Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.XXIII.
(1) Woe be unto the pastors . . .—The message that follows in Jeremiah 23:1-8 comes as a natural sequel to that of Jeremiah 22. The unfaithful shepherds who had been there denounced are contrasted with those, more faithful to their trust, whom Jehovah will raise up. As before, in Jeremiah 2:8 and elsewhere, we have to remember that the “pastors” are (like the “shepherds of the people” in Greek poets) the civil rulers, not the prophets or the priests, of Israel. The parallelism with the prophecy of Ezekiel 34, delivered about the same time in the land of exile, is suggestive either of direct communication between the two writers, or of traditional lines of thought common to the two priest-prophets.
Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.(2) Ye have scattered my flock.—The charge was true literally as well as spiritually. The dispersion of the people in Egypt, Assyria, and Chaldæa was the result of the neglect, the tyranny, the feebleness of their rulers. They had been led, not as the Eastern shepherd leads (John 10:4-5), but “driven”—not to the fold, but “away” into far lands.
Have not visited.—i.e., cared for and regarded. They were negligent, but God was not, and He therefore would “visit” them by reproof and chastisement.
And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.(3) To their folds.—Better, habitations, or pastures. There was hope, as in Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 6:13, for the “remnant” of the people, though the sentence on their rulers, as such, was final and irreversible.
And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD.(4) I will set up shepherds . . .—The words imply, in one sense, a return to the theocracy, the breaking off the hereditary succession of the house of David, and the giving of power to those who, like Ezra and Nehemiah, and, later on in history, the Maccabees, were called to rule because they had the capacity for ruling well. The plural is noticeable, as in Jeremiah 3:15, as not limiting the prophecy to the Christ who is yet the “chief Shepherd” (1Peter 5:4). In the verb for “set up” there is an allusive reference to the names of Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, into both of which it entered. Jehovah would “raise up” shepherds, but not such as they had proved themselves to be.
Neither shall they be lacking.—i.e., the flock would be so cared for that not one sheep should be lost. Care extending even to every individual member was the true ideal of the Shepherd’s work (John 10:3; John 17:12), and therefore of the ruler’s.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.(5) Behold, the days come.—The words point to an undefined, far-off future, following on the provisional order implied in Jeremiah 23:4, when the kingdom should once more rest in one of the house of David.
A righteous Branch.—The idea is the same, though the word is different (here Zemach, and there Netzer), as in Isaiah 11:1. In both cases, however, the word means a “sprout” or “scion,” springing up from the root even after the tree had been cut down (Isaiah 6:13), and not a branch growing from the trunk. It is probably in reference to this prophecy that we find the name of “the Branch” (Zemach) so prominent in Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12. Here, it is obvious, the prophet speaks of the one great Shepherd.
A King shall reign.—Better, he shall reign as King, the Branch or Sprout being the subject of the sentence. As with all the Messianic prophecies of this class, the thoughts of the prophet dwell on the acts and attributes of a sovereignty exercised personally on earth. Such a sovereignty, “all power in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), was indeed given to the Christ, but not after the fashion that men expected.
In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.(6) Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely.—The true King shall reign over a re-united people. The Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom, as well as the two of the Southern, should find in Him deliverance and peace.
Whereby he shall be called.—Literally, whereby one shall call him, the indefinite, almost impersonal active having the force of the English passive.
The Lord our Righteousness.—It is significant that in Jeremiah 33:16 the same name is given to Jerusalem. There it is clearly not, in logical language, the predicate of the city, but that which she takes as her watchword, and blazons, as it were, on her banner; and we cannot consistently press more than that meaning here. So in Ezekiel 48:35 the new name of Jerusalem is “Jehovah-shammah” (= the Lord is there). So in Exodus 17:15 Moses calls the altar which he builds “Jehovah-nissi” (= the Lord is my banner). The interpretation which sees in the words (1) the identification of the Messianic King with Jehovah, the Eternal, and (2) the doctrine of imputed righteousness, must accordingly be regarded as one of the applications of the words rather than their direct meaning. That meaning would seem to be that the King, the righteous Branch, will look to Jehovah as giving and working righteousness. Some commentators, indeed, refer the pronoun “he” to Israel, and not to the righteous Branch. We cannot forget that, at the very time when Jeremiah uttered this prophecy, a king was on the throne whose name (Zedekiah = righteous is Jehovah) implied the same thought. His reign had been a miserable failure, and the prophet looks forward to a time when the ideal, which was then far off, should at last be realised. If with many critics we refer the prediction to the reign of Jehoiakim (see Note on Jeremiah 23:1), we might almost see in Mattaniah’s adoption of the new name a boast that he was about to fulfil it. The Christ, we may say, answered to the name, not as being Himself one with Jehovah, though He was that, but as doing the Father’s will, and so fulfilling all righteousness (comp. Matthew 3:15).
