Old Testament Shepherds
God used images of sheep and shepherds in the Bible. Sheep are often used to illustrate people and shepherds to illustrate leaders, such as God and kings. In a previous article we saw that Jesus Christ is the good shepherd, the best example of a leader. Now we will look at how this imagery is applied to leaders during Old Testament times.
In biblical times, the imagery of a shepherd and his flock provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and also served as a model for human leaders who were to rule over people as a shepherd tended his flock.
The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. The role of the shepherd was a cornerstone of the Hebrew economy as sheep provided key staples of wool, meat and other commodities. God’s choice of the shepherd as a leadership metaphor made sense for a nomadic society dependent on sheep, goats and cattle.
In Old Testament times God chose a nation of people, the Israelites, to follow and obey Him. The picture that’s used is of God being their shepherd; “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock” (Ps. 80:1NIV). He would lead them and care for them and they were to follow where He led.
As the nation grew, God appointed leaders to stand in His place, shepherds to act on His behalf. Moses was called “the shepherd of His flock” (Is. 63:11). He led the Israelites out of Egypt across the desert to Canaan. God was always near and He was represented by the pillar of smoke during the day and the pillar of fire at night. When Joshua was chosen to succeed him, Moses said “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:16-17). So Joshua was their next leader, their next shepherd.
God told David, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (2 Sam.5:2) and God “chose David His servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep He brought him to be the shepherd of His people Jacob, of Israel His inheritance” (Ps 78:70-71). So David changed from shepherding sheep to shepherding people.
When evil king Ahab asked the prophet Micaiah whether he should attack the Syrians, Micaiah predicted that Ahab would be killed and his army dispersed: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” (1 Ki. 22:17). Other leaders and rulers in these times, such as Cyrus king of Persia, were also called shepherds (Is. 44: 28).
So the nation of Israel was shepherded by Moses and Aaron, Joshua, the judges, and then the kings. Their prophets and priests were also referred to as shepherds. Jeremiah called himself a shepherd (Jer.17:16). We will see that like all human leaders, they failed. And the people also failed to accept the leadership of their leaders. Let’s look at four examples; three are bad shepherds and one is a good shepherd.
Evil shepherds (Jer. 23:1-4)
This passage follows two chapters where Jeremiah gives prophecies against the last four kings of Judah before they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The prophecies involve God’s judgement of the evil kings. It is followed by prophecies against false prophets who were giving the people false hopes of peace, while Jeremiah was telling them that God was using Babylon as a form of divine punishment for their sins (Jer. 23:16-17). In fact, the prophets and priests at that time were godless (Jer. 23:11). There are three characters in this passage: God, the shepherds who were the rulers (prophets, priests and kings), and the sheep who were God’s people the Jews of Judah.
God declared “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” (v.1) and “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done” (v.2). The rulers were condemned to a terrible judgement for destroying the people instead of caring for them and for dispersing the people, instead of leading and guiding them.
Then God said, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing” (v.3-4). As punishment for their sinful ways under the evil shepherds, the people were captured by the Babylonians. But God promised to step in and rescue some of them and bring them back from exile and establish new leaders who cared for them so they thrived, protected them so they were not afraid, and led them so they did not wander away. So, the evil shepherds destroyed the nation and the nation was captured by the Babylonians.
Selfish shepherds (Ezek 34:1-10)
This message was given to the Jews in exile in Babylon. Before the passage, Ezekiel explained that the fall of Jerusalem was because of the sins of the people who lived there. Afterwards, he says that God will care for the Jews. There are three characters once again in this passage: God, the shepherds and the sheep. The shepherds were the leaders, their prophets, priests and kings. After Josiah all the kings of Judah were corrupt. These are the subject of Ezekiel’s criticism in this passage.
God declared, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (v.2-4). They were selfish and greedy; they fed themselves, but not the flock. Although the leaders were entitled to food and clothing, they didn’t care for the people. They neglected the flock of people: they didn’t help the needy, the strays or the lost. They didn’t provide for them. They were dictators who ruled harshly acting as though they had no concept of serving the people like a shepherd cared for his flock of sheep.
The consequence for the people was, “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (v.5-6). Lack of guidance caused the people to be dispersed in the nations around Israel, lost and vulnerable. The leaders didn’t protect them but left them to the mercy of their enemies (wild animals are the enemies of sheep). “No shepherd”means no true shepherd. The term “like sheep without a shepherd” occurssix times in the bible (Num. 27:17; 1 Ki. 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16; Is. 13:14; Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). When there is no true shepherd to give guidance and direction, people wander from the path they should be taking in life and there is tragedy. In Israel’s case they were invaded, killed and taken captive in foreign lands. They were refugees fleeing a place of destruction. As pagan gods were worshipped on “mountain” and “hill”, these words could indicate that the people also left God for idolatry.
Because the leaders were selfish (v.7-8), God stated that, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (v.9-10).God promises to step in and judge the leaders and rescue and protect the people. Here we see that the leaders are accountable to God. In this case they lost their positions and their livelihood.
God then promised to seek the scattered flock and bring them back to Israel (v.12-14). This included “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (v.16). So, the selfish shepherds looked after themselves, but neglected the needs of the flock. Instead they fleeced the people.
Rich shepherds (Zech. 11:4-9)
This is written to the Jews back in their land after the captivity. The context is God’s care of the Jews. Before the passage He promises to restore them (10:6) and afterwards they reject the Messiah and are given a worthless shepherd instead (v.15-17). Here we see an incident that happened repeatedly in the Old Testament. It is presented as a drama, where Zechariah acts as God the good shepherd, who is contrasted with the rich shepherds. The other character is the Jews as sheep.
