The prophets of the Old Testament spared no words. I am always amazed and challenged by their accusations against God’s chosen people. On a few occasions God commissioned the prophets to speak to and against the shepherds of Israel. Probably most notable among these oracles is found in Ezekiel 34. But the other day I came across a rather profound challenge in the book of Zechariah.
Zechariah was a post exilic prophet and was a contemporary of Haggai. His main concern was with Israel’s covenant purity as they repopulated the promised land. In chapters 10 and 11 he turned his attention towards the spiritual leaders. We see God’s heart for His people and His intentions towards those spiritual leaders who did not demonstrate a genuine care. Listen to Zechariah 10:3.
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 . . .
In 11:15-17 we arrive at the actual accusations against these shepherds, and we see that God calls them both “foolish” and “worthless” for not tending to the sheep in a manner worthy of their calling. We find four things that these shepherds of Israel didn’t do and two things they evidently did with zeal. You must keep the metaphor of sheep in mind to fully understand these charges.
1. They did not care for those being destroyed. Sheep need constant watchful protection. They are vulnerable and open to attack. God’s people are much like sheep. For people this attack could come at the hands of physical need, spiritual need, or emotional weariness. But what is obvious is that these are the ones among us who need help in the midst of the battle.
2. They did not seek the young. The young sheep were also quite vulnerable. They could easily wander off or be most susceptible to prey. They are head strong and energetic. The young among us have to be pursued, sometimes to protect them from themselves.
3. They did not heal the maimed. The maimed are those who have already been in the battle and are now badly wounded. They have fallen prey to attack and need healing. Again, those among us who have suffered physically, emotionally or spiritually need the triage of a wise spiritual physician.
4. They did not nourish the healthy. Healthy sheep still need to be led to good pasture and fresh water to maintain growing. Sometimes spiritual leaders can be so focused on the hurting that it is easy to forget about keeping the healthy healthy. They must be nourished on the Word of God, living in community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, while continually being pointed to Christ.
5. They devoured the flesh of the fat ones. This seems to be a move from servant shepherd to opportunistic hunter. There are probably many ways in which a spiritual leader can “devour the flesh”. No matter what it looks like, the focus shifts from the sheep to the shepherd. He has moved from vigilance to negligence. The shepherd goes from laying down his life to taking advantage of the very ones he is charged to lead. Sadly, the contemporary examples are numerous.
6. They deserted the flock. Ultimately, an unprotected flock of sheep is a dead flock of sheep. Sheep must be led and they must be cared for. A shepherd who deserts the flock has truly forgotten his calling. John 10 labels this attitude as one of a hireling.
Spiritual shepherds must care as God cares. They must first follow the Chief Shepherd. They must realize that they are simply sheep too, with a privileged calling. I would argue that they cannot do it alone. They need developed under-shepherds around them. But they are the ones who remain ever watchful over those God has entrusted to their care.