In the last 20 years or so, the “Good Shepherd” passages in Eze 34 and John 10 have been highly influential in our thinking regarding what an elder/shepherd/overseer should do. Some find here evidence that pastoral duties (shepherding) are the exclusive duties of elders, who should spend no time on administration (defined as anything not shepherding) at all.
This is, of course, absurd. The scriptures plainly charge the elders with teaching and refuting false doctrine. And management or administration is not only part of the job of a First Century village elder or overseer, but essential to good shepherding. As Lynn Anderson points out in his They Smell Like Sheep, one reason so many elderships fail to shepherd as they should is their failure to organize and administer as they should.
My life has been blessed by having been personally counseled by Lynn on some of these very issues. My fellow elders and I have twice set up conferences with Lynn to help us sort through some issues, and in the more recent conference, Lynn particularly warned us against abdicating congregational administration and leaving the church without leadership. Shepherding cannot be reduced merely to comforting and counseling. In the ancient world, shepherds led the sheep.
(Many churches have tried having the elders do nothing but shepherding, and the experiment has generally failed. I’ve discussed this with elders who tried and really wanted entire out of administration. But hired staff members and 30-year old deacons are no substitute for the wisdom of decades in the same congregation.)
Now, let’s see what the scriptures say.
(Ezek. 34:1-3 ESV) The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.”
The “shepherds of Israel” are the king and perhaps the city elders and other people in authority. In the Ancient Near East, “shepherd” was used of the king and the people’s god. Ezekiel’s complaint is the officials have enriched themselves at the expense of the people. This is a complaint about a lack of social justice in a theocracy. In theory, God is the shepherd and the king is his under-shepherd, ruling to bring about worship of God and compliance with Torah. And the Torah requires that the poor be cared for.
(Ezek. 34:4-6 ESV) 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
The weak, sick, injured, strayed, and lost are not sheep in need of personal counseling and comfort. I mean, Ezekiel is not saying that the king of Judah should have mended the literal broken bones and literal diseases of his people. These are metaphors. Isaiah uses disease as a metaphor for sin and idolatry (Isa 1:5; 33:24). But the most likely meaning is simply that the king has not helped the weakest members of society. The weak, sick, injured, strayed, and lost are not the damned but sheep in need of a shepherd’s care.
In particular, Ezekiel 34:4 is referring to —
(Exod. 1:13-14 ESV) 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
The similarity is not obvious in the English, but the commentaries see a clear reference in the Hebrew. The king of the Jews has treated his people as badly as Pharaoh!
In v. 6, the reference to the sheep being scattered “over all the mountains and on every high hill” is a reference to idolatry, as idols were generally placed on hill and mountain tops.
Again, the failure of the king to “search or seek for them” is a metaphor and not a plea for the king to personally search. After all, the people weren’t literally lost in the wilderness. Rather, they’d left God. They were worshiping idols and disobeying the Torah’s commands that God’s people care for the weak members of society. The king was in error for not calling the people back to God and Torah obedience and away from idolatry and the abuse of the poor by the rich. Social justice is very much in mind here, as well as idolatry and disobedience to Torah — which are not two different things in Ezekiel’s mind.
(Ezek. 34:7-8 ESV) 7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep,
Ezekiel repeats his charges and adds “my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts.” He is likely referring to the neighboring nations preying on Judah. Babylon had already attacked once, and the local smaller surrounding nations had taken advantage of Judah’s weakness to raid their towns and perhaps even annex some territory away from Judah. The king has not protected the outlying communities from their enemies.
(Ezek. 34:9-10 ESV) 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
God declares that he will therefore dethrone the king. He will not let corrupt kings use David’s throne to enrich themselves.
(Ezek. 34:11-13 ESV) 11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.
God says that he will personally become the Shepherd of the people. In effect, he is saying that he will sit on David’s throne rather than an earthly king!
The rest is, of course, metaphor — at least for now. If we take this prophecy as fulfilled at Pentecost, we see God, through Jesus, claiming David’s throne and establishing his kingdom for his people literally scattered across the globe.
In Acts 2 and the following portions of Acts dealing with the Jerusalem church, we see social justice being instituted. The church has all things in common. No one is in need. They care for each other, eat together, and are united — no longer scattered.
That is, the gospel realizes God’s promises through Ezekiel through the Kingdom. It’s not that the elders in Jerusalem set up a counseling service. Rather, they invited the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to join in God’s Kingdom and to be treated as equals. Jesus/God as Shepherd brings about a kind of egalitarianism and fellowship that was unheard of and nearly unimaginable.
(Ezek. 34:14-15 ESV) 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.
God himself will be the people’s Shepherd — King — and Psalm 23 comes true not just for David but for all who are part of the Kingdom. “Good grazing land” and “rich pasture” promises that the sheep will be well fed.
What did Jesus mean when he told Peter to “Feed my sheep”? Obviously, literal food was not the primary idea Jesus was intending to communicate. I think he meant — primarily — to preach the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel. They would be “fed” by hearing the announcement of the Kingdom and Jesus as Messiah — and so becoming a part of God’s new order and enjoying the blessings of the Kingdom — not just forgiveness but also right relationships (shalom) and social justice (including adequate food!). Within the Kingdom, the poor would no longer be exploited by their leaders.
(Ezek. 34:16 ESV) 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
Now, in this passage, “lost” doesn’t mean “damned.” Rather, the sheep are lost if they are no longer being cared for by their earthly king and are being exploited. God’s response to their needs is not forgiveness and salvation but “justice.” Obviously, it’s all connected, but we modern Westerners tend to see only the salvation part. We spiritualize something that is more than just spiritual.
Let Jesus explain,
(Lk. 19:8-10 ESV) 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus plainly alludes to Eze 34:16. And his point is not just that Zacchaeus has found salvation. It’s true, but Luke and Jesus say nothing about forgiveness. Rather, the true King of Israel, the Good Shepherd, has come, and where the Good Shepherd is present, the rich no longer exploit the poor — which is exactly what Zacchaeus had been doing. He didn’t just repent — he repented of the very sins the “shepherds of Israel” were charged with in Eze 34. He repented of exploitation of power to take advantage of the poor.
And thus Jesus freed the poor from the predations of the rich — and so Jesus took a step to save the lost sheep of Israel. You see, while Zacchaeus was also a son of Abraham, the “lost” were the people he was taking advantage of — and Jesus restored shalom for them by restoring shalom for Zacchaeus.
(Ezek. 34:17-22 ESV) 17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.
This is one of the most powerful images in scripture — to me. God is angry. The powerful men of Judah don’t just exploit the poor, they needlessly dirty their water. They make it hard to live just for the sheer meanness of it. And so God will judge between “the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” He will favor the lean, of course — “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” God stands on the side of the vulnerable, the weak, and the exploited.
(Ezek. 34:23-24 ESV) 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.
Finally, God says that “my servant David” will sit on the throne — an obvious reference to the Messiah. He will heal the nation — curing exploitation, idolatry, etc. — by giving them the ideal King: Jesus of Nazareth.