Jeremiah 23:1-40

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The “shepherds” are kings, rulers, or leaders who should have been administering affairs to benefit their subjects. Woe or calamity is pronounced upon them because they seriously failed in doing this and acted unjustly and oppressively. Their subjects were the “sheep” of YHWH’s “pasture,” for they were his people residing in the land that he had given to their ancestors as an inheritance. Therefore, the people (the “sheep”) and the land (the “pasture”) belonged to YHWH. The “shepherds” or rulers had brought ruin to them and caused them to be in a vulnerable or helpless state like that of scattered sheep. The scattering and dispersing of the sheep or people may refer to their having been taken as captives into exile. On account of their unfaithfulness to YHWH, the “shepherds” bore responsibility for what befell the people, for they should have been exemplary in guiding their subjects to be obedient to his commands and thereby to continue to enjoy his favor, aid, protection, and blessing. (23:1)

“Therefore” (because of the failure of the “shepherds”), “YHWH the God of Israel” declared regarding the shepherds who were shepherding his people and should have been earnestly concerned about them, “You have scattered my sheep and have driven them away” (apparently by having made themselves responsible for their exile). The “shepherds” were censured for not having “visited them,” not having given them their attention, or not cared for them. YHWH determined to visit them to take punitive action for their “evil doings” ― their injustices, oppression, and corrupt deeds. (23:2)

YHWH promised to “gather the remnant of [his] sheep,” or the remnant of his scattered people in the lands of their exile to which he had dispersed them, and to bring them back to their “pasturage” or their own land. He is quoted as referring to himself as having done the dispersing, for he permitted it to take place to punish his disobedient people. Upon being able to return to their own land, the remnant of God’s people would be “fruitful” or flourish and greatly increase in number. The Septuagint says that God would “receive” or welcome a remnant of his people from “all the earth” or from all the “land” to which he had expelled them. (23:3)

Over the restored remnant of his people, YHWH would set “shepherds,” and they would “shepherd them,” caring well for them and their needs. At that time, the people would enjoy security. They would no longer experience fear and would not be terrified or dismayed. None among the remnant of YHWH’s people would be “missing” or come to be in the vulnerable or helpless state of a sheep that has been separated from the flock and from the care and protection of its shepherd. (23:4; see the Notes section.)

In the “days” or at the time to come, YHWH would raise up a “righteous sprout” (a “righteous dawn” [LXX]) for David, or a rightful heir who would come forth like a sprout from the royal line of David. He would rule as king, act wisely, and “execute justice and righteousness in the earth” or the land. His reign would contrast sharply with that of the corrupt, oppressive, and unjust rule of the Judean kings who defiantly disregarded God’s commands. He would administer affairs impartially, rendering just decisions and upholding and defending the rights of everyone. (23:5) Under the rule of the future king in the royal line of David, the division between Judah (the kingdom of Judah in the south) and Israel (the kingdom of Israel in the north) would cease to exist. “Judah” would be “saved” or delivered from all harm, and “Israel” would dwell in security. The name by which the future king would be called is, “YHWH [is] our righteousness.” As the servant of YHWH, the future king would adhere to the righteousness or justice of which YHWH is the absolute standard. (23:6; see the Notes section.)

YHWH promised that “days,” or the time, would come when the deliverance from exile would take on greater prominence for the Israelites than did the deliverance of their ancestors from Egyptian enslavement. The people would then no longer say, “As YHWH lives who brought the sons of Israel up from the land of Egypt.” (23:7; see the Notes section.) Instead they would say, “As YHWH lives who brought up and led the seed [or offspring] of the sons [or people] of Israel [gathered all the seed of Israel (LXX)] from the land of the north and from all the lands to which he had scattered them.” The “land of the north” does not designate a land situated to the north of the kingdom of Judah, but the north refers to the direction from which the military invasion came into the realm. In the fulfillment, exiles from Babylon and other areas to which they had been taken returned to their own land. (23:8; see the Notes section.)

