Sunday, January 13, 2008

Shepherds Prophesied

Jeremiah contains one prophesy about which I wonder whether it applies to our time under the New Covenant. Jeremiah 23 (NIV) says, "1 "Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!" declares the LORD. 2 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. 3 "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. 4 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. (emphasis added)"

I know some believe that this prophesy refers to a time other than now, under the New Covenant and before the end times. My NIV Study Note, in a similar passage in the following chapter, says that the prophecy of the return from the dispersion occurred in the 6th century B.C. A more charismatic view holds that this passage refers to the "end times", so we are not there yet. But if this is a promise that came to fruition at the time of Christ and His apostles, maybe it's prescient for my discernment process. To wit, if it refers to the New Covenant, then we should be under shepherds emplaced by God. If not, and sola Scriptura is true, then perhaps the prophesy would have been more accurate to state something like, 'I will place my infallible Written Word over them...'

The Catholic NAB footnote says of this pericope, "With the false rulers who have governed his people the Lord contrasts himself, the good shepherd, who will in the times of restoration appoint worthy rulers. (emphasis added)" So not surprisingly, the American Catholic Bishops impliedly support a reading that holds themselves to be the fulfillment of this prophesy.

Matthew Henry's Commentary notes here, "If some have abused a sacred office, that is no good reason why it should be abolished. [!Wow! Would he have applied this logic to Bishops' offices? To the Pope's office?] "They destroyed the sheep, but I will set shepherds over them who shall make it their business to feed them." Formerly they were continually exposed and disturbed with some alarm or other; but now they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed; they shall be in no danger from without, in no fright from within. ...Though the times may have been long bad with the church, it does not follow that they will be ever so. Such pastors as Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, though they lived not in the pomp that Jehoiakim and Jeconiah did, nor made such a figure, were as great blessings to the people as the others were plagues to them. The church's peace is not bound up in the pomp of her rulers." This language indicates Henry's view that the Old Covenant Jews were "church" with "pastors". Perhaps he would not see the old wineskins as so different from the new, but if he clearly thinks this prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled after Christ established his Apostles, he does not show his hand.

I'm inclined to think this passage does refer to the New Covenant, and am therefore inclined to think that we were promised by God in ancient times to have Shepherds (Bishops, overseers, elders?) appointed for our care. I'd be happy to receive correction, but here's why I think so:

"5 "The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
6 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 Righteousness.
(emphasis added)"

This is the continuing passage from chapter 23. Commentators seem to agree universally that this is messianic prophecy. Contextually, the days of return from dispersion referred to in this prophecy seem to be be the same as the days of the appearance the LORD Our Righteousness. So while the Jews may have returned in the 6th century B.C. before again being dispersed, it seems as if this prophecy speaks of a true union of Church under the Messiah.

Also, the following chapter, Jeremiah 24, describes God's people as good figs who will have hearts for Him, and whom He will never tear down.

"Then the LORD asked me, "What do you see, Jeremiah?" / "Figs," I answered. "The good ones are very good, but the poor ones are so bad they cannot be eaten." 4 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. 6 My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (emphasis added)"

This later passage especially persuades me that the prophecy was not fully fulfilled at the first return from dispersion amongst the Babylonians. It is here that my NIV Study Notes say tersely (of v.6), "bring them back. In 538 B.C." When Christ came, he did not seem to think that God's people had returned to Him all their heart. So again, the return of the 6th century B.C. does not seem to fulfill this promise.

Are those promised in Jeremiah 23:4 the Apostles and their successor Bishops?

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