“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.” — Ezekiel 34:2-3
The Bible often characterizes spiritual leaders as shepherds — a visual image that suggests watchful care, concern, and compassion. In our text today, Ezekiel condemned the unfaithful shepherds of Israel who were providing for themselves while neglecting duties toward their flock. They had failed to strengthen, heal, and bind up the “sheep” they were responsible to care for, putting their own needs and wants ahead of service to others.
John Eliot was a spiritual shepherd whose life offers a dramatic contrast to the failure of the religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day. In 1631, Eliot left England, the land of his birth, as a young Puritan pastor. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, for a year, and then established a church a few miles away in Roxbury, where he served faithfully for fifty-eight years.
From the beginning of his ministry, Eliot developed an excellent relationship with the Native Americans in the area, carrying on evangelistic work among them while maintaining his duties for the Roxbury congregation. In fact, his work among the tribes became so well known that many historians refer to him as “the Apostle of the American Indians.” He spent twelve years studying the Algonquian language through the assistance of a young Native American he took into his home, and began preaching in that language by the late 1640s. Eventually he became so fluent that he published a grammar book and translated the Bible into Algonquian; it was the first Bible printed in North America.
Eliot established towns for tribal converts in areas where they could preserve their own culture and live by their own laws. He trained many native evangelists, and ultimately they carried out much of the missionary outreach in the surrounding territory. However, Eliot himself did a great deal of itinerant preaching. Leaving his comfortable home on a regular basis, Eliot served simultaneously as a pastor, missionary, husband, and father, as well as teacher and medical doctor in the tribal villages. He traveled countless miles on foot and horseback, taxing his strength to the utmost, sometimes drenched by rain, in order to bring the Gospel to the native people. At one point he wrote in a letter, “I have not been dry night nor day from the third day of the week to the sixth, but have travelled from place to place in that condition; and at night I pull off my boots, wring my stockings, and on with them again, and so continue. The rivers also were raised, so as that we were wet in riding through. But God steps in and helps me. I have considered the exhortation of Paul to his son Timothy, ‘Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’”1
While preaching the Gospel was Eliot’s primary goal, he also helped in other ways. He brought cases to court to battle for Native American property rights, fought against the selling of indigenous people into slavery, petitioned government authorities to secure lands and streams for the use of the tribes, and established schools for children and adults in their villages. In spite of a war that eventually caused many of the native tribal groups to leave the area, Eliot refused to be discouraged, and continued to minister to wandering bands of indigenous people until his death. What a wonderful example of what it means to be a faithful spiritual shepherd!
Whether we are in a position of spiritual leadership or not, there is a lesson here for us. The faithless shepherds of Ezekiel’s day remind us that we must all guard against getting so caught up in our own needs and activities that we neglect our responsibilities toward others. Simple acts of caring make a difference, no matter what our role. God has always shown compassion to His children, and He expects His children to reach out to others with that same spirit.
Chapter 34 presents a contrast between the behavior of Israel’s unfaithful shepherds (alluding here to the civil and spiritual leaders of Israel) and the behavior of a good shepherd. The relationship between a shepherd and his sheep was one of care and dependence. In Israel at that time, shepherds did not drive their sheep; they led them. The sheep grew to recognize the voice of their shepherd and could distinguish it from other voices, so they knew whom to follow. A shepherd’s life was one of self-sacrifice and deprivation, and at times, he risked his personal safety at the hands of marauders or the teeth and claws of wild animals in order to protect his flock.
The chapter begins with the statement, “And the word of the LORD came unto me . . .” Twenty-six chapters in Ezekiel open with that declaration. When the word “LORD” appears in all uppercase letters in the King James Version, it indicates the Hebrew proper name transliterated as “YHWH,” the consonants in God’s proper name. Because the Jews considered this name to be extremely sacred, they did not pronounce it, so the vowels were left out. This highly personalized designation was an expression of God’s will and self — not only of His holiness, righteousness, and sense of justice, but also of His mercy and grace. This was part of each message Ezekiel was instructed to communicate to Israel.
Verses 2-6 outline the offences of the shepherds of Israel. They were accused of many things, including their failure to feed the Lord’s flocks, though ensuring that they themselves were well fed and clothed. They had neglected the sick and infirm, failed to search for the lost, and allowed the sheep to become prey.
In verses 7-10, God condemned in strong terms the shepherds of Israel for not acting faithfully to protect His flock. Instead, they had behaved like animals, and were making themselves rich at the expense of the sheep. The detailed and emphatic terms used to describe their actions indicate that their failure was a personal affront to a loving God.
In verses 11-22, God promised that He himself would do all that the unfaithful shepherds had failed to do — seek and find the scattered sheep, provide food and shelter, and bind up and heal the injured.
Through Ezekiel, God promised that one day He would provide a faithful shepherd, called “David” in verses 23-24, for His sheep. Jewish sources believe this referred to a prince of the lineage of David. Others see it as a reference to the Millennial Reign of Christ. It certainly referred to the traits David displayed both as a shepherd and as a leader — characteristics that were reflective of God’s love for and faithfulness to His flock.
IV. The consolation of Israel
A. Prophecies of Israel’s restoration
2. The ministry of Israel’s shepherds (34:1-31)
a. The false shepherds of Israel (34:1-10)
(1) Their practice (34:1-6)
(2) Their punishment (34:7-10)
b. The true shepherd of Israel 34:11-31)
(1) The gathering of the sheep (34:11-16)
(2) The protecting of the sheep (34:17-22)
(3) The governing of the sheep (34:23-24)
(4) The provision of peace for the sheep (34:25-31)
Whatever our role in the service of God, we want to always put others first and make sure we fulfill our responsibilities faithfully.
1. Andrew Thomson, Great Missionaries: A Series of Biographies, (London, England: T. Nelson and Sons, 1862), pg.27.