Lessons from Failed Shepherds, Ezekiel 34

Please turn with me in your bibles to the Old Testament, to the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel, chapter 34.

This morning we have the privilege of ordaining Robert Gardner, or setting him apart unto the task of pastoral ministry. Or to say it another way, we are recognizing the work that God has already done, of gifting and calling to our congregation another shepherd.

Historically, it has been our pattern to preach ordination sermons from 1 Timothy 3, specifically noting the qualifications of a pastor, but to me that has always seemed a little backwards. Those kinds of sermons should be preached before we vote on a man, not after. So today I am going to do something different.

Our text this morning describes to the shepherds of Israel, and therefore there will be many clear applications to the shepherds of the church, to pastors. But don’t tune out if you are not a pastor. Each of us have roles that are shepherd-like in some way. For example, some of you are parents, or grandparents, and you have a shepherd like calling over your little flock in the home.

Or maybe at work you have people that work under or around you, to whom you have a shepherd-like influence. Whatever our station, we can each learn something from the true and false shepherds who were over Israel, as we shall soon see.

Let me begin with prayer, and then we will jump into our text.

By way of set up, Ezekiel is working at the point in Israel’s history after the kingdom had been split. If you will remember, King David was ruling, then king Solomon. But after Solomon the kingdom splits between the north and the south. And eventually, because of their sin and their unwillingness to obey the word of God, the kingdoms were conquered and taken into exile.

It is during Ezekiel’s life that the southern kingdom, called Judah, was defeated by Babylon and taken into exile. Ezekiel himself was carried off, and appears to have settled with a colony of Jewish captives in Babylon. Indeed, the theme of exile is all over this book.

That’s the major context, now let’s turn to our specific passage in chapter 34.

I’d like to begin by looking at verses 1-10 and seeing Israel’s shepherds on trial. Israel’s shepherds on trial. Verse 1:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:  

10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

This first section begins very bluntly with an indictment of the shepherds of Israel. Because the people of God in the old covenant were both a religious group and a political nation, the category of shepherds of Israel would have included both religious leaders and political leaders. Priests and kings, Levites and magistrates.

But even though the church today doesn’t have the same union of religious and political leadership, the principles of this passage are easy enough to translate to us today.

The shepherds were failing to do their job. What, specifically, was their crime? Well, for one, they were negligent of their duties. One of the primary, if not the primary, responsibilities of a shepherd is to feed the sheep. Ezekiel even says that at the end of verse three. That’s a given. But these shepherds were not doing that.

They were negligent to see after the nourishment of the people under their care. And so the lesson for us to ask ourselves is if we have been negligent to see after the well-being of those under our care. Pastors must be faithful to feed the congregation. It must be a well-balanced diet, and not some lopsided menu that leans toward the pastor’s personal hobby horses. That’s one reason why Paul would exhort Timothy to preach the whole counsel of God.

Shepherds can be very tempted to simply let the flock graze in the pleasant places, or in the fields that are easy to get to, not muddy, and not overgrown. But that’s not what a flock always needs.

Sometimes sheep need meals that are more difficult to get to, that require more effort to attain. And the same is true for congregations. If a pastor only teaches what goes down easy, then he is negligent, failing to give to his sheep all of God’s word that is needed to grow the flock up into maturity.

Similarly, we should ask ourselves also, and I being faithful to feed all those under my care with the diet they need? Parents, are you faithful to feed your children, and husbands are you faithful to feed your wife, with what God would have them to eat? This requires that you know then, that you know what kinds of things they need to hear. Not every sheep in the flock needs the same kind of care, do they?

Some sheep need more encouragement, some need a firmer hand. Some require more attention, others are more independent. A good shepherd will give the flock his undivided attention, so as to provide the care and food necessary for the well-being of each individual sheep.

But Israel’s shepherds weren’t doing that. In fact, their sin is much more sinister. They weren’t merely negligent, but they were also cruel. They were cruel. Twice in our passage God condemns the shepherds for eating their own sheep.

Rather than protecting the flock from predators, the shepherds themselves became the enemies of the flock, preying upon the vulnerable sheep. Cruelly harming the very ones whom they had been charged to protect. It’s the opposite of what ought to be.

They gorged themselves, while the sheep were starving, and they were feeding themselves on their very flock.

In the house of God, shepherds can be tempted to turn their ministry of service, into a ministry of self-service, to act as if the sheep are there to serve the shepherds. Isaiah speaks of such an ungodly reversal in Isaiah 56:11

“But they are shepherds who have no understanding;
they have all turned to their own way,
each to his own gain, one and all.”

