The Good Shepherd
Bible Text: Ezekiel 34 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Ezekiel – Hopelessness to Hope | Ezekiel 34
The Good Shepherd
A trust betrayed
Some of you, I’m sure, have been following the ongoing saga of the DeBelle inquiry, and the various crimes being scrutinised by that, particularly the rape of a student in an Out of School Hours Care program in the Western suburbs.
If you have been following those developments, and the fallout, you’ll know something of the outcry that has occurred, why people were seemingly able to continue to hold positions of power among children, when they were committing these terrible crimes.
And think that part of our reaction against what we hear of these kinds of events, is our shock and disgust, at the betrayal of trust that has occurred.
You don’t have to be a parent to understand that when you entrust your child into someone else’s care, you expect just that care.
And for that care to be neglected, with the person put in charge feeding their own pleasures, completely indifferent to the cost to those in their care, it really is a significant betrayal of trust.
So it’s not too hard for us to get some sort of understanding of how God feels about the conduct of the leaders into whose care he has entrusted his people, Israel.
Ezekiel 34 opens with a description of leaders who have utterly betrayed the trust God placed in them as shepherds of his people, and have sought only their own pleasure, and their own gain, with no thought to the enormous havoc they have wrought on God’s precious people through their greed and selfishness.
Israel’s kings were bad shepherds
The image of a shepherd was frequently used in the ancient world to describe kings and rulers. In fact archaeologists tell us that as long as there have been kings in the world, this is the image that’s been used to describe them.
And this was how God had described the kings he established over his people, Numbers 27, Jeremiah 23, for example.
So when God says, verse 2, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them:, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? It’s to the rulers, particularly the kings of Israel that he is speaking.
We saw last week with Tyre, how the king was responsible for the character and conduct of his kingdom. Similarly here, the kings of Judah have set the tone and character of the nation by their own conduct, and in in doing so, have led the people away from God, and caused them to be injured and scattered.
In the couple of hundred years leading up to the exile, and even during the exile, with the puppet king Zedekiah installed in Jerusalem before it was ultimately destroyed, the kings of Judah betrayed the trust that God placed in them,
Betrayed the trust of the people over whom they served,
And they failed to provide the kind of faithful leadership required of those who would lead people in covenant relationship with God.
Of course, lots of the people against whom God speaks here are now dead! But it’s not that God wants to address them individually, although there were still some members of the ruling class alive, it’s more that God is speaking against a dynasty, a continuous reign of kings who with very few exceptions, embodied this particular style of leadership.
Should not shepherds take care of the flock? God asks?
These shepherds are taking all the benefits from the flock, curds, wool, choice meat, but, you do not take care of the flock. God says 4 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.
And who are these exploited, lost, injured, scattered sheep? They are, look at the beginning of verse 6 my sheep, God says. That’s a repeated phrase, right through to the end of verse 10, we find it 6 times. In the original language it’s the same words translated my flock and my sheep.
The shepherds treat the sheep like they are their own! But God says, no they are my sheep. “You are fattening yourselves, at the expense of my sheep.”
And calling them my sheep helps us move out of the metaphor, into the real world.
The ones God calls my flock are the people he has drawn to himself in covenant relationship.
And in saying, You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured, God accuses the leaders of neglecting the most vulnerable members of the community.
Those who required special care have been abandoned,
And those who have wandered away, the strays, the lost, The leaders haven’t gone after them,
Haven’t sought to restore them, and bring them back in to gathered people of God, where the blessings of being God’s people, and having God’s presence dwell could be realised.
Without good shepherds God’s people are scattered
And because the leaders of Israel have been so caught up in using their position, for their own pleasures, God’s people have suffered. They have been scattered, verse 5, because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals
A friend of mine drove into the garage once, forgetting that on the roof rack of her car, was her husband’s $5000 bicycle.
“You know that thing you really love, well, I destroyed it! It’s in pieces!”
God’s people are, metaphorically, in pieces on the garage floor.
Those entrusted with their care have betrayed that trust, and in this language of scattering, and becoming food for wild animals, God lays the blame, for the exile,
The deportation to Babylon,
The scattering of his people, and the destruction of Jerusalem, squarely at the feet of Israel’s kings.
