The word of the Lord came to me: “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. 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. “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 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, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 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. “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself 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, 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. “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 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? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet? “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 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.” Ezekiel 34:1–24, ESV
Ezekiel was a Priest in Judah and was carried off into exile by the Babylonians. Let’s clear up something from the start. Prophets spoke the Word of the Lord to the people of God. Sometimes this Word spoke of future things, as is evident in the above passage. But the Word given had to do with present circumstances. The Lord speaks to Judah through Ezekiel explaining why he has allowed the Babylonians to defeat them, destroy the Temple and Jerusalem, and carry them off to a foreign land. The message is clear. Those who were Shepherds over Israel and Judah, those who were leaders of the people, priests and kings, managed things for their own benefit and not for the sake of the people.
Those who are called to lead the people should be considered Shepherds. “Sheep were domesticated in the ancient Near East in 7000 BC. They are mentioned more than any other livestock in the Bible, indicating their economic importance as a source of food, wool, and hide. With the primary responsibilities of leading and protecting their flock, the occupation naturally lent itself as a symbol for those in leadership and God.” (Matthew Montonini, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, 2016.) This description is important because the role of a shepherd was one of self-sacrifice for the sake of the sheep. The reason the “sheep” of Judah are in exile is because their shepherds failed miserably at their jobs. Furthermore, the job of a shepherd was God ordained. Priests were appointed by God from the time of the Exodus. Aaron was the first and the Levites were appointed for the perpetuation of the office.
The people were not innocent of sin. But the head of the people are those who led them into sin by their own sin. Righteous leaders lead righteously. Sinful leaders lead into unrighteousness. Righteous shepherds lead their sheep to safe and bountiful places. Unrighteous shepherds lead their sheep into unsafe places where the shepherds can feed their gluttony and avarice. Righteous sheep demand righteous shepherds, and when they cannot get them, they have the promise of the Lord that he will be their shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Psalm 23, ESV
The requirements of God have not changed. Neither has the promise. Today, we have shepherds who are ordained by God to lead us, protect us, and ensure that we can live as sheep are called to live. The most obvious shepherds are pastors, which title literally means “a helper, or feeder of sheep.” Pastors today are given this title to remind themselves and the people they lead that their role is to help them spiritually and to feed them the whole counsel of God. Though pastors do not literally prophesy, they do fill the role of the ancient prophets by declaring the will of God revealed to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. There are two major issues relating to pastors that I have seen today. First, there are pastors who sheer the sheep for their own personal gain. Contemporary media has made this easier for them to do, but it has been an issue from the beginning.
Second, there are sheep who resist the leadership of their good pastors. We all, in a sense, are sheep after this description. I don’t believe there is a Christian alive who has not and who does not resist the will of Christ. Paul presents his case plainly in Romans 7 that we are all trapped in this way. The process of sanctification (the process of salvation) is a life-long journey whereby the Spirit of Christ remakes us into people whose primary existence is to glorify God. However, there are sheep who resist on another level. These are the sheep who sit in the pews (or theater seats) demanding to be entertained, uplifted, and basically made to feel good about who they are. This is NOT the purpose or end of the Gospel. The goal of Christ in his work as our Great Shepherd is to make disciples who will obey all that he has commanded. All those things we want, peace, purpose, joy, pleasure, reside in discipleship. All those things are inward developments of disciples and not outward experiences.
Pastors who work for their own glory and ego, who seek to profit from their position, who seek personal gratification or a desire to “climb the ladder of success,” are Ezekiel 34 shepherds. Pastors who yield to the whims of their sheep, who design their services and their sermons to meet the demands of the sheep in order to fill the pews and grow in status are Ezekiel 34 shepherds. May God forgive me for all of these things, and may his forgiveness allow me to continually amend my service until I recognize my sheep are God’s sheep and not my own, but Christ’s, and that I do not determine what is good for Christ’s sheep, nor do the sheep determine what is good for themselves, but Christ alone is the God Shepherd leading his sheep. As a pastor, I have spent decades aware of the traps of ministry and prayed for the Spirit’s direction and help.
There are other shepherds, though. Every elected and non-elected official in government is a shepherd called and ordained by God. In America, our founding fathers wrote a document outlining the purpose of a righteous government. It is to protect the God given inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. None of these rights can be interpreted in the sense of one person’s rights denying another’s. None of these rights are absolute. Rights bestowed by God demand exercise under God’s rule and law. And, in fact, the drafting of the Constitution of the United States took this declaration very seriously.
Unfortunately, Ezekiel’s description describes many of these leaders and many of the people as well. Even though there are people and leaders who do not believe in Christ (though they may say they do), the end is the same. Evil leaders will receive their due from God. So will evil sheep. In the mean while, it is the work of Christ’s disciples to demand righteous leadership and to hold all government officials accountable to the law of God. It is not godly for the Church to avoid politics and it is ungodly for politicians to deny the Church’s involvement yet use the church to advance themselves. I spoke of the latter previously here. Those who think it is somehow dirty or beneath the Church to bring politics into the pulpit know little about the Word of God.
Every aspect of politics is about morality. Every law passed is a moral decision and demands a moral reaction. Abortion, gender reassignment or choice, discontinuance of capital punishment, taxation, debt forgiveness, capitalism or socialism, government “freebies,” and everything else are moral issues and should be topics for instruction in God’s Law. The character of individuals running for office is also a topic for preaching, if it comes from the perspective of God’s Law Word. I believe care should be taken to make sure any information about a policy or individual is correct is essential, for if it is incorrect, the preacher fails to present God’s Word. However, the unwritten rule that you cannot name names when addressing evil is not God’s rule, as evidenced repeatedly by the Apostle Paul. (There are plenty of ministries that should be called out and identified as contrary to Christ.)
My discussion can go on ad infinitum. And frankly, it should be just a beginning to the Church’s wrestling with the issues in which it finds herself. The bottom line, though, is the hope that Ezekiel gave the people of Judah which remains for us today. God is the ultimate Judge and he has given judgment over to Christ. The ungodly should fear this, and because they don’t, they are fools. The godly do fear this for disciples want nothing less that to be obedient to all Christ has commanded us. These two groups are called by Jesus the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff. Where do I fall in relation to Christ? Where do you?