There are two passages in the Bible that are incredibly forthright about God’s concern for how his people are led. Both of these passages serve as a rebuke towards the spiritual leaders of Israel. One is found in Ezekiel 34 and the other is in Jeremiah 23. In both of these passages God, through the prophets, uses the leadership metaphor of a “shepherd” as a way of describing leadership errors. I have previously written on Ezekiel 34. Today I will highlight some principles from Jeremiah 23.
Jeremiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah right before and during her exile at the hands of the nation of Babylon. Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because he never saw any tangible results from his 40 years of preaching, warning Israel to repent of her idolatry. Yet, he remained obedient to God in communicating all that was expected to this wayward people.
Verse one states the charge against the spiritual leaders of Judah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” There are four critical aspects to this verse. Yahweh proclaims a “woe” on these leaders. Jesus will do something very similar in Matthew 23 where he proclaims seven “woes” on the spiritual leaders of Israel in that era. A “woe” served as a lamentation for the miserable state that someone was in. It also served as a warning. God, through the prophet, highlights two particular charges against these spiritual leaders–they were “destroying” and “scattering” the sheep. Sheep stand as a common biblical metaphor for God’s people. It is fitting because sheep are weak creatures, open to attack and harm. Somehow these spiritual leaders of Israel were directly causing harm to the people that they were suppose to be nurturing. Sheep must be protected by a shepherd from themselves and from outside predators. And a sheep that wanders away from the flock is a dead sheep. Also note that God states that these are his sheep. They rightfully belong to him and are entrusted to the shepherd.
In verse two God restates the charge and adds another dimension, “and you have not attended to them.” The essence of being a shepherd is to be attentive. An actual shepherd watching over sheep had to be constantly attentive to lead the sheep to food and water and to protect the sheep from themselves and from outside predators. In a spiritual sense, Israel’s shepherds were beyond being inattentive. In verses 3-4 God clearly states what he will do from his own initiative to care for his sheep. He states that he will “gather the remnant”, “bringing them back to the fold”, and “will set shepherds over them who will care for them.” Now we see the other side of being a spiritual shepherd–care. To be a spiritual shepherd is to be attentive and to care. In verse four God describes three ways in which attention and care can be applied.
1. Shepherds help to diffuse fear It has been said that fear makes cowards of us all. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear looks at the circumstances and calculates that they are bigger than God’s ability to act. A spiritual shepherd addresses specific fears and points people back to the reality of God’s character.
2. Shepherds help to infuse courage Unchecked fear can lead to dismay. Dismay is the emotional result of feeling overwhelmed and lacking courage. Dismay can tempt people to escape their circumstances. A spiritual shepherd not only addresses specific fears but he also helps people see the concrete steps of faith they need to take to get past their fears. Courage in the Bible is often the notion of remaining in circumstances long enough to see God act on their behalf. Courage is not bravado-it is faith in a great God applied to current reality.
3. Shepherds make it their aim that none are lost Real sheep have a nasty habit of wandering away. And, again, an isolated sheep is a dead sheep. So it is with us. We were meant for community. When we isolate ourselves we are vulnerable to all sorts of attacks from without and within. A spiritual shepherd remains vigilant for the wandering disciple. They gently lead them back into the fold-for their own protection and nourishment. This should remind us of the parables of Luke 15 and God’s diligent heart for the one.
Being a spiritual shepherd is hard work. It is often work without acclaim. Two things must be remembered by any would be spiritual shepherd: we have a Chief Shepherd to whom we must give an account; and every shepherd needs a shepherd for their own survival and thriving. Finally, note that in Jeremiah 23:5-6 the prophet points us towards the coming Messiah who will serve as the ultimate Shepherd-the Righteous Branch.