeremiah 1:4-10) and who later made bitter lament to God about the way he was treated by colleagues. He came from a priestly family from the town of Anathoth, a few kilometre north of Jerusalem and formerly in the territory of Northern Israel.

He was well aware of the traditions from the northern tribes rather than the southern tradition as the prophet Isaiah. The king at the time of the first part of Jeremiah's prophecies was Josiah who had instituted reforms to purify the worship practices in 621 BCE. He did this by removing the local shrines and their sacrifices, outlawing the country Levites from presiding over sacrifices (at local shrines) and made Jerusalem the only place in which sacrifice could be made. Because the Levites gained their livelihood from this practice he made laws which dictated they had to be cared for by the local people (Deuteronomy 14:27-28). The reign of King Josiah was relatively peaceful from the ravages of the superpowers - Assyria, Babylon and Egypt which gave him the opportunity to instigate his reforms based on the Book of Deuteronomy. Josiah got caught up in a war with Egypt in 609 BCE and was killed when he tried to prevent Pharaoh Necho from going to the aid of the Assyrians in their last ditch stand against the upcoming power of Babylon (and was killed in battle in 609 BCE). The situation of Jerusalem rapidly deteriorated from this time with a quick turnover of kings and the continued rise of Babylon. Josiah's son Jehoahaz was sent in bonds to Egypt after three months. His brother Jehoiakim took the throne and from a vassal of Egypt he became a vassal of Babylon in 604 BCE. Jehoiakim died in 598 BCE (or assassinated) and his son Jehoiachin had been on the throne for three months when Nebuchadrezzar took Jerusalem in 597 BCE. He deported Jehoiachin, the Queen mother, state officials and took enormous booty including the temple vessels and treasures, but did not destroy the city or temple (Thompson: 24).

Jeremiah's preaching appears to indicate that the reforms had been unsuccessful because his preaching is calling the people back to faithful worship of Yahweh. He prophecies the impending fall of Jerusalem with all its horrific implications. The people refused to believe him because they thought that Jerusalem would always be safe, as indeed, Isaiah had told them 110 years previously. After 598 BCE Jeremiah suffered personally because he was prophesying exile for 70 years and this was an unpopular message. Zedekiah (uncle of Jehoiachin) supported rebellion against Babylon and Nebuchadrezzar came and destroyed Jerusalem after a terrible siege. The city was destroyed, including the temple and further officials taken into exile. The Governor set up by the Babylonians was assassinated in 582 BCE and further deportations occurred. Some Judeans fled to Egypt before the arrival of Nebuchadrezzar taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 42).

Literary Background to the Book:
We don't know the precise process whereby the book was formed from the oral traditions into the final form we have now. It appears to be in blocks of material which are deliberately structured to reinforce the message. Chapters 1-29 depict the divine judgement on Judah and Jeremiah's controversy with false prophets: chapters 30-33 make up the Book of Consolation: chapters 34-45 depict events around the fall of Jerusalem: chapters 46-51 contain the oracles against the nations and the final chapter parallels 2 Kings 24:18-25:30 which tells us about the final fall of Jerusalem.

The Greek translation of the Book of Jeremiah is shorter by one seventh which is unusual as the Greek translations are usually longer. The Hebrew and Greek translations were both circulating in Israel at the time of the Qumran community ( ). Whether there was a shorter Hebrew version which is now represented by the Greek and this was later expanded into the Hebrew edition of the Book is a matter of some debate. The arrangement of the blocks of material are different in each edition with the Oracles against the Nations to be found in the Greek edition in chapters 26-32. The Greek edition names Jeremiah as the prophet four times whereas the Hebrew edition names Jeremiah as the prophet thirty times.

The book is a mixture of poetry and prose. It appears to many scholars that much of the prose is preaching on aspects of Jeremiah's oracles from the poetry. This preaching has many similarities to the theology and language used by the Deuteronomistic writers. Whether the Deuteronomists took Jeremiah's oracles and use them as a basis for preaching God's word to a later situation we can never be certain. However, the message and language of the prose sections are compatible with Deueteronomic thought. For example, the message to the exiles was the need to believe in the true prophets like Jeremiah. He is held up as an excellent example. Another message was to explain that they were in exile was because they had been disobedient and therefore lost the land. Yahweh had been faithful to them and they had failed to keep their side of the covenant as depicted in Exodus 19.

Context of Jeremiah  23:1-6
We looked at reading about the potter at Pentecost 14 (Jer 18) which is followed by a judgement oracle and another of Jeremiah's laments. Jer 19 describes in vivid detail what will happen to the land as a consequence of the people's disobedience depicted as a broken potter's earthen vessel. Jeremiah suffers a beating by the chief priest because he is prophesying such adverse messages from God which are hardly good news for the people of Jerusalem. Today's lectionary reading is part of wider context of Jer 21:-24:10 in which the King Zedekiah seeks a word from the prophet Jeremiah. The word from the Lord declares that God is on the side of the Babylonians and will lead them into the city. The people are told to surrender and the house of David is told to execute justice or be punished. The picture painted by the writer will have the nations asking why the city is desolate and the answer will be that the people forsook the covenant. Jer 22 finishes with a number of speeches denouncing the last three Kings of Judah who failed to keep justice and righteousness in the manner of Josiah. The lectionary reading (Jer 23:1-6) is a woe oracle followed by a promise of salvation for the remnant and a new Davidic king.

