Click here for the reading: Jeremiah 23:5-8.

Zedekiah deluded himself into thinking that he could fight against Nebuchadnezzar.  Even though the Babylonian king had given him his throne (2 Kings 24), he wanted to be a king in his own right, not dependent on another.  Therefore, he sent messengers to Jeremiah in chapter 21 to confirm his delusion with a word from the Lord.  Yet what is Jeremiah’s response in chapters 21-22?  How was Zedekiah different from his father Josiah?  What makes a true king in the eyes of the Lord: power or righteousness?  Compare also Zedekiah’s refusal to listen in Jeremiah 27:12-15 with the stubbornness of Israel in Numbers 14:39-45.

Zedekiah’s sin tried to seek political solutions to his problems.  He was seeking to gain power through military means and throw off the problem of Babylon through his own power.  Yet how often do people today seek similar manmade solutions to their own common problems!  Where do people most often seek political solutions in their lives?  However, do they try to keep politics out of other parts?  Why?  What’s the difference between them?  Consider also Joshua 9 and how a failure to seek the Lord in political issues leads even God-fearing men astray.

Jeremiah announces to the king that the house of David will be cut off, but not entirely.  The faithlessness of men has led to the present situation with Babylon.  Even faithless Zedekiah is not living up to his name, which means “The Lord is my righteousness,” since he has scattered the sheep of God!  Yet how will the coming King be different from the faithless sons of David?  What does it mean for God to be faithful when men are continually faithless?  How does a passage like Psalm 146 speak to our own situation?

This passage speaks of the coming King in political and military terms, which makes a rather stark contrast to Jesus who declared that His kingdom is not of this world.  Yet in what ways is Jesus the fulfillment of even the political promises of the Scriptures?  In an age which is continually seeking to make a better tomorrow, how does King Jesus give us a true hope for the future, even in national and political terms?  Compare also the promises of victory over threatening armies in passages like Isaiah 7 and Micah 5.

Advent is a season of expectation, and this passage from Jeremiah also teaches us about the glory of what is to come.  The glory of what God has done in the past will give way to the greater glory of what He will do for His people.  How does the return from exile surpass the Exodus in glory?  How does Christ coming in the flesh surpass the return from exile?  How will the Second Coming be the most glorious act of God?  How is this progressive glory in what God does a comfort for His people?  Compare also the hope of 1 Corinthians 15 and the comfort of what God will do for His people.

The Old Testament pericope for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity ends too soon.  Because Jeremiah 7:1-11 is the beginning of a longer passage, cutting it off there can lend itself to misunderstanding.  Pericopes, of course, are not meant to be long, but the books of the Bible are books and not collections of unrelated passages.  It would be better to extend the reading at least as far as verse 20, because then a larger portion of the thought of this section is presented rather than just its beginning.

The Lord commands Jeremiah to “stand in the gate of the Lord’s house” (Jeremiah 7:2).  In that position, men entering the temple grounds would not be able to avoid him.  Jeremiah is not preaching to irreligious men, but to those who continue to perform everything which the Lord commands outwardly.  They are coming to the temple because they seek to follow a law of works rather than a law of faith (Romans 3:27).  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him” (James 2:14)?

Therefore, the call to “amend your ways and your deeds” is not a cry to those who have never known God.  This is one of the dangers of shortening this reading.  Rather, there is a disparity between the profession and the reality.  They claim to be Abraham’s sons, but in reality are far from the Lord (Romans 2:28; Matthew 15:7-9).  This is, of course, a common theme in the prophets (Hosea 6:6, for example).  Carnal unbelievers want to make grace a pretext for sin (Romans 6:1).  One way to translate Jeremiah 7:10 shows this clearly:  “‘We are delivered’, in order to do all these abominations.”  Christians also struggle with sin (Romans 7:22-23), but Jeremiah rebukes those who have ceased to follow the Lord except outwardly.

The threefold repetition of “the temple of the Lord” only emphasizes the problem.  Jeremiah does repeat himself in this way in other places (Jeremiah 22:29), but the carnal men who say this are using it in a magical way.  It is an incantation of sorts, because it takes the real promises of God and perverts them into something other than their actual meaning.  Instead of walking in the ways of the Lord who redeemed them, they cover their lawlessness with His promises.  God will not send us away, because He made a promise to us!  God will not destroy us, because we are baptized!  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; see also Matthew 3:9; Micah 2:6).

Jeremiah 7:12-15 should not be overlooked.  Shiloh was the first location of the tent of meeting once Israel entered Canaan (Joshua 18:1).  Even down to the birth of Samuel, this was the location where God made His name to dwell (1 Samuel 1:3).  But Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, brought down judgment through their sin and their abuse of the ark (1 Samuel 4:3-11).  Therefore, the Lord rejected Shiloh (Psalm 78:60-61).  If He rejected the dwelling place of His tabernacle because of sin, why would the temple be any different?  The Lord was not any less present at Shiloh than at Jerusalem, yet the sin of His people brought down judgment.

