The Failure of Israel’s Shepherds
Have you ever faced a situation where someone did such a poor job on a project that you declared, “I’ll just do it myself”?
That’s not too different from what God did in response to the self-centered shepherd leaders of the nation of Judah in the Old Testament.
“I will demand my flock from them and prevent them from shepherding the flock,” the God of Israel declared. “I will tend my flock” (Ezekiel 34:10, 15). Faced with shepherds who had abused and exploited his flock, God declared that he was handing a heavenly pink slip to the leaders of Judah and taking over as the shepherd of his sheep (see also Zechariah 10:3; 11:4-17; 13:7).
Of course, God’s decision to dismiss Judah’s leaders was not quite identical with our decisions to accomplish a task on our own. When we as human beings declare that we will complete a project without input from others, that declaration almost always represents a failure in our own patterns of leadership. Human leaders usually refuse to delegate either because we arrogantly assume that we alone are capable of completing a task correctly or because we’re unwilling to invest the time to train someone else. The problem with our tendency to do it all ourselves is that—because we are finite and frail—none of us is actually able to complete every aspect of a task perfectly. God, however, is perfectly glorious and infinitely powerful. God’s planning never writes a check that his power can’t cash. And so, when God delegates a task to a human leader, it isn’t because God is unable to accomplish his plan on his own. When God delegates, this decision is a work of grace in which he offers us the gift of participating in a perfect plan that God ordained before time began. What this means practically is that, whenever God decides to accomplish a task without any help from humanity, it’s because it’s a task that God and God alone can do.
The Perfect Provision of a Shepherd God
When God dismissed the shepherds of Israel and declared that he would become his people’s shepherd, it was because this was a task that he alone could accomplish. God promised to shepherd his people personally because he alone could shepherd them perfectly. That’s why God declared through Ezekiel that a day was coming when the Lord of the flock would live among his sheep, seeking the lost, bringing back the strays, bandaging the broken, and feeding the hungry. God himself would rescue his sheep (Ezekiel 34:11-13, 16; compare Amos 3:12), provide for his sheep (34:14, 16), and be present among them (34:15). The result would be rest and peace for God’s children (34:14-15; see also Isaiah 40:10-11; Micah 5:2-6).
Some of the oppressors weren’t shepherds but fellow sheep. Stronger “sheep . . . rams and male goats” had muddied the still waters and trampled the green pastures until nothing remained to sustain weaker sheep (34:18-19). Judgment would fall with a vengeance on these oppressors (34:17). God would separate the sleek from the weak and fill the feed-troughs of the oppressors with judgment (34:20-22; compare Matthew 25:31-46). Then, he would appoint a new shepherd over Israel: “a single shepherd, my servant David” (34:23; see also Micah 5:2-4). The intent was not, of course, that David would return from his tomb! The point was that a ruler like David would one day reign over the nation again. During the reign of this new David, God would establish a “covenant of peace” with his people and rescue them from the oppression of other nations (“eliminate dangerous animals,” 34:25).
But how could this new David serve as the “single shepherd” of God’s people if God himself had already promised to be their shepherd? (34:13, 23).
Some later Israelites saw the fulfillment of this prophecy in Zerubbabel and in the reigns of the Hasmonean kings—but these rulers fell far short of God’s promise of a descendant who would “come forth from” David’s own flesh and whose reign would be “established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12, 16 NASB). Even after Zerubbabel and the Hasmoneans, the Jewish people still clearly anticipated, in the words of Timothy Laniak, a “shepherd ruler [who] would lead his renewed community in a second exodus, provide for God’s flock in their exilic wilderness, and renew his covenant with them there.”
The consummate answer to this expectation was far greater than anything Ezekiel probably knew or imagined. God himself would come to earth as a descendant of David (Matthew 1:1-6; Luke 3:23-31). He would provide food in the wilderness, rescue the broken and lost, and gather the sheep that were scattered (John 6:1-15; 10:28-29). He would dwell with his flock and remain with them to the end (John 1:14; 10:11-12; 13:1). According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, barren trees would become fruitful through the work of this coming shepherd, and the earth itself would burst forth with new life (Ezekiel 34:27)—and, indeed, that is what happened. The shepherd became a lamb, stricken by God for sins that were not his own (Zechariah 13:9; Matthew 26:31-32; Revelation 7:9-17). The tree on which the stricken shepherd was hanged yielded the fruit of forgiveness, and the depths of the earth where he was buried burst forth with new life at his resurrection. His death established the covenant of peace that Ezekiel had predicted, and his resurrection turned out to be the first-fruit of a new world that is yet to come (Ezekiel 34:25; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Hebrews 13:20). Forty days later, the risen shepherd ascended into the heavens. And yet, even then, he did not abandon his sheep. The shepherd sent his Spirit so that he could remain with his flock forever, just as God had promised through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:24, 28-30; Matthew 28:20; John 14:16; Acts 1:6-11; 2:1-13).
The High Call of a Shepherd Leader Today
Ever since he empowered his people through his Spirit, Jesus the good shepherd has been gathering a flock from every nation and making them his own (Matthew 28:19; John 10:14-18). As he gathers this flock, God has chosen not only to serve as the supreme shepherd of his people but also to work through human shepherds. In the Gospels, the apostles began as sheep (Matthew 10:16) and became shepherds (John 21:15-18) who then recognized other God-appointed leaders as shepherds of the flock (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-2). And yet, those who are privileged to shepherd God’s people are never lords over the flock; we are followers of a greater shepherd who alone remains the true owner of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). Our calling is to pursue the pattern of Jesus, the model shepherd. Any power we possess has been divinely delegated for the purpose of guiding God’s flock toward his purposes and his peace.
Think About Shepherding:
What did you learn about shepherd leadership in this post that you hadn’t considered before? Shepherd leadership is not a leadership technique; it is a pattern of life that reshapes everything that we are. How should this truth change the way that you lead?