Each to his own gain. It’s similar to what Paul writes about in 1 timothy 6, when he warns about the false teachers who desire to line their pockets by fleecing the people of God. Paul says:

“those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”

Wicked shepherds aren’t a new thing. Those you see on television trying to scam the simple out of their money, they aren’t doing anything new. They may have a bigger reach and a louder microphone, but they are just the same as the shepherds condemned in our text.

Contentment is what befits a true shepherd over God’s flock. Pastors ought not be chasing money, or fame, or ease, or the praise of men, or anything else other than faithfulness to God’s word.

The same is true for each of us in our homes. We can be tempted to lead in our home in such a way as to make the whole household revolve around us. Our spouse and our kids exist in order to serve me, the boss. Their only job is to honor me, respect me, serve me, bow to my wishes.

But when we do that, we’ve turned the whole thing on its head. We’ve made it the sheep’s job to serve the shepherd, rather than the shepherd’s job to serve the well-being of the sheep.

And that’s God’s indictment of the shepherds. They were negligent of their duties, failing to feed and protect, and instead acting cruelly toward the flock, eating, scattering, preying upon the very ones they were called to protect.

And so what is the verdict of God against these shepherds? Look again at verse 10: “Behold, I am against the shepherds.” He didn’t simply say they were guilty; that much is evident. And He didn’t merely say they’d lose their jobs. He said that HE HIMSELF is against them.

Those that fatten themselves by consuming the very ones that they’ve been charged to protect, they will have God as their enemy. God is the eternal, cosmic ruler, the just and vengeful king, the holy protector of his name, and he will put the full weight of his omnipotent hand upon those that would dare to harm the flock placed under their care.

That’s the verdict. Pastors, shepherds, parents and leaders, we all ought to perk up when we hear that. Our callings come with responsibilities that are deep, indeed, profoundly weighty, and we dare not neglect them. That’s why Hebrews 13 points out that pastors will give an account of their shepherding.

God sees all and knows all. He knows the dispositions of our hearts, the way that we can be tempted to turn things and make them all about us and our comfort, rather than the well-being of those under our care and protection.

As we lead in our various capacities, either at church or at home or at work, let us reflect. Let us be sober-minded. Am I guilty of shepherding like these guilty shepherds of Israel? Do I act as though my flock exists for my gratification, or for God’s glorification through my service to the flock? Do I possess the posture of a servant shepherd, or am I deceived to think that my flock exists to serve me?

Israel’s shepherds stand condemned. But let’s see what God does next.

Let’s look at verses 11-16 and see The Lord’s Response to the Shepherds. The Lord’s response to the shepherds. Verse 11:

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 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 on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.

And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.

15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

In response to the ungodly shepherds, God says that he’s had enough. God himself will take over as the shepherd of Israel. Listen to all the actions that the Lord plans to do personally for his flock:

Search for, seek out, gather, rescue, feed, make lie down, seek, bring back, bind up, strengthen, feed. And we can add to that list the promise that he will destroy and judge the evil doers.

God’s response must have been such a comfort to the oppressed ones, such a relief. He would come and take over. He would do what Israel’s shepherds had failed to do. He would make right all the wrongs they had suffered. He would judge the wicked oppressors and the hypocritical leaders.

Many of you perhaps have felt like helpless sheep, like Israel. Perhaps you’ve felt exiled, alienated or estranged. Fearful of the future. Longing for a godly shepherd to care for your soul.

A shepherd that you didn’t have to always be on guard against, fearful that he might devour you.A shepherd that would feed you only what was good for you, who would protect you, who would bind you up and restore you when you are hurt, who would pick you up and strengthen you when you are weary.

Doesn’t that kind of shepherd sound wonderful? I have good news for you: that’s the kind of shepherd that the Lord is. The bible describes God as a faithful shepherd, and his shepherding comes with many glorious promises. In fact, listen to some of the promises found in Psalm number 23:

If the Lord is your shepherd, then you shall not want, that means you’ll not lack anything that you need, because he both already owns everything, and he’s also good, and is inclined to care for you, he delights in providing for his children. He doesn’t disdain sheep that need his care.

He’ll also make you lie down in green pastures, even when you might not want to, or think you know better. His path for you is always aimed at pleasant and well-watered pastures. That means he’s always aiming at your good, even when you are not.

He leads his sheep beside still waters, scripture says, which means you can not only be refreshed by tasting them, but also have your soul restored in His presence.

He’ll lead you in paths of righteousness, which means he won’t lead you astray. You don’t have to wonder if the Lord’s way is the right way, if he really knows where he’s going. His way is always right, always just, always blameless.

In the Lord’s flock, you don’t have anything to fear, not even the shadow of the valley of death, because God is with you. He will never abandon you, and his comforting presence will never be far from you.

