Formations 12.12.2021: God Will Be Our Shepherd

Ezekiel 34:11-16

I’ve met—and am related to—a bunch of farmers and others who live in rural communities. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a shepherd. For most North Americans, sheep herding just isn’t part of our everyday lives.

And yet, every winter, I try to imagine a group of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, when suddenly an angel appears, and their lives are forever changed. I expect you do that, too. And like me, you probably have to fill in a lot of the details based on nothing but imagination and wishful thinking.

For example, we’re often taught that shepherds in the first century were reviled—in the same category as prostitutes, politicians, and used-car salesmen. Preachers have probably overplayed this angle. Yes, shepherds were impoverished members of Israel’s underclass. Yes, they weren’t always well regarded, especially by religious purists (because, among other things, sheep don’t understand about resting on the Sabbath).

At the same time, people surely remembered King David’s humble beginnings as a shepherd, and he isn’t the only well-regarded shepherd in the Bible. Psalm 23 takes it a step further when it declares, “The Lord is my shepherd.” How bad can shepherds be if God is our shepherd?

That’s why the metaphor of kings as the shepherds of their people was prevalent in the Bible and throughout ancient world. This metaphor doesn’t always cast shepherds and kings in a positive light, however. In the aftermath of the Babylonians’ devastation of Judah, the prophet Ezekiel lays the blame at the feet of the nation’s leaders. As evil shepherds, they have failed the people. But God will step in to be their true Shepherd, gathering the lost sheep and bringing them to safety.

Those shepherds on a hillside on the outskirts of Bethlehem never knew what was coming. The angels announced a Savior, a Messiah. But if we listen closely, perhaps we’ll also hear echoes of the promise of Ezekiel 34 that God will come and be Israel’s Shepherd. This newborn King whose birth is announced to shepherds in the field will do what the prophet foresaw. He will bring the people to safety in his Father’s everlasting kingdom.

Discussion

• How can modern readers, who may know very little about shepherding, identify with God as their Shepherd?
• What makes a shepherd a fitting image of leadership generally?
• What makes this an especially appropriate image for God’s rule?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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