Shepherd Kings


Do you remember the mural that used to be along the wall in the hallway? It was a labor of love. There were lots of trees and grass and blue skies, and in the middle of a lovely field were a smiling Yeshua and some very happy children gathered around Him. I liked it, but also wished they could have made Yeshua look at least a little bit Jewish.

Have you ever seen paintings of Yeshua clothed as a shepherd, carrying a wayward little lamb on His shoulders, returning it to the flock? I like the imagery of Messiah Yeshua as the Great Shepherd. I am comforted in knowing that God is a God who rescues and comforts and restores. He is a God who doesn’t abandon the wayward sheep, but searches them out and finds them and returns them to the fold. I really like that!

It’s my being a sheep I’m not so keen on.

Now I’m from the city, so don’t quiz me on my knowledge of farming or of animal husbandry; but the more I learn about sheep, the less I like being compared to one. They’re not exactly the most intelligent animals. In fact, they’re rather clueless. That we are likened to sheep of God’s pasture is no compliment. It speaks to our proclivity to say and do foolish things. On the other hand, the longer I live, the more clearly I see just how much I need a Shepherd.

I’d like us to consider a prophecy of Jeremiah this morning, one which begins with a warning of judgment. Open with me to Jeremiah, chapter 23.

Background on Jeremiah:

Anyone who has studied the period of the Divided Monarchy after the death of Solomon can tell you that it was not exactly Israel’s “Golden Age”. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah were not good. Some were better than others. A very few were genuinely righteous. Jeremiah began to prophesy while still a youth (na’ar), in the 13th year of the reign of one of the few bright lights in Judah’s history – King Josiah. That dates this prophecy to about 625 BC. Josiah, perhaps more than any of Israel or Judah’s rulers, did what was right. He followed God will all his heart, and systematically began destroying the idols and pagan altars at which our people had for generations offered sacrifices to Ba’al and the Asherim.

About a century earlier the northern kingdom of Israel went into exile to Assyria after centuries of corruption, pagan practices and adamant refusal to repent, in spite of many warnings through the prophets. The irony of it can be seen in the book of Jonah – where the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, willingly repented and turn to God when Israel herself wouldn’t!

But if the people of Judah thought they were going to escape the judgment of God for their own apostasy, they had another thing coming. The first six chapters of Jeremiah describe a people who are utterly corrupt, and just as unresponsive to the prophets’ warnings as the northern kingdom had been. Jeremiah’s ministry was characterized by warnings of impending judgment and exile. All the while, false prophets were going around telling people everything would be fine. Imagine how unpopular Jeremiah was, for being the only one courageous enough to speak the unpleasant truth. He endured unceasing scorn and hostility from his own people. The depth of Jeremiah’s anguish over the waywardness of his people, and his having to witness the destruction of Jerusalem by the army of Babylon led him to be known as ‘the weeping prophet’. His heart clearly was aligned with God’s, broken at their disloyalty and stubbornness. Not surprisingly, he also authored the book of the Bible known as Lamentations. He was the last prophet to speak to the nation before the Exile.

As we come to chapter 23 of Jeremiah, we are looking at a section of this book which deals with judgments against certain kings (most notably Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet king), judgments against the false prophets, and lamenting about his being brutally mistreated. And the God of Israel, speaking through the prophet, has something to say about shepherds – good and bad.

Verse 1

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the LORD.

How would you like to have been in the shoes of those “shepherds” as God directed His anger toward them? It is a scathing charge He brings against Israel’s leaders. But let’s be clear about something:

God was not absolving our people of our own responsibility for our sin – our disloyalty to Him, our imitating the deplorable practices of the Canaanites, our incessant lying, cheating, the giving and taking of bribes, oppressing the weak and vulnerable. Our ‘rap sheet’ was a mile long! The fact that God directs this judgment at the leaders does not let the people off the hook.

But to whom much is given, much is required. Leaders are expected to lead. So who are these “shepherds” and in what sense were they destroying and scattering the people? In context, the shepherds are Judah’s kings and priests and judges. To kings we should be able to look for righteous leadership; to priests we should be able to look for righteous guidance in the things of God; to judges we should be able to look for just decisions – punishment for evildoers and vindication for the innocent.

But Judah’s kings were, for the most part, ungodly, unrighteous leaders. With few exceptions they tolerated and at times even sponsored the worship of false gods and the building of pagan shrines and altars. Descriptions in Canaanite and Ugaritic texts that have come down to us tell of the religious practices of the Canaanites, and they are abhorrent. Temple prostitution, burning children alive in fire pits as sacrifices, attempting to divine the future by studying the organs of animals and even human fetuses – it is no wonder that God told us to make no alliances with these people. Yet some of Judah’s kings practiced and even promoted the worship of Canaanite false deities. Listen to this description of wicked King Manasseh:

Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. He did evil in the sight of the Lord according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord dispossessed before the sons of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had broken down; he also erected altars for the Ba’als and made Asherim, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.