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;(7) The days come, saith the Lord.—See Notes on Jeremiah 16:14-15, of which the words are almost verbally a reproduction. There, however, stress is laid chiefly on the fact of the exile, here on that of the restoration. The LXX. version omits them here, but inserts them, where they are obviously out of place, at the end of the chapter. It was fitting that they should be repeated here, as connecting the hope that had before been general with the personal reign of the “Branch” of the house of David.
Mine heart within me is broken because of the prophets; all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of the LORD, and because of the words of his holiness.(9) Mine heart within me is broken . . .—The abrupt transition shows that we are entering on an entirely new section. In the Hebrew order and punctuation of the words this is shown still more clearly—Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me—the first words being the superscription and title of what follows. The four clauses describe the varied phenomena of horror and amazement, and then comes the cause of the horror—the contrast between the words of Jehovah and His holiness on the one side, and the wickedness of priests and prophets on the other. The whole section is the complement of that which denounced the wickedness of the pastors—i.e., of the civil rulers—in Jeremiah 23:1-4.
For the land is full of adulterers; for because of swearing the land mourneth; the pleasant places of the wilderness are dried up, and their course is evil, and their force is not right.(10) The land is full of adulterers.—The context shows that the words must be taken literally, and not of the spiritual adultery of the worship of other Gods. The false prophets and their followers were personally profligates, like those of 2Peter 2:14. (Comp. Jeremiah 5:7-8; Jeremiah 29:23.)
Because of swearing.—Better, because of the curse—i.e., that which comes from Jehovah on account of the wickedness of the people.
Their course.—Literally, their running—i.e., their way or mode of life.
Their force is not right.—Literally, their might or their valour: that in which they exulted was might, not right.
For both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, saith the LORD.(11) In my house have I found their wickedness.—Prophet and priest are joined, as before (Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 6:13; Jeremiah 8:10), as playing into each other’s hands. It seems probable, from Jeremiah 32:34, that the sins of Ahaz and Manasseh had been repeated under Jehoiakim, and that the worship of other gods had been carried on side by side with that of Jehovah. With this, almost as its natural accompaniment, there may have been sins of another kind—shameless greed or yet more shameless profligacy—like those of the sons of Eli (1Samuel 2:22).
Wherefore their way shall be unto them as slippery ways in the darkness: they shall be driven on, and fall therein: for I will bring evil upon them, even the year of their visitation, saith the LORD.(12) Slippery ways . . . darkness . . . driven on.—The words and the thoughts flow in upon the prophet’s mind from Isaiah 8:22; Psalm 35:5-6.
And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria; they prophesied in Baal, and caused my people Israel to err.(13) I have seen folly . . .—Literally, as in Job 6:6, that which is unsavoury—i.e., insipid, and so, ethically, foolish. The guilt of the prophets of Samaria cannot be passed over, but it is noticed, as in Jeremiah 3:6-10, only in order to compare it with the darker evils of those of Judah and Jerusalem.
I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah.(14) They commit adultery, and walk in lies . . .—The union of the claim to prophesy in the name of Jehovah with these flagrant breaches of His law was more hateful in the prophet’s eyes even than the open recognition of Baal. In the terrible language of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10), prophets and people had become like the dwellers in the cities of the plain. Here, also, the language of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 29:23; Deuteronomy 32:32) probably influenced that of the prophet.
Therefore thus saith the LORD 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 is profaneness gone forth into all the land.(15) Wormwood . . . water of gall.—See Notes on Jeremiah 8:14; Jeremiah 9:15.
