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Chapter 34 The False Shepherds and the True Shepherd.
In this chapter God likens His people to sheep and describes and condemns those who have been false shepherds to His people. He then goes on to promise the restoration of His people, under Himself, and One from the house of David who will be a true shepherd to them.
‘And the word of Yahweh came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves. Should the shepherds not feed the sheep?” ’
We need not doubt that this has a backward reference to the shepherds of the past, the kings, priests and prophets who had failed His people, but it also very much included the present shepherds who now had responsibility for the people’s spiritual life and teaching in exile, as the later warnings make clear. And the charge was serious. They were guilty of looking after themselves, whereas a true shepherd would be looking after the sheep.
The idea of kings and leaders as shepherds to their people is a common one (1 Kings 22:17; Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 63:11; Jeremiah 2:8, linked with the priests and the prophets; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Jeremiah 25:34-38 - more general; Micah 5:4-5 see also Psalms 78:70-71). Also see more generally Isaiah 56:10-11; Jeremiah 50:6; Nahum 3:18; Zechariah 10:2-3; Zechariah 11:8.
“You eat the fat and you clothe yourselves with the wool. You kill the fatlings. But you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the diseased, nor have you healed those who are sick, nor have you bound up what is broken, nor have you restored the ones who were driven away, nor have you sought that which was lost. But you have lorded it over them with force and with rigour.”
The charge is expanded on, a failure to look after the sheep in their many needs, while themselves obtaining as much advantage from them as they could. They were squeezing the flock dry but they gave them little in return. The general approach demonstrates that more than just past kings were in mind.
Thus they overlooked the basic necessities of those under their care. They did not help the weak, they did not restore those who were failing, they did not go after any who strayed or were snatched away. They left them to themselves except for when they wanted to benefit from them. And then they pursued their object diligently and with vigour.
It is a sad thing when pastors and preachers have a high opinion of themselves, and even sadder when their main aim is their own good and their own advancement rather than genuine concern for their people.
“And they were scattered because there was no shepherd. And they became meat to all the beasts of the field, and were scattered.”
This has definite reference to the past. They had had no true and worthy shepherd. That is why they were now scattered. Their kings, their official leaders, their official teachers and their official watchmen, had failed them and thus they had become meat for the hunters and scavengers round about. But not only had they been failed in the past, their shepherds were still failing them.
“My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill. Yes, my sheep were scattered on all the face of the earth and there was no one who searched for them and sought after them.”
The scattered sheep, His people, now wandered without guidance. No one cared, no one sought them out to help them. They were left to wander aimlessly without proper assistance because those appointed to be their shepherds were failing them.
“Therefore you shepherds, hear the word of Yahweh. As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, surely forasmuch as my sheep became a prey, and my sheep became meat to all the beasts of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did my shepherds search for my sheep, but the shepherds fed themselves and not the sheep.’
The verdict is now given beginning with the accusatory facts. The sheep had not had proper guidance, they had not had protection, and no one had sought them out when they went wrong, and thus they had given way to false teaching and had been physically misused. And all because the shepherds were looking after their own interests and not those of the sheep. They were too busy making themselves well-to-do and advancing their own status.
“Therefore you shepherds, hear the word of Yahweh. Thus says the Lord Yahweh, ‘Behold I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep. Nor will the shepherds feed themselves any more, and I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them. For thus says the Lord Yahweh, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”
In these remarkable word God lays out His plan for His people. First He will call the shepherds to account (‘require my sheep at their hand’) and remove them from being shepherds to His sheep, so that they cannot any more profit from the sheep. They will no longer be able to ‘eat’ them. Then He Himself will search for them and seek them out.
That He sought them out and brought them back to Palestine and Jerusalem we know from later history. But the calling to account and removal from under the shepherds did not fully take place then or later. Zechariah could still prophesy of the false shepherds over the sheep (chapter 11), and of His good shepherd who was coming (Ezekiel 13:7).
