In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the shepherds of Israel, accusing them of caring more for themselves than the Israelite people. To correct this problem, God promises to come himself and assume the role of Israel’s shepherd. God will replace Israel’s corrupt leadership with his own personal rule.
Is there anything new or revolutionary about God being Israel’s shepherd? Does God promise in Ezekiel 34 to be personally involved with Israel in a way that he was not in the past? What does the concept of God as shepherd mean? In this post, I will approach this issue on three fronts: (1.) the immediate context of Ezekiel 34, (2.) other prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and (3.) the New Testament.
Let’s look at the immediate context of Ezekiel 34. In this chapter, God is shepherd in the sense that he will gather the Israelite exiles, return them to their land, give them strength and prosperity, and feed them with justice. The prior shepherds of Israel were unjust and did not care for the exiles, but God is not like them. And God’s role as shepherd involves an intermediary, for vv 23-24 say that God will install David in the position of shepherd. So, although my spine tingles when I get to v 15, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” I’m not sure if Ezekiel is predicting anything new. In Ezekiel 34, God will take care of Israel as he has in the past, and he will use an intermediary in the process. As far as I can see, his involvement with Israel does not seem more personal than it was before.
In Isaiah and Jeremiah, however, God’s involvement with Israel after her restoration is more personal than it ever was in Israel’s history. Isaiah 20:20-21 says that the Israelites will actually see their Teacher and hear, “This is the way; walk in it.” Isaiah 2:3 predicts that the nations will go to Zion to learn from God. Isaiah 54:13 foresees the day when God will teach the children of Israel. Jeremiah 3:16-17 says that there will no longer be an Ark of the Covenant, for Jerusalem will be God’s throne, implying that God will dwell directly in Jerusalem. And, in Jeremiah 31:34, the prophet affirms that people will no longer need to tell each other to know God, for everyone will know him. Is the implication that God will directly teach people about himself?
For both prophets, God will still have intermediaries after Israel’s restoration, for both Isaiah and Jeremiah discuss the restored kingdom of David, and Jeremiah predicts that the Levites will resume their role in the Temple (Jeremiah 33:21-22). But God is directly involved with Israel in a way that he was not before. Prior to Israel’s eschatological restoration, God spoke to Israel through Moses, the prophets, the Torah, and priests. After the restoration, God will be present with Israel and will guide her directly. For Isaiah and Jeremiah, God will indeed come and be Israel’s shepherd.
The New Testament alludes to these concepts from the prophets. For Jesus, the Jews of his day were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). They were broken, sick, and oppressed, both physically and spiritually. And their religious leaders, the priests and the Pharisees, were more interested in feeding themselves than the sheep (Matthew 21:13; 23). According to the New Testament, Jesus said that God would deal with this issue in two ways. First, in Matthew 21:31-46, he prophesies that God will take the kingdom of God from the Jewish religious leaders and give it to a people producing the kingdom’s fruits. He seems to be saying that God will remove the stewardship over his people from the corrupt priests and Pharisees and give it to the church, whose leaders will be shepherds (see Hebrews 13:7). This was fulfilled in 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem priesthood. Second, the New Testament presents a scenario in which God will personally come and be the shepherd of his people. Jesus is God in the Gospel of John (John 1), and yet he is also the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14).
In the New Testament, the eschatological promises of the prophets were (and are) fulfilled in part through Jesus’ first coming. For example, Isaiah 54:13, where God predicts that Israelites will be taught by God, appears in John 6:45 and I Thessalonians 4:9. In John 6:45, Jesus says that everyone who has learned from the Father comes to him. For John, Jesus’ sheep are those who hear his voice because God the Father has personally taught them about his Son. In I Thessalonians 4:9, Paul tells the church that he does not need to tell them to love one another, since God has already done the job. In the New Testament, the eschatological promise that God will personally shepherd his people is in the process of being fulfilled, for God guides Christians personally through the Holy Spirit.
Yet, there is a fulfillment that is yet to come. Revelation 7:16-17 foresees a day when the Lamb will shepherd his people and wipe away their tears. God is our shepherd today in the sense that he cares for us and guides us directly, but he will be even more so after Christ’s return, when he will remove all of the things that hurt us. As Stephen (aka Q) has argued, the kingdom is already and not yet.
Although God directly guides us, however, he still uses intermediaries, namely, the leaders of the church. And Ezekiel 34 assures us that God is watching to make sure that they are doing their job. Just because the church has replaced the Jewish priesthood, that does not mean that church leaders have a free hand to do whatever they want. Romans 11:21-22 tells those who were grafted into God’s people that God will not spare them if they fail to continue in his kindness. I like the way that Peter Kirk applies Isaiah’s condemnation of bad leaders to the church. Many supersessionists act as if the blessings of the Old Testament are for the church, while the curses were for physical Israel. Wrong! The curses are a warning to the church as well. Judgment must begin with the household of God (I Peter 4:17). God does not turn a blind eye to selfish and unjust leaders, wherever they are.
Praise God that he personally loves and guides every believer. Praise God that he will do so even more when he returns. And praise God that he values us so much that he wants us to have loving and righteous spiritual shepherds.