This chapter follows thematically the previous two: after denouncing the final four kings of David’s line (see chapter 22), Jeremiah speaks of a coming Davidic King who will be a “righteous Branch” (5), called by the name “The Lord Our Righteousness” (6). Where the previous shepherds scattered the Lord’s flock (1), God will gather them to their homeland (3, 8) and install a righteous king to save and protect them (6).
So while chapter 22 ends with the cessation of Solomon’s line (through Jehoiachin—22:30), chapter 23 promises the continuation of David’s line through the “righteous Branch (5-6). This would seem to indicate that this future king comes from another branch of David’s family tree. Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3) seems to trace Jesus’ lineage from Mary back through Nathan—another of David’s sons. In this way, both the prophecies of Jeremiah 22 and 23 stand literally fulfilled.
While the beginning of the chapter deals with Israel’s kings (1-8), and while there is a mention of Israel’s ungodly priests (11, 33), the bulk of the chapter is a denunciation of Israel’s false prophets (9-40). The kings (shepherds) did “evil” (2) and the prophets and priests were “godless” (11). The result is that the people suffer. They are scattered as a result of the kings and ungodly as a result of following the prophets and priests (15). Leadership matters greatly. As go the leaders, so go the people. God is looking for shepherds who will tend and protect His flock (4). He is looking for prophets who speak His word faithfully (28). Unless this happens, His people flounder and fail.
Jeremiah begins the message to the false prophets by expressing his own inner agitation: his heart is broken, his bones tremble, he staggers like a drunken man as he hears the Lord’s pronouncement about the false prophets (9). The message he has to deliver is stern because the sin of the prophets is serious.
The false prophets have substituted their own words (dreams) for God’s words. Their visions come “from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (16). God did not send them, but they have run to speak in his name (21). They “wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares’” (30).
These visions are invariably ear-tickling words (2 Timothy 4:3)—words that promise peace (shalom) to those who “despise” the Lord, who “follow the stubbornness of their hearts” (17). Their words “distort (overturn, change) the words of the living God, the Lord Almighty, our God” (36). Instead of standing in the Lord’s council to “see or to hear his word” (18), they speak their own dreams (“I had a dream! I had a dream” – 25). Rather than echoing God’s words, these false prophets “steal from one another words supposedly from me” (30); they all start to sound alike.
Their dreams fail to correct the “adulterers” in the land (10) and do not turn them “from their evil ways” (22). “They do not benefit these people in the least” (32). They cause people to “forget” God’s name (27). On top of that, their false messages of hope and their failure to confront sin cause “ungodliness” to “spread throughout the land” (15).
So the false teaching the Lord condemns and promises to punish is a message that gives people “false hopes” (16). The message sounds good: “God is on your side and will give you peace/shalom (17) so that no harm will come to you” (17). The false prophet’s messages even contains some truth—truth about His goodness and faithfulness to His covenant promises. However, their messages fail to confront sin or call for obedience: “They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace’”(17).
The Lord equates the impact of false teaching with the impact of idolatry: both “make my people forget my name” (27). False teaching, like false worship, moves people further from truth and further into the darkness. The effect of the prophets of Baal (13) is the same as the prophets who preach their own visions (16): they promote “ungodliness” (15). Both kinds of prophets cause God’s people to “forget” His name (27).
The words of the false prophets are different in kind and caliber than God’s word: “what has straw to do with grain?” (28). Only God’s Word will nourish and feed his people. The chatter of false teachers is useless chaff. God’s Word also comes like a “fire” and a “hammer” (29). Unlike the innocuous messages of peace without piety, God’s Word comes to burn and refine away evil (6:29-30), it comes to “break a rock in pieces” (29). It shatters our delusions and smelts away the dross of disobedience.
Here is a clarion call for preachers to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). We are not to give people what we dream up but what God declares. We are to stand “in the council of the Lord” until we “see and hear his word” through a careful study of Scripture. Then we are to courageously declare it in a way that feeds, purifies and breaks His people. Only this kind of proclamation will “benefit” God’s people (32). A man who fails to do this brings God’s punishment on himself “and his household” (34). False teachers put their lives, families and flocks at risk. For, as the Lord says in three successive verses to false prophets, “I am against you” (30, 31, 32).
The Lord says that those who claim to speak for Him must stand “in my council” (18, 22) in order to “see or to hear his word” (18). Only then will our message be from Him: “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” (22). Preachers today must spend time in the Lord’s council—looking at and listening to His Word until we see and hear it clearly. Then will we not be preaching our own dreams, visions and ideas but will be able to declare His word in a way that benefits His people—turning them from evil and establishing them in truth. Then we will be able to preach high-fiber (grain), high-intensity (fire) and hard-hitting (hammer) messages.