Some pretty major historical events happened this week with the death of Osama bin Laden and the victory of the Conservatives in the federal election. As the news of these events was being reported, some of the broadcasters interviewed people to ask them how these historical events impacted their lives. Three major historical events impacted the life of my grandmother.
In 1917, the communist revolution rocked Russia, where my grandmother was living at the time. As a result of this her father went into hiding and my grandmother effectively became an orphan and was sent to live with some of her older siblings. She saw her father only once after that.
In the 1930’s Stalin unleashed a reign of terror in Russia, described by Alexander Solzhenitzen in Gulag Archipelago, in which millions of people were arrested, put in the gulags where many of them died or were killed. Among them was my grandmother’s husband, which left her with 4 children to take care of. The youngest was born after he was put in prison.
In the 1940’s the Second World War raged in Europe. Because of the war, my grandmother, my mom and her siblings became refugees. As refugees, my grandmother had to move from place to place, in great poverty and at the mercy of whatever power was ruling the country at the time. Once they were left with nothing and twice they had to flee from the fighting.
Through all of these tragedies, particularly being a single mom with 4 children in a war torn and then post war country the favorite verse of my Oma was 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.” She found in these words which describe God as a shepherd the strength she needed to survive and even overcome these great difficulties. So this morning, I would like to offer a word of encouragement and comfort to mothers and all others who may be struggling, with this promise that God is the shepherd who looks after His sheep. The text which will direct our thoughts this morning is Ezekiel 34:11-16.
I. The Shepherd
A. Faithless Shepherds Cause Flock to Be Scattered
The context of this passage begins earlier in verse 2 with the instruction from God to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…”
In ancient times rulers were often referred to as shepherds because of their leadership and their care for the people. But the leaders of Israel had miserably failed to fulfill their duties as faithful leaders. In Ezekiel 34:1-10 their failure is declared and described. There we read how they only took care of themselves and did not take care of the flock. For example, in verse 4 we read, “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally."
As a result the people of Israel were scattered. This is of course a reference to the destruction of the southern tribes of Israel by the Assyrians and then later the exile of Judah to Babylon.
The shepherds of Israel did not give adequate leadership thus allowed the flock to be scattered.
B. I Myself
But as Taylor says, “…a flock of sheep must be looked after by someone” and in this passage we read that God promised to do what the leaders of Israel did not do. In verse 11 God promises, “I myself will…” The positioning of the word, “I myself” makes it a very strong promise that God will act in the way that the leaders failed to act. God will be a good shepherd.
In verses 14-16 we find an interesting comparison between what the leaders of Israel failed to do and what God promises to do. Verse 4 reveals their failure and using the exact same words, verses 14-16 reveal God’s promise. Whereas they took care only of themselves, God promises to tend the flock. Whereas they did not search for the lost, God promises that He will. They did not strengthen the weak, heal the sick or bind up the injured, but God promises in verse 16 to strengthen the weak and bind up the injured. While they did not bring back the strays, God will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
In verse 11, God promises 2 specific actions. He says, “I myself will search for my sheep.” Then He also promises, I will “look after them.” I believe that this is an outline of the rest of this passage. In verses 12, 13 he describes what it means that He seeks for those who are lost. In verses 14-16 he describes how He cares for the sheep.
C. I Am the Good Shepherd
How has God done that?
Ezekiel points to the answer in Ezekiel 34:23 where he says, "I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd." So what this says is that God’s shepherding care will be carried out towards His people through a descendant of David.
We know that Jesus is that descendant of David and several New Testament passages point to Jesus as the shepherd who cares for the sheep. One of the best known is John 10, which we read earlier in the service. Jesus speaks in John 10 about the hired hand who runs away when the wolf comes and does not care for the sheep because he is just a hired hand. In contrast, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
The leaders of Israel did not care for the sheep, but only looked out for themselves. The hired shepherds of John 10 did not look after the sheep. This may be a reference to those same leaders of Israel. But God promised to look after the sheep. That promise is fulfilled in Jesus, about whom it says in John 10:11, "“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." The greatest evidence we have of the shepherd care of Jesus and the fulfillment of the promise which God made in Ezekiel 34 is through the death of Jesus on the cross. God’s care for those who are his is focused on the event which we have just celebrated at Easter a few weeks ago. In the coming of Jesus to this earth, in His living as a human being among us, in His death on the cross for us and because of His resurrection from the dead by which He has led the way before us, we can be assured of the shepherd care of God our Saviour.
