Jeremiah 23 pronounces a woe upon the pastors in general. By the pastors, the prophet means the kings who ought to have provided protection and provender for the people. But they scattered and destroyed the sheep of Jehovah's flock. However, He would raise up a competent Ruler and Shepherd-King for His sheep. "Behold the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is His name whereby He shall be called, JEHOVAH OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS" (Jer. 23:5, 6).
It is plain this prophecy points to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. But the Messiah is the Lord Jesus not so much in relation to us as to Israel. This is important to hold fast. We do not lose by doing so. Many persons have the idea that if these prophecies are not applied to Christians and the church we lose something. Honesty is always the best policy. You cannot take something from your neighbour without losing far more than your neighbour loses. No doubt he may have a little loss, but you will have a terrible one. As this is true in natural things so much the more is it true in spiritual things. You cannot defraud Israel of one fraction of their portion, without impoverishing yourself immensely.
It must be remembered that the character and kind of blessing that Israel will have is of another sort from ours. This difference is due to the Lord Himself. The Lord Jesus will be the Head of the heavens as well as of the earth, and while it is a very precious thing to be blessed on the earth, it is better to be blessed in the heavens. And there is just this distinction made between a Jew and a Christian. The Jew's proper blessing is upon the earth under Christ. The Christian's proper blessing is in the heavens along with Christ. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Who hath blessed us" - not them - "blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:3).
Hence, the effect of Christian people appropriating the blessings of Israel as the blessings of Christians is that they lose sight of their own distinctive heavenly blessing and lapse more or less into the mere measure of a Jew's blessing. I grant you that if a person takes up the broad principle of the thing it is all quite right but to do this without overstepping the mark requires both care and discrimination. Unfortunately, the persons who confuse the Christian with the Jew have neither care nor discrimination. Consequently, the common interpretation I might truly characterise as a jumble of Scriptural doctrines, by which all real power of truth is lost.
The whole force of truth upon conscience and conduct depends upon its distinctness. When you blunt the edge of the truth, when you make the sharp two-edged sword to have no edge at all, it seems to me that its proper value for the soul is wellnigh gone. Now this destruction of value has been the effect of mixing up Jewish and Christian things. The fact is God made the distinction between the two very plain. He has written one set of truths in one language and the other in another language. The Holy Spirit wrote not merely the Old Testament in Hebrew but the New in Greek. For man to make both revelations mean the same thing is an error of the first magnitude.
If you say both Testaments are divinely inspired, I agree with you, and rejoice in the belief; and I hope you will always hold fast this truth. Indeed you can never be too tenacious in holding fast the inspiration of every word of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, always making allowance for errors of copyists. I am no enemy to research in these particulars. I grant you there are a few words here and there that have been interpolated by the carelessness of scribes; but they are very few and they are all well known. They do not affect the divine accuracy and authority of Scripture, both Old and New.
Each of the two volumes has its own special point of view. The Old Testament looks on man in the flesh - the Jew and the Gentile. The New Testament looks at those who are called out from the Jew and Gentile - the church of God. Those composing the church fill the gap between the ancient recognition of the Jews-and the future recognition of the Jews. We steal in, as it were, between the two periods - the past and the future - on the drawbridge which is made ready to receive us. We are just simply passing through, leaving the earth to go into the heavens for ever. This is our proper place according to divine calling.
Our distinctive Christian hope is that we shall not only be reigned over by Christ but that we shall reign along with Him. Therefore to take up such prophetic words as these, "I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth" (Jer. 23:5), and to apply them to the church is to lower the status of the church from heaven to earth. It ought to be a solemn warning to souls of the danger of their interpretation inasmuch as supremacy in the earth forms a very prominent feature of the false pretensions of Popery.
Catholic expositors have been leaders in this false interpretation. They have been misled by some of the ancient fathers who assumed that these Old Testament prophecies referred to Christianity. Consequently, Popery has sought to make the church a governor among the nations, to make the Pope a King of kings, and to put all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues under the rule of the see of Rome. Worldly government has been their avowed object, and in support of this claim they apply all these promises about Israel to themselves.
But the Lord will judge these outrageous falsehoods and pretensions. Moreover, He will reserve the earth for the Jewish people at the same time that Popery, the New Testament Babylon, will be destroyed by the divine judgment. We have to take care, therefore, not to be drawn astray in interpretation, because if we take a wrong path we do not know to what confusion and error we may be led.
"In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely." Now to attempt to apply this passage to what people call spiritual things is preposterous, because Judah and Israel are all the same thing if you take them in a spiritual sense. At any rate, I should like to hear a man define the difference. Perhaps the Tractarian party could define it. They think that Judah is the High Church and that Israel is the Low Church and Dissenters.
"And this is His name whereby He shall be called, JEHOVAH OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that they shall no more say, Jehovah liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, Jehovah liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land." Plainly enough, the passage speaks of the deliverance of the whole earthly people, both the ten tribes and the two tribes, and of nothing else. We may take the principle of the promised restoration of Israel to show how good the Lord is towards us, but nothing more. The truth is that we have never been driven out of our heritage, as Israel was. We may have failed to appropriate God's gifts, we may have abandoned our proper blessings, but there never has been such a thing as God driving Christians out of their proper place in Christ Jesus.
The whole idea of spiritualising the prophecies is unsound in principle. You can never apply it in detail. The theory only lives in a mist. So long as you are in the spiritual fog, you imagine these passages can be taken in a vague sense, but the moment you observe the precision of the word of God this delusion is at an end.
In the latter part of this chapter (Jer. 23) the value of the word of Jehovah is again insisted upon very strongly, and in an interesting way. The false prophets, the profane priests, and all the other dreamers brought forward their words to deceive, but the Lord stands to His own utterances, and how? Why should they take heed to it? Upon what ground? Upon its own intrinsic power. "What is the chaff to the wheat?" (verse 28). Nutritive value decides.
I never read a tradition that was not manifestly chaff. I never read a thought that was of man that was not worthless in the things of God. Give me something of God, and the moment my faith lays hold upon the mind of God I have got the wheat. In other words, the truth of God is not a mere question of historical investigation, but it is what suits a plain man much better and straightway. What would become of the poor and the simple if they had to conduct all kinds of long investigations to find out what the word of God was?
There is one capital way of meeting a man when he is hungry. Give him a piece of bread, and he knows right well it is bread. He may never have seen that kind of bread before, and may never have tasted it, but he is convinced it is bread. Give him a piece of board, and he knows this is not bread. Thus, judged by human learning, a man may be exceedingly ignorant, but there is a sort of practical test by which God guards even the simplest of His people. "What is chaff to the wheat?" The truth of God always commends itself to the consciences of those that hear it.
The hearers may be bitterly prejudiced. They may have their difficulties, but then those difficulties arise entirely from the strength of their will that blindly cleaves to the thing to which it has been accustomed; for no man having drunk old wine straightway desireth new, for he saith the old is better. He is grown used to what he has heard from his childhood, so that even though the Lord Jesus presents the new wine, the force of old habits and prejudice is considerable. Nevertheless man has a conscience, and that which is of God, and which reveals Christ to his soul, always finds an answer in the heart, even though the strength of will may still lead a man unbelievingly to slight God's word, to refuse it, and even resist it.