Who is influencing and shaping your life? Who are the people that are knowingly or unknowingly influencing you? Some of the greatest influences in our lives are family, friends, teachers, media, and people who we respect and embrace what they are telling us. How do we know where we are headed unless we know the character and direction of those who are influencing us? We have been looking at the book of Jeremiah where God has been warning His people that their direction in life was leading them to exile, which simply means being separated from God. That’s what sin does. What we need to understand is the importance of those who are leading or influencing us. One of the key reasons for the exile was the leadership crisis in Judah. In the end it became a carousel of ungodly leaders exploiting the people rather than empowering them and redirecting them toward God. Roland Harrison summarizes it: “Bad leadership is the ultimate attributive cause of the exile.”[i] We usually do not have a choice in who our parents, teachers, and political leaders are, but we do have a choice in listening to those who champion biblical values. So when and where we have a choice in who we will listen to, let’s choose the right kind of leaders to follow. Here we are about to see the difference between two different groups of leaders and the effects that they had on the people who were being influenced by them. In Jeremiah 23 we find a contrast between godly and ungodly leaders and the impact they had on others. Hopefully we can learn about the kind of leaders that we should be following as they are shaping our lives. So, what kind of leaders should we be following? What are the qualities we should be looking for? And what are the qualities we should avoid?
FIRST, LET US LOOK AT THE QUALITIES OF LEADERS DETERMINED BY THEIR CHARACTER
People ultimately behave in a way consistent with who they really are internally. Jesus said that we would know people by their fruit or the result of their lives (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). What qualities are worth emulating? This chapter begins with the ungodly leaders who were directing people toward a lifestyle of rebellion and sin. This, in turn, led toward alienation with God and others. Many times, leaders are simply following the dictates of their own brokenness and championing those causes. They are simply reflecting the desires of people who are sinning against God. They appeal to the lowest in people. Here in our text, we discover that the people of Judah were about to be judged by God and enter into exile because of following the unfaithful leaders of their day. The greater condemnation for this tragedy would fall on these ungodly leaders. These leaders were both the political and spiritual leaders of their day. God holds leaders to a higher standard because of the impact that their lives and teaching have on others. James reminds us that leaders will be held to a higher degree of scrutiny.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.[ii]
This is not designed to discourage people from exercising their teaching gift, but to take it very seriously. Paul, in communicating the importance of this office, stated to Timothy:
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.[iii]
A. The Nature of Unfaithful Leaders.
Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture! declares the LORD.
Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: ‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done, declares the LORD.[iv]
How did these leaders scatter the flock? What is meant by this statement? How do leaders lead people astray? A couple of things come to mind from the book of Jeremiah. One means is for leaders to enrich themselves at the people’s expense. Another way is to disregard the needs of people in helping them do the right things. Later in the chapter we’ll discover that these leaders were telling people what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear. Rather than warn them, they encouraged them in their sins because the leaders were as guilty as the people in disregarding God’s laws and words. Sin is always an impediment in our relationship with God as well as others. We will quickly see that character is the key issue in leadership. There was a day in our society, in the not-too-distant past, that character was considered the critical element or bedrock of truth and healthy leadership. However, when we divorce a person’s personal life from their public life, the outcome is often shame and scandal.
False prophets, by contrast, were indistinguishable from the rest of society in the matter of personal character, being essentially frauds who profaned sacred things and perverted the divine word by making it appear ludicrous. Their dreams were false, they told lies, deceived their hearers, and were spiritually irresponsible because they were not subject to a positive ethos [lifestyle]. They proclaimed what the people wanted to hear, not what God had to say to them, and they invariably brought a message which would quiet the conscience and give it a delusive peace. …they were thinking of peace merely as the absence of turmoil or social conflict, and not as the triumph of divine righteousness among men. …Absolute loyalty and obedience to the revealed will and word of the Lord was the ultimate criterion for distinguishing between the true and false prophets.[v]
The question then is, who are we listening to? Those who tell us everything is okay when it is not, or those who care enough to explain that when we disregard God’s standards we will inevitably suffer and encourage people to conform to God’s standards?
B. God’s promise to gather the people to Himself.
‘I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.
I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing, declares the LORD.[vi]
The first thing after disciplining His people through exile is God’s promise to bring them back to their homeland and raise up godly leaders who would care for them. Ultimately, God’s design was to send the ultimate king, Jesus, to our world and address the sin issue.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Savior.’[vii]
How would the Judeans in that hour have understood this message?
