God expects us to take the well-being of His people very seriously.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 23:1-12
We learn that God will hold the religious leaders accountable for their failures -- for abandoning their charge to be good shepherds for God's people. But God's focus is not their punishment; rather, He has a plan to send good, godly leaders to care for His people, starting with Jesus the Messiah, who will send the Spirit to empower future leaders.
He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land. (23:5)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
My week has been shaped by two events: replacing the carpet in our offices, and the Independence Day "holiday". With a little creativity, you can take just about any event in your life and use it to help get your main lesson points across. But let me first remind everyone of some ground rules for turning current events into discussion topics:
God is always at work in every area of your life.
But that doesn't mean that everybody can relate to your experience; make sure that your situation is relatable.
Your group meets to study the Bible, not hear about your life, so move the attention off of you as quickly as possible.
Have an application that would affect everyone in your group, even people who haven't been in your situation.
Know the "main point" of your lesson, then tailor your discussion idea to reinforce that Bible lesson.
I know, none of that's rocket science. But it never hurts to walk back through the basics.
The Trials of Getting New Carpet
The carpet in our office suite was a hard 24 years old. It was long overdue to be replaced (and we are absolutely thrilled with how the new carpet looks and feels). If you've ever had carpet replaced, you know how disruptive it is. Everything freestanding has to move. File cabinets often have to be partially emptied to make them movable.
One of these two pictures approximates my office. I'll give you two guesses, and the first one doesn't count. My mantra in filing and organization is "if you can follow my method, I'm not trying hard enough". But trust me, I know where everything is. Usually.
And that's what makes cleaning up/out my office so unsettling. Everything has to move.
In this week's passage, God complains about the failure of Jerusalem's leaders. Here's how carpet replacement and leadership failure connects to that for me.
In the process of moving things, I found things.
In the Bible, something being "found" is often a cause for celebration -- just read Luke 15. But some of the things I found were not a cause for celebration, namely things someone asked me to do something with but clearly I didn't because I found them under a pile of other things. It is a sinking feeling to find evidence of something you failed to do, isn't it? Examples: I found a thank-you card that I failed to send (from years ago); I found a request for a Bible study that was delayed because I had misplaced this original request; I found a copy of a song that we never did because I couldn't find the copy of the song. Things like that -- things that caused me to do something late or not at all.
What's your story of something you misplaced that caused you to fail to do something you had leadership responsibility over?
It's likely that our failures pale in comparison to the failures of the Jewish leadership in Jeremiah's day, but that's beside the point. Even if our failures were "accidental", they're still on us. Maybe we were distracted. Maybe our organizational method needed improvement. We want to come away from this lesson with an appreciation for our personal responsibility over every area of our life, especially those areas in which we are leaders.
This topic could be funny, but accidents involving fireworks are usually pretty serious. Doing a quick survey of yesterday's 4th of July incidents, I saw two deaths caused by fireworks accidents, and dozens of people taken to hospitals with serious injuries. (According to the Department of Consumer Safety, 11 people died in 2022 in fireworks-related accidents, and more than 10,000 people were taken to hospitals (!!).)
If you've ever been a part of a fireworks-related accident, what happened and why? My family is not a backyard-fireworks family, so everything I'm going to say is hearsay. It seems that fireworks accidents come down to three big things:
The responsible person simply failed to do something on the safety checklist.
The adults involved all thought somebody else had done the safety measures.
The person who put themselves in charge had no idea what they were doing.
[Alcohol. But that's a given.]
Accidents happen, but many of those accidents could have been prevented if the adults in the room had taken a little more time to be safety conscious. Effective leadership comes in all areas of life and affects well-being in all of those areas.
[Our church's safety team can thank me later for this PSA.]
This Week's Big Idea: When Church Leadership Fails
When God complains about the leaders in Jerusalem, He's focusing on their religious leadership. So naturally, we're going to focus on church leadership in our applications.
We've talked about this before (multiple times):
We have focused on why Satan likes to go after church leaders -- if he can trick/manipulate the leader into a failure, the entire church suffers. No argument there, right?
This week's discussion gets into complaints about church leaders. I'm worried that if/when this comes up in your Bible study group, everyone will get completely sidetracked by personal disagreements and old axes to grind and miss the point, so here's a summary of what I'm trying to say in this section:
When we consider "failures in church leadership", I believe that most group members are immediately going to think about things like "significant moral failures". Those are important, but I think God has something deeper in mind in this week's passage.
