Opening The Old Testament
YHWH Is Our Righteousness: Reflections on Jeremiah 23:1-6
Instead, YHWH will "gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands where I have driven them; I will bring them back to their fold where they will be fruitful and multiply" (Jer. 23:3). Jeremiah here predicts the return of the scattered people of Israel, those who have been exiled in 597 B.C.E. and perhaps even those exiled in 587/586 B.C.E., if these words were recorded after the final exile. He insists that the cause of the exile has been the false shepherds of Israel. Despite the failure of these kings, still YHWH will reconstitute the community of God's people who upon their return to the land will be "fruitful and multiply," thus fulfilling the ancient promise of Genesis 1:28.
And after that return of God's people to God's land, God will "raise up shepherds over them who will (actually!) shepherd them. They shall not fear any more, nor be terrified, for they shall not be visited," (the same word as in vs. 2) either by God or by any enemy" (Jer. 23:4). Better days are coming, says Jeremiah, because better leaders will finally appear who will do the bidding of God.
Jeremiah 23:5-6 have been those verses in this passage seized upon by Christian commentators on the lookout for possible predictions of Jesus of Nazareth. Or, if not actual predictions, at least of descriptions of what Jesus' work in the world in fact was. "Look! The days are coming, says YHWH, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch; he will rule as king and act wisely and shall do justice and righteousness in the land" (Jer. 23:5). Nearly identical words are spoken by Jeremiah in 33:15, where again the "righteous branch to David" is mentioned as a future promise of YHWH. Isaiah 61:11 has a similar figure as he announces "the earth brings forth its shoots" in the same way that "YHWH God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations."
What does this agricultural metaphor imply? First, the tree of David has not been finally destroyed, despite the apparent end of Israel's life as a nation. The promise of 2 Samuel 7 of the eternal throne of David is still in force. A Davidic righteous branch will still appear. The metaphor in no way implies the righteousness of David himself; any reading of 2 Samuel 11 makes that fact certain! But from the life force that was David, God can and will fashion a righteous shoot. Second, when this branch appears, "Judah will be rescued and Israel will live in safety. This is the name he will be called: YHWH is our righteousness" (Jer. 23:6).
By the many repetitions of the word "righteousness," one can easily see what Jeremiah is about in this oracle. Rulers are judged by one thing, namely their concern for justice and righteousness for the people of God. In a Christian reading of the passage, it is clear how Jesus is to be judged; his primary work is that of justice and righteousness for all of the people of God. But, it needs to be said, any reading of the passage, Christian or otherwise, should yield the same concern. And that leads us to a possible meaning for this pericope for us in the 21st century.
The economic statistics for the USA in 2013 are nothing less than monstrous. One percent of our people hold as many resources in their very wealthy hands as fully 40 percent of the rest of us. And the bottom 20 percent have so few resources as not even to register on any graph or pie chart. And this is the world's wealthiest nation, indeed by most readings the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Have our leaders, elected by us, shepherded the people or have they rather scattered and destroyed them, with our too silent complicity? Such vast inequities among us are surely an abomination to God whose concern is for all God's people. Would not Jeremiah cast a withering glance in our direction and boom an oracle at us, us failed shepherds? We, like Israel long ago, hope for a righteous shepherd who will lead with righteousness all the people loved and redeemed by God. For that leader we wait this and every Advent, which is about to dawn once again.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.