The country of Israel was devastated when they rejected the good shepherd (v.1-3). Then God declared, “Pasture the flock marked for slaughter. Their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished. Those who sell them say, ‘Praise the LORD, I am rich!’ Their own shepherds do not spare them” (v.4-5). Zechariah is to lead the people who are marked for judgement for their rejection of God. Of course, after they rejected the Messiah, the Jews were punished when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. Here we see people sold into slavery. The leaders got rich by exploiting the people. They even thanked God for their riches!
Zechariah responded “So I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock … In one month I got rid of the three shepherds. The flock detested me, and I grew weary of them and said, ‘I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish …’” (v.7-9). Zechariah led the people like a good shepherd. Although he removed three of the bad leaders, he was rejected by the people. This illustrated how the Messiah was to be rejected in about 500 years time.
Because they rejected the good shepherd, they are given the foolish shepherd instead. He is described: “For I am going to raise up a shepherd over the land who will not care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy, but will eat the meat of the choice sheep, tearing off their hoofs. ‘Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” (v.16-17a). He is a greedy and corrupt leader who doesn’t care for the needy or nourish the flock. He abandons the sheep like the hired hand of Jn.10:12. He is like the antichrist who will exploit the people (2 Th. 2:1-12). So, the rich shepherds benefited while they exploited the flock.
A good shepherd
Now we have a better example. If Israel would repent of their wickedness, God promised to give them “shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:14-15). Although this passage anticipates the Millennium when Jerusalem will be the capital of the world, David was a man after God’s own heart; he had a godly heart (1 Sam. 13:14). He led Israel with integrity and skill (Ps 78:72). When David faced trouble he prayed; he was humble; he acknowledged God’s help; he praised God; and this caused others to trust God (Ps. 40: 1-3, 12).
After David was prompted by Satan to count his military in an act of pride and reliance on human power, God’s judgement was that 70,000 of the people died in a plague. “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2 Sam. 24:17). David took full blame for his act and acknowledged his responsibility for the well-being of the people. The bible records David’s faults as well as his faith. He sought God’s will, was concerned for the well-being of God’s people and repented of his sin; although he failed in his personal and family life.
David knew God very well; he could say “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Similarly, Jesus Christ said, “I know the Father” (Jn. 10:15). Their relationship with God was what made the difference. They didn’t have their ear to the ground, but heavenward. David is included in the list of those who demonstrated great faith in Old Testament times; he “administered justice” as king of Israel (Heb. 11:32-34).
We will now look at the imagery of the “sheep”. Firstly, as sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. God established human government after the flood as capital punishment presupposes a governmental authority (Gen. 9:6). In Old Testament times God exercised His authority through the authority he gave to the king, priest and prophet. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25). There was no king in Israel in the times of the judges (who were military leaders) and people departed from the laws and practices given by Moses. So, lack of godly leadership leads to sin and idolatry. Of course, people can also reject godly leadership (Zech 11:8).
Secondly, the sheep can also be selfish: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (Ezek. 34:18-19). They didn’t care about anyone else. As they grazed, they trampled down the good grass for others. As they drank from clear water, they muddied it for others.
Thirdly, the bible also teaches that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). Our sin is like a sheep straying from the path and the pasture. This happens to all of us. Have you confessed your sin to receive the eternal life that is offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? Then you too can know God as your shepherd.
Besides shepherds and sheep there is the image of the “pasture”. Pasture is food for the sheep. David wrote, “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture” (Ps. 37:3). The land of Canaan was their pasture. It was their homeland where they received sustenance and could be fruitful for God.
However, they spoilt it and were driven from it. “Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland” and “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture”(Jer. 12:10; 23:3). So, the land of Israel was devastated by the Babylonians and God promised to bring some back after the captivity in Babylon.
Sheep feed on their pasture. “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against the LORD, their true pasture, the LORD, the hope of their fathers’” (Jer 50:6-7). Here we see that God was to be their true pasture. They should have been occupied on Him. Elsewhere the Bible teaches that obeying God’s word is as important as eating food “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).
Lessons for us
We have looked at the illustration of shepherds and sheep in the Old Testament. Some leaders were good and others were evil, selfish and rich. In most areas of life we are either a shepherd or a sheep—we either leader others or have a leader above us.
As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. We have been reminded of the danger of sheep being without a shepherd. Such a lack of true leadership is like: a person without God as a Father; a nation without a government; a child without a parent; a worker without a supervisor or employer; a church without elders; or any activity without a coordinator.
What have we learnt for leaders?
Good leadership begins with God as our shepherd. David learnt this; in Ps 23 he said this brings contentment, security, guidance and intimacy. All leaders should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, the “Son of David” (Mt. 9:27), as they shepherd their flock: care for people, not just yourself; nourish the people; be benevolent, not a harsh dictator (Eph. 6:4,9); strengthen the weak and depressed; heal the sick and injured; search for the lost; restore the strays; use knowledge and understanding; have integrity and skill; be fair and impartial; be humble; confess and repent of sin; pray; acknowledge God’s help and praise Him. If you live like this others will come to trust God as well.
Beware of bad examples of leadership: thief/wolf – exploits; hired hand – flees when there is trouble; stranger – lacks relationships with others; harsh dictator – ignores the weak; silent – avoids conflict; power-hungry – seeks recognition; professional – seeks the benefits.
What is our responsibility to leaders?
Our attitude towards leaders should be similar to our attitude to the Lord who is the Good Shepherd: respect leadership, don’t detest it (Eph. 6:2); if you have a choice, follow good leaders, not selfish ones; don’t be selfish; make obedience to God’s word a top priority; submit to all forms and levels of human government (Rom. 13:1-7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pt. 2:13-14); pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2); employees should “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Eph. 6:7; Col. 3:23-24).
Written, November 2005