BAD SHEPHERDS AND FALSE PROPHETS
Jeremiah 23:1-40, Jeremiah 24:1-10
"Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!"- Jeremiah 23:1
"Of what avail is straw instead of Grain?is not My word like fire, like a hammer that shattereth the rocks?"- Jeremiah 23:28-29
THE captivity of Jehoiachin and the deportation of the flower of the people marked the opening of the last scene in the tragedy of Judah and of a new period in the ministry of Jeremiah. These events, together with the accession of Zedekiah as Nebuchadnezzar’s nominee, very largely altered the state of affairs in Jerusalem. And yet the two main features of the situation were unchanged-the people and the government persistently disregarded Jeremiah’s exhortations. "Neither Zedekiah, nor his servants, nor the people of the land, did hearken unto the words of Jehovah which He spake by the prophet Jeremiah." [Jeremiah 37:2] They would not obey the will of Jehovah as to their life and worship; and they would not submit to Nebuchadnezzar. "Zedekiah did evil in the sight of Jehovah, according to all that Jehoiakim had done; and Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon." [2 Kings 24:18-20]
It is remarkable that though Jeremiah consistently urged submission to Babylon, the various arrangements made by Nebuchadnezzar did very little to improve the prophet’s position or increase his influence. The Chaldean king may have seemed ungrateful only because he was ignorant of the services rendered to him-Jeremiah would not enter into direct and personal cooperation with the enemy of his country, even with him whom Jehovah had appointed to be the scourge of His disobedient people-but the Chaldean policy served Nebuchadnezzar as little as it profited Jeremiah. Jehoiakim, in spite of his forced submission, remained the able and determined foe of his suzerain, and Zedekiah, to the best of his very limited ability, followed his predecessor’s example.
Zedekiah was uncle of Jehoiachin, half-brother of Jehoiakim, and own brother to Jehoahaz. Possibly the two brothers owed their bias against Jeremiah and his teaching to their mother, Josiah’s wife Hamutal, the daughter of another Jeremiah, the Libnite. Ezekiel thus describes the appointment of the new king: "The king of Babylon took one of the seed royal, and made a covenant with him; he also put him under an oath, and took away the mighty of the land: that the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his covenant it might stand." [Ezekiel 17:13-14] Apparently Nebuchadnezzar was careful to choose a feeble prince for his "base kingdom"; all that we read of Zedekiah suggests that he was weak and incapable. Henceforth the sovereign counted for little in the internal struggles of the tottering state. Josiah had firmly maintained the religious policy of Jeremiah, and Jehoiakim, as firmly, the opposite policy; but Zedekiah had neither the strength nor the firmness to enforce a consistent policy and to make one party permanently dominant. Jeremiah and his enemies were left to fight it out amongst themselves, so that now their antagonism grew more bitter and pronounced than during any other reign.
But whatever advantage the prophet might derive from the weakness of the sovereign was more than counterbalanced by the recent deportation. In selecting the captives Nebuchadnezzar had sought merely to weaken Judah by carrying away every one who would have been an element of strength to the "base kingdom." Perhaps he rightly believed that neither the prudence of the wise nor the honour of the virtuous would overcome their patriotic hatred of subjection; weakness alone would guarantee the obedience of Judah. He forgot that even weakness is apt to be foolhardy when there is no immediate prospect of penalty.
One result of his policy was that the enemies and friends of Jeremiah were carried away indiscriminately; there was no attempt to leave behind those who might have counselled submission to Babylon as the acceptance of a Divine judgment, and thus have helped to keep Judah loyal to its foreign master. On the contrary Jeremiah’s disciples were chiefly thoughtful and honourable men, and Nebuchadnezzar’s policy in taking away "the mighty of the land" bereft the prophet of many friends and supporters, amongst them his disciple Ezekiel and doubtless a large class of whom Daniel and his three friends might be taken as types. When Jeremiah characterises the captives as "good figs," and those left behind as "bad figs," (chapter 24) and the judgment is confirmed and amplified by Ezekiel, (chapters 7-11) we may be sure that most of the prophet’s adherents were in exile.
