God’s Response to False Shepherds – Jeremiah 23:2
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:2)
Where the Lord’s possession is being neglected, the Lord Himself must take action. Though hired caretakers may fail, the Lord cannot fail what is ultimately His responsibility. When God commits Himself to a people, He cannot but be faithful lest He be unjust. So great is our salvation that God has made Himself morally accountable to see it through in that He has staked His justice upon His faithfulness. Thus, with Israel He promises three responses to their calamity. We will look at the first today: He will respond to the false shepherds.
Men often cry against God for His failure to show mercy to a hurting world, yet they fail to realize that God’s mercy always is applied with His justice. If He were to act in mercy on the afflicted, He must punish the abusers. Then, while He is punishing sin, He must punish even the “least” sins of which we are guilty. This is only right, and it shows us why God often withholds immediate mercy in order to show ultimate mercy upon a greater number of people. But in our passage God is coming down in mercy upon afflicted sheep. His justice, therefore, must go before and address the cause of their affliction. Our Lord said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” but for the other He says, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Matt 5:7; James 2:13). This is the sad case of Israel’s shepherds.
Notice, first of all, that the Lord already had a judgment formed before He started to speak: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds.” He had been watching through the whole time of His people’s suffering, and He maintained His anger through that whole time. Yet He did not speak. Now that He is speaking, the shepherds realize to their devastation that their actions were not unnoticed, and the sheep look up in gratitude that their suffering was not outside the eye of God.
If only we operated under the eye of God, all would be different. Because our Lord has ascended, we love Him without seeing Him. At times we think this means He does not see us either, and we act as if free from the real eye of Christ. We forget we are among assemblies in which Christ walks and judges. Let us beware, my brethren. Christ sees those careless thoughts toward the suffering saints. Christ sees those unkind words you speak behind the believers’ backs. Christ sees your mishandling of the Word to suit your agenda. Christ sees your neglect of duty. Be very aware that He has an opinion of your leadership.
Secondly, notice that the shepherds were still tending though they had no signs of true success: “The shepherds who are tending My people.” The sheep were destroyed and scattered, yet these shepherds were still holding to their position. Somehow they missed what was in front of them: their purpose failed. They must have loved their position above all else, for even the lack of sheep to herd did not deter them from wanting to be something as a shepherd.
It is quite a strange thing to see men who remain leaders when they have pushed all their followers away. Have they not noticed that they have no one to lead? Have they not noticed that they are destroying their position by trying to defend it? Fathers, elders, political leaders—they are all susceptible to the trap of thinking that their position is something apart from the purpose for which it was created. Thus, they elevate the position above the work and insult the genius of the God Who ordained both. It is one thing to preach the Word and have nobody listen, as was Jeremiah’s case; and this is probably the excuse false leaders will use as they see their following disappear. But this chapter has very clear distinctions between the false and true handling of God’s Word, and we will look at those when we come to them.
For now, it suffices us to challenge ourselves toward pure motives in shepherding. We likely cannot change the shepherds who destroy the sheep, but we can invest in a pure generation to come. This only comes by a rigorous self-examination. If you were asked the question, “Why do you want to lead?” what would your answer be? If your answer is, “Because they need me,” then you are self-deceived because God can raise up children of Abraham from stones. If your answer is, “Because the need is great,” then you are closer to a good answer, but I may ask in return, “And what if, like Jeremiah, you see no fruit in your ministry? Has it then failed?” To base a ministry entirely on need be dangerous for two reasons: (1) You may take any means necessary to meet that need, even if it means violating the Word, (2) You may despair when the needs are not met entirely, thus growing bitter against your leadership calling. So, even though burden for people is necessary, there must be a different answer. And, though it need not be said, if your answer is “Because of the power it gives me,” then you need to run from a leadership position as fast as possible because you will incur great consequences. Though we would not say it in so many words, that answer may reside deep in our hearts; this is my only reason for mentioning it, despite its absurdity and clear folly.
The question remains, then, “What is the right motivation for leadership and teaching?” I propose it is this: to be pleasing to God as a steward of His Word. This was Paul’s experience: “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ… Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:9-11). Other passages that help us sift our motives include Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, 2 Corinthians 2:14-6:2, Galatians 1, 1 Timothy 4, and 2 Timothy 3-4. Take time with these passages before God, and ask yourself two questions: “If God called me to shepherd, would I go?” and “Why would I go?” These questions may save a generation. May God teach us to maintain pure leadership motives and thus avoid the fate these false shepherds incurred.
Finally, notice the unwavering decree of judgment: “You…have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds.” What the shepherds failed to do to the sheep, God would not fail to do to the shepherds. They failed to attend, but God would not let their folly escape His view.
We must be careful here, but we must also be clear. There are leaders within the denominations that have a seat closer to hell than even the murderer or rapist, for both their possession of God’s Word and their position among God’s people make them fearfully accountable for their error and sin, especially when they lead others astray. This is why Jude and 2 Peter were written. Peter says it would have been better for these men to have stayed ignorant than to know the truth and then reject it. Our Lord said of Judas that it would have been better for him if he was never born. Such are the fearful realities of possessing both the Word of God and the trust of God’s people.
This could be taken to an extreme, for not all failure in leadership is equivalent to apostasy. We must guard against that assessment. On the one hand, God’s mercy is great, and we cannot limit its power to save false leaders and restore believing leaders who have made a mockery of their position. On the other hand, what is true of God’s mercy is also true of His justice. The accountability may be more fearful than we think and the consequences more dire. The point is not to become judges of what another may endure. The point is to become serious and to tremble for ourselves if we should endeavor to lead God’s people. God will not fail to attend to the men He has made accountable.