Profaneness.—The root-meaning of the Hebrew word is that of “veiling,” hence that of simulated holiness, or, as in the margin, “hypocrisy;” but the associations of the word attached to it the further sense of the hypocrisy that desecrates, so that “profaneness” is, on the whole, the best rendering. The corresponding concrete noun is rendered in Isaiah 9:17 by “hypocrite;” in Psalm 35:16 by “hypocritical mocker;” above, in Jeremiah 23:11, by “profane.”
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD.(16) They make you vain.—i.e., they befool, deceive you. As the next verse shows, they filled the people with vain hopes of peace. This was then, as always, the crucial test between the true prophet and the false. The one roused the conscience, caused pain and anger by his reproofs; the other soothed and quieted men with a false assurance (Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 14:13). They invented a vision which did not come to them from the mouth of Jehovah. (Comp. Deuteronomy 13:1-5.)
They say still unto them that despise me, The LORD hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you.(17) Imagination.—As before (Jeremiah 3:17 and elsewhere), stubbornness. The tendency of all that the false prophets uttered was to confirm the people in their sins, not to lead them to repentance. It is noticeable that the Hebrew verb for “hath said” is not the same as the received formula of the true prophets, “The Lord hath spoken.” The prophet seems to indicate in this way that those whom he condemns placed the Divine message on a level with a man’s every-day utterance. They were self-convicted by the very phrase they used.
For who hath stood in the counsel of the LORD, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it?(18) The counsel.—Better, perhaps, the council, the “assembly” of chosen friends with whom a man shares his secret plans. So in Jeremiah 6:11; Jeremiah 15:17; Psalm 89:7, “assembly.” Could any of the false prophets say that they had thus been called as into the privy council of Jehovah? (Comp. Amos 3:7; 1Kings 22:19-23.)
Behold, a whirlwind of the LORD is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked.(19) Behold, a whirlwind . . .—Better, Behold, the storm of Jehovah, wrath is gone forth, a whirling storm, upon the heads of the wicked shall it whirl down. The word translated “whirlwind” is properly more generic in its meaning (“tempest” in Isaiah 29:6). and gets its specific force here from the associated word rendered in the Authorised Version “grievous,” but rightly, as above, whirling.
The anger of the LORD shall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly.(20) Shall not return . . .—i.e., shall not turn back from its purpose. Men should look back on it in the “latter days”—literally, the end of the days (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; Deuteronomy 31:29), i.e., in the then distant future of the exile and the return—and should see that it had done its work both of chastisement and discipline. (Comp. Ezekiel 14:22-23.)
I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.(21) Yet they ran.—The image is that of messengers who rush eagerly, as from the king’s council-chamber, on their self-appointed mission, without waiting for the command of the Master in whose name they profess to come. (Comp. the question, “Who will go for us?” in Isaiah 6:8.)
But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.(22) If they had stood in my counsel.—Better, as before, council. The test of the true mission is seen in results. Are the people better or worse for the prophet’s work? What are the fruits of his teaching? (Comp. Matthew 7:20.) The question meets us, Is this always a test? Was Jeremiah’s own work successful in this sense? Must not the true teacher speak “whether they [men] will hear, or whether they will forbear?” (Ezekiel 2:5.) The answer is found (1) in the fact that true teaching seldom fails altogether of its work; (2) that where it seems to fail it satisfies the other test, and at least stirs and rouses men from lethargy, even if it stirs them to antagonism. It is never satisfied with speaking smooth things and acquiescing in the evil that surrounds it.
Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off?(23) Am I a God at hand . . .?—This and the two questions that follow are essentially the same in thought. The false prophets acted as if God were far away out of their sight (Psalm 10:11; Psalm 73:11; Psalm 94:7), not knowing or caring what men did, as if their affairs, as it has been epigrammatically said, came under a “colonial department.” The true prophet feels that He is equally near, equally God, in all places alike. Familiar as the word omnipresence is to us—so familiar as almost to have lost its power—the fact, when we realise it, is as awful now as it was when it presented itself to the souls of Patriarch, Psalmist, or Prophet. (Genesis 16:13; Psalm 32:6-7; Psalm 73:23-26; Psalm 139:7-12; Amos 9:2-4; Job 11:8-9.
