Ezekiel 34:11-16 11 For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
People have mistakenly tried to construct a false dichotomy between a wrathful Old Testament God who judges and a loving New Testament God who saves, but that thinking is revealed as flawed in multiple places. Case in point: This chapter 34 of Ezekiel.
In the context of this prophetical book, pronouncing judgment upon sin, we encounter here in this chapter astonishing imagery describing our Lord shepherding his flock with compassion. So it becomes obvious again that God has revealed his depth of character in a profound “both-and” way. He is both sovereign Lord who provides justice AND he is also nurturing shepherd who loves tenderly.
The prophet-priest Ezekiel was called by God during Israel’s history right around the time of the Babylonian exile of 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar swept through and destroyed all of Jerusalem including the Temple; the center of religious ritual. It was within this historical context that Ezekiel prophesied; enacting many of his proclamations symbolically and speaking others verbally.
The initial focus of Ezekiel’s prophecies were about God’s judgment on sin and idolatry; initially first against Israel, and then against the surrounding seven nations. But once Jerusalem fell, Ezekiel switched towards a message of consolation; foretelling of a restored people awaiting a glorious future where the Lord himself will shepherd his flock by gathering, caring for, and feeding them in deep and profound ways.
1. The Lord GATHERS his flock
The imagery of the Lord as a shepherd who actively seeks and saves those who are lost brings to mind the deliberate recounting of this metaphor in parabolic form by Jesus himself in Luke 15:1-7. Even though the flock had been scattered and exiled to Babylon (due to the sinful neglect by the “shepherds”; the religious leaders), the glorious day will come when the Lord will gather his sheep who are easily in view, but will also actively pursue those who are far off; those who are weak, hurt, injured, scared, from every nation on earth.
And imagine how comforting the message that they would be gathered “out from the nations” (vs.13) would have been to the scattered remnant captured into foreign lands. It would have brought hope to those exiles trapped there in Babylon.
In verse 16, the word translated “lost”, the Hebrew ‘abad, means scattered but also annihilated/destroyed and the word translated “scattered”, nadach, is even more insidious; meaning to be thrust away, banished, outcast! These sheep were lost to the point of desperately needing divine rescue (vs.12).
To expand our context to the entire chapter 34, we read that the Lord’s gathering of his flock is in stark contrast to the human shepherds (signifying the religious leaders) who only care about themselves and therefore don’t even bother to go out looking for missing sheep. They “have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost” (vs.4). A very strong indictment.
2. The Lord CARES FOR his flock.
The Lord as shepherd not only gathers his sheep together safely into his fold, he also cares for their every need; making sure they feel safe and treasured. Listen to the power of the nurturing words used in our text such as “look after” (vs.11,12), “bring them out” and “into their own land” (vs.13), “tend” them (vs.14,15), as well as “bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (vs.16). All of these activities would be expected of a normal shepherd watching over his sheep, but evidently those religious leaders, identified as shepherds of the people Israel, were preoccupied with other priorities; namely themselves.
Ezekiel draws the obvious contrast between the Lord as good shepherd (in vs.11-16) against all those who tended to their own comforts and privileges. Not only were they not caring for their own flocks (vs.2-3), they were actually plundering and exploiting them for their own comfort, gain, and well-being. Meanwhile, as they were not watching guard, many of the sheep were figuratively carried off (or scared off) by rampaging wild animals.
3. The Lord FEEDS his flock.
Ezekiel paints a beautiful portrait of the Lord as shepherd who gathers and cares for his beloved sheep, but also as one who feeds his flock in nourishing ways. To get the full sense of this concept, we must go back to the original language and notice the multitude of times the Hebrew word ra’ah is used in describing the pasturing and feeding of the sheep. This word ra’ah describes what shepherds do; pasturing, shepherding, feeding and even teaching (which is enormously significant for ministry application).
In the book of Ezekiel itself, this word ra’ah is used sixteen times and all but one of those times shows up here in this chapter 34. It’s as if Ezekiel is overstating again and again the obvious; shepherd the lost and needy sheep, and he communicates this within the agricultural imagery where the shepherd will bring his sheep to verdant pastures where they can feed without fear or anxiety.
Again we must contrast God’s divine shepherd to the human religious leaders who fed themselves without caring about their flock. Verse 2 is condemning, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves!”. This can also be properly translated as “Woe to the feeders of Israel who have been feeding themselves” (rather than their appointed flocks). Verse 3 goes on to explain that they feast on the choicest parts of their own sheep; on the delicious animal fatty meats. The picture is unmistakable: They were betraying their calling as shepherds and were gorging on the very animals supposedly under their care.
But the Lord turns the tables in verse 10, “I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them”. There is hope: He will reject those shepherds and will replace them with one who is far superior.
Note that the sheep themselves are not innocent in the text. Throughout verses 18-21, many of the neglected sheep are judged as selfish and vindictive to the remainder of their flock. They stamp down the pastures after they have eaten, making it inedible for others, and they pollute/muddy the water after drinking, making water unavailable to the others. Verse 21 adds that the stronger sheep are guilty of bullying and pushing the weak ones around. It’s an absolute mess and needs divine intervention.
The True Good Shepherd
Jesus himself explained on the Road to Emmaus (Lk.24) that all of the Old Testament was about him, and this text is yet another example. Even though a partial fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy did take place during the Old Testament period (the exile eventually ended, the people did return to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple), it was never completely fulfilled. Something was always still missing, and there continued to be false shepherds leading the sheep of Israel astray. Why was that?
This was because though partially fulfilled in the old covenant, this prophecy was not completely fulfilled until the new covenant in Jesus Christ. That word ra’ah which was used fifteen out of sixteen times in chapter 34 (about pasturing the sheep) takes a beautiful turn the final time used by Ezekiel three chapters later, in 37:24, pointing towards the true and coming shepherd of Israel, “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd ; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them”. Obviously this is not referring to King David who was already dead and gone, but to the true Davidic king to come, Jesus Christ himself.
As foreshadowed in Ezekiel 34:23, Jesus is the one who is the true shepherd. He will give the true rest (vs.15) to his flock where they can experience peace like sheep laying safely on a guarded field. In fulfillment of Ezekiel 34, along with Psalm 23 (with many other instances), Jesus Christ is the good shepherd who gathers, cares for, and feeds his flock with divine compassion.
In the New Testament, Jesus used the same imagery of himself shepherding his sheep (John 10). Those who belong to him will finally be gathered and secured into his flock, and will experience a banquet feast of spiritual food along with living waters as he will institute, per vs. 25, a “covenant of peace” forever.
We who have been gathered by Christ as his sheep can experience this partially now and then completely at the end of the age when the fulfillment of his Kingdom will have been fully accomplished .