I started to get a little bit overwhelmed as I looked at all of the references to shepherds in the Bible–there are so many! And what I learned was pretty discouraging. Aside from the references to the Lord as a Shepherd, most of the Old Testament references to the shepherds of God’s people are very negative. There are a few exceptions, but most of the shepherds failed in leading the flock of Israelites.
Throughout the Old Testament, kings, judges, and prophets were called shepherds and they had the responsibility of leading God’s people and teaching them what God expected of them.
“My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes” (Ezekiel 37:24).
Saul, the first king of Israel, is the first man identified as a shepherd.
“In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel’” (2 Samuel 5:2, see also 1 Chronicles 11:2).
God gave the judges commands and expected them to lead the people to obey those commands:
“In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ (2 Samuel 7:7, see also 1 Chronicles 17:6).
Throughout the books of prophecy, God exposes the wickedness of the shepherds.
- “They are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all” (Isaiah 56:11).
- “The shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit” (Jeremiah 2:8).
- “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1).
- The shepherds 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.” Jeremiah 23:2
- The shepherds have led people astray: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold.” (Jeremiah 50:6).
- They feed themselves instead of the sheep: “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?” (Ezekiel 34:2)
- They sleep rather than lead: “Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria; your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains with none to gather them” (Nahum 3:18).
- They become wealthy by oppressing the sheep: “Those who buy them slaughter them and go unpunished, and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the LORD, I have become rich,’ and their own shepherds have no pity on them” (Zechariah 11:5).
The Lord proclaims judgement on those who are evil shepherds:
- “Wail, you shepherds, and cry out, and roll in ashes, you lords of the flock, for the days of your slaughter and dispersion have come, and you shall fall like a choice vessel” (Jeremiah 25:34).
- “No refuge will remain for the shepherds, nor escape for the lords of the flock.” (Jeremiah 25:35).
- “A voice—the cry of the shepherds, and the wail of the lords of the flock! For the LORD is laying waste their pasture” (Jeremiah 25:36).
- “They shall shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod at its entrances; and he shall deliver us from the Assyrian when he comes into our land and treads within our border” (Micah 5:6).
- “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his majestic steed in battle” (Zechariah 10:3).
God does not take the task of shepherding His people lightly and He proclaimed great woe on those who failed in their duties and sought to profit by oppressing the sheep. The Chief Shepherd stands in sharp contrast to these negative examples of shepherds. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who went to extremes to sacrifice Himself for His sheep. He gave up His life, so we could be saved.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11).