The twenty-third chapter of Jeremiah’s prophecy begins with one of the more eye-brow-raising declarations from the mouth of God. “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:1). From the outset, it’s evident that God has exhausted his last reserves of patience for this bunch of woeful shepherds, as he indicts them for failing to live up to their title. To be a shepherd, of course, means you are one who tends to and cares for the sheep under your charge. These shepherds, though, did next to nothing in that regard. In fact, you might even say that they were “anti-shepherds,” since they had utterly failed to do any actual shepherding.
God says they had left his flock unattended (Jer. 23:1–2), causing his anger to boil at all the ways in which they had defaulted on their responsibility to provide for the spiritual nourishment of God’s people. The ante is upped, though, when all the divine attention turns to focus on “the prophets.” “Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me,” Jeremiah confesses, “all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and because of his holy words” (Jer. 23:9). The prophet’s heart is reeling. His insides shake as he receives the Word of the Lord he was called to proclaim. Why? Because he knew how holy Yahweh was and how utterly unholy Yahweh’s people were (Jer. 23:10). They had become like a cheating spouse. They were “adulterers,” in heart and in mind. They were a bunch of idolaters who had been led astray by “phony shepherds” and “lying prophets.” And if you’re really curious as to God’s thoughts about all this, he makes that quite clear in verses 11–15.
In God’s eyes, the “prophets of Jerusalem” were no better than the vile inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, the very people who were incinerated by the fires of heaven as a result of their shamelessness and debauchery. God says his people had become just like that. Those who were duly charged with leading the people of God in and according to the truth of God now found themselves in the crosshairs of God’s wrath. They had been singled out by a holy fury for all the ways in which they had punted on their God-given obligations. In turn, they had reaped nothing but disaster.
Jeremiah is often referred to as “the weeping prophet,” not only because his was a ministry filled with dread, but also because the people to whom he ministered were so far removed from where God had intended them to be. The undercurrent of his prophecy is the decadence of the people of God as they edged closer and closer to ruin. Exile was just around the corner, and, according to the word of the Lord, the blame for that was to fall squarely in the lap of these woeful shepherds and wayward prophets. The fault was theirs for leading the people astray (Jer. 23:1–2, 13, 32). And such is why God’s wrath was set to come down upon them. “Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly” (Jer. 23:19–20).
If it was not obvious already, it should be obvious by now that God is more than a little exasperated by those whom he had put in place to lead his people. Indeed, what streams from the prophet’s lips in chapter 23 is Yahweh’s pent-up anger at his people. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. These were deliberate, purposeful words, which, to be sure, the Lord took no delight in delivering. But these shepherds and prophets had tried God’s patience for far too long. Instead of leading God’s chosen people into more and more of the delights of God’s words and ways, they championed their own message, filling the people with nothing but “vain hopes” (Jer. 23:16–17). The “prophecies” of these supposed prophets were empty and meaningless because they spoke “not from the mouth of the Lord” but according to their own wisdom. God’s people were being led by a gaggle of shepherds and prophets who had abandoned the power of God in favor of their own fanciful dreams, which the Lord compares to straw (Jer. 23:25–29).
Their imagined messages were good for nothing. Their words were rubbish, like the husks of grain that get thrown away during the reaping. These woeful shepherds and wayward prophets were worthless because they proclaimed a worthless message, which only served to plunge God’s people back into the wilderness. This, I’d say, is counsel which the “church of today” needs desperately. John Henry Jowett thought so, too. Jowett, a British pastor and preacher who lived during the late-1800s and early-1900s, is considered by some to be “the greatest preacher in the English speaking world” during his day. In a series of lectures he once gave at Yale, he maintained that “the pulpit may be the centre of overwhelming power, and it may be the scene of tragic disaster” (145). Despite how old this analysis might be, it remains both trenchant for today and a succinct way to sum up Jeremiah 23.
In many ways, the modern American church finds itself in a very similar position as that of these shepherds and prophets, with folks being led by so-called “pastors and preachers” who aren’t really pastoring their people so much as leading them astray. They fill their congregants’ ears with the din of their own opinions and “visions of their own minds,” instead of the indefatigable truth of God’s Word. The pulpit has become the scene of sundry “dreams and disasters” in recent days, with pastors of all stripes saying downright preposterous things. From the whacky to the worthless, and everything in between, there’s no telling what you might get on any given Sunday depending on what kind of church you’ve decided to call home.
