1“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. 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. 3 Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.

5 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 23:1-6)

Consider this scenario: you hire a babysitter to care for your young children for a few days. When you check in on them, you realize that instead of feeding them, the sitter has neglected them. Instead of keeping them safe in your house and yard, enforcing rules for their safety, the sitter has been so brutal that the children have run from the house, out into the neighborhood and streets. They are now hungry, unprotected, and flirting with danger. What might your heart for your children and your response to the sitter be? Any parent would feel protective love for the children and outrage mixed with enormous anger at the sitter.

Shepherds Failed God’s People

This is the situation God is addressing in Jeremiah 23. God called Jeremiah around 626BC to prophesy to the southern kingdom of Israel. God’s words to these people included his anger with them for their idolatry, and warnings of a force coming from the north that would punish them if they didn’t change their ways. God spoke in particular about the failure of Israel’s leaders to care for his people. These leaders failed the people fantastically, leaving them ignorant and drifting into idolatry.

In his protective love for his people, he provided priests, prophets, and kings to guide, protect, and uphold justice. In Jeremiah’s time, leaders were often referred to as shepherds. God intended for them to shepherd his people with tender care, as a shepherd protects his sheep. But far from that attentive watchfulness, these shepherds had abused their positions of power, and actually scattered the flock they were to preserve. In these words of chapter 23 we feel the anger of God and his heart for his wandering people who have not been pastored well.

At this point in the book of Jeremiah, the first wave of exiles had probably already been taken out of the city of Jerusalem and transported to Babylon as prisoners. In verse two, God says through Jeremiah that because these shepherds had failed to attend his people with their love and care, he would attend the shepherds with his punishment.

The Promise of a Righteous Shepherd

God’s sheep were lost, scared, and neglected, but he will not allow them to linger long in this state. In verse four, he declares his intention to raise up new shepherds who will fight off enemies and faithfully keep every sheep. In verse five he clarifies his beautiful plan as he begins to describe the ultimate shepherd who is coming. “The days are coming” indicates not a particular time but gives assurance of the certainty of this promise. Specifically, this leader will come from the line of David, a branch growing out of what looked like the completely fallen tree of the Davidic line of kings.

This righteous branch is given a name in verse six, “the Lord our righteousness.” This is probably a pun on the unrighteous King Zedekiah’s name, which means “righteous is Yahweh.” This is God’s sarcasm, as he mocks the false righteousness and injustice of this wicked king and promises a true or legitimate king. Unlike the king that has gotten Judah to this terrible place of spiritual neglect, the true king of righteousness, the ultimate shepherd, will live up to his name.

God’s desire has always been that he would be our God, and we would be his people. This picture of us being his sheep is sprinkled all throughout scripture. Psalm 100:3 reads, “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” His fierce love for us is protective like that of a shepherd. The shepherds he had given Judah failed. But God would not abandon those he loves. In John 10:11, Jesus tells us, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus, the ultimate, righteous shepherd, is the true prophet, priest, and king. He is not only a just and righteous protector, but he would also save his people. This is the rescue plan God put in place when his under-shepherds failed. This is the outworking of God’s relentless commitment to his people. God’s plan was in motion. The rescuer was coming. God would save his people.

This Advent, as we prepare our hearts to celebrate the child born to save, may we rejoice in God’s faithfulness to provide for us the ultimate, righteous shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Editor’s Note: this post is an adapted excerpt from a new Advent resource from At His Feet Studies. Click here to access this resource for free.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Christine Gordon

Christine B. Gordon, MATS, is wife to Michael and mother of three. She is the co-founder of At His Feet Studies and a visiting instructor at Covenant Theological Seminary. She loves to walk, make music with other people, and share bad puns with her family.