Ezekiel 34: Who’s the Shepherd?

In Ezekiel 34, we find God’s people in a time of duress–a defeated nation in exile.  But what made this worse was Israel’s leaders, their shepherds, failing in their callings.  Unfaithful, they cared more about themselves than the flock God charged them to serve and lead.

So, how did God respond?  He said that He would get rid of them.  He would become their Shepherd, replacing those unfaithful and wicked leaders.

But here’s where it gets weird.  When God said that He wanted shepherds for His people, just by saying that, He was describing the people of Israel as sheep.  That’s not a flattering description.  Have you seen how stupid sheep can be?  Sometimes, a mother sheep doesn’t recognize her offspring.  Sheep rescued from a fire have even been known to run back into the flames from which they were just rescued.  

So, what point was God making by referring to His people as sheep?  It was this: Just as sheep can be stupid, so can we.  That’s not to insult you; it’s sin that makes us stupid.  That’s something God’s Old-Covenant prophets repeated many times over.  

Isaiah declared: “An ox recognizes its owner and the donkey its master’s feeding trough.  But Israel doesn’t recognize me, and my people don’t understand” (Isaiah 1:3).  Jeremiah said: “Even the stork in the sky knows its seasons.  The dove, the swallow, and the crane know when it’s time to migrate.  But my people don’t know the ways of the Lord” (Jeremiah 8:7).

So, if sin makes us stupid like sheep, and we get lost like sheep, then it makes sense why God was so angry at those shepherds who didn’t care for His flock.  They failed by not feeding the sheep.  God chewed them out for not doing that.  Earlier in Ezekiel 34, God said, “My shepherds fed themselves but did not feed my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:8).  

Feeding the sheep: that’s primary duty of the shepherd.  A shepherd can find the lost sheep, gather in the stragglers, and bandage the wounded, but if he doesn’t feed them, none of that will make a difference.  And that’s what those faithless shepherds of old failed to do.  They had failed to feed the sheep.  

So, God declared a takeover.  God said, “I will shepherd them” (Ezekiel 34:13).  God would become the Shepherd of His people.  What God’s Old-Covenant shepherds had messed up, He would do right.  He would care for His sheep, gathering and bandaging them.  But, most of all, He would feed them.  The Lord will be their Shepherd.  

But how would God choose to do that?  God tells us, several verses past our Old-Testament reading for today, in Ezekiel 34:23: “I will place over them [that is God’s people] one shepherd, my servant David.  He will feed them and be their shepherd.”

That’s how God would bring His Shepherd to His people.  It would be someone from the kingly line of David.  But how could that be?  David was long dead.  The Babylonians had destroyed the kingly rule of David, and the Israelites were in exile. 

Here’s how: God would bring into the world a descendant of David who would be the Shepherd of His people.  It’s another prophecy of the coming Christ.  Jesus, because He is both God and Man, can be God shepherding His people and, at the same time, also be a descendant of David.  As God, Jesus will come to shepherd His people.  As a human, He would be born as a descendant of King David.

So, Jesus came, fulfilling all the shepherding roles that God had given to His Old-Covenant priests and prophets.  Jesus would be the Good Shepherd, fulfilling the Old Covenant, but also ushering in the New.  He would be the Good Shepherd, even laying down His life for the sheep (John 10:11).  And that’s what Jesus did, saving us from our sins, taking them all into Himself, and taking them away in His death. 

And that Good Shepherd rose from the dead.  That means that Jesus is alive to protect, lead, and guide us.  Jesus lives to feed His Church, His flock, on His Word!  But how does Jesus do that?  He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  He’s not here to do that like He was 2,000 years ago, when He walked this earth! 

Ah, that’s why Jesus established His New-Covenant Church.  The Church exists to be the place where—what Jesus told His Apostles to do—would be done.  We see this clearly in a conversation that Jesus, risen and resurrected, had with the Apostle Peter. 

One morning, after Peter and Jesus ate breakfast, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him.  Peter said, “You know that I love you” (John 21:15).  Then, in that conversation, Jesus told Peter to shepherd (that’s the word “pastor” as a verb), to shepherd His sheep.  Jesus also told Peter to feed His sheep—twice!  That’s because feeding the flock is the primary duty of a shepherd.

