The Shepherd Prophecy

Ezekiel 34

Bill McFarland

December 4, 2005


That picture which has just been sung of the Lord as our Shepherd has always been one of the most encouraging sources of spiritual strength for the Lord’s people.  Bro. Bill Flatt in his book, “He Restores My Soul,” tells of an event that happens when his own mother lay very seriously ill.  He said that his mother was lying in a coma the night before she died.  She was restless and in difficulty, and he said that his brother Don was trying to calm her down by quoting the 23rd Psalm to her.  He said, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and she said, “I shall not want.”  And then when he said, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures,” she said, “He makes me to lie down peacefully.”  She settled down then and she passed away that next morning.

Jim Bill McInteer who was a great part of the growth of the Lord’s church in the 1900s, had his dear wife Becky to become a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, and she suffered with it for a long time.  Bro. McInteer impressed so much the people who knew him by the care he gave in such a tender and loving way to his wife.  He dressed her, he put her makeup on, he took her with him almost everywhere he went to preach, and when he explained how he was able to do that he said in part it was because of this concept of the Lord as his shepherd.  He said, “That picture gave me a view of the magnificence of God’s love and the fullness of his grace toward me, that God knows us individually and gives us strength.”  It is borne out in that picture of him as our shepherd.

That picture is a great part of the Bible story because of the power that it has to bless our lives.  Psalm 23 is the shepherd’s song.  John 10 in the New Testament is the claim of Jesus to be the good shepherd, but Ezekiel 34 is the shepherd prophecy.  It is the most extended speech of any of our prophets to address this idea of our relationship to God as people or the sheep of his pasture.  In this passage, there are concepts that are so extremely important to our spiritual lives now.  The idea of someone being the shepherd indicated a person with care for the well-being of others, with the responsibility to provide and protect and to feed and to lead those under his care.  Even though at first thought this picture may not appear to be very complimentary to human beings, that really is not its main point.  Its main point is to tell us something about God: that God cares for his people. 

The setting for it here in Ezekiel is quite important.  Ezekiel, as you will remember, prophesied to the people of Israel who had been carried away captive into Babylon.  He lived among them; he tried to explain to them why it was that they had been carried away captive and help them accept their responsibility for their situation.  Off in that captivity for the first part of this book he always tried to get them to see that they were dealing with the consequences of the wrongs that their nation had committed.  But something extremely important happened in the middle of Ezekiel 33.  In 33:21 a fugitive from Jerusalem came to him in captivity and said, “The city has been struck down.”  Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, and all the rest of the people were carried away captive or fled into poverty or disgrace.  And a change of tone occurs from that point onward in Ezekiel’s prophecy.  Instead of dwelling now on their wrongs that they had done before, Ezekiel turns his attention to trying to comfort and to reassure his people of the hope that is in their future because of God being their shepherd.  The rest of this book tries to turn his people’s attention to what can happen in their lives if they will turn their hearts toward the Lord and if they will let him bring them home.  That is what he emphasizes from here on.

The first note he sounds is this wonderful picture of the Lord as our shepherd, but not every part of that picture is just easy encouragement.  It turns out that within Ezekiel 34, there is first of all a strong rebuke to complacency and to selfishness on the part of the Lord’s people.  Beginning in Ezekiel 34:2 it says, “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?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.  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.”  That is a straightforward challenge, isn’t it?  Those who had been given places of responsibility in Israel to shepherd and to lead had not been doing so.  They who were in places where they should rule had been instead seeking their own self interest.  The shepherds in Israel, according to Ezekiel 22, were those who were prophets and priests and princes.  They were the ones who had the political and religious ability in that nation to exercise leadership.  They had failed miserably in their tasks.

The reason for their failure is the fact that they have not cared.  You notice very carefully in verses 2-4 that the idea is that shepherds ought to care for the sheep.  They ought to tend the flock.  They ought to feed the people so that the people can be strong and healthy.  But instead, Ezekiel issues a strong indictment against these in Israel because when they should have been doing that, their attention has instead been upon themselves and providing for their own interests instead of the needs of their people.  That indictment is one that you and I need to carefully consider.

There are two or three things about it that I think might help us to put it in proper context.  In the first place, notice that the failure of these men is not simply that some had wandered away or that some had been lost.  Even the Lord himself when he was here in this world lost one of the twelve.  He said so himself in John 17 in his great prayer.  God is not holding the shepherds accountable because some people have turned away from him.  He is holding them accountable because people have wandered away, and they have not cared.  That is the indictment that is here.

