These well known opening words if the twenty-third psalm were penned by David, the shepherd-king of Israel. His preparation for the task of leading God’s people was his work as the watcher over his father’s sheep (2 Sam 7:8; Psa 78:70–71). Shepherds in ancient Israel had direct responsibility for the care of the flock, leading them to pasture and water, protecting them from dangers such as predators and from wandering off and becoming injured. They walked with the flock and slept with them, even lying across the entry to the sheep fold to act as the “door” to the sheep (John 10:7–9). A good shepherd was one who cared for the welfare of the sheep, even putting himself in danger to defend them (1 Sam 17:34–35). He did not round them up on horseback or quad bike and drive them, he led them, and the sheep knew his voice and followed him.
In the Bible, God’s wayward people are sometimes described as sheep. Sheep can be stubborn and prone to wander off, and they are quite vulnerable, defenceless animals. Without a shepherd, they are easy prey to thieves, wolves and lions, to injury and starvation. God acted as a Shepherd toward Israel; “He led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock” (Psa 78:52). “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psa 95:7). “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psa 100:3).
When God’s people turned from him, they were described as sheep wandering off, which is a very gracious metaphor for willful sinfulness! “I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” laments the Psalmist (Psa 119:176) and Isaiah confesses, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6). Jesus used the metaphor of the lost sheep for the wayward sinner whom he, in his grace, seeks out and restores (Luke 15:4–7).
God has also expected the human leaders of his people to play a shepherding role (2 Sam 7:7; 1 Chron 11:2). Without good shepherding, the sheep inevitably wandered off (1 Kings 22:17). David took this responsibility very seriously (2 Sam 24:17) but unfortunately many of his successors did not. Instead of tending the flock and servicing the needs of God’s people, they served their own needs and desires.
‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds,’ declares the LORD (Jer 23:1–2).
God’s response to these worthless shepherds is to regather his flock himself and set shepherds over them who will care for them, in particular, “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (verse 5).
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 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 none to search or seek for them”’ (Ezek 34:2–6).
Because of this, God set himself against these shepherds (Ezek 34:7–10). Instead of relying on these shepherds, God himself declared that he would be the shepherd of his people.
For thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (Ezek 34:11–16).
The prophets spoke of the future when God’s scattered people will be gathered under one Shepherd. In some passages, such as in Jeremiah 23, this Shepherd is portrayed as “David,” or David’s descendant. But in most passages, the Shepherd is God himself. “The LORD God comes with might . . . He will tend his flock like a shepherd: he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:10–11). In Micah 5:1–4 we read of the one who will come out of Bethlehem Ephrathah to be ruler over Israel. This ruler’s origins (literally, out-goings) are from the beginning and from days of eternity. This ruler will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty (glory) of the name of the Lord his (LXX lit. their) God.
So, in the New Testament we find God’s downtrodden people looking forward to the appearing of the true Shepherd, the good Shepherd, who will be both Son of David, but also the LORD. How fitting that his birth should be announced to shepherds; “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
John’s gospel relates how Christ the Lord had just denounced the Pharisees for their spiritual blindness and harsh treatment of the man born blind. Not only had they disbelieved the man’s testimony concerning Jesus, they had persecuted him and cast him out of the synagogue (John 9:24–34). What a terrible way to treat one of the Lord’s sheep! Jesus then unleashes an indictment against them, his metaphor clearly tarring them with the brush of the worthless shepherds of old. They are thieves and robbers who have come only to steal and to destroy. They care nothing for the sheep and simply leave them to the wolves (John 10:8, 10, 12, 13). Jesus, in contrast, calls his sheep by name and leads them out; they know his voice (John 10:2–5). He leads them to pastures, gives them abundant life and in fact lays down his life for the sheep (Verses 9,11).
Anyone familiar with the Scriptures who heard Jesus’ metaphor should have recalled the Shepherd passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. God himself would search out his sheep and be everything that the evil shepherds were not; he will seek them out from where they were scattered and feed them in good pasture, bring back the lost, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick (Ezek 34:12, 14, 16). This was exactly the mission of the Lord Jesus (Matt 11:4–5; Luke 4:18). Furthermore, Jesus said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (verse 16). The sheep would be gathered from all nations into the fold under the one Shepherd. The coming of the Shepherd-Lord would also be a time of judgement against the wicked, useless shepherds (Jer 23:1–2;Ezek 34:9–10) just as Jesus pronounced judgement against the wilfully blind, corrupt leaders of Israel (John 9:39–41). But, in their blindness, they did not understand what he was saying to them (John 10:6; cf 9:40–41; 3:10).
The most remarkable part of Jesus’ claim comes in verse 11 of John 10: “I am the good shepherd.” We might miss the import of this, but any open minded first century Jewish hearer, steeped in the Greek Old Testament, would not. In Ezekiel 34:15, God uses the redundant personal pronoun ego, “I” over again, even though the verbs themselves do not require it. “I myself (ego) will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself (ego)will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD — “literally, I am (ego eimi) Lord who thus says, Lord Lord” (Eze 34:15).
Jesus statement is nothing less than a claim to be this Lord God, THE Good shepherd: “Ego eimi ho poimen ho kalos” — “I AM the shepherd, the good.” In speaking this way, Jesus is making no less a claim than to be THE Shepherd of Israel, the Lord who would gather his sheep and be the good Shepherd over them. This claim is astounding, and on the lips of anyone else it would be blasphemy (John 10:19–21,33). Jesus is not merely a better shepherd than the Pharisees, this is not a simple metaphor about how leaders should behave, this is a direct claim to be the Lord God of Israel, THE Shepherd and the fulfilment of the prophecies concerning God’s direct intervention with his people.
Hebrews 13:20 describes the Lord Jesus as “the great Shepherd of the sheep.” Peter describes Jesus as “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25) and “the chief Shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4). In Revelation 7:17, it is declared that “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Jesus, on the very throne of God, is the Lord, our Shepherd and we his sheep should hear his voice and follow him. We are straying, foolish wounded sheep, but to believe in the Son of God is to have life in his name;
The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:25–28.)
Hear the Shepherd’s voice. Believe him. Follow him… and live.