Jeremiah 7:16-20 brings a major thought of this section to a close.  The Lord rejected Shiloh because of sin, and the Lord will reject His temple for the same reason.  Jeremiah must not intercede for this people, because they persist in their guilt to their own shame.  Nor is this a case of a few individuals who leaven the whole lump:  “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger” (Jeremiah 7:18).  The whole mass of Israel stand guilty of idolatry, even in something as seemingly innocuous as gathering sticks.  Degrees of guilt may exist among them, but all stand accused, even down to those not directly participating in false worship.  Sin is never so neatly subdivided.  All men are sinners, after all, because of the transgression of one man (Romans 5:12).

Therefore, Jeremiah is not moralizing here.  The call to do what is right is meant to show the wickedness of being double-minded, limping between two ways.  Nor is it a generic rebuke of sin.  Rather, it is specifically against those who cover the blood on their hands with a false piety.  Jeremiah speaks against those who turn God’s grace into license, justification of the sinner into justification for sin, whitewashing tombs.  If the Lord destroyed the temple twice, do you think that He will overlook the unrepentant sins of those who claim to be in Christ?

Jeremiah is never one to mince words.  He speaks against the kings of Judah and announces that their house will be broken.  Even if Jehoiakim were “the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off” (Jeremiah 22:24).  Jeremiah 23 also begins with a diatribe against the shepherds.  While it is certainly possible that he speaks against the priests and religious authorities (cf. Ezekiel 34, for example), the shepherds are set in contrast to “the prophets” in Jeremiah 23:9.  These shepherds are therefore likely another reference to the kings of Judah.  The promise of the righteous Branch, that is, Christ, in Jeremiah 23:5-8 strengthens this, because the Branch “shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5), not exactly priestly functions.

However, the prophets are no less failing in the exercise of their office.  Jeremiah says that “In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray” (Jeremiah 23:13).  A prophet of a false religion is an “unsavory” thing, sometimes translated simply as “wrong” (Job 1:22; 24:12).  The word itself seems to mean “lacking salt, being tasteless,” since a related form is used in Job 6:6 and Lamentations 2:14 (“deceptive” in the ESV).  Therefore false prophets are bland and tasteless, unpalatable, but by no means guiltless or harmless.  “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matthew 5:13).

But the prophets in Judah are doing something far worse.  “But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14).  Their deeds are “horrible” (also in Jeremiah 5:30), and this word shares the same root with a word translated “vile” in Jeremiah 29:17.  If the deeds of the prophets of false gods are unpalatable and bland, the deeds of the prophets of Jerusalem are vile and rotten, completely inedible.  “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48).  Better is the day of judgment for the prophet of a false god than for the one who claims to serve the living God!

Therefore, the Lord speaks against these false prophets in the reading for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.  Such prophets do not speak the Word of the Lord, but the vain fancies of their own minds.  Coupled with their godless life is calling good evil and evil good.  “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jeremiah 23:17).  False teaching shows itself primarily in going against what God has said, declaring that God is not angry with this or that sin or that something is in fact not a sin.  That God does not punish sexual sins, especially homosexuality, adultery, and divorce, seems to be the favorite in these days.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).  “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).  Hard words?  Of course.  But the consequences are too great to not speak them in their full hardness:  “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  False prophets are no joke.

These false teachers also have an urgency about them, because they know that their time is short.  “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).  They have a desire to be heard for their own sake, as if the Church needed them.  God’s Church will be somehow sorely lacking if their “unique perspective” or “deep insights” forged in the depths of sin cannot be heard.  “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 12-13).  Let me be clear.  God needs no one to carry out His work on earth.  When our appointed time is over, the Church will go on, because she belongs to God.  The ministry is not a right and no one is entitled to it.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2).

The Lord emphasizes that He will bring justice upon the prophets because of their sins.  But He also includes a strong commission for those who are indeed faithful.  “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28).  As Paul says, the Day of Judgment will reveal what sort of work each one builds upon the foundation of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Straw is useful only for being trodden underfoot or thrown into the fire, but the wheat will be gathered into the barns (Matthew 3:12).  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).  Pastors would do well to heed the many warnings of Scripture about their great and awesome task, but they should also remember that Christ is with them and that the Holy Spirit uses them as the instruments of the living Word.  It is not their word, but His.

Finally, the Lord says:  “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29).  A magnificent word, deserving of being impressed upon the memory!  God’s Word is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).  It is the imperishable seed (1 Peter 1:23) able to make wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15)!  God’s Word is not merely words, but the living voice of the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and through the mouths of the prophets (2 Peter 1:21).  It will never return void (Isaiah 55:10-11).  It is not a plaything for us to mishandle, but the chart and compass leading toward the Lord.  May we receive it eagerly (Acts 17:11)!