That’s not to say that the people were innocent, that they didn’t deserve God’s judgment on their sin. Ezekiel has made it very clear for us previously, that God’s judgement of the sin and rebellion of the people is entirely just and right, and that each person is accountable before God for their own standing before him, and for whether or not they respond to God and trust in his promises for themselves.
But the kings that God raised up for his people, were not just political leaders.
They were not just to govern trade, and make alliances, and ensure the material prosperity of the nation. They were also charged with the responsibility for laying out before the people, the moral and spiritual direction that God desired, and they were answerable for the extent to which they lead people in that.
Everyone was responsible, but the kings and leaders had a special responsibility.
God will remove the shepherds
Therefore God says, he will judge these shepherds, who have not shepherded
Listen to what God says, from verse 9, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says:, 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
It’s remarkable for God to say that he is against the kings and rulers of his people
This was generally the language reserved for God’s enemies, to those nations and leaders who set themselves up against Israel, and therefore, against God!
Back in August, Police around the country released mugshots of 20 of Australia’s most wanted criminals. But imagine, when they released the photos, if among the top 20 most wanted criminals in the country, was the photo of the Premier, Jay Weatherill, or the SA Police Commissioner, Gary Burns!
There would be a certain shock in that, wouldn’t there? For someone in that position, to be described in those terms!
Well that’s the shock Ezekiel’s original audience, the Israelite exiles in Babylon, would most definitely have felt, at hearing the Sovereign Lord, notice LORD in capital letters in verse 10. God is speaking as the God of the covenant, this God says, these leaders are now public enemy number one, and they are to me, like all those other nations who reject me, and oppress my people, and I am against them.
God is going to tear down the monarchy, and remove the kings from their positions of leadership,
Such is the extent of their sin, that it’s only by removing the monarchy from existence altogether, that God’s people can be saved.
And what God promises here has already begun to happen. And this helps us make sense of the exile itself:, God’s people are taken off to Babylon, not just as judgment for sin, but also as part of God’s plan to preserve his people, and to eventually restore them.
In carrying hundreds and thousands of the Israelites away into exile, God has already removed them, from the cruel exploitation of their corrupt kings. They are no longer under the influence of Zedekiah, and those who came before him, who led them away from God, and into idolatry.
God will save his people as though wrestling them from the mouth of a wild animal, verse 10. And for the rulers, this is a word of judgement, but for the people, it’s a word of hope.
But there is a good shepherd
Because God promises the arrival of a good shepherd.
The false shepherds are gone, and God himself will take on the role of shepherding his people.
Even when God has established the monarchy, at the people’s request, 450 years or so previously, he didn’t just hand over the nation to the king, and wash his hands of them entirely.
God was always their king, always their shepherd. Think of how David, himself the king, describes God in the 23rd Psalm. The Lord is my shepherd.
Even way back in Genesis 48 and 49, Jacob describes God as the shepherd of Israel
And now God says he will remove those who served under him, his vice-regents, and the relationship between God and people, the picture of what it was to live under the gracious sovereign hand of God, would be seen once more.
God will deal with his people directly, and in these verses, he highlights his presence with them. For example, when God says in verse 11, I myself will search for my sheep, literally God says something like “Look, here I am!”
And then in verses 12 down to 22, there’s this great long list of verbs. And just about all I remember about verbs from school is that they’re doing words, and they have a subject;, the person doing the doing.
All these great verbs in 12 to 22 have God as their subject, and in contrast to all the things that the corrupt shepherds didn’t do, this is what God does, to shepherd his people.
And while we’re making use of our high school grammar, notice the first person promises that abound in this section.
I will bring,
I will pasture,
I will tend,
God doesn’t leave any doubt at all, about who is responsible for this great restoration and rescue. About 25 times God says I will do something, for the benefit of the people.
And what is it that God will do for his people? Well, I’m sure that at different times throughout history and even today, God’s people have had all sorts of different ideas about what they think God needs to do for them! But here we find 3 promises from God about his priorities for them.
And he judges.
The good shepherd gathers (v 11 – 13)
First of all, the good shepherd gathers his lost and scattered sheep.
