Jeremiah 23 • Carrying the Wrong Burden


One sad situation is when Christians begin to unquestioningly follow false teachers; an even sadder situation is when they recognize the false, leave, and refuse to join another flock because of the possibility of encountering another fraud. The only cure for false teaching is right teaching, true teachers for false. It’s never acceptable to go completely without. If you do, the false have also won because their objective is to get you to carry the burden other than the one of a crucified life to Christ. The objective of false teachers at every level, local or public, is to get you to make a substitution even to the most minor degree. Satan knows that God’s truth cannot co-exist alongside error, and it’s our job to know and apply the difference.

Read verses 1-4

Q: What exactly does the biblical metaphor of “shepherd” represent?

A: “Shepherd” is the most common description of a spiritual leader, what the New Testament will come to call a pastor, and their sheep or flock corresponds to the people or congregation.

Q: Who do shepherds work for?

A: In this case, they do not own the flocks given into their care but tend them on behalf of God, their actual owner.

Observation: This is the exact condition of Israel as described at Christ’s First Coming, an example of living under false shepherds:

Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

— Matthew 9:36

Q: Someone that doesn’t do their job is referred to as a “false shepherd”. What is the defining characteristic of a false shepherd?

A: “You...have not attended to them.” (v.2) They neither ensure proper care and feeding of the flock nor protection from outside attacks, both of which are biblical metaphors for not preaching the true Word of God nor protecting against infiltration of wrong doctrine/teaching.

Q: What is the double meaning of the word “attend” in v.2?

A: The false prophets’ duties went unattended and the flock suffered the consequences; therefore God’s attendance of them will constitute His judgment for their actions.

Q: Thus far there is application for both literal Israel and spiritual Israel (the church). But how do v.3-4 make it clear that there is a final, literal fulfillment of these words to come for the literal Israel alone?

For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day

— Ezekiel 34:11-12

Q: God’s resolution is not limited to just restoring the flock. What is the other crucial action He will take?

A: “I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them”. God re-establishes His Word through faithful pastors.

Q: How do we know for sure that there is a greater teaching concerning the flock which applies to BOTH Israel and the church composed of both Jews and Gentiles?

“I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

— John 10:16

and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.

— John 10:28

Point: The cure for a bad pastor or leader is not to go out on one’s own, but to seek out a good pastor or leader instead.

Read verses 5-8

Observation: Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the Messiah focus largely on His offices as Prophet and Priest, whereas Jeremiah and other prophets focus more on His office of King, here related to the earthly throne of David.

Q: What are some of the meanings of the title “Branch” which is given here and several other places in Scripture for the Messiah?

Q: Why do you suppose that in the context of what is here given through Jeremiah, that the messianic trait most emphasized is righteousness?

A: Their unrighteousness – choosing to live according to their own way instead of according to God’s Word – is the core problem not just of the false shepherds but the misled and scattered flock.

Observation: There is application for the church, but then specific application to Israel alone is provided. One of the biggest signs of the Last Days is not merely returning to the land of Israel; that is a precursor to the even bigger sign of a massive spiritual revival in which the Jews finally accept Christ as their Messiah.

Application: When you pray for revival, what is the main thing you hope will happen? If God’s priority is righteousness – a return to obedience to His Word and will – shouldn’t that be our priority when it comes to spiritual revival of the church?

Read verses 9-12

Q: Whereas the previous verses focused on the corrupted nature of the office of pastor, what is now added to the discussion?

A: False prophets.

Q: What is the source of the cause of making them “like a drunken man...overcome with wine”?

A: “His holy words”. God’s Word is a dual-edged sword that cuts both ways whether for the building up of followers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (symbolized by just “wine”), or for the destruction of judgment by being filled with something false in its place (symbolized by “drunkenness”.) By definition, God’s Word as “holy” means that it prepares everything for His presence, whether cleansing the righteous or removing the unrighteous.

Q: What is the result of the false prophets which Jeremiah mourns in v.10?

A: They have produced unfaithfulness.

Q: What is significant about the use of the term “polluted” as used to describe both the false prophet and the false priest?

A: This is the common Old Testament term describing a heart devoted to sin. The whole point of Old Testament Law and the associated purification rituals was to cleanse the pollution so as to make one acceptable again to God spiritually. A “polluted” person cannot stand when confronted with God’s “holy words”, which demand cleansing or removal.

Q: How will Jesus describe the resulting spiritual condition of spiritually blind followers of spiritually blind leaders as given by Jeremiah in v.12?

“Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

— Matthew 15:14

Q: Is there anything significant about the phrase “the year of their punishment”?

A: Sometimes this phrase is translated in other places as “time of visitation”. It’s the biblical way of stating that an exact date and time has been set by God which, when reached, there is no escape from. Part of their spiritual delusion is in thinking that since nothing has happened “yet”, nothing will happen at all.

Read verses 13-15

Q: What is the difference between “Samaria” and “Jerusalem” as used here?

A: “Samaria” refers to the northern kingdom of Israel which never repented from its false worship and was carried away into captivity for their sin first; “Jerusalem” refers to the southern kingdom of Judah still remaining who is about to suffer the same fate.

