In Ezekiel 34:1–31, Israel’s leaders are compared to incompetent shepherds who failed to care for their flock. The people of Israel were the sheep of God’s flock, and they should have been cared for (Psalm 95:7; 100:3).
Ezekiel reveals that, through self-centered leadership, God’s sheep were abused, oppressed, and left to scatter. As such, they were vulnerable to attacks from “wild animals” (Ezekiel 34:8), who represent predatory foreign nations like Babylon. God announced that He will do away with the self-absorbed shepherds (verses 10) and rescue His people: “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered” (Ezekiel 34:11–12, ESV).
The sheep/shepherd theme runs throughout the Scriptures. Shepherding was a common vocation in Israel’s culture. Many of Israel’s patriarchs engaged in the occupation (Genesis 46:32). Men, women, and children all worked as shepherds in the Bible (Genesis 29:6; 1 Samuel 16:11; 17:15). The job of shepherding involved leading sheep to pasture for food and fresh water, providing shelter and protection, and caring for the injured and ill among the flock.
In Ezekiel, Israel’s human leaders neglect, exploit, and mislead the flock. Instead of nurturing the sheep, they only look out for themselves. For this reason, God says, “I myself will search for my sheep.” This metaphor of God caring for His sheep appears in Isaiah 40:11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (see also Micah 7:14). Perhaps the finest example of God leading us like a shepherd is Psalm 23.
One of the oldest titles of God in the Bible is “Shepherd” (Genesis 49:24). The psalmist Asaph describes how God brought Israel out of Egypt “like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness. He guided them safely, so they were unafraid; but the sea engulfed their enemies” (Psalm 78:52–53).
The Gospels describe Jesus Christ as the ultimate compassionate shepherd. He cares for “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36; see also Mark 6:34). He is the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), the “great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), and the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4).
God is in the business of seeking and saving lost sheep (John 10:16). Perhaps His words, “I myself will search for my sheep,” resound most forcefully in Christ’s parable of the lost sheep:
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.” In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15:4–7, NLT).Just as the people of Israel were the sheep of God’s flock, Christians today are the sheep of Christ’s flock (Luke 12:32; Matthew 10:16). Israel had God-appointed spiritual under-shepherds, just as New Testament believers do (John 21:15–17). In Acts, Paul told the Ephesian elders to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
The apostle Peter urged church leaders to take their responsibilities seriously: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2–4).
False, self-interested spiritual shepherds existed in ancient Israel, and equally troublesome shepherds are active in the church today (Acts 20:29; Matthew 7:15; John 10:1). The Lord held Israel’s elders accountable and brought judgment against the corrupt ones (Ezekiel 34:7–19; Isaiah 3:13–15; 5:8; Amos 5:12). And He continues to hold accountable and bring judgment on fraudulent spiritual leaders to this day (Matthew 23:4–15).
God is personally invested in caring for His sheep. If one of His appointed leaders takes advantage of the flock, the Lord Himself promises to step into the role of caring shepherd to rescue and restore His sheep (Zechariah 10:3; 11:7). He removes the incompetent shepherd from tending the flock and says, “I myself will search for my sheep. I will rescue them and care for them.”