The little that I know about shepherds came from reading books. I’m a city kid, through and through. Even if I lived in the rural community where my parents grew up, there aren’t any shepherds in Bell County, Kentucky, at least none that I ever knew of.
I’m willing to bet that most Formations users are equally ignorant when it comes to tending sheep. For readers of the Bible, that is at least a minor detriment. Not only does the Bible include stories about shepherds—young David the shepherd boy, the shepherds on the hillside when Jesus was born—it also often draws on shepherding to make a point about something else. Often, as in today’s passage from Ezekiel, kings are compared to shepherds. For ancient Middle Easterners, it seemed natural to compare the responsibilities of a king in leading the people to the responsibilities of a shepherd in guiding the flock.
I don’t know much about shepherds, but I do know a thing or two about leadership. There have been times when I have been called upon to lead in endeavors both big and small. More than that, I have at least been a follower. I have worked with leaders, and I have opinions about what makes a good one.
The problem in Ezekiel 34 is that Judah’s leaders have proven to be unworthy of the name. They are unscrupulous shepherds more interested in their own advancement than in the people they supposedly serve. This note of accusation connects the Ezekiel passage with John the Baptist’s denunciation of those who fail to produce the fruit of repentance.
But Ezekiel envisions a time when God will be Israel’s kind and competent shepherd. Unlike the wicked shepherds, God will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak (v. 16). Good leaders take care of people, and God will be that kind of shepherd. The people will thrive when God is in control.
More than this, however, God will also do something about those who have mistreated the sheep. When the Lord comes, the prophet says, the people must be ready, because God will destroy the strong and thus tend his sheep with justice.
As Christmas draws near, let us not forget that Advent is a season of preparation. And part of preparing for the coming of Christ is reflecting on what God requires and repenting when we fall short. Jesus is our goal, but John the Baptist and all the other prophets are our guides.
• What comfort can believers find in Ezekiel’s description of God as their shepherd?
• Why does God in Ezekiel threaten to destroy “the strong”? About whom is God speaking?
• How might John’s instructions for those who own a surplus of clothing or who work as tax collectors or soldiers relate to this question?
• How might even these harsh sayings and forthright demands lead to security for God’s people?
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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