I’m struggling to understand Ezekiel 34. vv 3-6 say the following about the bad shepherds:
“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”
Throughout the chapter, God contrasts himself with the bad shepherds. The bad shepherds fed themselves and hogged up most of the good things, but God will feed his people. The bad shepherds allowed their sheep to be scattered, but God will restore them to their land. In the process, God will do other things that the bad shepherds neglected, as he strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds up the injured, brings back the strayed, and seeks the lost. The bad shepherds let their people become prey for wild animals, but God will protect his restored children from such beasts.
So where is my struggle? The chapter seems to be saying that the bad shepherds did something with regard to the exile that made them derelict in their duty. What exactly did Ezekiel expect Judah’s leaders to do? Did he want them to return the exiles? Did he think that they should search for them? Did Judah’s leaders take economic advantage of the exile, which is why Ezekiel accuses them of feeding themselves?
My impression is that Judah’s leaders tried to protect their people, only not as the prophet desired. King Zedekiah didn’t want his nation to be conquered. That’s why he made an alliance with Egypt: he was trying to prevent a Babylonian invasion. I wouldn’t call him a bad shepherd who didn’t care about his people.
And I wonder what would have satisfied Ezekiel. How could Zedekiah track down the exiles? Google didn’t exist in those days. And could Judah’s leaders have taken economic advantage of the Babylonian invasion and exile? Not really. What would they do? Would they try to possess the empty land that existed now that the exiles were gone? The leaders themselves were on the run when the Babylonians invaded. Plus, most people realized that trying to get land at that time was a ridiculous endeavor. That’s why Jeremiah’s purchase of a field looked so strange.
Of the commentaries that I read, most of them tried to project the bad shepherding practices onto the time before the Babylonian invasion and exile. In some cases, this works. In other cases, it is quite a stretch. The leaders of Judah certainly did oppress their people. We read about that in the other prophets. In exchange for a bribe, they often judged in favor of rich oppressors, who scattered people by forcing them off their land. This led to the exile because God punished Judah for that practice. The stretch comes into play in two ways. One is a theological problem that I have: if this interpretation is true, why is God punishing the poor for something the rich did? I mean, the leaders and the rich are the ones who hurt the poor, and yet the poor go into exile. Another stretch is what such interpreters try to do with the mountains part of vv 3-6. In their eagerness to relate the passage to the pre-exilic situation, they apply the mountains reference to the Israelites worshipping at the high places. I don’t think it’s about that at all, since v 6 elaborates that the sheep were scattered over the face of the earth. The issue is exile, not high places.
One interpreter, John Gill (I know, I should get some modern commentaries), actually applies the passage to the exile. He says that the kings of Judah should have tried to ransom those who were exiled to Babylon. Gill may be pointing out that there were exiles before the Babylonian invasion in 586 B.C.E., since King Jehoiachin and other Jews were taken to Babylon into exile. This makes some sense. I mean, Ezekiel 34 seems to say that God will punish the shepherds of Israel, which may imply that a worse calamity, the Babylonian invasion, is yet to come when Ezekiel writes the chapter. But could leaders ransom people from exile in those days? I’m sure anything was possible for the right price. A reservation I have about Gill’s interpretation is that the exile of Jehoiachin consisted of mostly rich people, or so I have heard. Ezekiel 34 discusses the exile of the poor and oppressed, however. Moreover, Ezekiel 34 also says that the Jews are scattered over the face of the earth, which is not really the case with Jehoiachin’s exile.
I’d still like to work with Gill’s interpretation. Maybe the leaders’ oppression of the people made them weaker and more vulnerable to Babylonian invasion. When the Babylonians invaded, they could have easily taken the people who were hungry and without property. Also, did the leaders actually profit from Judah’s relationship with Babylon? If so, then that situation could be the context for Ezekiel’s statement that they cared more about themselves than the people. And there was a possibility that some leaders tried to take over the vacant land once it was abandoned after Jehoiachin’s exile.
I’ll probably order the Word Commentary on CD-Rom to tackle some of these questions. In the meantime, does anyone have some thoughts that can help me out?
Hi James! I sure wish I had more time to read and engage with you on your posts.