I will send us to two major texts in which God the Father and God the Son offer specific complaints about their equivalent "church leaders" (priests and teachers of the law) -- Matthew 23 and Malachi 2.
Those texts explain that God's complaint with church leaders is not simply their sin (everyone sins) -- it's when they have betrayed the trust He has given them as church leaders. So, what is the God-given "job" of a church leader?
With that roadmap, let's wade into some tricky waters.
When you think of "church leadership failure", what comes to mind? If the internet at all reflects what comes to your mind, it'll be this:
"Pastor moral failure". Pastor has an affair. Pastor behaved inappropriately toward a female. Pastor caught with pornography. You can name the beats. The last two SBC annual meetings have dealt with how churches can protect themselves (and everyone around them) from these kinds of failures.
"Pastors who are hypocrites". (And we've talked about this before, too -- God Expects - A Lesson on Hypocrisy from Isaiah 58). [The internet loves this topic, and it's really depressing to read what some people think about churches and church leaders.] This is the "clever internet sleuth" who keeps score on a pastor's sermon and then points out all of the times that pastor didn't "practice what he preached". [This is also where personal hurt feelings often bubble up.]
Those two topics are important! But they're not primarily what God is complaining about to Jeremiah (at least, not in the way the internet regularly harps on them).
Rather, God has this category of leadership failure in mind: leaders who have willfully abused their church positions or abdicated their leadership responsibilities. God will use this image in one of the passages below: they have violated God's covenant with Levi.
To orient us to what God means, I'm sending us to Matthew 23 -- the seven woes Jesus pronounced on the religious leaders of His day. Here's a super-brief summary:
Matt 23:13 -- they have reinvented the doctrine of salvation, condemning all of their followers to hell.
Matt 23:15 -- their emphasis on legalism has ruined the lives of everyone they have converted to their religion.
Matt 23:16-22 -- their ability to twist words to serve their own ends has made a mockery of what God really finds important.
Matt 23:23-24 -- they have focused on little things but missed the big picture that makes the little things matter.
Matt 23:25-28 -- they only care about what people can see, not what they are on the inside. (This is actually two separate woes.)
Matt 23:29-36 -- their opposition to Jesus has proven that they are no different from, say, the Jews in Jeremiah's day who denied and persecuted God's prophets.
Each of those woes is based on Jesus' introduction:
2 The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach.
And you quickly say, "But wait! Didn't you just say that hypocrisy is not primarily what God was complaining about to Jeremiah?! (You hypocrite!)"
Jesus is talking about something a lot deeper than what we usually do when we call someone a hypocrite -- which is look for an obvious and simple example of behavior that didn't line up with a sermon zinger.
No, the hypocrisy Jesus is talking about is the same hypocrisy Jeremiah is reporting, which is the original definition of hypocrisy in the Greek sense: when your inward reality is dissociated from your outward appearance.
Those leaders claimed to be followers of God but were creating a new religion based on their own image.
Those leaders told people to behave certain ways but truly didn't think that they had to abide by those admonitions.
Those leaders presented an image of themselves to the world around them that had nothing to do with who they really were.
The idea of "pastor moral failure" can be connected to this. A person who goes into ministry with the intent of taking advantage of girls/women. A pastor who covers up a moral failure so as to prevent a public scandal. Those people do exist, and God is absolutely talking about those people here. But "those people" are also exceedingly rare.
Likewise, the idea of "pastor hypocrisy" can be connected to this. A church leader who thinks that he/she has a different set of rules than everyone else. A church leader who persists in teaching something even after it has been pointed out that the Bible teaches something different.
But those things are deeper than "my pastor sinned; I can't believe he's human!" This is something sinister -- something wrong -- a church leader who is a predator. A wolf in sheep's clothing, if you will.
To God, this is a deep and personal wound. God knows well that people are like "sheep without a shepherd", and so He has sent shepherds, people to take care of the "sheep". He has given them instructions (in the Old Testament to priests and teachers; in the New Testament to pastors and teachers) for the well-being of the people. When a church leader violates those instructions/that trust, he does the double damage of hurting God's heart and hurting God's people.