‘The coming King would be called “the Lord Our Righteousness” (23:6b). In other words, he would be exactly the opposite of the kind of ruler we have come to expect in this world. That is why Jeremiah switched Zedekiah’s name around to make his pun. Zedekiah was called “Righteous is the Lord,” but the Messiah would be called “the Lord Our Righteousness.” He would be the antithesis of men like Zedekiah.[viii]
Zedekiah was not the hope for their nation, but one in the future, who would be in the line of David would fulfill this promise of ruling wisely and doing what was right. Robert Davidson explains,
It focuses upon the hope of a ‘righteous branch’, or better ‘a true offshoot’. This is the hope of the coming, one day, of a legitimate descendant of the family of David, who will rule ably, guaranteeing to his people peace and security and that right ordering of society summed up in the words ‘justice and righteousness’.[ix]
God now makes this amazing promise that after discipline comes restoration and renewal.
So then, the days are coming, ‘declares the LORD, ‘when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt, but they will say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.[x]
This text speaks initially of the return of the exiles under the godly leadership of people like Ezra and Nehemiah, but it has an even deeper and ultimate fulfilment in Jesus who came as the nation’s Messiah or Savior. This is a prophecy of what God was about to do for His people. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, coming, gathering His sheep, and then laying down His life for the people of God. Jesus, as the gospel spells it out for us, is the Son of David. We read the genealogy of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s gospel that He was the Son of David. Notice that he will be called the LORD, our righteous Savior. The return of the exiles was so significant that here we read that the focus will move from their deliverance in Egypt to the repatriation of the people back to their homeland. Robert Davidson sums it up this way: “God’s final word could never be merely judgment and woe; the future must again bring deliverance and hope.”[xi]
This was a word of great comfort for God’s people who were exiled knowing that God would hear their cry and allow them to return to their land. God would draw near and heal them. What hope! What a word of grace; a word that we all need to hear when we have failed and sinned against our God. God desires to restore us.
SECONDLY, LET’S LOOK AT THE QUALITIES OF LEADERS WHICH IS DETERMINED BY THEIR MESSAGE
Now it is not always possible to switch leaders, but we can evaluate in our lives who or what is shaping our thinking and influencing our decisions. One of the great refinements in life is that we will be tested by deceivers. What I mean by deceivers are those individuals or systems of thought and message that will lead us away from God and His righteous standards for our lives. We will either adhere to the truth or we will embrace false teachers who tell us what we want to hear rather than the truth. We find this warning in the New Testament as well.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.[xii]
A. False prophets or preachers give people a false hope.
The opposite can also be said: that a true messenger will give a message of genuine hope.
Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a strong man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and his holy words.[xiii]
Jeremiah is stating his personal angst regarding what he sees transpiring around him. People are embracing falsehood, worshiping idols, and living sinful lifestyles. They were embracing the ‘fertility gods’ in order to secure rainfall, but the result was leading to drought and famine in the land. They were buying into the false messaging of the false prophets.
The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the wilderness are withered. The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly.
Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness, declares the LORD.[xiv]
Often the false worship systems were based on fertility rites with the desire for fruitfulness and prosperity in their lives. These rites often had ‘temple prostitution’ as a part of their rituals. Here Jeremiah calls them adulterers because they had been unfaithful to God. This was so notorious, that God revealed to Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, the idolatry happening in the temple in Jerusalem itself.
The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the court where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood.
And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain.
And he said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing – the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.[xv]
God is revealing to Jeremiah how degenerate the leaders had become. We see that the false prophets did not issue a call to return to God and turn from evil. Why? Because these leaders were equally guilty of the sins they should have been confronting. It was therefore inevitable that they would suffer God’s discipline.
Therefore their path will become slippery; they will be banished to darkness and there they will fall. I will bring disaster on them in the year they are punished, declares the LORD.
Among the prophets of Samaria I saw this repulsive thing: They prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.
And among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible. They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that not one of them turns from their wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.[xvi]
We can now understand why they were not willing to call people to repentance, because they were living a lie.
But here were prophets from whose message the call to ‘turn’ was conspicuously absent. But the way they themselves lived and by preaching a word devoid of all moral challenge, they ensured that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were no better than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities which God destroyed (Genesis 19). …The messenger of God must reflect in his life and in his message the character of God in whose name he claims to speak.[xvii]
Is it any wonder that God calls us as believers to be salt, to be a preservative to keep our society from decay? But when we lose our saltiness as Jesus pointed out, then we lose our influence and effectiveness in society. God decreed severe judgment against these spiritual leaders because of what their deception had created in allowing sin to multiply rather than be arrested and stopped.