Ezekiel 34:3-6 sounds awfully familiar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31ff. I have always contended that Matt 25 was NOT specifically referring to physically feeding the poor and clothing the naked, as important as that is, since we all know unbelievers and atheists that do this just as well or even moreso than a lot of believers do (to our shame). Matt 25 is speaking to the spiritual feeding of God’s people. When Jesus told Peter, “feed my sheep,” He wasn’t calling him to a soup kitchen ministry (as good as that is), but to feed their souls with the Word of God: “man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” I believe that this is what this passage in Ezekiel 34 is primarily referring to. We see false shepherds in Jesus’ day in the Pharisees who commanded things that were not of God and focused not on mercy and justice and on the ‘inside of the cup’ matters of the heart, welcoming repentant sinners.
Take a look at Jesus’ comments in Luke 4:25-27) regarding Elijah and Elisha: “But in truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Elijah and Elisha are not counted as bad shepherds, and yet they weren’t called to feed all the widows and heal all the lepers of Israel in their time. In fact, Jesus infers that God wanted it that way, which is why His hearers became so angry with Him saying this. They believed they had the right by birth to blessings from God, but God blesses by spiritual birth to those who respond to Him in repentance and seeking Him, and He sustains those who love and obey Him. Such are the children of God.
Some random thoughts, but hopefully something to think about on this subject.
Hi Ryan! Yeah, I understand having a busy schedule. Thanks for stopping by whenever you can, since your comments give me a lot to think about.
I don’t know what to do with your interpretation of Matthew 25, maybe because I’m so used to seeing the chapter as about physical food and drink. I can see why it makes sense, because there are passages throughout the Bible–in both Testaments–that discuss spiritual food and drink. But I’m not sure if I can see Jesus needing spiritual food, as in teaching, though he needed encouragement and strength from God.
I hear you, James. I had always been told that Matthew 25 was about physical things. To be sure, meeting people’s physical needs is important and is commanded in various ways elsewhere, but Jesus very often uses the physical as a metaphor for the spiritual which has eternal (rather than temporal) ramifications. New babes need milk and care, and God has entrusted the spiritual care of His children to His servants, the shepherds. And just as there are physical perils, there are spiritual perils. One can have their faith shipwrecked.
I also found the passage of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman interesting. She keeps thinking physical, that Jesus was offering to provide all her physical needs for water, but He was talking spiritual:
“Jesus replied, ‘Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.'” (John 4:13-14).
Also, when Jesus’ disciples began urging Him to eat something (apparently He was going without food for some time already), He replied, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about. …My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to complete His work”. So if we take this quite literally, then we are feeding Jesus (ie. Matt 25) when we do the will of the Father, and we know from this encounter in John 4 that Jesus was not starting a water bottling ministry or digging new wells (as important as these things are), but feeding people for eternal life.
I also found Matt 16:5-12 to be very helpful:
“When the disciples went to the other side, they forgot to take bread. ‘Watch out,’ Jesus said to them, ‘beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ So they began to discuss this among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we brought no bread.’ When Jesus learned of this, he said, ‘You who have such little faith! Why are you arguing among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand and how many baskets you took up? How could you not understand that I was not speaking to you about bread? But beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!’ Then they understood that he had not told them to be on guard against the yeast in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
It is interesting that when Jesus fed the 5000 and 4000 (plus women and children), we don’t hear of this being repeated as a ministry so to speak, as if Jesus was instructing people that we need to physically feed the world. He makes reference to the physical feeding of the people as a metaphor for the spiritual, and I think there are many deep insights to learn here which I don’t have time to go into. But suffice to say that our ministry focus is to be strongly towards the spiritual without at all neglecting the physical. To neglect the spiritual has much more weighty consequences.
Those are good passages for your point. But are you saying that Matthew 25 relates primarily to the leaders, or do all Christians have a role in feeding others?
I’m wrestling some with your reading of John 4. Does that say that we feed Jesus? Or does Jesus feed himself by doing the will of the Father? I lean more to the latter, though Jesus does tell the disciples to go and do likewise (since the fields are ripe for the harvest).