Verse 11, I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness
The most notable scattering, was the exile to Babylon, And if scattering was a sign of God’s judgment on sin, then gathering is a reversal of that, and a sign that sin has been punished,
And notice in verse 12, the day described as a day of clouds and darkness. It’s supposed to remind us of the Day of the Lord, when God would both judge sin, and rescue his people.
That same event would be both a time of judgment, and the ushering-in of a new age of God’s rule and his relationship with people.
And the language is, I think, deliberately ambiguous, pointing both (RIGHT) backwards and forwards, so God’s referring to the day of scattering, summed up with the fall of Jerusalem, and the final exile in 586 BC.
God can call that the day of the Lord, the day of judgment. And as we’ve already seen, that event, the destruction of Jerusalem, was also an act of salvation and rescue, because it was part of the means by which God freed his people from their corrupt shepherds.
But the language is also intended to cast our eyes forward, to another day when God acts in both salvation and in judgment.
And the point is to remind us, to remind Ezekiel’s original hearers, that God will one day bring about a new kind of kingdom which will involve gathering his lost and scattered people.
Which means that the judging of sin, and rescue from corrupt rulers that Israel experienced here, that isn’t the sum total of all the biblical expectation tied up in that language of a day of clouds and darkness.
There is still more to be done, in terms of judgment of sin, and the gathering in of God’s people.
We mustn’t think that God’s plans and purposes have reached their fulfilment here, or with the return from exile in Babylon.
The good shepherd feeds (v 13 – 16a)
But the good shepherd also feeds his sheep. The second half of verse 13 through to verse 16, gives a great picture of provision.
I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel,
I will tend them in a good pasture,
the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land
There they will lie down in good grazing land
The late Christopher Hitchens, journalist, and celebrity atheist, wrote in his book The Portable Atheist, “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. , Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion, that they are god.”
Well, regardless of whatever point Hitch was trying to make, it is because of who God is, that he provides for his people in the way that he does.
And in fact, what Hitch goes on to say, couldn’t be more at odds with this picture. Hitchens says, in the introduction to the book, he says, a cat might kind of begrudgingly share something with you, maybe just the “cold entrails” of rodent they’ve killed, and he says that kind of grudging minimal generosity, is all you could ever expect from God.
And yet the picture in Ezekiel 34 is of abundant generosity, isn’t it?
I didn’t even read it all out, because God makes the same promise of feeding and provision so many times!
There’s no grudging provision here, but a promise of abundance and blessing, as God himself provides for his sheep.
The good shepherd judges (v 16b – 21)
The 3rd aspect of God’s care for his people pictured here, is to judge the sheep.
From verse 16, The sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice
Verse 17, I will judge between one sheep and another
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep verse 20
Now, this reminds us of the point of the metaphor! God’s not really talking about sheep! It makes no sense for a shepherd to destroy the sleek and the strong among his flock!
But people will be held accountable, for how they have responded to God, and whether they trust in God and his promises and his pattern for life, or whether they take every gift and blessing they can, but reject God and his purposes.
There are some among God’s people, not just the leaders, who have been using their strength, or position, for personal gain, to the detriment of others.
But like those corrupt leaders, these people too, will face justice.
Now if there’s ever a metaphor about sheep that we use, it tends to be to highlight them all as a group, indistinguishable from one another, all doing exactly the same thing.
Well, city boy, that’s what I think!
But Gods’ no city boy looking at his sheep, seeing them as one indistinguishable bunch! He sees them individually.
He sees those who take advantage of the weak and helpless,
He sees those who greedily take for themselves the benefits and blessings that flow to them though God’s provision, with no thought for those who are in need, or those who are weaker.
God will purify his flock from its sinful leadership, sure, but also from its sinful members.
The good shepherd shepherds through David
And once God has purified his people, his promise from verse 23, is to shepherd them himself, through the one he calls my servant, David.
David was the greatest king of Israel.
David was the one to whom God had promised, that one of his descendants would reign over God’s people forever.
But God’s said he’s done with the monarchy, so why do we now have a king coming back?
Well, here we find a shift in the timeline.
God has now raised the stakes. He’s not just making promises about the people’s security and safety in the land, he’s talking about a whole new era, with a whole new way of relating to God and submitting to his rule.
We’re in a pirate phase, in our house at the moment, so walking around the house is a matter of navigating, toy ships, cutlasses, hooks, peg legs, telescopes and the like.