Notice secondly that what God charges these men with is not simply a blame game.  God takes it now and turns around and says, “I will shepherd my people.”  He is going to see to it that the need is met.  He is not meaning here for others in Israel to just turn around blaming their shepherds, “It’s all your fault.”  Instead, he is going to call on himself to do what he finds that needs to be done.  That is an instructive thing for us.

The third thing I want for us to see is that the failure of the shepherds in Israel in no way made up for the failure of other people themselves.  It is interesting that later on down in this chapter the prophet charges the rest of the people with the same kind of complacency and self-centeredness that he has found the shepherds guilty of.  In verse 18, for example, he says to them, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture that you must tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture and to drink of clear water that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?”  They are so interested in themselves that they will leave a full table and use up what could have been there for everybody else.

Look a little farther down at verse 21.  He says, “Because you push with side and shoulder and thrust at all the weak with your horns till you have scattered them abroad.”  When I was a kid, I had the responsibility of feeding the pigs or feeding the chickens.  You get so angry with the ones that try to drive or push the others out of the way.  That is the way individuals in Israel have been acting.  They are guilty of the same selfish complacency that the shepherds were guilty of, and God held them accountable for it even if the shepherds had faltered in their responsibility.  This charge to complacency should awaken us today to our responsibility for each other. 

There are shepherds in the Lord’s church who are charged with special responsibilities.  But many of these same obligations to watch out for other people belong to all of us.  I call your attention to a great passage like I Thess. 5:14, for example.  He says here, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idol, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”  That is a task that deserves our attention.  We don’t want to get to the place where we are so preoccupied with our own interests that we begin to assume that we have no obligation to other members of the body.  Let’s pay attention to the real needs of each other.

In the second place, in Ezekiel 34, there is a fitting description of lostness.  In chapter 34 here you have already seen it with some of the statements made about what is happening to the flock, but look at verses 5 and following.  He says, “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.  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.”  You notice that he uses the term “scattered” three times there.  My sheep were scattered.  They wandered off; they are lost.  That idea is what lostness is about.

Now look at the forms that this may take.  You can see it in some of what has happened to the flock.  For example, there are the weak that were not strong enough to survive.  Some are lost because they allow themselves to remain so spiritually weak that they just falter and die.  There are those who are sickly and who need nourishment and who need care that they do not receive.  There are the injured that are not bound up; they are not taken care of.  They don’t have the attention given to them.  There are those who have strayed through carelessness.  Some wandered away into spiritual disaster and go through that disaster without ever being awakened to the danger before them.

When we come on down in this chapter to verses 14 and following, we run across again statements of this idea.  Some have strayed, some have been injured, and some are weak.  When I read that, I can’t help but be reminded of the fact in stories about the lost in Luke 15 that people are lost in a different way.  Some are lost through straying like a sheep.  Some are lost through carelessness of people like the coin that was lost in Jesus’ story.  Some are lost through selfishness and because they don’t care about the truly important things in life like the prodigal son was lost.  And some are lost through complete arrogance on their own part like the older brother in Luke 15.

However it happens the problem of lostness is a disaster and a tragedy.  The people who are spoken of here are said to have fallen victim to the wild beast.  They were food for whoever came by.  Most people believe that the word “scattered” describes how they were carried away as captives into foreign lands losing their independence and the ability to lose their lives, and the fact that none search nor seek after them describes the hopelessness and helplessness that the lost face.  I was reading the Journals of Lewis & Clark, and on Friday, June 27, 1806, a small company was trying to begin its journey back down the Missouri River home.  They had wintered out near the Pacific and now they were trying to cross the Bitter Root Mountains.  The problem was that even though it was June, the snow was still so deep that in some places their horses stood on seven feet of snow in those mountains.  William Clark in the entry to the journal that day said, “The roads still continued on the heights of the dividing ridge on which we traveled yesterday.” And he describes the difficulty of this journey and how dependent they were on what he calls the “natives” to shepherd them through that situation.  He describes how lost they would have been without it.  He says, “The guides had them halt on that ridge for a few minutes on that elevated point.  On this eminence the natives have raised a conic mound of stones of six or eight feet high and erected a pine pole of fifteen feet long.  From this place we have an extensive view of these stupendous mountains principally covered with snow like that on which we stood.  We were entirely surrounded by those mountains from which to one unacquainted with them it would have seemed impossible ever to have escaped.  In short, without the assistance of our guides, I doubt whether we, who had once passed them, could find our way to rest in the present situation for the marked trees on which we had placed considerable reliance are much fewer and more difficult to find than we had apprehended.”  He could see in his mind what it would be like to be lost in that situation and to not have anybody who cared or able to guide them onward.  That is much like the situation in Ezekiel 34.  There is a rebuke to complacency, there is a fitting picture of lostness and then there is a beautiful glimpse of the Lord as our shepherd.