He built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “My name shall be in Jerusalem forever,” for he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. He made his sons pass through the fire in the valley of Ben-hinnom; and he practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him (2 Chron. 33:1-6).

The priests in Judea were no better. They were paid religious professionals. They didn’t walk with the Lord, let alone guide the people in His paths. Listen to what Jeremiah had to say about the priests:

“I brought you into the fruitful land to eat its fruit and its good things. But you came and defiled My land, and My inheritance you made an abomination. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ And those who handle the law did not know Me; the rulers also transgressed against Me, and the prophets prophesied by Ba’al and walked after things that did not profit” (2:7-8).

The judges routinely took bribes and perverted justice. Criminal behavior apparently went unpunished and innocent people were falsely convicted of crimes – all on account of bribery. Despite repeated warnings in the Torah not to take bribes, listen to just a small sampling of what the prophets had to say about the judges in Israel:

Your rulers are rebels and companions of thieves; everyone loves a bribe and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them. Woe to those who are heroes in drinking… who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!

Now hear this, heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and twist everything that is straight, who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with violent injustice. Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, her priests instruct for a price and her prophets divine for money.

Yet they lean on the Lord saying, “Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us.” Therefore, on account of you Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest (Isaiah 1:23, 5:22, Micah 3:9-12).

If this is the collective condition of the nation’s leaders, is it any wonder our people went astray? As I said earlier, we are still individually culpable when we do wrong, but leaders are judged even more strictly, as they set an example which weak people follow. Let’s continue in verses 2-4 and see what God had to say to these ersatz shepherds:

Verse 2

Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the Lord.

Perhaps a few words are in order about shepherding. To be a good shepherd required a great deal of compassion, patience, diligence and courage; compassion because sheep are helpless animals. They need someone to lead them to pasture, to lead them to water and to pick them up when they fall. Patience and diligence because sheep are not very intelligent, are prone to repeat foolish behavior and prone to stray from the flock. It requires patience to have to continually perform the same things – disciplining and retrieving. Courage was required because sheep are helpless against predatory animals, and the shepherd was required to stand between the flock and the wolf or lion or bear or packs of wild dogs. Shepherding was also thankless work. You were pretty much alone out on the hills, surrounded by smelly animals, lacking very much human contact or meaningful conversation with others, having little intellectual challenge, and the pay was nothing to write home about! A Jewish mother had absolutely no bragging rights over a son who was a shepherd. So who would take such a job when there were better jobs to be had? For that reason, shepherds were considered losers in much of the ancient world. They were looked upon with suspicion and often presumed to be unreliable. In First Century Israel their testimony was considered inadmissible in rabbinical courts. Makes it all the more interesting, when you consider that it was to a group of shepherds that the angel announced Messiah’s birth! Indeed, who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord (Messiah) been revealed? Few would have believed those shepherds.

Yet God describes Himself as a shepherd!

As early as Genesis chapter 49 God is described as the Shepherd of Israel. In Psalm 80 Asaph wrote, Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth! Later in his prophecies, Jeremiah would declare, Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare in the coastlands afar off, and say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock” (Jeremiah 31:10).

Before King David was King David, he was a shepherd boy. From his youth he learned what it meant to take care of those weak and dependent. How better to learn to govern a nation than in humble circumstances, tending to the weak. The same might well be said of Moses, who before his confrontation with Pharaoh and leadership over Israel spent forty years in the wilderness of Midian, tending the flock of his father-in-law. I’ve heard it said that fewer things are more humbling for a man than to have to work for his father-in-law. But don’t miss the point: God prepared leaders in humble circumstances. The idea was that they might not exalt themselves when brought to high position. David was, for the most part, a good shepherd, and served as a prototype of the great Shepherd-King who was to come – Messiah Yeshua.

God, the Chief Shepherd of Israel, has historically appointed under-shepherds. But the shepherds of Jeremiah’s day were consummately wicked in their dealings. Judah’s leaders were greedy, self-centered, hard-hearted and routinely employed intimidation tactics. God says to them, You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you…! Yikes! I wouldn’t want to have been in their shoes. If you’d like to study a corollary passage about the selfishness and wickedness of Israel’s shepherds, make a note to yourself to read Ezekiel chapter 34.

Sadly, however, their despicable ways brought the entire nation to ruin. Jeremiah would, just a short time later, prophesy 70 years of captivity in Babylon as God’s just judgment and disciplining of Judah – the wages due for her collective sins.

But there’s a very important component to this judgment – a component that is too often overlooked by those who are envious or resentful of Israel. That component is restoration. Look with me at verses three and four:

Verses 3-4

“Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

When God passed judgment on Israel, it was always with a redemptive purpose, and was always followed by eventual restoration. This is the pattern of events woven all through the Scriptures. Like a father disciplining his child, not just for having done wrong, but for the development of their character, for their good, so God disciplines Israel for our good. Those who deny a future for national Israel in the plans of God are going to have a rude awakening when Israel is again restored in Acharit HaYamim, the Last Days.