James wrote… “But are you saying that Matthew 25 relates primarily to the leaders, or do all Christians have a role in feeding others?“
Jesus’ words concerning all the things he commanded the apostles was that they are to be commanded to us also: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:20)
Here is how I understand it: we are all instructed to make disciples of all nations, but for those with greater responsibility (though we all should do the work of shepherds to some degree, after all… we are all priests), are held to greater account. So no, it is not restricted to shepherds, but if they are doing their job, then those under their oversight and/or ministry would be well served and have no excuse for not carrying out their own ministry.
James wrote… “I’m wrestling some with your reading of John 4. Does that say that we feed Jesus? Or does Jesus feed himself by doing the will of the Father?“
Sorry to be confusing. Yes, Jesus is specifically talking about obtaining His food from doing the will of the Father. However, by that very explanation, we can deduce in a straightforward manner that we accomplish the feeding of His people (which are of His spiritual body remaining on this earth) by doing the will of the Father towards them. That would include providing for their physical needs should they be in need and you are in a position to do so, but first and foremost it is to be concerned about one another’s spiritual welfare.
Here is something I wrote to another brother of mine on Matthew 25. Perhaps it helps shed a little more light:
I am convinced by my studies that Matt 25 cannot be saying what you have said because it is using prison visiting (for example) to differentiate between sheep and goats. The context refers to the final judgement separating the saved from the unsaved, and these items Jesus lists are used to separate them. What if I never visited someone in prison nor clothed a naked person? Honestly, if this is what the passage says, then I’m nervous when it condems people who haven’t done these things to Hell. Better yet, which verse shows us that Jesus Himself visited someone in prison? There is an instance where after he cast out the demons from that man he clothed him, but there are very few verses like this where we are told that Jesus is going around with a handful of clothing to give to people. Only on 2 occasions are we told that Jesus fed bread/fish (to the 5000 and the 4000), but we do not have any accounts that the disciples repeated this miracle. Besides, most of the people He fed were following Him for the wrong reasons, so He made sure that such people stopped following Him by speaking some difficult things (see John 6). And when is it recorded that Jesus gave a drink of water to someone (and you can’t use the instance in the movie Ben Hur)? At the well, He asked the woman for water. Jesus certainly openly talked with strangers, but we have no record that he ever welcomed one “in” as we would take this since the scripture tells us that the son of man had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58).
Let’s look at the immediately preceding parable in Matt 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. I interpret this to mean that talents are representative of spiritual knowledge and gifts. EVERYONE in the camp of the believing (true or false) is given at least one talent which I believe is the gospel itself. In the parable, the person with only one talent has believed the gospel (he accepted the talent from Christ), but buried it in the ground and never shared it (“invested it”). Such a person is disobedient to the gospel and is not saved since intellectual assent alone cannot save a person. Faith without works is dead, says James (Jam 2:26). True faith produces something. Spurgeon said that if you do not desire for the lost to be saved, then you are not saved yourself. I agree with him. IMO, all these parables in Matt 25 concern the gospel and judgment for not living in obedience to it (remember John 3:36, NASB? … also 2 Cor 9:13, 2 Thess 1:8, 1 Pet 4:17). Thus, prison represents the bondage the unregenerate have to sin and death (Gal 3:22); naked people lack the robes of righteousness (Matt 22:11-14, Rev 3:17, 2 Cor 5:3); thirsty people need living water (John 4:1-26) and hungry people need the Word of God (John 21:17). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6) will be filled by someone living as a conduit of the gospel (in obedience to it). The sick recognize they are on the path to destruction and need a doctor to prescribe them the gospel (Mark 2:17). Finally, those who were once far away are made near by the preaching of the blood of Jesus, the gospel of peace (Eph 2:17).
I hope that makes more sense. Thanks for all the feedback and challenges.
One other thought…
My understanding eliminates some difficult problems with the usual interpretation of Matt 25. For instance, an atheist can do good deeds like feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, clothing the naked, welcoming in strangers, etc. But there are some who are even believers who for one reason or another cannot do one or more of these things. Perhaps they are too poor, or are crippled. However, there is one thing that encompasses all these actions which no atheist would ever do and which even the poorest or constrained believer could do: proclaim the gospel and make disciples of Jesus.