Although Jesus was in heaven, He did not stay there but was willing to leave in order to care for His sheep. Although Jesus had at His disposal ten thousands of angels to protect Him from all harm while on this earth, He did not call upon them. Although the choice to go to the cross was His and He could have chosen to avoid it, He did not. Although God could have punished Him by leaving Him in the grave, He did not. All of these actions are actions which were done for us. Jesus is the good shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep.
What a blessing to know that God is our shepherd! In Ezekiel 34 we noted that God’s action as a shepherd was particularly focused in two areas. First of all, He is the shepherd who searches for the sheep and secondly He is the shepherd who cares for the sheep. What do these two actions mean and how do they comfort and encourage us today?
II. The Shepherd Searches for the Sheep
A. Promise To Search for the Sheep
The first part of the text, particularly verses 12, 13 describe the promise of God to search for the lost. Written in a context when the people of Israel were scattered, the promise relates to the action of God in bringing His people back together. Please notice the order of the promise in verse 13. It involves four steps. The first step was to bring them out from the nations to which they had been scattered. The second step was to gather them together. The third step was to bring them into the land once again and the fourth step was to pasture them in the land.
Lind says that “The verbs mark progress: search, seek, rescue, will bring out, will bring into, will feed them…”
B. How God Does That
How does God fulfill that promise?
The first way in which God fulfilled that promise was to bring the people of Israel back into the Promised Land. After they had been exiled in Babylon, and had stayed there for 70 years, Daniel prayed for their release and God answered his prayer. Through the work of Ezra and Nehemiah the people were permitted to go back to the land and rebuild the temple and also the walls of Jerusalem. Had they not gone back, there would not have been a nation of Israel at the time when Jesus was born, so this return and the establishment of the nation was a very important part of the fulfillment of God’s promise.
But because of the clear connection between Ezekiel 34 and John 10, the complete fulfillment of this promise is of course found in Jesus. Jeffery says, “Because we exclude God, we do not seek him. But he seeks us! In Jesus, God came to seek and save the lost.” Jesus is the shepherd who has come to seek and rescue the lost. It kind of reminds us of the shepherd care of David who killed a lion and a bear in order to rescue his sheep. How does Jesus seek the lost?
In John 12:32 Jesus said, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” This reminds us that the first way in which Jesus draws people to Himself is through His death and resurrection on the cross. Because He is able to offer forgiveness of sins and eternal life, He draws people to Himself. So the most important way in which God fulfills this promise is through the gospel message of Jesus.
But God does even more than that. In John 6:44 we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day." What a comforting word that is, in light of the many people in the world who are lost and also particularly to parents who have children who are lost. We are not alone in our concern and desire to see those children brought back to Jesus. Our part is to pray for and love our children. But with the promise of the shepherd care of Jesus and the promise that the Father is drawing them to Himself we are encouraged that we are not alone in this desire. God, our Shepherd is also not only concerned, but active in drawing them to Himself. Of course, it is still true that they need to make a decision for Jesus and that decision is completely in their own hands. Yet it is great to know that we partner with the Good Shepherd in doing what can be done to bring them to faith.
We have a part to play and that is to pray, to love and to witness. As we pray, we can pray that they will see that their path away from God as a path that leads to trouble and destruction. We can pray that God will draw them to see His amazing love and that God will help them understand the gospel. As we recognize that God is the shepherd who gathers those who have been scattered, we know that our prayers will be heard.
When the Pharisees accused Jesus that he welcomed sinners and ate with them, Jesus told them the parable of the man who had 100 sheep and had lost 1 of them. He told about how that man would go far and wide to rescue that one sheep. At the end of that parable, Jesus said, in Luke 15:7, "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." That shows us the heart of God our Shepherd. Therefore, let’s never give up but rather rely on the promises of God that He is drawing those we love to Himself. Let us never give up but keep on praying for them and loving them so that God can do His work in them. Our shepherd is one who seeks the lost!
III. The Shepherd Looks After the Sheep
The other promise of God our Shepherd is that He will care for the sheep. What a precious promise that is! In verses 14-16 we have a whole list of the actions of the shepherd who cares for His sheep.
The shepherd provides for the sheep. In verses 13, 14 we read, “I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel…I will tend them in a good pasture and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land.”