So secure is his protection, that he can prepare a table for you in the presence of your own enemies. The worst of this world or of Satan are no match for God’s protection. Our Shepherd has an all-powerful rod and an indestructible staff, both of which ensure our eternal security.

And in the Lord’s care, our head is anointed with oil, a symbol of health, favor, and being set apart. In Christ, We receive the peace of his very spirit, the setting apart of his pastoral care. No worldly wolves or satanic shepherds can take away this sweetness.

If these things are true, if the LORD will be our shepherd, then surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, because goodness and mercy are the Lord’s stock and trade. He delights in being the shepherd of his people.

And if shepherding is his delight, then his sheep shall dwell in his house forever. He won’t reject his sheep, or grow weary of shepherding them. He doesn’t grow impatient, or slack, careless or resentful in His work.

Can you imagine a better shepherd? I can’t. What is lacking from the Lord’s pastoral care? Nothing.

And if that is the case, doesn’t that make you want to trust him more?

Think deeply and often of this shepherd, and remember his promises in scripture. He can bind you up when you feel broken by sin and trials. Only he can restore your soul when you’ve been mistreated, or when you’ve wondered off into sickly pastures again.

This offer stands for any of you today. It doesn’t matter how much trouble you’ve gotten in, how many sins you’ve committed, the Lord is ready to forgive if you would trust in him. Don’t ignore the warnings of the first point, but also don’t neglect to treasure the promises found here in this second point.

Turn from your sin and have the Lord as your shepherd. That’s the only way to receive lasting joy and satisfaction, both in this life and the next.

Now, let’s look at verses 17-22 and see The Lord’s response to the Sheep. The Lord’s response to the Sheep. You might have sat through this sermon so far and thought, “Well I’m not a pastor or a leader, so this doesn’t apply to me.” Not so fast. Now God turns his sights against the sinful sheep among the flock. Verse 17:

17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.

Here God makes clear that it is not only the shepherds who are to blame in Israel. Some, indeed many, of the sheep are also blameworthy as well. God begins by saying he will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats, that is, he will discern between those who are acting right, and those who are not.

He specifically seems to be calling out the rich, that is, those who are called the fat sheep, because they are sinning against the lean sheep. They were guilty of pushing aside the weak sheep, thrusting the weak with their horns, and scattering them abroad, the text says.

Indeed, God rebukes them by saying that it’s not enough for you to get a drink of water, but you have to also muck up the rest of the creek with your feet. That is, they weren’t content to just get what they wanted, they have to ruin things for everybody else.

But isn’t this how life often works within the household of God? Those with power or influence or money can be tempted to wield it with such disregard for the well-being of the rest of the flock. Passages like 1 Timothy 6 or James 5 specifically warn the rich and powerful to be humble, to not put their faith in their wealth, but instead to be rich in good works.

But it’s not merely those with more wealth that can harm the flock in these ways. The New Testament also warns about wicked shepherds who teach false doctrine, and if we believe the bible to be correct about congregational structure, as this ordination service assumes, then we should note that the sheep can also be guilty of harming the flock by installing and retaining false teachers.

Have you ever considered that? That congregations of sheep who continue to enable false teachers will themselves be held to account for their toleration of unbiblical teaching? When we perpetuate false teaching we can become complicit in negligence, just like the negligent shepherds who failed to feed the flock.

But there are other ways we can be guilty sheep too, failing to seek the well being of the flock. Whenever we fail to show compassion to other sheep in need, we have missed the mark. When we fail to pray for our flock, we fall short. When we sow seeds of division or dissention among the body, we are guilty of sinning against the Lord’s flock.

If any of this seems familiar, then know that the Lord is the shepherd, and that he sees it, and that he will judge between the sheep. He will separate the sheep from the goats, and he will adjudicate accordingly.

In fact, before we move on, it’s worth mentioning another parallel passage. We don’t have time to turn there, but Zechariah 11 has a section that makes clear a very interesting dynamic. Let me ask you a question: Why has Israel gotten in this mess? Specifically, why has the flock of God been hauled off into exile and been given terrible shepherds? If God is all powerful, how could this happen?

The prophets, especially Zechariah, when we read them closely, teach us that the reason why God’s flock is suffering under terrible shepherds is because the sheep had already rejected the LORD as their shepherd. That’s a powerful dynamic, but it is seen throughout the bible.

When the Lord wants to discipline his flock, he gives them terrible shepherds. And when does the Lord need to discipline his flock? When the sheep reject HIM as the true shepherd. That cycle is seen very clearly throughout the Old Testament, especially the book of Judges, for example.