The words that may be rendered “about prophets” possibly function as a superscription for the section that follows and apply to men who were no true prophets of YHWH. As for Jeremiah, he seemingly described the impact that YHWH’s holy words had on him. “My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble [or grow soft]. I am like a drunken man [a broken man (LXX)], like a man overcome by wine before the face of [or before the presence of or because of] YHWH and before the face of [before or because of] his holy words [before the face of the Lord and before the face of the beauty of his glory (LXX)].” The message had such a powerful effect on him that he felt as though his heart or inmost self had been broken and that his “bones” or entire frame had become weak and unstable. It seemed as if he had lost all control over himself, making his condition appear to him as if he were drunk. (23:9; see the Notes section.)

The “land,” or the territory of the kingdom of Judah, had become full of “adulterers.” Their adultery could have included unfaithfulness to YHWH to whom they were bound in a covenant relationship like a wife to her husband, involvement in ceremonial prostitution at cultic sites, and sexual relations with the wives of other men. The withdrawal of YHWH’s blessing meant that the land came under a curse, with severe droughts withering crops and other vegetation. This caused the land to take on a sad appearance, comparable to a state of mourning. “Pastures of the wilderness,” or the vegetation in uncultivated areas where sheep and goats grazed, had dried up. In their “course” or their “running,” the people were bad. Their conduct and pursuits were contrary to YHWH’s commands, and their strength was not used for doing or upholding what was right. (23:10)

Prophets and priests failed to provide proper guidance and admonition to the people and personally engaged in divinely disapproved conduct and practices. Thus they came to be defiled. In this context, “prophet” applies to a false prophet, not to one whom YHWH had commissioned to proclaim his messages. In his “house” or temple, YHWH had found the wickedness of both prophet and priest. This indicates that they must have acted in God-dishonoring ways in the temple precincts. (23:11; compare Ezekiel 8:3-16.) “Therefore, their way,” or the course they pursued, would end disastrously for them. The result would be comparable to their being driven or pushed into slippery paths while it was still dark or extremely hazardous and then coming to experience a serious fall. There would be no escape from the consequences for wrongdoing, for YHWH determined to “bring evil [or calamity] upon them in the year [or time] of their visitation [or their being given attention as objects of punitive judgment].” (23:12)

At the time Jeremiah prophesied, the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria no longer existed, for the Assyrians had conquered it many years before. Prior to the conquest, YHWH saw “unseemliness [lawless acts (LXX)] in [or among] the prophets of Samaria.” These men were not his prophets, but were false prophets. Their impropriety was to prophesy “by Baal” and to lead YHWH’s people Israel astray, causing them to turn their backs on YHWH, to become devoted to Baal, and to engage in abominable practices. (23:13)

“In [or among] the prophets of Jerusalem,” YHWH saw a “horrible thing.” This “horrible thing” may be their prophesying falsehood in his name. The false prophets lived morally corrupt lives as adulterers, and they walked “in the lie. They represented themselves as YHWH’s prophets but proclaimed falsehoods, the very opposite of the messages he revealed to his appointed prophets. The words of the false prophets strengthened the “hands of evildoers,” encouraging them to persist in their lawless ways. What the people needed to hear was admonition to abandon their wrong course of life, but this was not the message the false prophets expressed. As a result, no one turned way “from his wickedness.” To YHWH, all the people had become like notoriously evil and morally corrupt Sodom, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem like the equally debased residents of ancient Gomorrah. (23:14; see Genesis 18:20; 19:4-10; Ezekiel 16:49, 50.)