It was only when One came Who could proclaim Himself as the good shepherd (John 10:11; John 10:14), Who came to seek and save the lost (Luke 15:3-6; Luke 19:10), that these leaders were totally replaced and the sheep were put under new shepherds. Thus this total change awaited the coming of the prince of the house of David (Ezekiel 34:23). The so-called ‘church age’ is in mind here with a vengeance, when the new Israel will come under the new shepherds under the Great Shepherd.
“As a shepherd seeks out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep who are scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep. And I will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day (‘the day of clouds and thick darkness’). And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and their fold will be on the mountains of the house of Israel. There will they lie down in a good fold, and they will feed on fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will feed my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down, says the Lord Yahweh. I will seek that which was lost, and will restore those who were driven away, and will bind up what is broken, and will strengthen those who were sick. And the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in judgment.”
The prime point here is that because the shepherds failed God Himself would act more directly. He would be their king. In order to carry out His plan the first stage would be to bring His people back to the land of Israel. This He gradually did, and we have no reason to doubt that many from both Israel and Judah returned to the land. There were no lost tribes to Him. The ‘cloudy and dark day’ was past.
And there He promised to feed them lavishly, on the mountains, in the very place where they had regularly sinned against Yahweh, and by the rivers. In other words out in the open everywhere, not limited to sanctuaries. The old leaders had been replaced. Indeed it is significant that there is no reference here to the temple. The very point is that they will no longer be taught by the old shepherds, but by Himself throughout the land, and that their fold will be on the mountains of Israel where they will learn and be blessed.
We can hardly fail to see here the ministry of John the Baptiser and Jesus, literally by the rivers and on the mountains. And we are told by Isaiah that this ministry in Israel was to be an essential preparation for God’s ministry to the whole world through His Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6 see Acts 13:47).
There is nothing more clear than the fact that this abundant sustenance was lacking throughout later centuries prior to the coming of Jesus. There were of course some faithful shepherds, and there were a remnant of those who were faithful to Yahweh, as there had always been. There were pockets of blessing. We must not denigrate or deny the work of godly men. But there was nothing that tied in with this triumphant picture. The Jews themselves admitted that prophecy had failed. All awaited the coming of the great Prophet Who would transform the situation (Isaiah 61:1-2), and the prince of the house of David (Ezekiel 34:23-24; Isaiah 11:1-5), Who would send out his true under-shepherds, first to Israel (Matthew 10:5-15), and then to the world (Matthew 28:18-20).
‘I myself will feed my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down, says the Lord Yahweh. I will seek that which was lost, and will restore those who were driven away, and will bind up what is broken, and will strengthen those who were sick.’ God Himself will care for the sheep. This was also to be the ministry of the great coming Prophet (Isaiah 61:1-2) and Jesus makes clear that it was His ministry and that this was where the other shepherds had failed. They did not seek the lost, but He did (Luke 19:10; Luke 15:0 all). They did not restore those who were driven away, but He did (John 10:12-14). They did not act as physicians to the sick, but He did (Mark 2:17). They did not bind up the broken-hearted, but He did (Isaiah 61:1). As a whole they mainly restricted themselves to their adherents. So He was fulfilling the task of Yahweh.
‘And the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in judgment (or ‘as is fitting’).’ The sleek and well fed, who had made themselves so at the expense of others, would face their judgment. Judgment would become their food. This is a vivid picture of what would happen to the leaders of Israel in the coming of Jesus and what followed in the destruction of the temple. They received what was their due. And it is also a vivid warning to preachers who make themselves rich at the expense of His people.
“But as for you, O my flock, thus says the Lord Yahweh, Behold I will judge between cattle and cattle, as well the rams as the he-goats. Does it seem a small thing to you to have fed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture. And to have drunk of the clear waters, but you must foul the residue with your feet? And as for my sheep, they eat what you have trodden with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet.”
The wider under-leadership are likened to the rams and the he-goats, lords of the flock. They fed themselves on good pasture and clear water and then trampled the pasture down and muddied the water. They did not care what happened to the remainder of the flock. So God’s people continually received tainted teaching and the harder side of life, while the rich prospered.