We have already had occasion to compare the changes in the religious policy of the Jewish government to the alternations of Protestant and Romanist sovereigns among the Tudors; but no Tudor was as feeble as Zedekiah. He may rather be compared to Charles IX of France, helpless between the Huguenots and the League. Only the Jewish factions were less numerous, less evenly balanced; and by the speedy advance of Nebuchadnezzar civil dissensions were merged in national ruin.
The opening years of the new reign passed in nominal allegiance to Babylon. Jeremiah’s influence would be used to induce the vassal king to observe the covenant he had entered into and to be faithful to his oath to Nebuchadnezzar. On the other hand a crowd of "patriotic" prophets urged Zedekiah to set up once more the standard of national independence, to "come to the help of the Lord against the mighty." Let us then briefly consider Jeremiah’s polemic against the princes, prophets, and priests of his people. While Ezekiel in a celebrated chapter (chapter 8) denounces the idolatry of the princes, priests, and women of Judah, their worship of creeping things and abominable beasts, their weeping for Tammuz, their adoration of the sun, Jeremiah is chiefly concerned with the perverse policy of the government and the support it receives from priests and prophets, who profess to speak in the name of Jehovah. Jeremiah does not utter against Zedekiah any formal judgment like those on his three predecessors. Perhaps the prophet did not regard this impotent sovereign as the responsible representative of the state, and when the long-expected catastrophe at last befell the doomed people, neither Zedekiah nor his doings distracted men’s attention from their own personal sufferings and patriotic regrets. At the point where a paragraph on Zedekiah would naturally have followed that on Jehoiachin, we have by way of summary and conclusion to the previous sections a brief denunciation of the shepherds of Israel.
"Woe unto die shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of My Pasture!
Ye have scattered My flock, and driven them away, and have not cared for them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings."
These "shepherds" are primarily the kings, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, who have been condemned by name in the previous chapter, together with the unhappy Zedekiah, who is too insignificant to be mentioned. But the term shepherds will also include the ruling and influential classes of which the king was the leading representative.
The image is a familiar one in the Old Testament and is found in the oldest literature of Israel, [Genesis 49:24] J. from older source. [Micah 5:5] but the denunciation of the rulers of Judah as unfaithful shepherds is characteristic of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and one of the prophecies appended to the Book of Zechariah. (Chapters 9-11, Zechariah 13:7-9.) Ezekiel 34:1-31 expands this figure and enforces its lessons:-
"Woe unto the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool. Ye kill the fatlings: but ye feed not the sheep. The diseased have ye not strengthened, Neither have ye healed the sick, Neither have ye bound up the bruised, Neither have ye brought back again that which was driven away, Neither have ye sought for that which was lost, But your rule over them has been harsh and violent, And for want of a shepherd they were scattered, And became food for every beast of the field." [Ezekiel 34:2-3]
So in Zechariah 9:1-17, etc., Jehovah’s anger is kindled against the shepherds, because they do not pity His flock. [Zechariah 10:3; Zechariah 11:5] Elsewhere [Jeremiah 25:34-38] Jeremiah speaks of the kings of all nations as shepherds, and pronounces against them also a like doom. All these passages illustrate the concern of the prophets for good government. They were neither Pharisees nor formalists; their religious ideals were broad and wholesome. Doubtless the elect remnant will endure through all conditions of society; but the Kingdom of God was not meant to be a pure Church in a rotten state. This present evil world is no manure heap to fatten the growth of holiness: it is rather a mass for the saints to leaven.
