Form critical scholars who have studied the prophetic books have identified a number of common forms of prophetic speech. Today’s reading from Jeremiah 23.1-6 is an example of a prophetic “Woe Oracle.” These oracles begin with the Hebrew word that is translated “woe,” and there are strings of these types of oracles in places like Isaiah 5 (or in the NT Matthew 23). However, this is not the most interesting aspect of the woe oracle.
What is most interesting about these oracles is that scholars propose that they originated in the context of funerals. The added meaning gained from this fact should be readily apparent. When the prophet pronounces a woe oracle it is as if he is pronouncing the death of those who are the aim of his speech. In the case of Jeremiah 23.1-6, this adds to the meaning of the phrase “I will attend to you for your evil doings” (NRSV 23.2). So, pronouncing “Woe to the shepherds” is far more than saying “shame on you.” It is pronouncing a judgment of death over them.
For more on the forms of prophetic speech check out: