Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The Jewish people experienced two major exiles, the Assyrian Exile and the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Exile—the exile in which Ezekiel was involved—came in two waves, the first beginning in 597 B.C. and the second beginning in 587 B.C. To understand Ezekiel, it helps to see where he fits in the context of these exiles.
THE DIVIDED KINGDOM: Keep in mind that, after Solomon’s reign, Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was composed of ten tribes, and was known as Israel. The southern kingdom was composed of two tribes, and was known as Judah.
THE ASSYRIAN EXILE: The first major exile was the Assyrian Exile, which began in 722 B.C. Assyria forced the ten northern tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. These ten tribes of Israel are sometimes called “the lost tribes,” because they became assimilated and never returned to their homeland in an organized way.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE ONE: Another exile, the first of two Babylonian exiles, took place in 597 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king’s house, and (cutting) in pieces all the vessels of gold, which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of Yahweh, as Yahweh had said. He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, except the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:13-14).
EZEKIEL, a priest, was one of the people exiled to Babylonia at this time. Five years later, Yahweh called Ezekiel to be a prophet, prophesying both doom for the city of Jerusalem and hope for the Israelites. Ezekiel, therefore, was a contemporary of Jeremiah, who was living and prophesying in Jerusalem while Ezekiel was living and prophesying in Babylonia. Ezekiel continued his prophetic ministry for approximately thirty years—until well after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE TWO: In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, a Jew serving as Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. This Babylonian Exile was the second major exile—Judah’s exile.
Ezekiel made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for its sins, but he also held out hope for the future. In the last chapters of his book, he tells of Yahweh blessing Israel (chapter 36)—and the dry bones coming to life, symbolizing Israel’s restoration (chapter 37)—and Yahweh’s judgment on Gog (chapters 38-39)—and the vision of a new temple in Jerusalem (chapters 40-44)—and the restoration of life as it had been and as it ought to be (chapters 45-47).
THE RETURN OF A REMNANT: In 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, whose policies would prove to be quite different from those of the Babylonians. Cyrus encouraged subject peoples to retain their culture and traditions, including their religions. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. He even returned the temple vessels to the exiles for use in the new temple and provided financial backing for their return (Ezra 6:2-5). In 520 B.C., a large group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. In 516 B.C., they were able, finally, to dedicate the new temple.
EZEKIEL 34:1-10. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
In these verses, Yahweh calls Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel—their leaders. He is to condemn them for feeding themselves instead of their sheep (vv. 2-3). They have failed to heal the sick and to see the lost, but have ruled harshly (v. 4). As a result, the sheep have been scattered and have become food for wild animals (vv. 5-6).
Therefore Yahweh pronounces this judgment: “Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; and I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be food for them” (v. 10).
The shepherds of this text could be rulers, such as kings—or spiritual leaders, such as priests—or both. Most scholars see the false shepherds of this text as Israel’s kings.
Odell makes a case that these false shepherds could be the foreign kings who ruled over Israelites in exile (Odell, 425-426). However, I did not find her arguments convincing and found no support for her thesis in other sources.
In one instance, Yahweh says of King Cyrus of Persia, “He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure” (Isaiah 44:28). Cyrus is the king who will allow the Israelites to return to Jerusalem.
EZEKIEL 34:11-16. I WILL SEARCH FOR MY SHEEP
11For thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out (Hebrew: baqar). 12As a shepherd seeks out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that 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. 13 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 watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture; and on the mountains of the height of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie down in a good fold; and on fat pasture shall they feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down, says the Lord Yahweh. 16 I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but the fat and the strong I will destroy; I will feed them in justice (Hebrew: mispat).
“For thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (baqar) (v. 11). Because the leaders whom the Lord appointed as shepherds over the people of Israel have done such a bad job, the Lord determines to take up the role of shepherd personally. Because they are scattered and vulnerable (v. 5), the Lord will search for them “and will seek them out” (baqar). This word, baqar, indicates a careful, deliberate search.
There are many references to God as shepherd in Hebrew Scripture (Genesis 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 23:1; 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Micah 7:14; Zechariah 11:7). Those references speak of God as a tender, caring shepherd who understands the sheep’s vulnerabilities and provides for their needs.
“As a shepherd seeks out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that 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“ (v. 12). Scattered sheep are evidence of a poor shepherd. A good shepherd works diligently to prevent scattering, because he cannot protect scattered sheep. Scattered sheep are isolated, alone, and vulnerable.
“so will I seek out my sheep” (v. 12). Jesus may have had this verse in mind when he gave the Pharisees and scribes the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). In that parable, the shepherd has a hundred sheep, one of whom is lost. He leaves the ninety-nine and searches for the one that is lost. When he returns home, he says to his friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” (Luke 15:6). God takes no joy in the punishment of an errant sheep, but takes a great deal of joy in redeeming a sheep that was lost.
“in the cloudy and dark day” (v. 12). This language is used elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture to refer to God’s judgment (Psalm 97:2) or the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:1-3; Zephaniah 1:14-15). The Day of the Lord will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. Most references to the Day of the Lord emphasize God’s wrath, but some include a note of vindication.
This verse, then, presents Israel as having experienced its judgment—its “cloudy and dark day.” This alludes to the day in 597 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, forcing its most prominent citizens (including the priest Ezekiel) into exile. Now the Lord is preparing to redeem these Israelites from the consequences of that judgment.