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel turn from the unfaithful shepherds whose "hungry sheep look up and are not fed" to the true King of Israel, the "Shepherd of Israel that led Joseph like a flock, and dwelt between the Cherubim." In the days of the Restoration He will raise up faithful shepherds, and over them a righteous Branch, the real Jehovah Zidqenu, instead of the sapless twig who disgraced the name "Zedekiah." Similarly Ezekiel promises that God will set up one shepherd over His people, "even My servant David." The pastoral care of Jehovah for His people is most tenderly and beautifully set forth in the twenty-third Psalm. Our Lord, the root and the offspring of David, claims to be the fulfilment of ancient prophecy when He calls Himself "the Good Shepherd." The words of Christ and of the Psalmist receive new force and fuller meaning when we contrast their pictures of the true Shepherd with the portraits of the Jewish kings drawn by the prophets. Moreover the history of this metaphor warns us against ignoring the organic life of the Christian society, the Church, in our concern for the spiritual life of the individual. As Sir Thomas More said, in applying this figure to Henry VIII, "Of the multitude of sheep cometh the name of a shepherd." A shepherd implies not merely a sheep, but a flock; His relation to each member is tender and personal, but He bestows blessings and requires service in fellowship with the Family of God.
By a natural sequence the denunciation of the unfaithful shepherds is followed by a similar utterance "concerning the prophets." It is true that the prophets are not spoken of as shepherds; and Milton’s use of the figure in "Lycidas" suggests the New Testament rather than the Old. Yet the prophets had a large share in guiding the destinies of Israel in politics as well as in religion, and having passed sentence on the shepherds-the kings and princes-Jeremiah turns to the ecclesiastics, chiefly, as the heading implies, to the prophets. The priests indeed do not escape, but Jeremiah seems to feel that they are adequately dealt with in two or three casual references. We use the term "ecclesiastics" advisedly; the prophets were now a large professional class, more important and even more clerical than the priests. The prophets and priests together were the clergy of Israel. They claimed to be devoted servants of Jehovah, and for the most part the claim was made in all sincerity; but they misunderstood His character, and mistook for Divine inspiration the suggestions of their own prejudice and self-will.
Jeremiah’s indictment against them has various counts. He accuses them of speaking without authority, and also of time serving, plagiarism, and cant.
First, then, as to their unauthorised utterances: Jeremiah finds them guilty of an unholy license in prophesying, a distorted caricature of that "liberty of prophesying" which is the prerogative of God’s accredited ambassadors.
"Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you.
They make fools of you:
The visions which they declare are from their own hearts,
And not from the mouth of Jehovah.
Who hath stood in the council of Jehovah,
To perceive and hear His word?
Who hath marked His word and heard it?
I sent not the prophets-yet they ran;
I spake not unto them-yet they prophesied."
The evils which Jeremiah describes are such as will always be found in any large professional class. To use modern terms-in the Church, as in every profession, there will be men who are not qualified for the vocation which they follow. They are indeed not called to their vocation; they "follow," but do not overtake it. They are not sent of God, yet they run; they have no Divine message, yet they preach. They have never stood in the council of Jehovah; they might perhaps have gathered up scraps of the King’s purposes from His true councillors; but when they had opportunity they neither "marked nor heard"; and yet they discourse concerning heavenly things with much importance and assurance. But their inspiration, at its best, has no deeper or richer source than their own shallow selves; their visions are the mere product of their own imaginations. Strangers to the true fellowship, their spirit is not "a well of water springing up unto eternal life," but a stagnant pool. And, unless the judgment and mercy of God intervene, that pool will in the end be fed from a fountain whose bitter waters are earthly, sensual, devilish.
We are always reluctant to speak of ancient prophecy or modern preaching as a "profession." We may gladly dispense with the word, if we do not thereby ignore the truth which it inaccurately expresses. Men lived by prophecy, as, with Apostolic sanction, men live by "the gospel." They were expected, as ministers are now, though in a less degree, to justify their claims to an income and an official status, by discharging religious functions so as to secure the approval of the people or the authorities. Then, as now, the prophet’s reputation, influence, and social standing, probably even his income, depended upon the amount of visible success that he could achieve.
In view of such facts, it is futile to ask men of the world not to speak of the clerical life as a profession. They discern no ethical difference between a curate’s dreams of a bishopric and the aspirations of a junior barrister to the woolsack. Probably a refusal to recognise the element common to the ministry with law, medicine, and other professions, injures both the Church and its servants. One peculiar difficulty and most insidious temptation of the Christian ministry consists in its mingled resemblances to and differences from the other professions. The minister has to work under similar worldly conditions, and yet to control those conditions by the indwelling power of the Spirit. He has to "run," it may be twice or even three times a week, whether he be sent or no: how can he always preach only that which God has taught him? He is consciously dependent upon the exercise of his memory, his intellect, his fancy: how can he avoid speaking "the visions of his own heart"? The Church can never allow its ministers to regard themselves as mere professional teachers and lecturers, and yet if they claim to be more, must they not often fall under Jeremiah’s condemnation?
