The Bible is full of sheep. And shepherds.
Many leaders were actual herders. Abraham had plenty of livestock (Genesis 13:2). Jacob, while caring for the flocks of his father-in-law Laban, received abundant ovine blessing (Genesis 30:43). Joseph labelled all 12 sons of Israel as shepherds (Genesis 46:34). Moses spent forty years herding (Exodus 3:1, what is it with caring for the father-in-law’s sheep?). And king David famously practised to defeat Goliath by protecting sheep (1 Samuel 17:34, being unmarried David worked for his father).
Being familiar with sheep farming, Israel understood shepherd imagery applied to God. Even in the Bible’s first book God is named shepherd (in this case, of Jacob Genesis 48:15). God as shepherd appears in many places that are not even that famous psalm (I’m trying to avoid the too-obvious reference), for example Psalm 80:1 or Ecclesiastes 12:11.
Yet the Lord is not the only figurative shepherd in the Bible. God regularly calls the leader(s) of his people by that same term.
God summarises the job of the judges in a single command: shepherd my people (2 Samuel 7:7). David, even before he was king, was a shepherd of Israel (2 Samuel 5:2). Supremely, Jesus is the good shepherd (John 10:11-16). The privilege of Christian leadership is to be a sheep who serves the chief shepherd by shepherding other members of the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4).
As far as I can see, there are two major problems regarding sheep-shepherds. The two, sadly, end up with the same ill outcome.
First, sheep might be neglected – sheep without a shepherd. Moses prayed that, after his death, Israel be given a leader to avoid this problem (Numbers 27:15-17). Jesus was full of compassion precisely because he knew the people were shepherdless sheep (Mark 6:34). Without shepherds, the sheep are aimless and hopelessly lost.
The second problem is abuse of the sheep by those who have oversight. Ezekiel delivered a sting to the self-serving shepherds of Israel (Ezekiel 34:1ff). They were using the sheep, but not protecting them. The shepherds fed themselves, and starved the sheep. Unfortunately, the shepherds of Israel developed immunity against prophetic stings – there was no reaction at all.
In the time of Ezekiel, this second problem morphed into the first. Abusive shepherding led to sheep being scattered from safety (see verse 6). So the abused flock also became a neglected flock.
In light of this, I return to Peter’s instruction to church elders. This is how they are to care:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
Peter steers us away from the two errors. First: be a shepherd, willingly, in accord with God’s will. Second: don’t abuse your position.
Since this post has circumnavigated a large area of Bible, I think it’s only fair to end with an attempt at summary.
- If you’re in the flock, follow a good shepherd. Jesus certainly is that. And Jesus has appointed under-shepherds for good reason – we need them
- If you get to do some shepherding, then do it. Don’t back out of the responsibility, and be intent on leadership that does not harm the sheep