Malachi 2 gives us a clear illustration of what God means. (Yes, this means that God's chosen leaders were failing in Isaiah's day, in Jeremiah's day, in Malachi's day, and in Jesus' day. Not a great track record.)
In Malachi 2, God points the priests back to the first priest: Levi.
5 “My covenant with him [Levi] was one of life and peace, and I gave these to him; it called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and nothing wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and integrity and turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should desire instruction from his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of Armies."
8 “You, on the other hand, have turned from the way.
I think this is such a clear and powerful explanation of what was so important to God and why it was so important. God gave His "church leaders" (in that day referring to priests) a trust, and He gave them the rules by which to keep it. and when they fail to do so, they are creating havoc not just for themselves but for their people.
It's finally time to wrap this topic up: what is the God-given trust to a church leader? By this, I'm talking about everybody -- pastor, deacon, teacher, committee leader, etc. Your church might have "job requirements" in a "job description", and with all due respect, I'm not talking about that. What is God's expectation on those church leaders? We have much of the New Testament (and those three lessons linked above are a fine starting point) to answer this question.
Let me give you my personal summary, and let this be your launching point for how you will understand God's Word on the topic through your own study.
God expects His church leaders to faithfully live by His Word and lead others to do the same.
That covers a lot of ground, and it assumes that the church leader is putting in the work to learn God's Word in the first place.
What do you think? How would you summarize God's instructions to church leaders?
One thing I hope I have explained is that God is not primarily talking about when your pastor rubbed you the wrong way, or when your pastor said something he shouldn't have, or when your pastor made a decision you didn't like, etc. He's talking about church leaders who teach heresy, who abuse their position for personal gain, who break God's law and lead others to do the same.
Sadly, those kinds of church leaders exist, and they will get what's coming to them.
Where We Are in Jeremiah
Guess what? We're in a section about Jeremiah's interactions with the religious leaders of his day. No, really!
Actually, this is the section that makes it clear that the Book of Jeremiah was edited topically and not chronologically. Consider these timestamps:
21:1 -- days of King Zedekiah
22:24 -- addresses King Jehoiachin
24:1 -- after Jehoiachin taken into exile
25:1 -- fourth year of King Jehoiakim
26:1 -- early in the reign of Jehoiakim
27:1 -- early in the reign of Zedekiah
29:1 -- a letter sent to the exiles in Babylon
This is a section about the many misdeeds of the leaders in Jerusalem.
Chapter 20 -- the temple official Passhur puts Jeremiah in stocks
Chapter 21 -- God rejects Zedekiah's request for deliverance from Babylon because he has oppressed the poor
Chapter 22 -- God has said the same thing about kings Jehoiakim and his son Jehoiachin
Chapter 23 -- the prophets have spoken falsely
Chapter 24-25 -- the people are punished because they listened to the false prophets and not God's true prophets
Chapter 26 -- Jeremiah is threatened with death by the priests for his harsh sermons; we learn that the priests did kill a prophet named Uriah)
Chapter 27 -- false prophets are telling the people "everything's fine"
Chapter 28 -- a specific false prophet named Hananiah is singled out
So there you go. Israel was in a terrible way, and her leaders were the cause of it. This makes me think of something Jesus said:
22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness, how deep is that darkness!
When we think of the church as the body of Christ, the church's leaders are like the eyes. God takes the leadership of His people very, very seriously.
Part 1: The Leaders Have Failed (Jeremiah 23:1-4)
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” This is the Lord’s declaration. 2 “Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the shepherds who tend my people: You have scattered my flock, banished them, and have not attended to them. I am about to attend to you because of your evil acts”—this is the Lord’s declaration. 3 “I will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands where I have banished them, and I will return them to their grazing land. They will become fruitful and numerous. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will tend them. They will no longer be afraid or discouraged, nor will any be missing.” This is the Lord’s declaration.
We just talked about the "shepherd" imagery when we studied John 10:
If people are sheep (and that's not exactly a compliment), then we need a shepherd. I told you that I would be jumping into New Testament/church applications a bunch, so I'm going to do that straightaway.
With everything I said above about the charge that church leaders have, the importance of church leadership, and the nature of God's complaint in mind --
In what ways are our church leaders like shepherds to us?