It is one of those practical dilemmas which delight casuists and distress honest and earnest servants of God. In the early Christian centuries similar difficulties peopled the Egyptian and Syrian deserts with ascetics, who had given up the world as a hopeless riddle. A full discussion of the problem would lead us too far away from the exposition of Jeremiah and we will only venture to make two suggestions.
The necessity, which most ministers are under, of "living by the gospel," may promote their own spiritual life and add to their usefulness. It corrects and reduces spiritual pride, and helps them to understand and sympathise with their lay brethren, most of whom are subject to a similar trial.
Secondly, as a minister feels the ceaseless pressure of strong temptation to speak from and live for himself-his lower, egotistic self-he will be correspondingly driven to a more entire and persistent surrender to God. The infinite fulness and variety of Revelation is expressed by the manifold gifts and experience of the prophets. If only the prophet be surrendered to the Spirit, then what is most characteristic of himself may become the most forcible expression of his message. His constant prayer will be that he may have the child’s heart and may never resist the Holy Ghost, that no personal interest or prejudice, no bias of training or tradition or current opinion, may dull his hearing when he stands in the council of the Lord, or betray him into uttering for Christ’s gospel the suggestions of his own self-will or the mere watchwords of his ecclesiastical faction.
But to return to the ecclesiastics who had stirred Jeremiah’s wrath. The professional prophets naturally adapted their words to the itching ears of their clients. They were not only officious, but also time serving. Had they been true prophets, they would have dealt faithfully with Judah; they would have sought to convince the people of sin, and to lead them to repentance; they would thus have given them yet another opportunity of salvation.
"If they had stood in My council,
They would have caused My people to hear My words;
They would have turned them from their evil way,
And from the evil of their doings."
"They walk in lies and strengthen the hands of evildoers,
That no one may turn away from his sin.
They say continually unto them that despise the word of Jehovah,
Ye shall have peace;
And unto every one that walketh in the stubbornness of his heart they say,
No evil shall come upon you."
Unfortunately, when prophecy becomes professional in the lowest sense of the word, it is governed by commercial principles. A sufficiently imperious demand calls forth an abundant supply. A sovereign can "tune the pulpits"; and a ruling race can obtain from its clergy formal ecclesiastical sanction for such "domestic institutions" as slavery. When evildoers grow numerous and powerful, there will always be prophets to strengthen their hands and encourage them not to turn away from their sin. But to give the lie to these false prophets God sends Jeremiahs, who are often branded as heretics and schismatics, turbulent fellows who turn the world upside down.
The self-important, self-seeking spirit leads further to the sin of plagiarism:-
"Therefore I am against the prophets, is the utterance of Jehovah,
Who steal My word from one another."
The sin of plagiarism is impossible to the true prophet, partly because there are no rights of private property in the word of Jehovah. The Old Testament writers make free use of the works of their predecessors. For instance, Isaiah 2:2-4 is almost identical with Micah 4:1-3; yet neither author acknowledges his indebtedness to the other or to any third prophet. Uriah ben Shemaiah prophesied acording to all the words of Jeremiah, [Jeremiah 26:20] who himself owes much to Hosea, whom he never mentions. Yet he was not conscious of stealing from his predecessor, and he would have brought no such charge against Isaiah or Micah or Uriah. In the New Testament 2 Peter and Jude have so much in common that one must have used the other without acknowledgment. Yet the Church has not, on that ground, excluded either Epistle from the Canon. In the goodly fellowship of the prophets and the glorious company of the apostles no man says that the things which he utters are his own. But the mere hireling has no part in the spiritual communism wherein each may possess all things because he claims nothing. When a prophet ceases to be the messenger of God, and sinks into the mercenary purveyor of his own clever sayings and brilliant fancies, then he is tempted to become a clerical Autolycus, "a snapper up of unconsidered trifles." Modern ideas furnish a curious parallel to Jeremiah’s indifference to the borrowings of the true prophet, and his scorn of the literary pilferings of the false. We hear only too often of stolen sermons, but no one complains of plagiarism in prayers. Doubtless among these false prophets charges of plagiarism were bandied to and fro with much personal acrimony. But it is interesting to notice that Jeremiah is not denouncing an injury done to himself; he does not accuse them of thieving from him, but from one another. Probably assurance and lust of praise and power would have overcome any awe they felt for Jeremiah. He was only free from their depredations, because-from their point of view-his words were not worth stealing. There was nothing to be gained by repeating his stern denunciations, and even his promises were not exactly suited to the popular taste.
