“‘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…And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.'”Ezekiel 34:11-12, 23-34
The Book of Ezekiel contains some of the harshest prophecies against Israel contained in the Old Testament. God–patient and longsuffering as He is–could no longer tolerate how far Israel had wandered away from Him. Israel had forgotten their covenantal vow and had turned to idols and false gods, so now judgment must come. As terrible as the judgment would be, though, God promises a restoration that would follow the chastisement that He was about to levy against Israel. This punishment would be severe, but there would be hope for the future.
In chapter 34 of Ezekiel, God directs His righteous anger at the “shepherds of Israel,” the leaders of the religious establishment. These men had been given the sacred task of leading the people of Israel in worshipping Yahweh and were supposed to be models of how to live godly lives. Instead, the religious leaders had become corrupt and selfish; they were seeking to take care of themselves and advance their careers while the people were left to fend for themselves. Leadership in the religious system had become nothing more than an office from which men could draw political power; there was nothing spiritual about it. These “priests” had even permitted idol worship in the temple, a complete and total dereliction of their duty. The men who were charged with keeping Israel from idolatry were actively allowing it and encouraging it. They were teaching the people that there was no need for spiritual monogamy; that spiritual experimentation and spiritual promiscuity were acceptable. The “shepherds of Israel” were complicit in leading the sheep of Israel astray, and they were responsible for those sheep who had wandered off, yet they cared not.
God cared though; He cared greatly.
God was so concerned with how incredibly lost His people were that He knew there was only one solution to this huge problem: He would have to come to look for these lost sheep Himself. So He proclaimed that He would do just that; He would search for these lost sheep. He would be the greatest shepherd, the one who puts the safety and well-being of the flock before His own. He would search every mountain and every valley for these sheep who had wandered away from Him, and He would bring them back to the safety of the flock. He would search high and low, day and night, until He found His sheep. He would return them to the flock, and He would lead them and care for them. He would restore the broken relationship between them.
Not only would God act as the Good Shepherd and search for His flock, but He would set up a shepherd over them who would–unlike the failed shepherds of Israel–never lead the flock astray. God would put His servant David over the flock, and he would be a ruler over the flock. David, who had begun his career as a shepherd tending the flocks of his father, was the greatest king Israel ever had. As a shepherd, David had fought off each and every threat to the flock, putting his life on the line to keep the flock safe. As a king, David sought after God and sought to make sure the people of Israel pursued God as well. He was the model that every future leader of Israel was to mimic.
The judgment came to Israel in the form of the Babylonian conquest. Jerusalem was leveled, the temple was destroyed. Exile ensued. Many years later, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, and the righteous remnant awaited God to come with His servant, David, to search for the lost sheep of Israel.
Many more years later, God arrived in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. He came preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, and He came to search for the lost sheep of Israel. He had compassion for the people, for they were “scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus taught the people how they were to love God properly, and how they were to live. Where the former shepherds of Israel became corrupt and selfish and failed the people, Jesus remained righteous and selfless and committed to searching for the lost sheep. He was so committed to saving His flock, that He died to redeem and restore them from sin. He laid down His life to save His flock and to restore the broken relationship between He and them.
Jesus was not only God in the flesh, searching for His sheep; He was the Son of David–the promised Messiah–who would rule over the flock, and He will be an even greater ruler than His ancestor, David. He will shepherd and protect and rule over His people, His flock. He will be their God and their King, and He will never fail them.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. (John 10:11, 14-16).
Artwork: “The Lost Sheep,” Jorge Cocco Santangelo, 2017 https://jorgecocco.com/2019/03/02/the-parables/