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)!