Therefore this is what the LORD Almighty says concerning the prophets: I will make them eat bitter food and drink poisoned water, because from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.[xviii]
Jeremiah summarizes the false hope they were promising. They were proclaiming a lie. It would be like a physician saying you are totally healthy when your body is filled with cancer and takes no action to address the disease that was about to kill you.
This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you will false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.[xix]
Here we see the outcome of listening to these false messengers: they fill people with ‘false hope.’
B. False prophets or preachers have a false authority.
We discover that the false prophets were speaking from their own minds. Their message was not from God. They were reassuring the people that all was well, but the reality was the furthest thing from the truth. The spiritual law that sin produces death still holds today. They were not hearing God’s message at all.
They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The LORD says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’
But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?
See, the storm of the LORD will burst out in wrath, a whirlwind swirling down on the heads of the wicked.
The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand it clearly.
I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message, I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds.[xx]
We see clearly that God had not spoken to them. The true message would have been calling people to turn from their sins. God had been warning of impending judgment and war, but they were proclaiming peace and thereby taking away the threat of coming exile. The result of their message created indifference, apathy, and continuance in sin was the result rather than repentance which would have led to deliverance and restoration. Only those who stand in God’s council will proclaim God’s purposes. Rhetorical questions are then raised as to the imminent judgment that is coming.
‘Am I only a God nearby, declares the LORD, ‘and not a God far way?’
Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.[xxi]
What is being stated here is simply that there is no place one can hide from God’s judgment when it is warranted in our lives. He hears and sees all.
C. False prophets or preachers speak under a false inspiration.
They actually speak out of their own imaginations, and what they are saying is not God’s message.
‘I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’
How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds?
They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their ancestors forgot my name through Baal worship.[xxii]
People who speak in the name of the Lord must speak that which is consistent with the character of God. To speak something inconsistent regarding God’s character is to speak falsely. While dreams were a valid means of divine revelation, they could also be used to distort God’s message and be inconsistent with God’s character. People were then apt to believe all kinds of wrong things. This led to a contrast between what is true and significant and what is false and has no value. The dreams which were quite subjective meant that the false prophets were speaking messages considered chaff, having no substance; whereas the words from God were like grain, able to sustain life.
Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the LORD.
‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?[xxiii]
Here two metaphors are used to speak of the power of God’s word, fire and a hammer breaking rock. These bring about lasting change, which is what God’s word does in our lives. Now we discover both where the words of the false prophets originated from and God’s assessment towards them.
Therefore, declares the LORD, ‘I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me.
Yes, declares the LORD, ‘I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The LORD declares.
Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams, declares the LORD. ‘They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,’ declares the LORD.[xxiv]
Their message was simply coming from themselves and not from God.
But you must not mention ‘a message from the LORD’ again, because each one’s word becomes their own message. So you distort the words of the living God, the LORD Almighty, our God.[xxv]
The end result for these false prophets and those influenced by them will be shame and exile.
Therefore, I will surely forget you and cast you out of my presence along with the city I gave to you and your ancestors.
I will bring on you everlasting disgrace – everlasting shame that will not be forgotten.[xxvi]
So, who are we listening to? Who is influencing our lives? The lives of God’s servants and their message must be in line with God’s character and His word. God’s word both challenges and warns, but it also builds up and restores. If we are living a complacent, indifferent, and apathetic life, we might not be hearing what God is trying to communicate. Let us remember that our lives must be transformed by the ‘renewing of our minds.’ We should be growing spiritually, becoming more like Christ while our lifestyle ought to be like salt, which in the ancient world was a preservative. Jesus said: If the salt has lost its saltiness, it has no value. The empowered, obedient church is God’s agency to arrest decay in our society. As the apostle Paul challenged us: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1).
[i] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 119.
[ii] James 3:1, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] 1 Timothy 4:16.
[iv] Jeremiah 23:1-2.
[v] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 123.
[vi] Jeremiah 23:3-4.
[vii] Jeremiah 23:5-6.
[viii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2016), 342.
[ix] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 25.
[x] Jeremiah 23:7-8.
[xi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 26.
[xii] 2 Timothy 4:3.
[xiii] Jeremiah 23:9.
[xiv] Jeremiah 23:10-11.
[xv] Ezekiel 8:3b, 4, 6.
[xvi] Jeremiah 23:12-14.
[xvii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 29-30.
[xviii] Jeremiah 23:15.
[xix] Jeremiah 23:16.
[xx] Jeremiah 23:17-22.
[xxi] Jeremiah 23:23-24.
[xxii] Jeremiah 23:25-27.
[xxiii] Jeremiah 23:28-29.
[xxiv] Jeremiah 23:30-32.
[xxv] Jeremiah 23:36.
[xxvi] Jeremiah 23:39-40.