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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Shepherds: the Good, the Bad, and the Best

Shepherds: They appear in surprising places throughout the Old Testament. Beginning with Adam and Eve’s son Abel, who kept flocks of sheep, these biblical shepherds appear not just out in the fields, but in royal palaces as well.

Jacob the patriarch started with nothing back in his grandfather’s homeland, but he built enormous wealth through his clever care of sheep and goats (Genesis 30:25-43).

Moses was a prince in Egypt before he was driven into exile. Later, he was tending his father-in-law’s flock deep in the wilderness when God appeared to him (Exodus 3). God called Moses to lead Israel out of their suffering in Egypt, shepherding them to their new home.

David was, by his own account, a ferocious protector of his sheep, rescuing them from a lion and a bear (1 Samuel 17:33-37). The elders of Israel said to him, “And the LORD your God said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler’” (1 Chronicles 11:1-2).

On the other end of the spectrum, King Ahab worshiped any god but the God of Israel, and he married Jezebel, a princess from Sidon who led Israel far away from worshiping the true God (1 Kings 16—22). In a tragic encounter, the prophet Micaiah uses shepherd imagery to foretell Ahab’s death in battle: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” 1 Kings 22:17).

So many key biblical leaders were either actual shepherds or were seen as shepherds of God’s people. But the kings, like Ahab, strayed far from the ways of King David and the heart of God.

The prophet Ezekiel lived in Babylon among the exiles from Judah. In Ezekiel 34, he offers an indictment of the leaders who were still in Jerusalem:

Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them (Ezekiel 34:2-6).

What a bleak picture of the leaders entrusted to care for God’s people! Brokenhearted, God declares through Ezekiel: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).

Can you hear echoes of this glorious Old Testament promise in these New Testament passages?

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things (Mark 6:34).

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesnʼt he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

These moments from Jesus’ life show that He is nothing like the bad kings or bad shepherds from the Old Testament. Instead, He is fulfilling God’s promise to search for, heal, and provide for lost sheep everywhere. And who was more fit to bear witness to the birth of our good Shepherd than the lowly shepherds out in the fields of Bethlehem?

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12).

During all seasons of life, let us remember and celebrate that, in King Jesus, God has kept His promise to rescue and care for His sheep. He is the good Shepherd that we need.

By John Dunham, Translation Technology Operations at Biblica.

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