Woe to the Shepherds – Jeremiah 23:1 (Part 1)
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:1)
It is a most damnable thing to tamper with the possession of a jealous God. When restoring Peter to a proper love for Himself, Christ said three times, “Feed My sheep,” for the chief mark of Peter’s love to Christ was love for Christ’s people. The Lord Jesus cared not for Peter’s religious claims. He had already vowed to die with Christ if necessary yet did not follow through. The thing that really mattered was this: did Peter love what Christ loved? That was the question.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” He wrote an entire book devoted to lament, Lamentations. For what was His grief? We have the answer in our chapter: shepherds were destroying the sheep. He saw a failure in leadership; therefore, the failure among the masses followed close behind. The blind were leading the blind. The desperate were leading the desperate. And so the whole community of Israel was hardened to the Word of God.
This grief, however, was really the grief of Yahweh Himself. This is obvious from the Lord’s declaration of “woe” upon the false shepherds. When the unchanging God declares “woe” on a person, that person’s judgment is set. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” God had redeemed Israel by blood despite their weakness, carried them through the wilderness despite their complaining, stood with them in the land despite their unbelief, and endured with them through the monarchy despite their idolatry. These people were priceless treasure to the God Who called them. And yet the very shepherds to whom God entrusted His precious people, these shepherds were the cause of destruction, departure, and despair. Men that were to perpetuate justice and mercy confounded the Law of God and abused the people of God. Men that were to be tender became harsh. Men that were to unify became divisive. It is one thing for God to be merciful to an ignorant follower whose actions affect few but himself; but it is a rare thing for God to be merciful to a conscious leader whose actions bring down the masses with him, especially when it was those masses he was to protect.
God has a pasture, and the sheep in it are His. The pasture is to be sweet, just like the communion of the sheep with the Shepherd. The pasture is to be rich and lush, just like the contentment of the sheep in the Shepherd. God has granted some men the great responsibility of maintaining this sweetness. Men in this position have either great reward or fearful accountability, for they are dealing with sheep not their own. They are handling the dearest possessions of Another. They are moving on ground tilled by Another. Consider, then, this scene of the Shepherd returning to His flock, only to find the blood of His sheep splattered on His rich pasture, while the hired hand sleeps on the side of the pen, having let the wolf in—or worse, eating the remains of the sheep himself and still holding the knife in his blood-stained hand. On the wandering sheep the Lord may have compassion, but the sheep-destroyer will seldom find mercy.
Consider, then, who are the “sheep of My pasture.” They are Christ’s people. How great an incentive this is to protect them well! Though Israel was bought with a strong arm of redemption, Christ’s people are bought with the blood of the very Son of God. Though Israel was given the Law, Christ’s people have been given the Spirit of surpassing glory. God Has invested Himself entirely into every individual that Christ has purchased. It is no wonder Paul warned, “Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15). To tamper with what Christ has deemed His possession is a grave danger. As God is angry with those who do not “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2), so “His anger is quickly kindled” for those who disregard ones in Christ. This was to motivate the Ephesian elders: “Be on your guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis mine). Because Christ invested His own blood into every member of His Body, so every member of His body is worthy of the highest commitment and care. But the greater the object of protection, the greater the price for its neglect. The principle is established then: Christ is jealous over His sheep, and we dare not risk His anger by compromising His own. A husband may forgive insults against himself, but his defenses are raised like never before when one dares to insult his wife or his mother. Beware of Christ’s flaming eyes that watch out for His Bride.
How may they be endangered? By “destroying and scattering.” These are the marks of terrible men and women (we must say women as well because they are gaining more prominence as false teachers in our day).
What is destroying? Destroying is to mar both beauty and usefulness. Destroying is not to make something non-existent, but rather to leave it in a useless and desperate existence. An engine may still have all its parts yet be destroyed by having no ability to run. A wet painting may still have all its colours yet be destroyed by smearing them into a meaningless splotch. So an assembly may have all its members and meetings yet be destroyed because they have no beauty nor functionality. Or, a Christian may still have all his gift and knowledge yet be destroyed by lost vigor and abuse. If this is the product of leadership, its fruit says it all: “Woe to the shepherds.”
But what is scattering? Scattering is a very simple concept. To be scattered is to be individualistic. We are each fighting for ourselves. We are separated from those we should love. We are running in fear from a terrible fate, yet we know not what we are running to. Unity is the mark of God’s Spirit. Disunity is the mark of pride. It is never the Spirit’s fault that we are not together in fellowship and love. Such can always be attributed to man. If this is the product of leadership, its fruit speaks again: “Woe to the shepherds.”
The fearful thing in this is the reality of it all. God’s people really can be destroyed though they are true believers. Because Abraham led his family to Egypt, Lot was impressed with the ways of the world. He was taught to not trust God in the famine and to lie when pressured. So, when opportunity came, Lot chose Sodom and was scarcely recognized as a believer. From God’s perspective, he was “righteous Lot” whose soul was distressed by surrounding evil, but he accomplished nothing for God’s kingdom. He could not win the battle of the world (Egypt and Sodom in Genesis 13). He could not win the battle of the devil (Chedorlaomer’s attack in Genesis 14). He could not win the battle of his flesh (drunkenness and incest in Genesis 18). Righteous Lot? He was destroyed by bad leadership, not even the leadership of words but of actions. Oh, how genuine and real are the effects of destruction. One may say, “But everyone rises or falls to his own Lord and stands accountable despite circumstances.” Ah, true, but remember that leadership advances the condition of the heart either way. It either brings out the flesh, or it cultivates the spirit. Thus, if the leadership had been good, the flesh may not have been enticed or advanced so aggressively. If the leadership had been good, the spirit would have seen an atmosphere in which to thrive. These are real issues, and real people are at stake.
To Be Continued…