By way of example, I recently heard one so-called preacher (who I shan’t give the dignity of naming) repeatedly appeal to the Bible as he argued that conditions such as autism and OCD, and the like, were merely the result of demonic possession. The inference being, of course, that overcoming such things was as simple a matter as expelling the right demon. Another preacher recently posited that Jesus “transgendered himself” when he stooped down to wash the feet of his apostles the night before his crucifixion. I’m not even sure what that means, but my gut tells me it’s wrong. One well-known evangelical pastor recently said that “it doesn’t matter if the Bible is true, so long as it’s ‘mostly reliable.’” Another preacher said that if you were looking to practice the “gift of prophesying,” but you haven’t been able to hear from God yet, just go ahead and “make up a prophecy,” which sounds an awful like a campaign to “speak visions from your own mind.” We are encumbered with the chaff-filled messages of men’s own imaginations, which profit nothing and no one.
A preacher’s job is to open the Word and demonstrate from text after text how God has purposed from “before the foundation of the world” to “reconcile to himself all things” through the blood of his Son
I share such things neither to get you to chuckle at some of the absurd things that pastors say nor to exalt myself above them, as though I am the perfect preacher who preaches perfectly. Rather, I share those things with you for two reasons: (1) because this gets to the heart of my burden every time I preach; and (2) because this gets to the heart of God’s burden for this world of sinners. Every time I am afforded the opportunity to preach God’s Word, I carry with me the same burden — namely, to “to forget everything except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as the beloved Robert Capon put it (13). As I see it, a preacher’s job is to open the Word and demonstrate from text after text how God has purposed from “before the foundation of the world” to “reconcile to himself all things” through the blood of his Son (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8).
I am stubborn on that point — and happily so — mostly because I am certain that there’s no other message in the world that I truly need to hear except the one that talks of absolution and redemption. A church’s platform is all too easily treated as though it was nothing more than a personal “soapbox,” from which opinions and imaginations and dreams are spouted off as doctrine. But what good does that really do? Speaking to directly to preachers, Capon continues, “You were not sent to spout opinions they can dismiss. You were sent to proclaim the sharp, authentic Word to them — the Word who isn’t NutraSweet” (134). What good are my words compared to God’s? “What has straw in common with wheat?” (Jer. 23:28). Can a peanut really compare with a dry-aged porterhouse steak?
I still remember the first time I ate a Texas Roadhouse. At around 5 or 7 years of age, I was entirely fascinated by the notion that you could just throw your peanut shells anywhere you wanted. The troughs of peanuts ready for the taking was quite inviting, but the added entertainment came as I quickly learned that decorum didn’t matter as far as peanuts were concerned. Imagine, though, if I spent all my time at Texas Roadhouse shelling and de-skinning peanuts without ever actually eating the nut? What benefit would that serve? What good would that do? Other than providing a brief distraction? Indeed, what if I only ever consumed the peanuts and never sat down to eat a steak? Such is what God says it’s like when preachers don’t exalt him or his Word.
My words are peanuts compared to the porterhouse of God’s Word. If all I ever did was offer my opinions when behind the pulpit, that would be roughly as profitable and beneficial as a floor covered in peanut shells. As the Lord himself declares, he’s “against” anyone who resorts to pumping out “sermons of straw” instead of his Word: “Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who use their tongues and declare, “declares the Lord.” Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:30–32).
The burden of preaching is one that ought to be taken seriously because God takes his Word and those who are responsible for preaching it very seriously. Why else do you think he spends an entire book meticulously detailing all the ways in which he desired to be worshiped (e.g., Leviticus)? The God of Heaven is very concerned with the ways in which his earthlings worship him — so much so, in fact, that he purposes to rectify the blunders of every woeful shepherd and wayward prophet himself. “Behold,” he declares, “I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then 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” (Jer. 23:2–3).
There’s nothing more important, more necessary, more urgent in our day than the fervent declaration of God’s Word as the only and the ultimate source of grace and truth.
The Lord promises that his scattered flock will one day be re-gathered, with every far-off sheep brought “back to their fold” and every unattended lamb found and numbered (Jer. 23:4). All of this, and more, will be accomplished by the Lord’s “Righteous Branch” (Jer. 23:5–7), which, of course, is nothing but a divine nickname for “The Lord Our Righteousness,” our Savior, the Christ of God. He is the true and better Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11–18). He is the One who purposes to make right every wrong perpetuated by these wicked shepherds and prophets. And such is the church’s message.
The only kind of preaching that saves souls and changes lives is the kind that gives every ounce of attention to “The Lord Our Righteousness.” The burden of the pulpit is to be the place where burdened souls are unburdened through the proclamation of the news that the God of all grace has himself absorbed every burden of every sinner ever. Clinging to the belief that “all Scripture is pure Christ,” as Martin Luther maintained, isn’t some passing fad or cute gimmick. It’s the lifeblood of the redeemed. There’s nothing more important, more necessary, more urgent in our day than the fervent declaration of God’s Word as the only and the ultimate source of grace and truth.