And the same is true today. When a congregation decides to reject the Lord as their shepherd, they instead seek out pastors who will feed them what their itching ears want to hear. And so God will often discipline that flock by giving them the desire of their heart, and so they end up with worthless shepherds.

So, if that dynamic is at play, if that discipline is at work, what is God’s remedy? How can the people of God have any hope that things will get better? Let’s look at the rest of the chapter to see the Good news of God’s Plan. The Good News of God’s Plan. Let’s start back at Verse 23, here’s where things get fun:

23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. 25 “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.

26 And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them.

 28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. 29 And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations.

30 And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God. 31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.”

God’s plan to address the problems of both the faulty shepherds and the sinful sheep begins with another shepherd. Which might seem strange to us. Didn’t God just say that he would be the shepherd of Israel? If so, then how can he say in verse 23 that some servant named David will be the shepherd? How can both God and a guy named David be the shepherd?

What Ezekiel is doing here is referencing a promise that God made in 2 Samuel 7, where God makes a covenant with the then king of Israel, named David. God promised that David would one day have a son, and that that promised son would be on the throne of Israel forever.

This promised Son of David is also pictured in the writings of other Old Testament prophets in very shepherd-like terms. So Ezekiel is promising that God would provide a royal Son of David who would be shepherd over Israel.

This is the expectation built by the promises that God has made to his people throughout the old testament. God has been building this expectation of a promised son since Genesis 3 when he promised a son from Eve that would crush the head of the serpent.

Later he promised a Son to Abraham, and that son would be the one through whom all the nations would be blessed. And eventually, David is likewise promised a royal son to rule on the throne forever.

And it is with this building expectation of the promised son, that we can come to the very first verse of the New Testament. When Matthew opens his gospel, he begins with a geneaology, a description of the lineage of Jesus, but listen to what he says in the very first verse of Matthew, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

When Matthew describes Jesus, he could have called him many things, but he chose to call him the Son of David, and the Son of Abraham. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise of a royal son who would sit on David’s throne forever, and Jesus is the promised son of Abraham through whom the world would be blessed.

What is God’s plan for Israel? And how God and a servant of David both be the shepherd of Israel? Because in God’s wonderful plan there would be a savior who would come, who would be both the son of God and a son of man. He would be both a Son of David’s earthly lineage, and a son of God himself, fully man and fully God.

That’s how both God and David can be a singular shepherd over his people, because both God and the seed of David unite in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the fulfillment of this promised shepherd. He’s the one who will bind up and restore. He’s the one who would protect and judge. He’s the completion of these messianic promises.

And that’s what we can see from the promised plan, described in the rest of the Ezekiel 34. This Davidic servant would be shepherd, and provide a new covenant, a covenant of peace. This same covenant is described in Jeremiah 23 and Isaiah 54, and it comes with numerous, glorious blessings for God’s flock.

Verse 25 promises safety, which is what every sheep of the Lord experiences because of the finality of Christ’s salvation. What does safety mean? Paul says it this way: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s security, and it is ours by faith in Christ.

Verse 26 promises blessing, showers of blessing. And that’s what we possess if we are trusting in Christ as our good shepherd. What does Paul say in Ephesians 1: Blessed be “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Blessings belong to us, if we are in Christ.

Verse 27 promise to us fruitfulness, trees bearing fruit in season and the earth yielding it’s increase. That’s language promising the undoing of the curse. No longer thorns and thistles, but the earth offering up it’s bounty. Who can do that? Only Christ, the one who bore the crown of thorns itself, the very image of the curse, so that in him we have the promise of a new heavenly home, no longer cursed.

Likewise, verse 27 and 28 also promise to us liberation, freedom. It says he will break the bars of their yoke. The New Testament definitely pictures Christ as our great liberator. If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed, Christ said in John’s gospel.

Likewise, Paul says in Romans 8 that Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death. Our shepherd has freed us from the chains of slavery to sin and death, all of which bind the souls of the sons of Adam.

Lastly, God’s plan also promises adoption. We see that in the final verses, where God’s covenant of peace not only frees us and restores us, but goes even further. It says in verse 30:

And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God. 31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.”

Here is perhaps the sweetest blessing of all: God makes us his own, and we become his. We adopts us into his very household. We are his people, and he is our God.

That’s the good news of the new covenant, and these promises are yours, if you trust in Christ. If you haven’t yet believed, then today can be the day of your salvation. Trust in Christ Jesus, the lamb of God sent to take away the sins of his people. He will be your shepherd and your God, and you can be one of his flock.

And it is this gospel message that is at the heart of every faithful shepherd. Every father or mother, every teacher and leader, and especially every pastor, must have this as their aim.


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