These prophets were prepared to cater for the average religious appetite in the most approved fashion-in other words, they were masters of cant. Their office had been consecrated by the work of true men of God like Elijah and Isaiah. They themselves claimed to stand in the genuine prophetic succession, and to inherit the reverence felt for their great predecessors, quoting their inspired utterances and adopting their weighty phrases. As Jeremiah’s contemporaries listened to one of their favourite orators, they were soothed by his assurances of Divine favour and protection, and their confidence in the speaker was confirmed by the frequent sound of familiar formulae in his unctuous sentences. These had the true ring; they were redolent of sound doctrine, of what popular tradition regarded as orthodox.
The solemn attestation NE’UM YAHWE, "It is the utterance of Jehovah," is continually appended to prophecies, almost as if it were the sign manual of the Almighty. Isaiah and other prophets frequently use the term MASSA (A.V., R.V., "burden") as a title, especially for prophecies concerning neighbouring nations. The ancient records loved to tell how Jehovah revealed Himself to the patriarchs in dreams. Jeremiah’s rivals included dreams in their clerical apparatus:-
"Behold, I am against them that prophesy lying dreams-Ne’um Yahwe-
And tell them, and lead astray My people
By their lies and their rodomontade;
It was not I who sent or commanded them,
Neither shall they profit this people at all, Ne’um Yahwe."
These prophets "thought to cause the Lord’s people to forget His name, as their fathers forgot His name for Baal, by their dreams which they told one another."
Moreover they could glibly repeat the sacred phrases as part of their professional jargon:-
"Behold, I am against the prophets,
It is the utterance of Jehovah,
That use their tongues
To utter utterances"
"To utter utterances"-the prophets uttered them, not Jehovah. These sham oracles were due to no Diviner source than the imagination of foolish hearts. But for Jeremiah’s grim earnestness, the last clause would be almost blasphemous. It is virtually a caricature of the most solemn formula of ancient Hebrew religion. But this was really degraded when it was used to obtain credence for the lies which men prophesied out of the deceit of their own heart. Jeremiah’s seeming irreverence was the most forcible way of bringing this home to his hearers. There are profanations of the most sacred things which can scarcely be spoken of without an apparent breach of the Third Commandment. The most awful taking in vain of the name of the Lord God is not heard among the publicans and sinners, but in pulpits and on the platforms of religious meetings.
But these prophets and their clients had a special fondness for the phrase "The burden of Jehovah," and their unctuous use of it most especially provoked Jeremiah’s indignation:-
"When this people priest, or prophet shall ask thee,
What is the burden of Jehovah?
Then say unto them, Ye are the burden.
But I will cast you off, Neum Yahwe.
If priest or prophet or people shall say,
The burden of Jehovah, I will punish that man and his house."
"And ye shall say to one another,
What hath Jehovah answered? and,
What hath Jehovah spoken?
And ye shall no more make mention of the burden of Jehovah:
For (if ye do) men’s words shall become a burden to themselves.
Thus shall ye inquire of a prophet,
What hath Jehovah answered thee?
What hath Jehovah spoken unto thee?
But if ye say, The burden of Jehovah,
Thus saith Jehovah: Because ye say this word, The burden of Jehovah.
When I have sent unto you the command,
Ye shall not say, The burden of Jehovah,
Therefore I will assuredly take you up,
And will cast away from before Me both you
And the city which I gave to you and to your fathers.