Look what it means beginning at verse 11.  “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, myself (I counted how many time “my” flock or “my” sheep is mentioned in Ezekiel 34 – it is 12.  God wants it known these are my sheep.) will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  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.  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.  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.  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost.  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.”  He describes in verse 17 how he will judge between sheep and sheep and between the rams and male goats.  His shepherding involves that kind of judging as he emphasizes again in verse 22.  You see the fact that God is saying: “Enough of this complacency; enough of this lostness.  I myself will be the shepherd of my people.”  Bro. Wayne Jackson counted up the “I will” statements through this part of Ezekiel 34.  He counted up sixteen things that God says he is going to do.  “I will do” he says because I am going to shepherd my people.  I am going to care for them.  I am going to provide for them.  I am going to cause them to lie down in safety.  I am going to deal with their enemies.  I am going to strengthen them for life.  The whole picture behind these statements may be that the people have been living as captives in a strange foreign land, but God is going to lift them up and he is going to bring them back from that captivity and settle them down in their land and be with them and bless them.  That happened under the leadership of people like Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Ezra and individuals like that.  But that served as a fitting background for the real fulfillment of that picture in Jesus Christ, our shepherd.  In verses 23 and 24 Ezekiel said, “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.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.  I am the Lord.  I have spoken.”  That picture of a descendant of David being the prince of the people and being the shepherd of the people is the major emphasis of the gospel records. 

In Matthew 2:6 in the beginning of this story, this is the figure chosen.  It said, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”  As Jesus began his public ministry, Matthew 9:36 said that the leading quality was the fact that he cared for them like a shepherd.  It said here that when he saw the crowd, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  In Mark 6:34 it said that with that compassion he began to teach them.  He went to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  He taught the people in Matthew 18:12-14 that it was like a man who had 100 sheep and if one of them got lost, he would leave those 90 and 9 and go seek until he found that 100th, and when he brought him back there would be great rejoicing, a fact that he also taught in Luke 15.  Jesus stated his mission in Luke 19:10 as having come to seek and to save that which was lost like the shepherd going in search for the sheep.  When he faced his death, he quoted the prophecy that said the shepherd would be smitten and the sheep would be scattered.  He saw his death on the cross and his resurrection as being related to his work as the shepherd.  When he offered himself on the cross, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all because we had strayed and he was trying to bring us back to the shepherd, according to I Peter 2:25. 

The great hope of Christians is related to the fact that the good shepherd is able to strengthen and to keep and to bless and to finally bring us home.  In Hebrews 13:20 it says, “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant.  Equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

In Revelation 7:17 there is the wonderful picture of the lamb who is the shepherd dwelling among his people and wiping away every tear from their eyes.  Jesus chose that picture of the shepherd judging in Ezekiel 34 to describe the times when all nations be gathered before him and he will divide the sheep from the goats, the sheep on his right hand, the goats on his left.  That is the work the shepherd does.  The result will be eternal life or eternal punishment based on relationship to the shepherd.  (Matt. 25:46)

This picture then as Jesus as our shepherd is a strong rebuke to complacency, a fitting picture of lostness, and a wonderful description of what God wants to do and to bless his people.  Everett Ferguson in his little book on the church makes the point that God owns the people who are shepherded by Jesus.  The greatest picture of the church that there is in the New Testament is it as God’s flock.  (Acts 20:28)  You and I have the privilege of being the sheep of his pasture, but he calls for a response to his grace.  He calls us to want to be in that flock.  He calls us to submit to the shepherd’s care.  He, the good shepherd, laid down his life for us, but he expects us then to be able to hear his voice, to come when he calls, to follow him when he moves, and to live for him all the days of our lives.  If you need to make a beginning of that today and if we can help you, won’t you come while we stand and sing?