Yeah, for the visiting people in prison part, I thought about Jesus visiting John the Baptist in King of Kings.
“Thus, prison represents the bondage the unregenerate have to sin and death (Gal 3:22); naked people lack the robes of righteousness (Matt 22:11-14, Rev 3:17, 2 Cor 5:3); thirsty people need living water (John 4:1-26) and hungry people need the Word of God (John 21:17).”
I have problems applying these things to Jesus. I know what you’ll probably say–Matthew 25 implies that Jesus never was hungry, naken, etc., but he was making a hypothetical to make a point. But he is relating those things to himself in some sense.
What do you think?
You wrote… “Yeah, for the visiting people in prison part, I thought about Jesus visiting John the Baptist in King of Kings.“
You must be referring to a movie or something because there is nothing in scripture to suggest that Jesus ever visited John in prison. Luke 7:19-23 tells us that John sent some of his disciples to Jesus, and Jesus sent them back to John with His response.
You wrote… “I have problems applying these things to Jesus. I know what you’ll probably say–Matthew 25 implies that Jesus never was hungry, naken, etc., but he was making a hypothetical to make a point. But he is relating those things to himself in some sense.“
Yes, your point about these things not applying to Jesus is precisely the thought behind the response of those in Matt 25 who heard Jesus say these things:
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'” (Matt 25:37-40).
So Jesus tells us here that how we treat even the least of those who believe on Him is how we are treating Him.
Now, I heard Meno Kalisher, the pastor of Jerusalem Assembly, make what I consider to be a very strong case for the fact that there are many persecuted Christians and when one welcomed them, visited them in prison or helped them, one would be identifying with them and even risking his own life to do so. The other aspect of his argument that I liked was that it keeps to the literalness of the passage, and the point that Jesus is speaking about what is done to even the least of these brothers of His (ie. fellow believers), and not unbelievers. If a Christian is being persecuted because of Christ and His gospel, would an atheist or unbeliever offer help to him or visit him if it meant possibly risking his own reputation or life? Not likely, so that also seems to resolve the problem of what kind of works Jesus is referring to which only believers would do.
However, I still have some difficulty with this interpretation because not all are able to do the things Jesus lists for one reason or another. Is doing one of these things enough? How many times does one do them and feel confident on the day of judgment? Also, it is possible that an atheist feels enough compassion on the persecuted Christian to visit him or welcome in, but the Atheist will not preach the gospel. In addition, gospel preaching, whether by tongue or pen and accompanied with deeds confirming the sincerity of the messenger are doable by nearly all and strongly differentiate believers from unbelievers. A paralyzed person can speak the gospel in the same way that the robber hanging on the cross rebuked the unbelieving robber and confessed his sin and trust in Christ.
I think that Meno has a good point and that these acts of solidarity with those who are persecuted are very important, but what of those who do not live in an area where Christians are being persecuted in this way and cannot afford to go visit those in another country or region who are? For these reasons (and perhaps some others), some have limited Matt 25 to be speaking about a specific period in history, perhaps a time in the first century. But the judgment being spoken of is the final judgment including all peoples, not just those of the first century. Also, since this judgment has not happened yet, I have problems with an interpretation saying it doesn’t apply to me today.
Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Still unconvinced? Side with Meno?
Yes, King of Kings is a movie. It comes on every now and then on Easter and Christmas. Are you a Star Trek fan? Jeffrey Hunter–the captain on the pilot episode–is the one who plays Jesus.
I was thinking about this Matthew 25 issue in church today (though I probably should have been listening to the sermon). I think that Matthew 25 relates to Matthew 10:40-42: “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.”
So does this mean that an atheist who helps a Christian goes to heaven? I also struggle with that issue. Some of the other things you mentioned are not as big of struggles for me, at least not yet. For example, I don’t think Jesus was making a checklist in Matthew 25. His main point is that we should help Christians, and he offers us examples of how to do so. I also don’t think that Matthew 25 only relates to situations in which Christians are persecuted. I also read Matthew 25 in light of other passages that stress helping God’s people. For example, Galatians 6:10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Also, Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”