“YHWH of hosts” (the God with hosts of angels in his service) declared his judgment against the false prophets. “Look, I will feed them wormwood [pain (LXX)] and give them poisoned [bitter (LXX)] water to drink.” The calamity that would befall them would be comparable to their having to eat extremely bitter tasting wormwood and to drink water that would sicken them mortally. This severe punishment was merited, “for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness [pollution (LXX)] went forth “into all the land.” These false prophets were responsible for the widespread moral corruption that came to exist in the kingdom of Judah. (23:15)

Through Jeremiah, YHWH commanded the people not to listen to the false prophets, for what they proclaimed to them made them vain or believers in worthless things. The words in which the people trusted would prove to be empty expressions. Although the false prophets claimed their “visions” to be of divine origin, they were the product of their own “heart,” thought, or imagination. Their utterances were not what had come from the “mouth of YHWH.” His spirit did not inspire them. (23:16)

To those who spurned YHWH, as was evident from their disregard for his commands and the prophets whom he had sent to proclaim his messages, the false prophets continued to say, “Peace will be with you,” assuring them that everything would go well for them. To everyone “walking” according to the “stubbornness [delusion or error (LXX)] of his heart” (or defiantly conducting himself according to his own thought or desire in a manner that YHWH disapproved), the false prophets would say, “No evil [or calamity] will come upon you.” (23:17)

The significance of the rhetorical questions depends on whether they are understood to relate to false prophets or to true prophets. False prophets were never in the presence of YHWH, but only true prophets could be spoken of as having “stood in the council of YHWH to see [perceive or come to know] and hear his word.” Likewise, only true prophets could give attention to and hear YHWH’s word or message. Therefore, if the application of the rhetorical questions is to false prophets, the answer would be that they had not stood in YHWH’s council and that they had not heard his word. The renderings of numerous modern translations are more specific in the significance they convey than is the Hebrew text. “For which of them has stood in the council of the LORD, has been aware of his word and listened to it? Which of them has heeded his word and obeyed?” (REB) “But I, the LORD, tell you that these prophets have never attended a meeting of my council in heaven or heard me speak.” (CEV) “But who has been present in Yahweh’s council and seen, and heard his word? Who has paid attention to his word and listened to it?” (NJB) “But he who has stood in the council of the LORD, and seen, and heard His word ― he who has listened to His word must obey.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) (23:18)

Calamity was bound to befall the disobedient people as an expression of YHWH’s wrath. The introductory “look” focuses on this calamity. It is likened to a storm and a destructive whirling tempest. This tempest would “whirl [or burst] upon the head of the wicked,” bringing them to their end. The Septuagint rendering differs somewhat from the Hebrew text. “Look, a quaking from the Lord, and wrath goes forth in a rumbling. Gathering [itself], it will come upon the impious.” (23:19; see the Notes section.)

YHWH’s anger would not be turned back until he had executed and accomplished the “purposes of his heart” or what he had in mind. “In the latter days” (or at a future time), the people would understand it clearly (literally, “you will understand [second person plural] it clearly”). This appears to mean that, in retrospect, others would understand fully the reason for the punishment that came upon the disobedient people. The Septuagint says, “They will understand them,” possibly meaning that they will understand the things that happened and the reasons for the punishments. (23:20; see the Notes section.)

Regarding the false prophets, YHWH is quoted as saying, “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran,” hurrying as if they had been entrusted with an important and urgent message. “I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied,” making proclamations for which they had no authority. (23:21)

If the false prophets had stood in YHWH’s “council,” being in his presence, they would have proclaimed his word to the people, for they would have been in a position to make known his message. These prophets would have told the people what they needed to hear, admonishing them to turn “from their evil way and from the evil of their dealings.” Instead of strengthening the lawless people to continue in their corrupt practices, the prophets would have motivated them to abandon their lawlessness. (23:22)

With the unaided eye, humans are only able to observe things in their immediate surroundings, YHWH, however, has no limitations regarding what he can see and control. This appears to be the implied thought of the rhetorical question. “Am I a God nearby … and not a God far away?” (23:23) Concealing oneself from YHWH is impossible. This is highlighted in the next rhetorical question. “Can a man hide himself in hidden places and I not see him?” There is nowhere in the entire universe that can serve as a place of concealment from YHWH. This is emphasized in the rhetorical question that quotes him as saying that he fills the “heavens and the earth.” His powers of observation are boundless. (23:24)