Q: On the whole, what is the spiritual condition being discussed here?

A: Unfaithfulness.

Q: Why would a teaching on unfaithfulness be particularly powerful to the people of Jeremiah’s time by referring to Samaria’s problem with Baal?

A: Although Baal was a false god and false religion, this is a Hebrew word also meaning “husband”. The essence of Baal worship is false worship on the surface level, but has a much deeper meaning of spiritual unfaithfulness, of Satan’s desire to take away God’s bride (His people) to make them his own bride. This ties in with their being likened to Sodom and Gomorrah as well, exchanging the natural for the unnatural.

Point: Then as today, as it has been throughout all of history, there is a direct connection between physical unfaithfulness and spiritual unfaithfulness. As the western church today has ever-increasingly allowed sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, etc. into the mainstream, so has there been a corresponding spiritual decline. No spiritual revival today would be successful without being accompanied by a moral return and repentance.

Q: What is the sad irony of the result of allowing one’s self to become spiritually polluted as described in v.15?

A: It’s a variation of “you reap what you sow”. As one embraces spiritual pollution, that’s what they’ll get in return. If they turned from their ways, they would be fed and watered spiritually for healing, but since they will not, they consume the poison that is consuming them.

Read verses 16-22

Q: What is the chief, deceptive message of false prophets?

A: “You will have peace” and “Calamity will not come upon you” (v.17). In other words, it’s a message that you don’t have to repent and return to the Lord but can continue in your own ways.

Q: What does this deception hide as expounded on in v.18-20?

A: It hides the fact that God has already set in motion final judgment for their false teachings and false beliefs. Although it will be clearly revealed in “the last days” (v.20), the implication is that by that time it may be too late for the unfaithful of today.

Q: What is one of the chief, visible proofs of a false prophet?

A: Their “ministry” does not turn anyone back to God. There is no sincere return to spiritual faithfulness.

Point: This is one of the surest signs that something is more akin to a “cult of personality”. Everything is built up around this one person who is promoted more than Christ, who is quoted by their followers more than the Bible, who ultimately never experience the revival they keep waiting to happen. Just in the past 50 years alone there have been too many real-life examples of this to list here.

Application: Can you see the value of having a pastor who is most concerned about your righteousness, the quality of your obedience and walk with Christ? Can you see how those who aren’t so concerned are not actually properly expressing biblical love?

Read verses 23-24

Point: One of the differences between false and true leaders is that true leaders live and act and teach as if every second of life is being personally observed by God because it is; false ones are deceived into thinking He either doesn’t see or doesn’t actually care.

Read verses 25-32

Q: According to v.27, what is the false prophet’s goal?

A: “ make My people forget My name...just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal”. In others words, to produce spiritual unfaithfulness, to become wed to another husband.

Q: Why is God stating that we should be willing to listen to the false prophets’ dreams?

A: Because we’re supposed to be able to test it against God’s Word and discern when it is clearly false. This is the meaning of knowing the difference between straw and grain – no informed person could be fooled to mistake one for the other. (“Straw” is also another form of “chaff”.)

Q: Within the context of the discussion so far, what is the significance of the demand to “speak My word in truth”?

A: The false leader falsely preaches peace and whatever is pleasing to the listeners’ ears so as not to challenge them. The implication here is that the WHOLE message has to be communicated clearly and completely for the whole truth, pleasant or not.

Q: What are some of the meanings of comparing God’s Word to fire or a hammer?

A: Fire is associated with holiness, something that completely cleanses (like what happened at Pentecost), and the hammer forces a change one way or the other.

“His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

— Matthew 3:12

“And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”

— Matthew 21:44

Q: What are the chief methods of false prophets God specifically identifies in v.30-32?

Q: What is the actual, tangible end result of false prophets’ efforts?

A: “...nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit”.

Point: Ever notice how everything about false teachers always centers around THEM and THEIR needs? Is it a coincidence that the only one that profits is a false prophet? We are supposed to be able to tell the difference between the false and the true based on the Word of God and their lack of effectiveness to produce sincere repentance.

Read verses 33-40

Observation: To fully understand this final section, it’s important to understand that the Hebrew word here translated “oracle” also means “burden”. Re-Read and try replacing “oracle” with “burden” to begin to get the sense of what is actually being communicated here.

Q: So what is ironic about their inquiry of the “burden of the Lord”?

A: They have refused to bear the burden, so to speak, of obedience to any of God’s Word to date, written or otherwise, so their inquiry has to be considered to be completely insincere. They’re not interested in actually carrying the burden of obedience to His Word, old or new.

Q: According to v.36, how is the “burden” switched?

A: Since they won’t carry the burden of God’s Word, they will have to bear the burden they themselves created which will lead to destruction. This process is said to “have perverted the words of the living God”.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

— Matthew 11:28-30

Point: The ultimate deception perpetrated by false teachers and false prophets is replacing the “burden” of a Christ-committed life with something that appears easier in this life, but in reality is not, eventually leading to death. The issue of knowing God’s Word well enough to discern and choose between true and false leaders is, in reality, a life and death issue.