I will bring upon you everlasting reproach
And everlasting shame, that shall not be forgotten."
Jeremiah’s insistence and vehemence speak for themselves. Their moral is obvious, though for the most part unheeded. The most solemn formulae, hallowed by ancient and sacred associations, used by inspired teachers as the vehicle of revealed truths, may be debased till they become the very legend of Antichrist, blazoned on the Vexilla Regis Inferni. They are like a motto of one of Charles’ Paladins flaunted by his unworthy descendants to give distinction to cruelty and vice. The Church’s line of march is strewn with such dishonoured relics of her noblest champions. Even our Lord’s own words have not escaped. There is a fashion of discoursing upon "the gospel" which almost tempts reverent Christians to wish they might never hear that word again. Neither is this debasing of the moral currency confined to religious phrases; almost every political and social watchword has been similarly abused. One of the vilest tyrannies the world has ever seen-the Reign of Terror-claimed to be an incarnation of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity."
Yet the Bible, with that marvellous catholicity which lifts it so high above the level of all other religious literature, not only records Jeremiah’s prohibition to use the term "Burden," but also tells us that centuries later Malachi could still speak of "the burden of the word of Jehovah." A great phrase that has been discredited by misuse may yet recover itself; the tarnished and dishonoured sword of faith may be baptised and burnished anew, and flame in the forefront of the holy war.
Jeremiah does not stand alone in his unfavourable estimate of the professional prophets of Judah; a similar depreciation seems to be implied by the words of Amos: "I am neither a prophet nor of the sons of prophets." One of the unknown authors whose writings have been included in the Book of Zechariah takes up the teaching of Amos and Jeremiah and carries it a stage further:-
"In that day (it is the utterance of Jehovah Sabaoth) I will cut off the names of the idols from the land,
They shall not be remembered any more;
Also the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness
Will I expel from the land.
When any shall yet prophesy, His father and mother that begat him shall say unto him,
Thou shalt not live, for thou speakest lies in the name of Jehovah":
"And his father and mother that begat him shall
Thrust him through when he prophesieth.
In that day every prophet when he prophesieth
Shall be ashamed of his vision;
Neither shall any wear a hairy mantle to deceive:
He shall say, I am no prophet;
I am a tiller of the ground,
I was sold for a slave in my youth."
No man with any self-respect would allow his fellows to dub him prophet; slave was a less humiliating name. No family would endure the disgrace of having a member who belonged to this despised caste; parents would rather put their son to death than see him a prophet. To such extremities may the spirit of time serving and cant reduce a national clergy. We are reminded of Latimer’s words in his famous sermon to Convocation in 1536:
"All good men in all places accuse your avarice, your exactions, your tyranny. I commanded you that ye should feed my sheep, and ye earnestly feed yourselves from day to day, wallowing in delights and idleness. I commanded you to teach my law; you teach your own traditions, and seek your own glory."
Over against their fluent and unctuous cant Jeremiah sets the terrible reality of his Divine message. Compared to this, their sayings are like chaff to the wheat; nay, this is too tame a figure-Jehovah’s word is like fire, like a hammer that shatters rocks. He says of himself:-
"My heart within me is broken; all my bones shake:
I am like a drunken man, like a man whom wine hath overcome,
Because of Jehovah and His holy words."
Thus we have in chapter 23, a full and formal statement of the controversy between Jeremiah and his brother prophets. On the one hand, self-seeking and self-assurance winning popularity by orthodox phrases, traditional doctrine, and the prophesying of smooth things; on the other hand, a man to whom the word of the Lord was like a fire in his bones, who had surrendered prejudice and predilection that he might himself become a hammer to shatter the Lord’s enemies, a man through whom God wrought so mightily that he himself reeled and staggered with the blows of which he was the instrument.
The relation of the two parties was not unlike that of St. Paul and his Corinthian adversaries: the prophet, like the Apostle, spoke "in demonstration of the Spirit of power"; he considered "not the word of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." In our next chapter we shall see the practical working of this antagonism which we have here set forth.