YHWH “heard” or knew the “lie” or “falsehood” (“lies” [LXX]) the false prophets were “prophesying in [his] name” or as men who claimed to represent him. They were saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed.” In view of their prophesying untruth in God’s name, their contention may have been that their dreams were revelations from him. In reality, however, the dreams were a product of their own delusion. (23:25)

The opening words of the rhetorical question (“how long?”) may be understood to raise the point as to when the prophesying of the false prophets would ever end. How much longer would it yet be “in the heart [or thought or intent] of the prophets [to continue] prophesying the lie and [to be] prophets of the deceit [wishes (LXX)] of their heart [or prophets with their own thoughts or delusions]?” (23:26) With their “dreams” that expressed falsehood, these prophets made God’s people forget his “name,” turning them away from YHWH and what he made known through his faithful prophets. The false prophets related their dreams to anyone who would listen. With the deceitful messages they thus conveyed, they caused the people to treat YHWH as if he did not exist. This was what the “fathers” of the people or their forefathers did when they began to worship Baal. They “forgot” God’s name, for they abandoned YHWH, disregarded his commands, and devoted themselves to the veneration of a nonexistent deity. (23:27)

The prophet who had a dream was invited to relate it, making known the dream that was the product of his own delusion. As for the prophet to whom the word of YHWH had been revealed, he should truthfully proclaim this word or message. The rhetorical question attributed to YHWH (“What [is] the grain to the straw?”) implies that the dreams of false prophets had nothing in common with the word of YHWH. These dreams were like worthless straw, for they only conveyed untrustworthy and deceptive messages. (23:28)

As the compound rhetorical question indicates, YHWH’s “word” (“words” [LXX]) of promise or purpose can be powerful. Once expressed, the “word” is certain to be fulfilled. If this “word” is a message regarding impending punitive judgment, it will prove to be “like fire” and “like a hammer” (an “ax” [LXX]) that shatters or splits a rock. (23:29)

YHWH declared himself to be against the false prophets. The reference to their stealing his words from one another may indicate that they misappropriated the words of YHWH’s prophets. They did not express prophetic words of their own but came up with twisted versions or misapplications of YHWH’s words from their interactions with fellow false prophets. (23:30)

YHWH is quoted as saying that he was “against the prophets” who used “their tongues” to make an “utterance,” apparently uttering a claimed divine revelation. The Septuagint refers to these false prophets as throwing out “prophecies of the tongue,” merely their own worthless words, and “slumbering their slumber.” They were asleep to the responsibility true prophets had to proclaim the word of YHWH faithfully. (23:31)

YHWH was against those who prophesied “lying dreams” and who related the falsehoods that these dreams conveyed. With the lies they proclaimed, these men caused YHWH’s people to go astray or to conduct themselves in ways that he disapproved. Another attribute by means of which the false prophets misled the people is designated by the Hebrew word pachazúth, which lexicogaphers have defined as meaning “wantonness,” “recklessness,” and “boasting.” The Septuagint rendering is the plural of plános (“delusion,” “deception,” or “error”). YHWH had not sent the false prophets, and they had no command or charge from him, and by no means would they benefit (literally, to benefit, they do not benefit) the people. (23:32)

The people, including false prophets and priests, would mockingly refer to the message Jeremiah proclaimed as a “burden.” YHWH revealed to Jeremiah how he should respond when the people, a prophet, or a priest were to ask, “What [is] the burden of YHWH?” His answer was to be that they were the burden [an unwanted burden] and that YHWH would cast them off. (23:33)