One of the blessings offered here is the blessing of home. Remember that this is written in the context of a nation that had been scattered. The repeated mention of the mountains of Israel means that they would no longer be lost in a foreign land, but would come home. Home has a comfort and a security about it and I believe that is the intention of the image. For the Christian it means that even though we have no abiding city on this earth, God is bringing us home and in Jesus we can always feel at home no matter where we are.
Of course the other image presented here is the image of plenty. The word pasture assures that God will provide the needs of His sheep. Doesn’t this remind you of God’s care described in Psalm 23? We can always count on Him to provide for us and I do not believe that it is only a reference to spiritual needs, but to physical needs as well.
Jesus promised the same shepherding care in Matthew when He pointed to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field and assured the disciples that the Father’s care for them was even greater.
So we should not give up. Whatever our need may be, Jesus promises that He is aware of it and will provide. We need only to pray and to wait patiently for His provisions.
The next promise in Ezekiel 34:14, 15 is that God will have them “lie down.” This phrase appears twice in these verses and teaches that God will bring rest. He cares for His sheep by providing rest for them. This is an image of peace and tranquility that once again reminds of Psalm 23. How does God give us that peace?
Sometimes that peace comes with the removal of all that disturbs. How often have we worried about things that never came to be? When we pray God hears our prayers and often He will take away whatever it is that causes us to worry.
Sometimes that peace comes in the midst the turmoil. By God’s gracious presence He will give us rest even while the world around us is flying by. This peace comes because we know that everything is in His hands. It is the fulfillment of passages like Psalm 121 in which the care of God is promised in the midst of all the dangers of life.
Eventually that peace and rest will become complete when, as Isaiah 11:6 promises, the wolf and the lamb will lie down together.
A third way in which the shepherd cares for His sheep is by His guidance through all the difficulties of life. In Ezekiel 34:15, 16a we read about how He will tend the sheep. What does that include? It includes His provision through times of injury and weakness. There are times when we need special care because we are physically ill. Sometimes we need special care and guidance when we are spiritually weak. The promise of the shepherd is that He will see us through all of these times. Whatever our physical or spiritual concern is, the shepherd cares for us and will guide us.
It also includes searching for the lost. It may seem that this is something we have already talked about, but I think it refers to something a little different. There are those who don’t know the shepherd and I believe that is primarily the reference in the early part of the text where He gathers those who have no knowledge of Him. Here, where he is talking about tending the flock, it seems to me that it refers to those who know the shepherd but are lost in their walk with Him. Jesus keeps on caring for them and drawing them back. What a comfort to know of His care in any and every trial of life. How have you experienced His care for you in any of these situations?
But that does not mean that God does not deal with injustice and wickedness. The text says that those who are robust and strong will experience the judgment of the shepherd. The reference to the sleek and the strong is not a reference to those who are healthy and doing well. Rather, it is a reference to those who are strong in their own strength and forget about God. It refers to those who reject His help and care.
This is likely a warning to the false shepherds mentioned in the early part of the passage who manipulated things by their power so that they would get what they wanted. God does not forget about them, but is a just God.
What a powerful warning to those who are self sufficient. What a warning to those who in their strength bully others. This judgment will certainly be applied to those who use power to get their own way in the church and do not care for the rest of the sheep. God is a God of justice and even though He is filled with compassion, He nevertheless still maintains righteousness.
If you have ever watched a child playing in a playground it is an interesting study. He is released from his mother to go and play as the mother sits down on the park bench. The child goes and plays on the swings and the slide and climbs around on the bars. Every once in a while, however, you can notice that the child glances at the bench. If mom is still there, everything is fine, but if the child once glances and mom is not there, panic sets in immediately. The child will look around frantically until he realizes that mom has just moved a few feet over to talk to a friend.
We live in a dangerous place. We live in a broken world where natural disasters threaten our lives. We live in a violent world where retaliation escalates to war and innocents get caught in the middle. We live in an uncertain world where illness or accidents are always possibilities. We live in a world of unbelief where doubt and disobedience threaten faith. All of these dangers threaten us and our children.
As we live in this world, Ezekiel 34 assures us that our shepherd is not far away. Like the child who panics when mom is not where she should be, we sometimes panic, but in this text, we are assured that the shepherd is where He should be.
Jeffery says, “All we need, we can find in Jesus. To the troubled heart he can bring peace; to the weary, rest; to the penitent, pardon; and to the weak, strength.”