Jeremiah 23 Commentary

Return from captivity (23:1-8)

Judah’s political leaders are likened to shepherds over a flock, but instead of caring for the sheep they have exploited them. They are the ones chiefly responsible for driving God’s flock into captivity, and therefore God will punish them (23:1-2). Even in a foreign country, however, the flock still belongs to God. He does not forget his people, but will bring them back to their homeland and give them good leaders (3-4).

As a new branch shoots from the stump of a fallen tree, so will new leadership shoot from the fallen dynasty of David. The rule of the Davidic dynasty will be restored, so that it can reach its goal in a king who will be the embodiment of God’s righteousness, the true Messiah (5-6). The nation’s return from exile will be a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness, just as his deliverance from Egypt was in the days of Moses (7-8).

Lying prophets (23:9-32)

From denouncing the political leaders, Jeremiah turns to denounce the spiritual leaders. He is filled with sorrow and anguish as he thinks of the evil of these people and the terrible judgment God will send them (9). They have encouraged idolatrous worship and immoral behaviour in every place, even in the temple of God. For this reason the land has already experienced God’s judgment and worse is to come (10-12).

Baal worship in the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria was bad enough, but the situation is even worse in the southern capital, Jerusalem. The place is as immoral as Sodom or Gomorrah and is worthy of divine punishment (13-15).

The false prophets speak not God’s words but their own. They encourage the people to do as they please, assuring them that God will not punish them (16-17). The reason the false prophets do not understand God’s wrath is that they do not understand God. Their minds have never been taught by him (18-20). In spite of this they preach as if their words are the words of God (21). If the false prophets had heard God’s words as Jeremiah had, they would announce God’s judgment on wrongdoers, not his approval of them. They would be turning people from sin, not encouraging them in it (22).

When false prophets say what they like as if God cannot hear or see them, they are demonstrating their folly. Nothing can be hidden from God (23-24). God sees what they are doing and he is displeased. Their ‘prophecies’ originate in their own dreams and ideas (25-27).

The messages of the false prophets are like straw, whereas the messages of the true prophets are like wheat. They nourish what is good. At the same time they are like fire or a hammer, because they destroy what is worthless (28-29). False prophets only lie and deceive. They even take the words of the true prophets and misapply them in order to support their own ideas. In this way they lead people astray (30- 32).


God’s burden (23:33-40)

Prophets often spoke of their message as a ‘burden’ from God. It was a responsibility they had to discharge by announcing it to the people. Sometimes people went to prophets, particularly those whom Jeremiah calls false prophets, to ask them for a message, or burden, that would give them direction or guidance. God tells Jeremiah that if they ask him for a burden, he is to tell them that they are the burden. They are a burden so heavy that God cannot carry them any longer. He will therefore get rid of them by throwing them into captivity (33).

The false prophets misused the word ‘burden’, so that no matter what announcement they made, they claimed it to be a burden from God. For this reason God commands the true prophets, such as Jeremiah, not to use the word any more (34-37). When false prophets persist in using the word, they show their defiance of God and their intention to deceive his people. God’s punishment will be to treat them as a burden and throw them away. As those whom God has cast off, they will be taken captives to a distant land (38-40).

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