In what ways can those church leaders fail in that role?
I probably need to clarify something. I'm writing from a small-to-medium-sized-church context, and the people I send this to directly are also in smaller churches. Pretty much everybody in our church knows all of our pastors, our deacons, and our Sunday School leaders on a personal level. I can say from personal experience and conviction that the leaders in our church care about bringing glory to God by doing church His way; they care about the well-being of the people in our church family; they would be horrified to find out if they have been leading people astray. We have disagreements about "what" and "how", and sometimes we disagree about how to interpret Bible passages, and sadly those disagreements can cause people to leave our church. But that's different than "destroy and scatter".
The literal translation of verse 1 is "Woe to the shepherds who are killing and scattering the sheep of My pasture". The sense is obvious: "you were supposed to care for My people like a shepherd cares for sheep, but you did not".
In fact, they've done the opposite:
They've scattered the sheep
They've driven the sheep away
They've not taken care of the sheep
It's possible to interpret the word for "banish" ("driven away") with respect to "exile". In other words, the sin of the leaders is the root cause for God to have the Babylonians conquer and exile the people. That can't be ignored, but I think God is clearly talking about damage the leaders have already caused, not something that will happen in the future. [Note: it's possible that this prophecy comes during the exile, in which case I would retract that logic.]
What might that look like in modern church terms?
How can a leader destroy a church today? Or "scatter the sheep"? I've talked to pastors who have made decisions that caused people to leave their church (and that includes me) -- their hearts are broken over that fallout. That's not what God is talking about here. The leaders God is complaining about clearly do not care about the fallout from their actions (except inasmuch as it affects them).
God has two responses:
He will punish the leaders for their failure
He will send better shepherds
This should be absolutely terrifying to those bad leaders. They're living in high cotton, but at what cost?
Verse 3 could be interpreted with respect to the Babylonian exile, as in the primary failure of the leaders was to cause God to send his people into exile. But "banish" is the chosen word here, which can refer to any of the causes God had to remove Jews from the Promised Land over the previous generations, including their own sin.
But however we understand that, God is clearly saying that the sin of the people falls on the shoulders of the leaders -- not because the people's behavior is the leaders' responsibility but because the leaders have failed to teach the people rightly. The people will suffer the consequences of their own sin, but the leaders will share in those consequences. They failed to teach or lead the people rightly.
And in turn, God will give the people new leaders. Note the plural there -- yes, the focus will shift to Jesus quickly, all of God's leaders will share in the possibility of being God's blessing to His people. The words we read above in Malachi 2 and Matthew 23 imply that there have been lots of setbacks (to say the least), but I want us to read this passage from the perspective that God wants today's church leaders to be "good shepherds". He specifically mentions:
Tend to them
Don't let them go missing
Don't pass this off on your church's pastor. What does this look like for you (in whatever leadership role you have in your church)?
Part 2: New Leaders Will Succeed (Jeremiah 23:5-8)
5 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration— “when I will raise up a Righteous Branch for David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is the name he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.
7 “Look, the days are coming”—the Lord’s declaration—“when it will no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the Israelites from the land of Egypt,’ 8 but, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought and led the descendants of the house of Israel from the land of the north and from all the other countries where I had banished them.’ They will dwell once more in their own land.”
This is clearly, clearly talking about Jesus! But it goes even further than that.
Isaiah talked about a "shoot from the stump of Jesse" (Isa 11:1). And the image of the "branch" was (by Jesus' day) recognized to be Messianic (see Isa 4:2, Zech 3:8, etc.). So, this is Messianic, which means this is about Jesus.
But the wordplay points to something deeper. The name "Zedekiah" means "the Lord is righteous"; that's the name of one of the cruddy short-lived kings Jeremiah was stuck with; it's also the word that shows up in verse 5. But in verse 6, God says that this branch will have a new name: Yahweh Tsidkenu, which has a range of meaning -- "The Lord is our righteousness""The Lord is our righteous Savior" "The Lord is our vindication" "The Lord is our just deliverer". Truly profound stuff. This coming "Righteous Branch of David" will not be under the pall of the failures of the former leaders of God's people -- He will be something new, something better. He will save the people and give them security.
Can you understand why the people in Jesus' day interpreted this to mean that the Messiah would overthrow the Romans and create an independent Jewish state?