And when you look through a telescope, even a kids plastic telescope, your immediate situation doesn’t change, but you see past your immediate situation, into what is further away, and it’s as if that stuff that is far away, gets brought near.
That’s what’s happening here. God has now brought the telescope up to Ezekiel’s eye and although his current situation hasn’t changed, he now gets a glimpse of what’s further away.
And I guess the question is, how do we know, when the perspective changes?
How do we know that God’s changed from talking about Israel’s immediate future, to something more distant?
Well, there are a few clues in this passage, and slightly wider, that alert us to the fact that God has increased the scope of his promises.
So the fact that God promises, just one shepherd, verse 23, for the future ruling of his people, signals for us, that God isn’t just thinking of the typical reign of an earthly king
The reference to David as my servant, also in verse 23, echoes the language of the prophet Isaiah, where one called the servant of the Lord, will establish justice over all the earth, and usher in God’s eternal kingdom, by making payment for the sins of the people.
Clearly not the work of an ordinary king!
And then, in chapter 37, where these ideas get fleshed out a little more, it’s made explicit that this shepherd David, will reign forever!
Yes, he’s a king, but he’s a king unlike any of the other kings they’ve known.
In fact, as verse 24 makes clear, this shepherd will symbolise God’s own presence with his people.
This king, through the manner of reign, and in stark contrast to the wicked kings of the monarchy, this king’s reign makes it clear that the people are God’s own possession,
That he is among them.
It might hard for us to picture a king, who kind of personally represents God to the people, but Old Testament Israel easily understood that a relationship between God and the king could be described like that.
Psalm 2 is perhaps the classic example, and going back to Venn Diagrams which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there is this overlap that they understood, between the function and identity of God, and the function and identity of the king.
God’s promise is that there won’t be need for any separate human leader, to mediate between him and his people.
Together, God and his Messiah king, will shepherd the people.
It’s no surprise then, that the New Testament authors, writing under the inspiration of the same Spirit of God who breathed these very words through Ezekiel, they describe the ministry of Jesus, in these terms.
Matthew 12:23, as one example among many, Jesus amazes the people with his care and healing of the sick and marginalised, the very things the people knew that God’s shepherd would do and so they, ask themselves, could this be the Son of David?
And Jesus himself, deliberately frames his own ministry, in terms that echo Ezekiel’s picture of God’s good shepherd, God himself shepherding his people.
So Jesus answers this expectation of a good shepherd who would come, in John chapter 10 verse 11, saying “I am the good shepherd.”
Or in Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, and describes the shepherd who goes after the sheep, so that the lost can be restored.
Or in Luke 19, he says the reason for his coming into the world, was to seek and to save the lost.
All of those things that God says he will do among his people in Ezekiel 34, gathering and rescuing, feeding and tending, and judging and delivering justice, they are the very things that Jesus achieves in his ministry.
And the means by which Jesus achieves these things for his people, take us back to that day of clouds and darkness.
Remember God’s point in using that, the day of clouds and darkness, was to remind the people, that there was still more to be done, in terms of judging sin, and the gathering of God’s lost people.
Those same New Testament authors who describe Jesus’ ministry in terms of God himself shepherding his people, they also tell us about another day of clouds and darkness, a day when darkness covers the whole land,
A day when, in the same event, sin and rebellion against God receive due punishment, and God’s lost people are gathered in and welcomed, precisely because their sin has been punished,
The price for rejecting God has been paid.
And the way to become one of God’s gathered people, the way to benefit from the rescue plan that God himself puts into play, is simply to trust that Jesus’ death in our place is the means by which God achieves all this.
The day of the cross was the day on which God won for himself, a people.
There are more good shepherds
And we, as God’s people, the church, we share some similarities with Israel.
Though we don’t have kings and rulers who mediate God’s presence to us, there are still those whom God has raised up to lead and shepherd his people.
The Apostle Peter is very clear that those who exercise leadership in the church, serve as shepherds, or under shepherds, among a flock who are, God’s own people.
It’s why in the Anglican church, the symbol of the office of a bishop is a crook. A shepherd’s crook! I used to think it meant that the bishop was a crook, but it’s because he’s a shepherd!