I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed.(25) I have dreamed . . .—The words point to the form of the claim commonly made by the false prophets. Dreams took their place among the recognised channels of divine revelation (Genesis 40:8; Genesis 41:16; Joel 2:28; Daniel 7:1), but their frequent misuse by the false prophets brought them into discredit, and the teaching of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 accordingly brought the “dreamer of dreams” no less than the prophet to the test whether what he taught was in accordance with the law of Jehovah. The iteration of “I have dreamed” represents the affected solemnity with which the false prophets proclaimed their visions. Of the disparagement of dreams, consequent on this abuse, we have a striking example in Ecclesiastes 5:3, and later still in Ecclesiasticus 34:1-7.
How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart;(26) How long shall this be . . .?—The Hebrew text gives a double interrogative: How long? Is it in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, prophets of the deceit of their own hearts? Do they think to cause my people . . .? A conjectural alteration of the text gives “How long is the fire in the heart of the prophets . . .?” as if anticipating the thought of Jeremiah 23:29, and reproducing that of Jeremiah 20:9.
Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal.(27) As their fathers have forgotten . . .—The two evils of open idolatry and of false claims to prophecy stood, the prophet seems to say, on the same footing. The misuse of the name of Jehovah by the false prophets was as bad as the older worship of Baal and the prophesying in his name. (Comp. Jeremiah 23:13-14.)
The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the LORD.(28) Let him tell a dream.—The point of the words lies in the contrast between the real and the counterfeit revelation. Let the dreamer tell his dream as such, let the prophet speak the word of Jehovah truly, and then it will be seen that the one is as the chaff and stubble, and the other as the wheat—one worthless, the other sustaining life. What have they in common? What has one to do with the other?
Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?(29) Is not my word like as a fire? . . .—The prophet speaks out of the depths of his own experience. The true prophetic word burns in the heart of a man, and will not be restrained (Jeremiah 5:14; Jeremiah 20:9; Psalm 39:3), and when uttered it consumes the evil, and purifies the good. It will burn up the chaff of the utterances of the false prophets. (Comp. 1Corinthians 3:12-13.) As the hammer breaks the rock, so it shatters the pride and stubbornness of man, is mighty to the pulling down of strongholds (2Corinthians 10:4), and the heart of him who hears it as it should be heard is broken and contrite. What these words paint in the language of poetry, St. Paul describes without imagery in 1Corinthians 14:24-25. (Comp. also Hebrews 4:12.)
Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that steal my words every one from his neighbour.(30) That steal my words . . .—Another note of the counterfeit prophet is found in the want of any living personal originality. The oracles of the dreamers were patchworks of plagiarism, and they borrowed, not as men might do legitimately, and as Jeremiah himself did, from the words of the great teachers of the past, but from men of their own time, false and unreal as themselves. What we should call the “clique” of false prophets went on repeating each other’s phrases with a wearisome iteration. In “my words” we have, probably, the fact that, in part also, they decked out their teaching with the borrowed plumes of phrases from true prophets.
Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the LORD, that use their tongues, and say, He saith.(31) That use their tongues, and say, He saith.—Literally, that take their tongues. There is no adequate evidence for the marginal rendering “that smooth their tongues.” The scornful phrase indicates the absence of a true inspiration. These false prophets plan their schemes, and take their tongue as an instrument for carrying them into effect. The formula which they used, “He saith,” was not the word for common speaking, but that which indicated that the speaker was delivering an oracle from God. (See Note on Jeremiah 23:17.) Elsewhere the word is only used of God, but the prophet, in his stern irony, uses it of the false prophets, they say oracularly. This is an oracle.
Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the LORD, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD.(32) False dreams.—The words may mean either actual dreams, which have nothing answering to them in the world of facts, or dreams which are not really such, but simply, as in Jeremiah 23:31, the form in which the deceiver seeks to work out his plans.
By their lightness.—The Hebrew word is the same in meaning as the “unstable as water” of Genesis 49:4, the “light persons” of Judges 9:4; Zephaniah 3:4, and points primarily to the gushing or spurting forth of water. Here it points to what we may call the “babbling” of the false prophets. We are almost reminded of the words in which an English poet describes a hollow and pretentious eloquence as poured out—
“In one weak, washy, everlasting flood.”
Therefore . . .—Better, simply, and they shall not profit.