The people appear to have regarded the message Jeremiah proclaimed as an unpleasant burden, something they did not want to hear. Therefore, YHWH is quoted as telling any prophet, priest, or any one of the people who used the expression “the burden of YHWH” that he would visit punishment upon such a “man and upon his household.” (23:34)

The acceptable way to make an inquiry about the “word of YHWH” when speaking to a fellow was to ask, “What has YHWH answered [in response to prayers or requests]? And what has YHWH spoken [or revealed]?” (23:35)

Apparently on account of the misuse of the expression “the burden of YHWH,” the people were commanded not to use it. It appears to have been regarding prophets whom YHWH disapproved that he is quoted as saying, “for the burden becomes to each [person] his own word, and you have changed the words of the living God.” The real burden was the message conveying falsehood, for those believing it would face disastrous consequences. False prophets changed or perverted God’s words. Whereas Jeremiah proclaimed that YHWH would execute judgment against the wayward people, false prophets declared that all would go well for them. (23:36; see the Notes section.)

Those making inquiry of a prophet were to say, “What has YHWH answered you [in response to prayers or requests]? And what has YHWH spoken [or revealed]?” (23:37; see the Notes section.)

Through Jeremiah, YHWH had commanded the people not to say, “The burden of YHWH.” If, however, they insisted on continuing to say, “This word [or the message that Jeremiah proclaimed]” is the “burden of YHWH,” he would express his punitive judgment against them. (23:38) YHWH is quoted as saying that he would “forget” or totally disregard (“lift up,” according to another reading of the Hebrew text]) the people and abandon them and the “city” (Jerusalem) that he had given to them and to their “fathers” or ancestors, doing so “from before [his] face” or away from his presence. If the Hebrew word is translated “lift up,” the meaning would be that YHWH would lift up the people like an unwanted burden and abandon them or cast them away. Translations vary in their choice of “forget” and “lift up.” “Therefore, I will surely forget you and cast you out of my presence along with the city I gave to you and your fathers.” (NIV) “I will utterly forget you and I will cast you away from My presence, together with the city that I gave to you and your fathers.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Therefore I will lift you on high and cast you from my presence, you and the city which I gave to you and your fathers.” (NAB) “Therefore I myself shall carry you like a burden and throw you away out of my sight, both you and the city which I gave to you and to your forefathers.” (REB) “Believe me, I shall pick you up and fling you from my presence, you and the city I gave to you and to your ancestors.” (NJB) The Septuagint rendering is, “Therefore, look, I am taking [you] and throwing you down and the city that I gave to you and to your fathers.” (23:39)

YHWH is quoted as declaring the lasting nature of his punitive judgment. “And I will bring upon you eternal reproach and eternal shame, which will not be forgotten.” (23:40)


As evident from verse 5, the words of verse 4 relate to the time of the coming Anointed One, Messiah, or Christ, the king in the royal line of David. (John 1:49) Those who recognized him as their king when he appeared in the first century CE did come to have shepherds who selflessly looked out for their well-being and lasting welfare. (See Acts 20:26-28, 31-35; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 5:2-4.)

In verse 6, the Septuagint says that the name by which God would call the future king is, “Josedek” or (based on a different way to punctuate the text) “Josedek among the prophets.” The phrase “among the prophets” is part of verse 9 in printed texts of the Septuagint.

The wording of verses 7 and 8 is almost the same as in verses 14 and 15 of chapter 16. In printed texts of the Septuagint, verses 7 and 8 are found after verse 40 of chapter 23.

If verse 6 is translated to end with the proper name “Josedek,” verse 9 begins with the words, “In the prophets, my heart was broken.”

The wording of the Hebrew text of verses 19 and 20 is nearly identical to that of verses 23 and 24 of chapter 30.

The wording of verse 36 in the Septuagint is shorter than the Hebrew text. It does not include any mention about changing the “words of the living God.”

Verse 37 in the Septuagint contains an abbreviated text. “And what has the Lord, our God, spoken?”