“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 watercourses, and in all the inhabited places of the country“ (v. 13). This is a promise to bring the people of Israel from their exile in Babylonia to their homeland of Israel. The Lord will fulfill this promise through the agency of King Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus will capture Babylon in 539 B.C., bringing an end to Babylonia domination. He will allow the Israelite exiles to practice their religion and to return to their homeland.
“I will feed them with good pasture; and on the mountains of the height of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie down in a good fold; and on fat pasture shall they feed on the mountains of Israel“ (v. 14). In verses 14-16, the Lord outlines the actions that he will undertake as shepherd of Israel. The first of these actions is to lead them to good pastures (see also Psalm 23:2).
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down, says the Lord Yahweh“ (v. 15). This verse serves as a foundation for Jesus’ Good Shepherd Discourse in the New Testament (John 10:11-18).
Jesus was the Good Shepherd, but shepherding is also a discipleship responsibility. Jesus called Peter (and, by extension, the rest of his disciples) to feed his lambs and tend his sheep (John 21:15-17). Paul told the Ephesian elders, “Take heed, therefore, to yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the assembly of the Lord and God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter said, “I exhort the elders among you…. Shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:1-2). Their reward will be a crown of glory “when the chief Shepherd is revealed” (1 Peter 5:4). Jesus, of course, is that chief shepherd (Hebrews 13:20; Revelation 7:17).
“I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick“ (v. 16a). Earlier, God rebuked the false shepherds for failing to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost (v. 4a). Note that the verbs in verses 4 and 16 are similar, but in reverse order.
The lost, strayed, injured, and weak are those who are powerless and who have suffered at the hands of those who are powerful. The scriptures often reveal God’s special concern for those who are weak and vulnerable. Jesus will spend a disproportionate amount of his time ministering to the sick, the grieving, and other vulnerable people.
“but the fat and the strong I will destroy“ (v. 16b). The fat and strong represent those in power positions—those who had responsibility for seeing that the flock were fed, but who fed themselves instead (vv. 2-3).
“I will feed them in justice” (mispat) (v. 16c). God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
Because the fat and strong have eaten the food that God intended for the flock, God will feed them with justice—with judgment—with destruction (v. 16b).
EZEKIEL 34:17-19. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
17As for you, O my flock, thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, the rams and the male goats. 18Does 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? 19As for my sheep, they eat that which you have trodden with your feet, and they drink that which you have fouled with your feet.
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, the preacher will do well to be familiar with them.
God turns his attention to the flock. Even there he finds those who are good (sheep) and those who are bad (rams and goats). The rams and goats might not be kings and princes, but they nevertheless enjoy more prosperity than the rest of the sheep. Instead of using their power to help the needy, they have taken what they wanted and fouled the rest, leaving the rest of the sheep with trampled food and polluted water.
EZEKIEL 34:20-22. THEREFORE WILL I SAVE MY FLOCK
20Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh to them: Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you thrust with side and with shoulder, and push all the diseased with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad; 22therefore will I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
“Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh to them: Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep“ (v. 20). The fat sheep are those who have enjoyed prosperity at the expense of the lean sheep. There has not been equity—fairness. God now determines to redress that situation. When he does so, the fat sheep will lose and the lean sheep will gain.
“Because you thrust with side and with shoulder, and push all the diseased with your horns, until you have scattered them abroad“ (v. 21). As so often happens, privileged people—people with power and money—have used their privilege to further their own welfare—in total disregard for those who are weak. Whether they purposely bulldoze those who are weak or just fail to notice their needs, they are guilty of selfish disregard for the needy. They have pushed and shoved to get their way. They have scattered those who are weak so that they are alone and vulnerable.
“therefore will I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep“ (v. 22). But God will not allow this unfortunate situation to continue. He will save his flock, and will “judge between sheep and sheep.” These second-tier privileged people—those who aren’t kings or princes—might consider themselves to be sheep instead of rams and goats (see v. 17)—but that won’t save them from God’s judgment. God will distinguish between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, and will punish those who have enjoyed personal privilege at the expense of those who are weak.
EZEKIEL 34:23-24. I WILL SET UP ONE SHEPHERD OVER THEM—DAVID
23 I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. 24 I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince (Hebrew: nasi) among them; I, Yahweh, have spoken it.
“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd“ (v. 23). The metaphor changes here. Until now, God has been the shepherd. Now God promises to set a shepherd over his people. The shepherd’s name will be David, who will be God’s servant. David will feed God’s sheep and be their shepherd—a title that implies both leadership and giving protection. See 37:22-26 for a parallel passage. See also Jeremiah 30:8-10; 33:17-26; Hosea 3:5.
In the covenant that God established with David centuries earlier, God promised, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). The kings of Israel and Judah—descendants of David—failed to serve God faithfully, but God has not forgotten this covenant with David.
Who will this shepherd be? Will God resurrect David from his grave—or raise up another great king in David’s mold? This verse is a messianic promise. God will raise up the Messiah from the house of David to shepherd his people.
“I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince (nasi) among them; I, Yahweh, have spoken it“ (v. 24). The Lord uses the word nasi (prince) to avoid using the word melek (king)—a word that has such bad associations for these people. “Prince” is not a lesser title, but only a different title (Eichrodt).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan