God as the Shepherd

by | Jan 10, 2017 | Austin Hess

This is the first half of a paper done by Austin examining shepherding and was originally done for his pastoral ministry class under the title “The Biblical Concept of Shepherding: Principles that Apply to the Pastorate.”

Shepherding is used throughout the entire Bible as imagery for the pastorate. At first glance, much thought may not be put into this imagery. However, if one studies shepherding and applies the principles of the shepherd to the pastor, a better understanding of who the pastor is and what he does is brought about.

HISTORY

Shepherds were usually members of the family who were expected to “show caution, patient care and honesty” (Colin Brown’s The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). Familial shepherds were used by families because familial shepherds were dependent on the flock for a livelihood like the rest of the family. Families could not trust outside hires because they would flee at the sight of a threat. Outside hires would flee because losing the sheep didn’t really affect them if the flock was destroyed (John 10:12-13). That is why familial shepherds were expected to be cautious, caring, and honest. If they were not, the entire family’s livelihood was at risk of loss.

Caution, care, and honesty carried over to the shepherds work. For example, good grazing ground and water were hard to find in the summertime; therefore, shepherds had to be careful when they moved the sheep. Shepherds had to know when to let the sheep rest and when to push them onto the next spot where there may be new grazing ground and better water.

Shepherding was a non-stop job. Sheep were susceptible to threats such as wolves and thieves. They could not be left alone because they could not fend off threats themselves, especially at night. When threats came, shepherds were expected to protect the sheep. Sometimes this meant shepherds were to lay down their life for the sheep. Shepherding was quite simply a way of life that had to be lived for the family to survive and grow.

However, there is another sense of shepherding. God would call the people of Israel his sheep in the Old Testament, making him their shepherd. Also, Jesus would often use shepherds in his parables in the New Testament as he would sometimes reference himself as a shepherd.

PSALM 23

There are many good examples of literal shepherding in the Scriptures. David in Psalm 23 writes about how the Lord is his shepherd. First, David writes that there will be protection with the Lord as the shepherd (Ps. 23:1). Charles Spurgeon writes in The Treasury of David, that “he [David] compares himself to a creature weak, defenseless, and foolish, and he takes God to be his Provider, Preserver, Director … his everything.” David recognizes his weakness and compares himself to sheep to show that he cannot rely on himself. Instead, David has to rely on the Lord for protection because the Lord is stronger than all things.

Second, David writes about the Lord’s provision (Ps. 23:1). Sheep need a provider because they cannot provide for themselves. David writes, “I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1, ESV) because the Lord is the ultimate provider (cf. Matthew 6:25-34). However, this is not merely physical satisfaction, but rather a spiritual satisfaction that is only fulfilled in the Lord.

Third, the Shepherd will bless his sheep (Ps. 23:6). The Lord is both good and merciful. In fact, he is the source of all goodness and mercy. God’s “[g]oodness supplies [for] our needs, and [his] mercy blots out our sins.” The Lord will provide for their needs, both physically and spiritually, because of His goodness. Plus, he will cover their sins because of his mercy and what his Son did on the cross.

With God as the Chief Shepherd, those under His care can lift up praises. “Through all eternity to you a joyful song I’ll raise; for oh, eternity’s too short to utter all your praise” (Trinity Hymnal, 56). His sheep can sing this because of the profound truth and goodness of God that is mentioned in this psalm. He takes care of his sheep by protecting them against harms, providing for their needs, and blessing them in many ways.

JEREMIAH 23:1-4

Jeremiah 23:1-4 is about how the shepherds—the rulers of Israel have scattered the Lord’s flock, how he will punish them, and how he will restore his flock. First, Jeremiah starts with the Lord’s displeasure towards the shepherds. The reason why the Lord is displeased with the shepherds is because they have injured his people. They did this by not taking care of or leading the people the Lord entrusted to them. Instead of guiding the people properly and taking care of them, they neglected their God-given position and duties and injured the sheep that he loves.

According to Jer. 23:2, the Lord will call for those shepherds to give “account for their sins.” In doing so, the wrath of God will come upon them in judgement. As Numbers 32:23 proclaims, “your sin will find you out.” Even though the bad shepherds evade God’s judgement for a time, they will be judged by God according to their grievous actions.

After dealing with the shepherds, the Lord brings promises to the sheep that have been impacted negatively. In this first promise, Jer. 23:3, the Lord promises the sheep that he will gather them back since they have been scattered by the wicked shepherds. There is another promise of the Lord, as John Calvin said, “it would not be enough that the sheep should be restored to their folds, except that they were fed.” Sheep cannot lead themselves nor provide for themselves. They also still need leaders to guide and protect them. Therefore, God promises the sheep that he will set good shepherds over them, those who are faithful to fulfilling their calling.

With the Lord’s care of his sheep, he will drive out those who do not care about the sheep; God will drive them out in the exact time that will glorify Him. He will also put godly men in the shepherding role that will care for his sheep and obey him because he loves his sheep.

EZEKIEL 34

Ezekiel 34 is filled with both good and bad examples of shepherding. Ezek. 34 brings the horrible shepherds under severe condemnation for their lack of care for the sheep. Ezekiel then gives hope of restoration to the sheep since they have been scattered. He then gives the sheep hope of what awaits them in the future.

In the case of this text, the Lord looks down upon the shepherds because of their “negligence … unskillfulness, and unfaithfulness.” Instead of caring for the sheep, the shepherds became lazy and left them to fend for themselves instead of remaining faithful to their call. The sheep were left to be “slaughter[ed] … weak … sick … injured … strayed … lost … scattered … food for all the wild beasts” (Ezek. 34:3-5).

Not only that, but these shepherds also took advantage of the people. “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezek. 34:2). Instead of taking care of the sheep and making sure they are well, the shepherds  became self-focused, only caring about themselves. All of this—negligence, unskillfulness, unfaithfulness, selfishness led to a great neglect of the sheep, the people of Israel.

Nonetheless, the Lord will deliver the sheep from their perilous situation – he will not let them stay in their condition forever. The Lord “will judge between sheep and sheep” (Ezek. 34:22). By this, the Lord is saying that he will separate those who are truly sheep and those who are not sheep but look like sheep in the fold (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). He will also bless the hurt sheep by blessing them with provisions and restoring them to how they were before. Lastly, no matter what happens, the Lord will find his sheep and bring them back to his safety, as far the shepherds have scattered them.

CONCLUSION

In short, the Old Testament talks extensively about the shepherding. Shepherding has a very unique and important history and through more study, it will be obvious that there is a clear connection to the pastorate and if one understands shepherding, they will be better equipped to fulfill the pastorate.

Austin is currently taking classes through Lancaster Bible College in pursuit of a B.A. in Pre-Seminary with a minor in Biblical Studies so that one day he may be able to shepherd God’s flock. He currently fellowships with others at a PCA church on the Lord’s Day.
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