“And I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, and they will dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. And I will make them and the places around my hill a blessing, and I will cause the shower to come down in its season. There will be showers of blessing. And the tree of the field will yield its fruit, and the earth will yield her increase, and they will be secure in their land.”
‘A covenant of peace.’ That is a situation where they are surrounded with all the blessings of God’s promises in union with Him, because He and they are at one (Ephesians 2:13-15; Colossians 3:15), and they are walking with Him in obedience. There will be peace between man and God.
The picture is one of peace, contentment and blessing. It is Ezekiel’s idea of a perfect life based on an agricultural environment, and presented to people who thought in terms of such an environment. Wild animals will be no more (they were clearly a constant problem in the past), it will be safe to sleep anywhere, whether wilderness or wood, the rains will fall abundantly in due season, and trees and earth will be abundantly fruitful And all this is promised finally to the people of God ‘around My hill’.
‘My hill.’ In view of the fact that Ezekiel never mentions Jerusalem after its destruction and thinks rather in terms of Israel and its mountains we should probably see ‘My hill’ as referring to the whole mountain range which was the backbone of Israel (regularly elsewhere called ‘the mountain’) spoken of in this way to bring out its smallness, almost like a pet name. This is a most unusual use which suggests that the insignificance is intended. The word used here is regularly used in parallel with ‘mountain’, signifying smaller heights, and is only once used of Jerusalem, and then in parallel with ‘Mount’ as a synonym for it (Isaiah 10:32). Mount Zion was not thought of as ‘a hill’, indeed it was exalted above the hills (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1).
Should we however see it as signifying Jerusalem, it is surely in the context to be seen as the new eschatological, everlasting Jerusalem, which in Revelation is in ‘the new earth’. In Ezekiel 37:26-28 this same covenant is put in the context of eternity. (As we shall see later, Ezekiel pointedly ignores Jerusalem by name. It is peripheral to his main theme).
The same picture is presented differently in Revelation 21-22, also symbolically, because the great reality is beyond men’s minds to comprehend. But the basic thought is the same. Redeemed man will have all that he needs, will know a glory beyond telling, and will be at peace and dwell securely in the presence of God. There will be no more tears, no more crying, no more lack, for all these things will be done away (Revelation 21:4). It is a picture of what men think of as ‘Heaven’ (signifying by that the final ideal existence with God) depicted in earthly terms.
-28 “And they will know that I am Yahweh when I have broken the bars of their yoke, and have delivered them from those who made bondservants of them. And they will no more be a prey to the nations, nor will the beast of the earth devour them, but they will dwell securely and none will make them afraid.”
These words had added meaning to those who had just heard about the final destruction of Jerusalem, and who lived in enforced exile in a foreign land, subject to foreign authorities, and wondered if they would ever know peace and security again. They longed for liberty and freedom. The promise was that God would one day set all this to rights for His own, and that in the end His true restored people would find true and total liberty in the presence of God, safe from all that could harm them.
“And I will raise up for them a plantation for renown, and they will no more be consumed with famine in the land, nor bear the shame of the nations any more.”
It would be a time of abundance and plenty. They would have a place for growing fruit and grain which was a wonder to all, and there would be no more famine, nor would the nations be able to mock them for their lack. They would have everything that a man could want. The idea of being in Heaven (in the sense of the ideal existence with God) continues. It is the overflowing abundance of all that a man can want.
“And they will know that I, Yahweh their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel are my people, says the Lord Yahweh. And you my sheep, the sheep of my pasture are men, says the Lord Yahweh.”
Compare Revelation 21:22-23; Revelation 22:3-5. His people will know the presence of Yahweh. They will know that they are His. And they will know that they are ‘men’, spiritual beings made in His image and likeness, and not brute beasts of the field.
Notice the change of phrase. Not ‘they will know that I am Yahweh’. That could spell judgment. But ‘they will know that I, Yahweh their God, am with them.’ A guarantee of blessing. The fact of Yahweh being with His people is always central to conceptions of perfection and glory. For the title ‘their God’ compare Ezekiel 34:24. It signifies here the Divine King and Lord.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 34". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent