The dark depravity of the evil shepherds in Ezekiel 34 comes into especially sharp relief against the brilliant and beautiful light provided in the revelation of Jesus Christ as the good Shepherd.
A look into the behavior of the evil shepherds will reinforce this reality. F.B. Huey argues that ancient shepherds had three primary responsibilities, all of which may be seen negatively in the early verses of Ezekiel 34.
First, the shepherd must "provide food, water, and a resting place for the sheep." But the shepherds of Israel were under judgment precisely because they were concerned about providing these things for themselves rather than for the sheep (v. 3).
Second, shepherds "took care of the sick sheep, dressed their wounds, and hunted for sheep that strayed from the flock." However, the shepherds of Israel were doing the exact opposite; they were abusive toward the flock (v. 4).
The third responsibility that the ancient shepherd had "was to protect the sheep from danger." The shepherd held a staff that could either be used to ward off a dangerous animal or that could be used to retrieve a sheep that had fallen into a crevice or otherwise become trapped in the underbrush.
It is in our focal passage, Ezekiel 34:5-8, that we witness the Lord's verdict regarding the neglect of the shepherds to protect the sheep:
So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: "As I live," says the Lord God, "surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did my shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock."
The Problem of Hired Hands
Jesus Christ's description of the hired shepherds, who neglected their office at the first sign of a dangerous wolf, similarly applies to these faithless shepherds of ancient Israel. Jesus identified the "hireling" as one who does not really deserve the name of shepherd. The hireling does not care for the sheep, for he has no sense of ownership (John 10:12-13).
The comparison is appropriate for the situation of Ezekiel. The last kings of Judah, who succeeded one another in rapid succession in the final years of the kingdom, did not really care about the flock of the Lord. They did not even search for the sheep that had been deported from the land into Babylon, much less risk their lives to redeem the flock (as Jesus would one day do). The neglect of the shepherds meant that the sheep were scattered and had become prey for the beasts of the field.
The word פוץ (puwts), which is translated as "scattered," is used thrice in this passage. Sheep are at their most vulnerable when they are separated from one another and from their shepherd. One of the ancient shepherd's primary responsibilities was to keep the sheep together in his presence.
When the shepherd does not tend to the sheep and gather them regularly into the fold, they will naturally "wander" (שׁגה or shagah). It is in such a state of dispersion that a flock becomes a series of individuals, who then make easy "prey" (בז or baz). In a horrifying figure of speech evocative of cannibalism, Ezekiel said that the people as sheep thereby become "food" or "meat" (אכלה or 'oklah) for the conqueror as "beast" or "wild animal" (חי or chay).
The Evil Shepherds Focus on Themselves
The issue is then raised, "Why did the shepherds allow the sheep to be scattered?" Ezekiel also provides the answer to that important question.
A shepherd's constant task in his role of protecting the flock was to "seek" (בקשׁ or baqash) and "search" (דרשׁ or darash) for the sheep, monitoring them so as to keep them from endangering themselves or to remove them from the peril of predators. When a shepherd is not monitoring the sheep in this fashion, they will easily become scattered and endangered.
Rather than being focused on tending to the flock, however, Israel's shepherds were focused on tending to themselves. "But the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed the sheep" (Ezek 34:8).
The One Shepherd
These verses from Ezekiel 34 present a very dark picture, but the passage is not without indications of hope. Repeatedly, the Lord refers in this passage to the people as "My sheep" or "My flock" (vv. 6 and 8). The kings as shepherds may act as hirelings, but there is a Shepherd who owns this flock, who has a vested and intimate interest in the welfare of his sheep.
Israel and Judah may have had various kings who were to function as shepherds, but they also have their covenant Lord God, who is ultimately the King that they must worship (cf. Ps 98:6) and ultimately the Shepherd that will rescue them (Eek 34:11-16, 20-31). And in a rich allusion to the Messiah who would be their only shepherd, the Lord also promises through Ezekiel that, "I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them" (vv. 23-24a).
Israel's motley crew of faithless and vanquished shepherd-kings would be replaced with a singularly faithful and victorious shepherd-king, the Christ. Note that the Lord's promise regarding the Davidic "one shepherd" (v. 23) within the overarching context of the Lord's promise to act decisively as Israel's shepherd (vv. 20-31) brings the human Messiah and the Lord God into a profound unity redolent of the New Testament's high Christology.
The New Testament Shepherd
In light of such darkness in human leaders and the truth of the One Shepherd, New Testament church leaders must be extremely careful that their hearts are focused on Christ and their actions on their flock. Church pastors should not be like the wicked Israelite king-shepherds, who were focused on ἐαυτούςποιμαίνοντες, "feeding themselves" (Jude 12).
Sadly, there are too many cases where contemporary pastors neglect the flocks that the Lord placed in their care and pursue their own self-interests instead. The shepherd who has descended into ministry for money and not for love has become a despicable hireling. However, if a pastor discovers his heart's intentions toward God and his outward actions toward the flock have been engrossed with evil, he need not utterly despair. For the errant shepherd who has neglected his flock and heedlessly allowed them to wander morally and doctrinally, there is yet hope for repentance and restoration. [For the abusing wolf, who pretends to belong in the pastorate, although the Lord did not call him thence, know that your judgment is coming.]
The first pastor to be instituted was Peter, and in spite of his claims that he loved Christ more than any of the other disciples (Mark 14:29), he had failed. Not once nor twice but thrice Peter denied Jesus in his greatest hour of human need (Mark 14:66-72; John 18:15-18, 25-27). But in a moving redemptive moment for Peter and potentially for every shepherd since Peter, the Lord re-commissioned his fallen under-shepherd (John 21:15-17).
It is noteworthy that the risen Christ thrice correlated Peter's love for the Lord with Peter's fulfillment of his appointed office to shepherd the flock. It is when Peter fully embraced the cross of the shepherding office Christ had given him that Peter would find his heart was truly following his Lord (John 21:18-19).
An Exhortation to My Fellow Pastors
The only way a Christian under-shepherd may avoid becoming an evil shepherd like those in judgment under Ezekiel is through a heart continually transformed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God to take the shape of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is primarily concerned for his flock's welfare and seeks them out to save them. May we, Christ's shepherds, have self-sacrificial ministries that follow the good Shepherd of the New Testament rather than the self-centered actions of the evil shepherds of Ezekiel.
(Note: This pastoral commentary on Ezekiel 34 was originally part of a longer essay. It reflects my own dismay and disgust with certain models of ministry becoming increasingly evident and is published here with a sense of hope for a better future. May the culture change for which J.D. Greear and Keith Whitfield have expressed a longing come about sooner than later. I am thankful that Russell Moore and Philip Bethancourt of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have sponsored the recent Caring Well Conference, which is helping to start the process toward a culture change. Finally, I am thankful that Southwestern Seminary's retired Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, F.B Huey, a man of gravity and grace mentioned above, was my professor. [The bracketed sentence above was added in 2019 to the original 2015 essay after the horrific revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the churches became known.])