Throughout the ancient world sheep and shepherds were everywhere. They were kind of like Starbucks. Everywhere you turned, there were sheep and more sheep. Back then sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed; their sheepskin was used to make containers for wine and water, clothing, and parchments to write on. Their horns were made into writing utensils. Sheep were very useful, and they were everywhere.
When we open to Ezekiel 33, Jerusalem is burning to the ground (33:21). In chapter 34, Ezekiel responds with a scathing indictment on Israel’s political leaders. He calls them “shepherds.” Leaders carry a heavy load. They are responsible to protect and care for people—especially society’s most vulnerable, like the sick, the wounded, and the strays.
But what happens when leaders look only to their own interests at the expense of the needs of people, rather than serving them (34:2-3, 8)? Instead of strengthening and helping people in their time of need, Israel’s leaders “fleeced the flock” to enrich themselves. Instead of defending God’s flock, Israel’s leaders became wolves. The sheep needed rescuing from their own shepherds! One of the main reasons Israel fell was because their political leaders failed to care for the needs of the vulnerable. Political leadership is not about power; it’s about ensuring that the people under their care are flourishing.
Surely, the sheep knew what was going on. Yet, the text is silent on the sheep’s response to their selfish leaders. According to Ezekiel, sheep who ignore the sins of their leaders will eventually follow their example (34:17-22). When leaders are self-serving, sheep begin serving their own needs as well.
What is striking about this passage is that God repeatedly calls Israel, “My sheep.” The flock belongs to the Lord. Israel’s true Shepherd-King would rescue his people and shepherd them for all eternity. So, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), he was essentially saying, “I’m the Shepherd-King that Ezekiel was talking about.”
The Good Shepherd-King is on a mission to seek and save the lost. Through Ezekiel he says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” The Good Shepherd-King knows each sheep by name. He knows which sheep are prone to wander, so he sets two eyes on them. He knows which sheep are sluggish, so he prods them. He knows which sheep are weak, so he picks them up and carries them. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, and cares for us, tending to our needs, and providing good pasture.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What kind of leader am I when I’m with my friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers?” Jesus calls us to follow his example. Know people by name. Seek them out when they wander. Feed them when their hungry. Attend to their hurts. Put their needs above our own. That’s what Jesus did for us. Let us do this for each other.