Like an oasis in the midst of a barren wilderness, chapter 34 welcomes us to rest and be refreshed by the vision of God as the good shepherd of His people. In spite of the sad reality of Jerusalem’s desolation and the disheartening description of the spiritual state of both the remnant in Israel and the exiles in Babylon (chapter 33), the Lord is still on the job as the great shepherd of Israel.
The chapter begins with a denunciation and condemnation of Israel’s leaders. Employing an extended metaphor of shepherd and sheep, the leaders (kings and other people of power) are rebuked for being self-serving shepherds. Instead of feeding the people, they fed off the people (2). Instead of seeking the good of others, they used others for their own good (3). They failed to do the very things shepherds are called to do: strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the wounded, bring back the wandering and seek the lost (4). Rather, they ruled over God’s people “with force and harshness” (4). God holds them responsible for the scattered state and sorry condition of his people (5). He pledges to hold these self-serving leaders accountable for their misuse of their position, removing them and rescuing his seep from their hand (7-10).
In words that echo Psalm 23, the Lord promises to be the shepherd for His people (11-24). He will search for them and gather them back to their own land (12-13), grazing them in good pastures and making them lie down in safety (14-15). He will do all the things the selfish shepherds failed to do (compare verse 16 with verse 4). Further, the Lord will also deal with the sheep of his flock that have been behaving badly, following the example of their shepherds in selfishly seeking their own pleasures to the detriment of other sheep (20-22). The Good Shepherd will rescue his downtrodden sheep, not only from harsh shepherds but also from hurtful sheep (22). He will install a faithful shepherd (“my servant David”—23) to lead them well under His oversight (24).
If that’s not enough, verses 25-31 expand on this bright vision of the future by revealing that God intends to provide lasting security and abundant provision for His human flock. No longer will they be prey for other nations (28); no longer will they be consumed with hunger (29). Instead, they will know (by experience) that the Lord is “with them” (30) and that they are His people, the “human sheep” of His pasture (31).
Visions of God
The Lord still cares for His people even after scattering them in judgment. The previous chapters of the book highlight God’s furious, severe judgment upon His idolatrous, disobedient people. We could easily conclude He is finished with Israel, at least with the ones who he has judged. But that conclusion fails to consider the loyal, covenantal love of God. Even though He judges them, the Lord still affirms He remains the shepherd of His people, Israel (“the house of Israel, are my people”—30) He has not resigned as the shepherd of Israel. His heart still goes out to the wayward and scattered. He will seek them, heal them, and restore them. They will know—in deep, wonderful ways—that He is their God, the One who is with them. Oh, the enduring, faithful love of the Lord!
The Lord holds self-seeking leaders accountable for their actions. Leaders of God’s people take note: the Lord, Himself, holds us accountable for how we treat His people. Leaders who misuse their position of power will find God against them; He removes self-centered leaders and rescues His vulnerable people (10).
The Lord judges all who mistreat others—selfish shepherds and pushy sheep. Not only does the Lord judge those designated as shepherds, he also deals with unruly sheep who “push with side and shoulder and thrust at all the weak” (21). God deals with bullies among the sheep as well as among the shepherds. So Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spoke of separating the sheep and goats at His return (Matt 25:31-46).
The Lord is the Good Shepherd, the perfect pattern for human leaders to follow. Human leaders have been given the perfect model of shepherding leadership in the Lord Himself. He displays the kind of attitudes and actions needed in a leader: compassion, initiative, discernment, protection, provision and presence. No wonder Jesus pictured Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10). He is the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20) and the “chief shepherd” who evaluates all human shepherds (1 Peter 5:4). He is looking for human leaders to be “shepherds after My own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15).
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen remind leaders to serve others, not themselves. The opening rebuke of Israel’s leaders reveals God’s vision for leadership: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (2). Leadership is not the right to serve yourself but the responsibility to serve others. Bonhoeffer called Jesus “the man for others.” That summarizes God’s vision for godly leaders: they are “for others.”
Watchmen provide leaders with God’s vision for shepherding leadership. Watchmen are involved in leadership training when they present God’s view on shepherding leadership. They point to the Shepherd of Israel as the supreme example to follow. They frame the discussion of leadership in terms of our accountability to the True Leader, the Great Shepherd. Watchmen are used by God to reign in selfish shepherds and raise up godly ones.
Watchmen call people to trust in the Lord, the great shepherd of His people. The shepherding theme runs deep and wide throughout Scripture. Jacob (Genesis 49:24), David (Psalm 23), Isaiah (Isa. 40:11), Jesus (John 10), Peter (1 Peter 4:1-4), the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 13:20) and John (Revelation 7:17) are just some of the biblical writers to utilize shepherding imagery to remind us of the True Shepherd. Ultimately, He is the hope of His people. We trust in Him.