And when this people, or the prophet, or a priest, shall ask thee, saying, What is the burden of the LORD? thou shalt then say unto them, What burden? I will even forsake you, saith the LORD.(33) The burden of the Lord.—The English expresses the literal meaning of the word, “something lifted up, or borne.” It passed, however, as the English equivalent has done, through many shades of meaning, and became, in the language of the prophets, one of the received terms for a solemn, emphatic utterance. In 1Chronicles 15:22; 1Chronicles 15:27 it is applied to the chanted music of the Temple. Isaiah had brought it into use (see Note on Isaiah 13:1), and employs it twelve times as the title of special prophecies. Jeremiah never uses it of his own messages, probably, as this verse indicates, because it had become a favourite formula with the false prophets. This seems a more rational view than that which assumes that the false prophets applied the words in mockery to his utterances as being “burdens” in the ordinary sense of the word, oppressive and intolerable.
What burden?—The false prophets had come, not without a supercilious scorn, asking, with affected grandeur, what burden, what oracle Jeremiah had from Jehovah. He repeats their question with a deeper scorn, and tells them that for them the “burden” tells of exile and shame. A different division of the words of the prophet’s answer (which presents some exceptional grammatical difficulties) gives a rendering adopted by the LXX. and Vulgate, “Ye are the burden”—i.e., it is about you and for you.
I will even forsake you.—Better, I will cast you off, with a play upon the literal sense of the word “burden.” They have made themselves too grievous to be borne. Jehovah will disburden Himself of them.
And as for the prophet, and the priest, and the people, that shall say, The burden of the LORD, I will even punish that man and his house.(34) That shall say, The burden of the Lord.—The language thus put into the mouths of the false prophets is not that of derision, but of boastful assumption. It is for that the boaster will, in due time, be punished.
Thus shall ye say every one to his neighbour, and every one to his brother, What hath the LORD answered? and, What hath the LORD spoken?(35) Thus shall ye say . . .—The words are a protest against the high-sounding phrase, “This is the burden, the oracle of Jehovah.” This, with which the false prophets covered their teachings of lies, the prophet rejects, and he calls men back to the simpler terms, which were less open to abuse. The true prophet’s message was to be called an “answer” when men had come to him with questions—a “word of the Lord” when it was spoken to them without any previous inquiry.
And the burden of the LORD shall ye mention no more: for every man's word shall be his burden; for ye have perverted the words of the living God, of the LORD of hosts our God.(36) The burden of the Lord shall ye mention no more . . .—The misused term was no longer to be applied to the messages of Jehovah. If men continued to apply it to the words of their own heart, they would find it a “burden” in another sense (the prophet plays once more on the etymology of the word) too heavy to be borne. This would be the righteous punishment of the reckless levity with which they had treated the sacred Name which Jeremiah reproduces in all the amplitude of its grandeur. They had never realised the awfulness of speaking in the name “of the living God, the Lord of Sabaoth.”
Thus shalt thou say to the prophet, What hath the LORD answered thee? and, What hath the LORD spoken?(37) Thus shalt thou say to the prophet . . .—The verse repeats Jeremiah 23:35, with the one difference that men are to use this, the simpler form of language, when they come to the prophet, as well as when they are speaking one to another. The affectation of big words was equally out of place in either case. In modern phraseology, the whole passage is a protest against the hypocrisy which shows itself in cant—i.e., in the use of solemn words that have become hollow and unmeaning.
But since ye say, The burden of the LORD; therefore thus saith the LORD; Because ye say this word, The burden of the LORD, and I have sent unto you, saying, Ye shall not say, The burden of the LORD;(38) But since ye say.—Better, if ye say.
Therefore, behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you, and I will forsake you, and the city that I gave you and your fathers, and cast you out of my presence:(39) I, even I, will utterly forget you . . .—A very slight alteration in a single letter of the Hebrew verb gives a rendering which was followed by the LXX. and Vulgate, and is adopted by many modern commentators, and connects it with the root of the word translated “burden”—I will take you up as a burden, and cast you off. The words in italics, and cast you, in the latter clause have nothing corresponding to them in the Hebrew, but show that some at least of the translators felt that this was the true meaning of the words. This “everlasting reproach” was to be the outcome of these big swelling words of vanity in which they claimed prophetic inspiration.