And if you’re a Bible Study Group leader,
Or a Kids’ Church Leader,
Or a Youth Group leader,
Or a Kids’ Club leader,
Or a service leader!,
Or anyone else who exercises leadership in this community of God’s covenant people,
You, we, need to hear God’s warning, and choose our shepherding model well, not the false shepherds of Israel, who fattened themselves, built themselves up, made themselves great, and thrust themselves into the limelight at the expense of God’s flock, but the model of Jesus, the chief shepherd, who in humility and service, laid down his life for this sheep.
The people you lead and serve, are God’s flock. Both Ezekiel and Peter tell us that.
And we will do well to remember that.
It grieves me, when I hear pastors and people who volunteer in ministry in church, say, mostly jokingly, “Ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people.”
I get that people can be frustrating.
But please don’t say that. And if you hear leaders saying it, remind them, that those people, are the very ones whom God himself gathers, and feeds, and for whom, Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life.
How to be a good sheep
You’ll see I’ve put there at the end of the outline, “How to be a good sheep.” And as I said, mostly for us, being a sheep conjures up that idea of following the crowd,
And yet, if we are to take seriously what God says here through Ezekiel, it will mean exactly not going with the flow, but standing out from the crowd.
So let me finish by highlighting just a couple of implications from this passage, for how to be a good sheep, a member of God’s flock:
We can’t miss, in these verses, God’s heart for the weak and vulnerable.
Whether it’s oppression from ungodly leaders,
Suffering at the hands of those who are simply stronger and more powerful, like the weak sheep who are pushed aside by the fat ones and never get any food,
Or whether it’s simply those who are weak, and sick;, those who feel most keenly, the effects of living in a broken world.
God very clearly has them on his mind, and he will judge those, who by their rejection of those people, demonstrate that deeper in their heart, they have rejected God and his priorities.
Let’s not make any mistake, meeting the needs of those who are weak and vulnerable, is no substitute, for coming to know Jesus, and trust in him, and therefore being able to stand before God with a clear conscience.
But turning a blind eye, or continuing to oppress those who suffer, based on this passage would call in to question whether we really do know Jesus, as we claim. For Ezekiel, remember, personal conduct is all about a reflection of our relationship with God.
We see also, that sheep can’t blame their shepherds, for their own sin.
Yes, the shepherds will be judged for their response to God, but so will the sheep. And those fat and sleek sheep whom God will judge, will not be able to just point to their corrupt shepherds, and say, “They didn’t lead me well,
They didn’t teach me what God wanted,
His sermons were too boring, and so I never learned anything.”
There is no excuse, people will be called to account for their own response to God.
Which should make us concerned for those who suffer under leaders and pastors in churches, who are false shepherds.
There are some, undershepherds, leaders in the church around the world, and in Australia, and in Adelaide, who fatten themselves at the expense of God’s people in their care,
And who take no care, for those who might wander off,
For those among God’s people, who might need special care,
There are shepherds who teach falsehood, and yet the individual responsibility to respond to God is such that there is still a measure of accountability for the flock under their care, even if their leaders teach heresy.
Are we concerned for these people who suffer under false shepherds?
And we also see that we need to be discerning as we consider those who lead us.
I give thanks to God for the godly volunteer leaders we have in this community at TMB, but we are not immune from this danger, whether that be volunteers or staff, and we need to be always on our guard, as to how our leaders are leading us.
And I also mean me, as one who leads in this community.
I’ve told some of you about my friend, who’s a preacher, who just loved preaching about Middle Eastern shepherds, and how they would walk along, and their sheep, knowing the shepherd, would just follow them, wherever they went.
And my friend was in Israel once, and he saw this image, a shepherd and his sheep, But when he got closer, what he saw was a man, walking down the road not with the sheep following him, but the man was behind the sheep, driving them along, yelling, swearing at them and hitting them with a stick.
And my friend thought, “I’ve preached about this so many times, and I’ve got it wrong!”
So he stopped the car and he called out to this man “I thought a Jewish shepherd was supposed to walk in front, and the sheep would i him.”
And the man said, “Yes, that is exactly what happens. It’s just that I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher!
Sadly, many of us, have seen exactly that, among God’s church, where those who ought to have been shepherds, have in fact been butchers.
And many people have suffered the cost.
You are my sheep, God says, verse 31, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’ ”