After many chapters of judgment, Ezekiel begins to speak about restoration. After much proclamation of despair, he now begins to offer some hope. This has both judgment and salvation.
The Bad Shepherds & A Good Shepherd
The metaphor of sheep and shepherd is a common one in the Bible. God’s people are the sheep. The flock, the gathering of sheep, is Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament.
The shepherds are the leaders. You may be more familiar with the New Testament. There, shepherds are usually the pastors of the church. But, in the Old Testament, the shepherds are often the kings. For example, the Lord told David “You will shepherd my people Israel and you will become their ruler. (2 Samuel 5:2)
Because the Old Testament people of God had a country and a government, the king, as leader of the government, was responsible for keeping the people on the right path of obedience to God.
God was their original shepherd. And he was the real shepherd. But the people rejected the Lord as their shepherd and demanded a king. (1 Samuel 10:19) Moses prophesied this in Deuteronomy 17. He also gave the requirements for the king. The king was to copy the law in a book and read it all the days of his life. (Dt. 17:18) He was to keep the law. His doing so would be an example for the people.
Unfortunately, Israel had more evil kings than good kings. And, indeed, the evil kings led the people to do evil. So, in Ezekiel 34, God directs Ezekiel to voice his complaints against those kings and leaders. Here is the list of his complaints:
they fed off the sheep rather than feed them;
they did not strengthen the weak;
they did not heal the sick;
the did not care for the injured;
they did not lead them;
they did not seek the lost;
the ruled harshly; and
they caused the sheep to scatter.
All of these show that the leaders of Israel profited from the people rather than lead, protect and guide the people.
The word for “harshly” or brutally in verse 4 is the same word used to describe the way the Egyptians treated their Hebrew slaves. It is also used in Leviticus 25:43 which forbids one Jew from treating another Jew this way. God is saying, Israel’s rulers treated them as badly as the Egyptians and broke God’s law in doing so.
Ironically, some preachers today refer to themselves as God’s anointed, as the Israelite kings were labeled. Remember, David did not kill Saul when he had the chance, citing the rule that you may not strike God’s anointed. The irony is, having claimed this mantle, they also prey on the sheep, living lavishly on their offerings, teaching false doctrine and leading the sheep astray.
So, God said he would put a stop to it. He would “...put a stop to their feeding the sheep”. (10) He would rescue the sheep. And he would require an accounting of the shepherds.
God The Seeking Shepherd
God said he would be a seeker. He will seek the sheep wherever they are scattered. He will rescue them. He will feed them with good pasture. Look at how this passage is similar to Psalm 23. David declared the Lord to be his shepherd, who would make him lie down in green pastures, protect him, comfort him and feed him.
Included in God’s shepherding is a return to Israel from exile. (34:13) He will gather them and bring them home. We know from later books in the Old Testament that God did bring Israel home. And we know there were no more kings of Israel after that time. Israel remained under the domination of foreign kings.
God Will Judge the Bad Sheep
Even with God as the shepherd, there will be bad sheep. There will be those who take advantage of others. They want all the blessings and they want to spoil them for others. There are “fat sheep”, who live off of the lean sheep. I was shocked, when I returned to my home church after college, how many people wanted to make money off of me. I received many business cards. One fellow was know to go through the line welcoming new members, hand them a card, and promise to call on them for business. I still get some approaches from sales persons in church.
Church is not a business opportunity. We do not come here to find customers. We come to worship and minister.
So God promised to judge between the sheep and to rescue the weak ones. He will bring justice.
The Coming Prince\Messiah
This all sounds like God promising to return Israel to its homeland and give it good kings and leaders. But, then, God drops a big bombshell. He will be the shepherd and their God, and he will provide a prince for them. He calls this prince David, although David is long dead. So, we take this to mean the prince will come from David’s line. Yes, this is a promise and prophesy of the Messiah.
One of the things I have realized is that we often miss meanings in the New Testament because we do not know the Old Testament. Jesus often used the metaphor of the sheep, the flock and the shepherd. Growing up, I often heard this was because the people of his day were very familiar with sheep and would understand his meaning. That, however, is only part of the truth. The fact is, Jesus used these metaphors to reflect on these passages in the Old Testament that told of his coming. By using the language of these texts regarding shepherd and sheep, he was saying “I am this shepherd of the Old Testament text”. Or, “I am God the good shepherd”. In addition, in the flesh, I am “David the prince”.
Here are some examples.
John 10 has a long discussion of sheep and shepherds. In doing so, he alluded to Ezekiel 34.
In John 10:9, Jesus said anyone who enters the sheepfold (flock) through him would find pasture. This is a reference to Ezekiel 34:14 where God said he will “feed them with good pasture”. Jesus is saying, I am the one who will do what God promised to do in Ezekiel 34. I am God the Shepherd.
Another example is found in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus speaks of the final judgment. He said he would judge between the sheep and the goats, similar to God’s statement in Ezekiel 34 that he would judge between the sheep. Jesus said the good sheep were the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, welcomed strangers, visited the sick and those in prison. Those will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.
In contrast, the goats did not do these things. They were like the bad sheep of Ezekiel 34 who took for themselves and spoiled the remainder so no one else could have some. They took advantage. God judged them as he promised in Ezekiel 34, and sent them into eternal punishment.
The third example is John 10 again, this time verses 11-18. There Jesus portrayed himself as the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. He distinguished himself from the hired hands that fled when trouble came. Here he is David the Prince. He is from among the sheep as a man, being a Jew. He is of David’s line, entitled to lead as a king or prince, and he does so by laying down is human life in sacrifice for the sheep. He is both God and man, both God the good shepherd and David the prince.
The fourth example is Luke 15:4-6, where Jesus is the shepherd who seeks and finds the one lost sheep and rejoices over it. In Ezekiel 34:11, God said “I myself will search for my sheep”.
In addition to these direct references, not that Jesus rules now through the leaders of the church. They are “undershepherds”. (1 Peter 5:2-4) They serve, but they also have authority. They are not to lord it over the sheep, but to oversee. They protect and care for the sheep.
A Covenant of Peace
Not only will God provide a new shepherd, he will make a new covenant. This appears to mean not the new covenant of Jesus, but a new experience of the old covenant in which the blessings, rather than the curses, are experienced. It will be a covenant of peace. God’s people will be safe, they will receive many blessings, they will not be slaves.
One purpose of the judgments was to show the people that Yahweh is God. That phrase appears repeatedly in Ezekiel. But, when God makes this new covenant of peace, they will know by the blessings that Yahweh is God.
Ultimately, Jesus is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 34. He fulfilled all of the Old Testament covenants. He is the Davidic king. At the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the crowds rightly shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David”. (Matthew 21:9) He fulfilled the law, obeying it completely. He brings us permanent peace with God. He brings us peace with each other.
We see the partial fulfillment of this today. But, upon Christ’s return, all will be fulfilled. He will gather a flock of believers from all nations. There will be no more suffering for these sheep. He will be the shepherd among his people. Revelation 7:17 says “For the Lam at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”.