In these two verses we see that since Israel’s shepherds have been derelict in their duties, God will take it upon Himself to re-gather those who are left in the Exile and bring them back. Back where? It says to their pasture. What is that pasture? Israel! As surely as our people were decreed by God through Jeremiah to go into Babylon for seventy years, we were to be brought back to our land. But I believe this to speak of more than just the Babylonian or Assyrian captivities. God says He will gather the remnant of His flock out of all the countries where He had driven us.

Many liberal theologians were scratching their heads when in 1948, after nearly two thousand years of exile, Israel once again became a nation, and our people in massive numbers began to return to the land. But God declared that the Jewish people would not be afraid any more, or subject to terror. None would be missing. Can this be said of Israel’s recent re-birth?

No – we have experienced six wars and an ongoing intifada. Many Jewish families throughout northern and southern Israel have had to retro-fit their homes with bomb shelters!

This promise of re-gathering to the land and restoration to God, when seen together with the prophecies of Zechariah (12-14) Ezekiel (36-37), and Yeshua’s teaching about the Last Days (Matt. 24) can be understood to take place in stages.

While Israel has begun to be gathered again to the land, we are not yet in the place of fruitfulness and security as described in the prophets. There are things yet to occur. We are told about a unique individual who will bring about this blessing and security and prosperity. He is called The Branch.

And we read about him in verses 5 and 6:

Verses 5-6

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness’”

Here in Jeremiah 23 the word translated “Branch” is Tsemach. In Isaiah 4:2 and 11:1 it is Netzer. There are actually five or six separate words in Hebrew that can be translated as branch or shoot. The prophecy of the Branch here in Jeremiah 23, taken together with those in Isaiah and yet other prophecies about the Branch (including, Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12) are what Matthew had in mind when He spoke of Yeshua living in Natzeret (Nazareth) in fulfillment of what the prophets wrote, He shall be called a Nazarene.

What are we told about this One? Here in verses five and six His name, Branch, proves Him to be a descendant of King David. Salvation really is of the Jews – it comes through a very specific Judean family line, the line of David. Thus, Messiah is to sit on David’s throne and rule over a restored kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, this is God’s doing. He says that He Himself will raise up this righteous Branch. We won’t need to start up any political ad campaigns, hire marketing firms or enlist lobbyists for Yeshua to be King. God will do this all without the need of any of the usual human maneuvering or political triangulation. He doesn’t need our help to install Yeshua on the throne.

We are also given a character description of Messiah the Branch. He will be righteous, and His reign will be characterized by justice and wisdom. He will be a powerful king, as Israel and Judah will again dwell securely, her enemies will think twice and three times about attacking, and will ultimately think better of it.

Perhaps the supreme truth of this passage comes to us in the title ascribed to the Messiah: The Lord, our Righteousness. Messiah Himself will be the source of our righteousness, and a limitless source, since He is Divine. He is The Lord, our Righteousness. It is not through Sinai Covenant law keeping that we are made righteous. It is not in “getting our act together” that God accepts us. It is not by giving away oodles of money to charities that we earn standing with the Holy One.

It is when we throw ourselves fully upon His mercy, and openly claim Messiah Yeshua Himself as our basis for righteousness. He fulfilled in Himself every demand of righteousness contained in the Torah, and through faith in Him we are made righteous.

A few last thoughts:

Everyone who believes is part of the flock of God, and He is our Chief Shepherd. In John chapter 10, Yeshua called Himself the Good Shepherd, and He proved it when He laid down His life for us. Brothers and sisters, we are in very good hands!

On that same occasion, Yeshua spoke of having sheep of another fold that He intended to bring in, so that Jews and Gentiles who put their trust in Him are part of the ONE flock with ONE Shepherd! We enjoy a great unity!

There’s another principle to glean from Jeremiah 23. When God judged the nation, it was only after repeated warnings, and not vindictively, but redemptively – to restore and purify His people. The same thing can be said of God’s dealings with individuals. He is patient, and He warns, but if we harden our hearts, we have only ourselves to blame on the Day of Judgment.

Almost all of us are called, in some capacity, to be shepherds; those of us who are parents, or employers, or teachers, or congregational leaders, or elected officials. This passage was directed at the leadership of ancient Judea. Rulers, judges and religious leaders are shepherds, but to the extent that others take their lead from you or receive instruction from you, you are a shepherd. How well are you carrying out that responsibility? Is the quality of your shepherding after the pattern set by Messiah? Think through the qualities that describe His care for the flock, and then imitate them. A good shepherd gives attention and affection, but also discipline and strict guidance. A good shepherd knows how to use both ends of their staff.

Finally, a question: is the Lord your righteousness? If not how else do you expect to get it? Righteousness is beyond your ability to attain it. Yet it waits for you as a free gift, if you’ll enter the New Covenant. But know that the terms of the New Covenant have been determined by God, and are not up for negotiation. God’s terms are simple: transfer your loyalty and put your complete trust in Messiah Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Branch, and He is the Lord our Righteousness… and He is the ultimate Shepherd King.