God had so much more for them.
As we recently studied in John 10, Jesus is the Good Shepherd (who lays down His life for His sheep). But let me call attention to one verse in particular: "16 But I have other sheep that are not from this sheep pen; I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd." Read that again in the context of Jeremiah 23:3.
Who were the people who responded to Jesus?
The blind. The children. The Gentiles.
Who rejected Jesus? The religious leaders. The wealthy. The powerful.
This opens up two profound possibilities:
The problem wasn't just with the shepherds but also with the sheep (who were seeking out these rotten shepherds).
When God talks about bringing the Jews back to their Promised Land, He is not excluding the Gentiles.
Soak on those for a while.
When we studied John's Gospel, we spent a lot of time with the charges Jesus gave His disciples:
Forgive me if I rush through this. Jesus called on His disciples to continue His work, but to do so in His power and in His name. I argued that that charge did not end with the apostles but continues to this day through everyone who has the Holy Spirit (i.e., Christians). God has called certain men to occupy certain positions (i.e., pastors), but He has called all Christians to use their spiritual gifts (really, all of their gifts) in service of/through the church. That means we all have responsibility, which means we all have a leadership of some kind.
In other words, no one should go through this lesson with the mindset of "I'd better make sure my pastor is doing his job". At the very least, it could be "what can I do to help my pastor do his job?", and really it should be "what am I doing to fulfill my calling in my church?". Because that calling is about helping your church family advance God's kingdom to the ends of the earth. That promise God gave to Jeremiah about His people dwelling in their own land? That hasn't been fulfilled yet. That's pointing forward to the New Jerusalem. And the people who will be there are the people who will hear the good news of Jesus from and through us and through everyone who has called on the name of Jesus for salvation.
Part 3: Failed Leaders Will Be Punished (Jeremiah 23:9-12)
9 Concerning the prophets:
My heart is broken within me, and all my bones tremble. I have become like a drunkard, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord, because of his holy words.
10 For the land is full of adulterers; the land mourns because of the curse, and the grazing lands in the wilderness have dried up. Their way of life has become evil, and their power is not rightly used 11 because both prophet and priest are ungodly, even in my house I have found their evil. This is the Lord’s declaration. 12 Therefore, their way will seem like slippery paths in the gloom. They will be driven away and fall down there, for I will bring disaster on them, the year of their punishment.
This is the Lord’s declaration.
Our passage ends on a downer. (And no, it wouldn't be better if we kept reading. The following verses go into the examples of the prophets' failure: leading the people to worship Baal and prophesying to the people that no harm would come to them.)
It's a little tricky. Is the Lord speaking? Is Jeremiah speaking? The NIV puts quotes around verse 11 and verse 12 to suggest that God has said those verses, and Jeremiah has said verses 9 and 10. The CSB doesn't put any quotes in here. I've put the line breaks where I think this works -- Jeremiah says verse 9, and God says the rest of the verses.
The connection is that what God says in verse 10-12 is what has staggered Jeremiah in verse 9. All of the other prophets get up and say one thing, and then Jeremiah says something completely different. It's like he's drunk, like he's impaired. And yet, God won't allow him to say anything else, so again it's like he's drunk/impaired. And yet and yet, the false prophets have used their position to create an easy life for themselves while Jeremiah has gone from death threats to prison, so it's like he must be drunk/impaired.
But those false prophets will get what's coming to them.
So, why would Lifeway continue the lesson passage into these verses? Haven't we gotten the point by verse 8? I can't speak for Lifeway, but here's how I see it: this puts the onus back on us, today's Christian.
Will we follow God's Righteous Shepherd, or will we follow these false prophets doomed for destruction?
We just studied this in John 18 -- the people could have chosen the Good Shepherd, but instead they chose an actual thief and murderer. Not a good sign.
Yes, God holds church leaders responsible to be good church leaders (and that includes us in whatever our sphere of leadership is), but He also holds us responsible to be discerning church members. Are we following the right people?
My guess is that you have a good pastor who is truly trying to be the best "under-shepherd" that he can be. Thank God for him, support him, and pray for him. And then remember that God has given you responsibilities as well -- one of the best ways you can support your pastor is to take care of your business, so to speak. Let that be your commitment this week.