Jer 23 continues with a condemnation of false prophets and the priests. Jer 24 announces the defeat of Jerusalem and the deportation of king, princes and craftsmen into exile. It is these exiles who will be the future hope of Israel.

Insights/Message of Jeremiah 23:1-6
Literary structure: Literary: vv.1-8
The 3 promises begin with “Behold”, (2b-4, 5-6, 7-8) and “therefore, thus …” introduces the judgement oracle (v.2a). Vv.1-2a, lay the blame squarely on the leaders, they are charged with ‘destruction of the flock’ . The imagery of shepherds depicts the exact opposite of how a shepherd ought to be as a shepherd, that is, keeping the sheep together. Instead, the accusation declares the leaders have scattered their flock and God will be the true shepherd and bring the people (flock) back together. The language of God's voice in vv.2-3 reinforces the imagery, “you yourselves” have done the driving, versus “I, myself” will restore. There is a play on the word ‘attend’ (v.2) which is negative because the leaders did not attend to people and the consequence will be that God will attend to the leaders for their evil ways. V.3 is difficult because it declares that God drove them away and will now gather them and bring them back. We have two statements which contradict one another: v.2 says the leaders drove the people out and v.3 says that God drove them out. Carroll suggests that " the theologizing of the exile in this manner allows for the possibility if return" (Carroll: 445).

The phrase ‘Behold your days are coming’, is used when an oracle of future is about to be proclaimed. In this case, a branch of David will become King, and Judah and Israel will be safe and secure. In an oracle which is almost parallel to this one in Jer 33:15-16 the places mentioned are Judah & Jerusalem rather Judah and Israel. The name of the king, "The Lord is our righteousness" (v.6) is a play on the name of King Zedekiah. The Hebrew "sedeq" is righteousness. So Jeremiah is prophesying that Zedekiah will be King after Jehoiachin (Coniah) is taken into exile (Jer 22:24ff). As Carroll suggests this prophesy is legitimizing Zedekiah rather than a future Davidic king (Carroll:.446 ). On the other hand Holladay believes it refers to a future king such as Zerubbabel (Holladay: ). If is not legitimizing Zedekiah then it could be a sarcastic comment on Zedekiah with the promise that with the restoration there will be a king who does justice and righteousness.

Vv.3-4 have reminders of Ezek 34, Deut 30. Indeed, it is almost a précis of Ezek 34 which makes some scholars wonder if it is an expanded form in Jer 23 (Miller).

Message / Theology:
The general indictment of kings is followed by three promises of hope and restoration. The metaphor of sheep and shepherd is a particularly poignant one because the task of a shepherd is to care for his flock, but the kings have failed in a major one of their tasks. However, God can make a new thing out of the disaster which is occurring for Judah. God will gather them from exile and bring them home and provide a king who will behave as required with "justice and righteousness"; attributes essential to kingly rule. The Lectionary reading stops before the final promise, but it really goes with vv.1-6, and reminds the people that as God delivered them in the past from Egypt so it will happen again and the people will dwell in their own land. A message of hope to a people who have already lost temple, King, and land. Zechariah applied the prophecy to Zerubbabel (Zech 3:8, 6:12), the Qumran community to designate the kingly Messiah and the Christian community to refer to Christ. This is picked up particularly in Luke 1:67-79 (often referred to as the Benedictus) in which Zechariah prophecies the birth of Jesus. the hymn has many references from the Old Testament within it. The long expected delivery for the Jews was depicted as a military victory, but this prophecies God's redemption as a new world order not politically based.

Resources/Worship for Jeremiah 23:1-6
Luke 1: 67-79 demonstrates how the NT picked up and appropriated the prophecies from Old Testament because they were inspired to realize that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of these prophecies for the Christian Community.

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Jeremiah

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming. Cambridge: W.B.Eerdmans, 1998.
Carroll, Robert P. Jeremiah: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM, 1986.
Clements, R. E. Jeremiah. Int. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
Holladay,William L. Jeremiah 1 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 1-25. Herm. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
---. Jeremiah 2 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 26-52. Herm. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
Keown,Gerald L. Jeremiah 26-52. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1995.
Jones, Douglas Rawlinson. Jeremiah. NCB. [London]: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1992.
McKane, William. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 1, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah I-XXV. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986.
---. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 2, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah XXVI-LII. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996.
Miller, Patrick D. The Book of Jeremiah. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001
Thompson, John A. The Book of Jeremiah. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1980.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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