And so, this shepherding and feeding of God’s flock takes place in Christ’s Church, through His shepherds, His pastors.  As it was with Peter and the other Apostles, the Church’s first pastors, so it is today.  As with them, this includes feeding God’s people, literally, with Jesus’ body and blood in His Supper.  It also includes preaching Jesus into the ears of the flock.  It also includes forgiving the sins of the flock.

That’s how the sheep, the flock, hear the voice of their Shepherd today.  It’s as Jesus, our Good Shepherd said: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:27-28).  Jesus still feeds His flock by coming to them in Word and Sacrament, giving them life and salvation.  That’s how we still hear His voice.

During Paul’s missionary journeys, he met with some pastors, whom he had earlier appointed and installed.  Paul told them, “Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).  

To shepherd the Church of God is to bring Jesus to God’s sheep.  It’s to preach Jesus.  It’s to bring Jesus’ forgiveness in words of absolution.  It’s to give Jesus’ body and blood in His Supper.  That’s the work of the pastor, the shepherd—to feed the sheep.

Okay, but what are we, the flock, supposed to do?  If you read through all of Ezekiel 34, you’ll find that it’s all about God and what He does for His flock.  But that chapter does mention sheep—when they are feeding on the pasture that the Shepherd has provided them (Ezekiel 34:18).  That’s the point: God is the doer; He feeds His flock. 

So, when you gather as God’s flock, it’s for God to feed you, not for you to try to feed yourself.  That’s why the Apostle Paul told Pastor Timothy that a pastor’s duties include preaching, teaching, and publicly reading the Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13).  It’s not that you don’t have the ability do that.  But by doing that, or trying to do that, you miss the point.  When you come to worship, it’s for God to feed you, not for you to feed yourself. 

As unflattering as it is, God uses a flock of sheep to describe His people.  That wasn’t just because Israel had a culture with many sheep and shepherds.  It was because if a flock of sheep tried to take care of itself, the flock would die.  Sheep need a shepherd.  That’s the point God makes in Ezekiel 34.

Worship is not about what you are doing; it’s about what God is doing FOR YOU.  That’s where the Pharisees got it wrong.  Worship was their good deed for God.  And you know how much Jesus was always chastising them! 

But how do we know that God’s flock, gathered for worship, has always been about what God is doing for His people?  Well, let’s go back to the Ten Commandments.  Why did God tell His people to remember the Sabbath Day?  To keep it holy, right?  Yes.  And what does Sabbath mean?  Sabbath means rest.  The Israelites gathered one day a week—not to work—but to rest.  Worship was God’s rest for them; if it weren’t, then God wouldn’t have used the word “Sabbath,” rest, to describe worship. 

God calls the day of worship a Sabbath because He is doing to doing, not you.  For it to be any other way is to turn worship into your work, into you trying to feed yourself, when God is here to do that.

In Ezekiel 34:18-19, we even find God scolding the flock:

Must you trample the pasture with your feet?  Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water?  Must you also muddy what is left with your feet?  Must my flock feed on what your feet have trampled and drink what your feet have muddied?

When God gathers us to feed us, to be brought into His Sabbath rest for us, He tells us to get out of the way.  Otherwise, the flock tramples the pasture and muddies the water.  When we try to take the place of God and do what we want instead of what He wants for us, we just mess it up: we trample the pasture and muddy the water.

God doesn’t call us to feed ourselves, not when we’re gathered as His flock.  To do that is the same as trying to save yourselves.  And we when do act, it’s to get out of the way, to let your Good Shepherd be the Good Shepherd.  The flock is not the shepherd; the Lord is.  And no other shepherd will do, for no other shepherd saves us. 

Okay, pastor, I get it.  But still, what are we, the flock, supposed to do?  Ah, that comes after the Divine Service.  It’s true: Here, God feeds you and saves you.  And yes, you do respond back to God with prayer, praise, and thanks.  But that’s a secondary function of worship after God has first come to you, giving you life and salvation.

And after God has done that, that’s when your work of serving God truly begins by serving others.  That’s the way God set it up.  It’s all so you won’t try to save yourself.  It’s all so you could be the face of Jesus to others—after Jesus, your Good Shepherd—has fed, served, and saved you.  Amen.