Shepherd-pasturing: Ra’ah. Verb. (Strong’s 7462).
Sounds like: rah-ah
This time of year many people like to recall the story of gentle shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. We think of the great angel, backed up by a heavenly choir, sharing good news to a few men looking after a small gathering of sheep and little lambs. It’s an idyllic picture, but to be a shepherd was not a glorious occupation.
Shepherd: Loathsome and Dangerous
Considering that shepherding wasn’t a job of high social status by any means, it makes a statement to say that some of the Bible’s most famous people were shepherds at some point in their life:
- Abel ( Genesis 4:2)
- Rachel (Genesis 29:9)
- Jacob (Genesis 30:31-36)
- Joseph (Genesis 37:2)
- Moses (Exodus 3:1)
- David (1 Samuel 16:11)
As much as we think highly of this list of people, for the most part shepherds were disliked. Egyptians saw shepherds as the lowest of the low. Joseph told his brothers that “every shepherd [ro’eh] is loathsome to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:34)
Shepherds were also considered dangerous. They were on the fringes of society and had to fight to survive. Some may have been aggressively controlling over water sources and pasturing land, making a walk in the countryside a possibly perilous affair:
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came to draw water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds [ha-ro’im] came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them and watered their flock. When they came to Reuel their father, he said, “Why have you come back so soon today?”
So they said, “An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds [ha-ro’im], and what is more, he even drew the water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why is it that you have left the man behind? Invite him to have something to eat.” Moses was willing to dwell with the man, and he gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses.
According to Moses’ Egyptian culture, shepherds were the lowest of the low, so an “Egyptian” stopping to help them would have been particularly shocking.
What’s even more impressive was that after Moses married into Zipporah’s family, he chose to become a shepherd for his father-in-law. Earlier in his life he had walked in the hallways of Pharaoh palace, now he was wandering the pastures, herding sheep. To many, this was a huge leap down the social ladder, but God was never concerned with social ladders.
It was while Moses was practising his new shepherding profession that God drew his attention toward Him:
Exodus 3:1-7, 10-15
Now Moses was pasturing [ro’eh] the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of YHWH appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.”
When YHWH saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. YHWH said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings…
…“Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.
Here YHWH presented His plan, and His name, to Moses while he was shepherding a flock by Mount Horeb.
Although Moses had a privileged Egyptian upbringing, he gave it all up, and ended up in the one profession considered the most loathsome by the Egyptians. God could have spoken directly with Moses when he was living in Pharaoh’s Palace… but rather He waited and spoke to Moses while he was living his life out as a humble shepherd.
The LORD is my Shepherd
Being a shepherd was only humble in its social status. It was a role of great responsibility. To be a shepherd was to be a leader, and to be responsible for a great amount of lives. It wasn’t glorious, or outwardly rewarding, but it was very important.
The concept of a shepherd was a great metaphor for the kind of leadership God loved: humble, benevolent, caring, others-come-first kind of leadership. He wanted shepherds who put God at the top of their lives and who valued knowledge and discernment, over war and the gathering of wealth. YHWH wanted shepherds after his own heart:
“Return, O faithless sons,” declares YHWH; “For I am a master to you, and I will take you one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds [ro’im] after My own heart, who will feed you [who will shepherd you: w-ra’u] on knowledge and understanding.”
Even shepherds need a leader, and God was often described by the Biblical authors, as their own personal Shepherd:
He [Israel] blessed Joseph, and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd [ha-ro’eh] all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and may my name live on in them, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
Of course the most well known shepherd passage in the Old Testament probably would be…
YHWH is my shepherd [ro’ee], I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of YHWH forever.
YHWH was being exactly like a shepherd here. He found the loveliest pastures for His flock to rest; He found the best drinking holes to nourish his flock; He kept His people calm and on the right path. He’s kept them away from the dangers of life (the thorns and the predators), so they could live without fear, and He guided them in righteousness and good living. YHWH shepherded His people together. He fed them, watered them, and protected them.
God was a mighty King, but He was also a tender Shepherd, giving each lamb in His flock the personal comfort that they needed:
Behold, the Lord YHWH will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him.
Like a shepherd [k-ro’eh] He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth!
Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your power and come to save us! O God, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.
Lost Sheep… Without a Shepherd
However, there were so many lost lambs (just as there are so many lost today). And they were either lost because they were under no leadership, or they were lost because of bad leadership.
“My people have become lost sheep; their shepherds [ro’eh’hem] have led them astray. They have made them turn aside on the mountains; they have gone along from mountain to hill and have forgotten their resting place.’
No matter how far we wander away, God wants to bring us back to the safety of His path:
“For the teraphim speak iniquity, and the diviners see lying visions and tell false dreams; they comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep, they are afflicted, because there is no shepherd [ro’eh]. My anger is kindled against the shepherds [ha-ro’im]…
A culture led by idols and diviners would produce wanderers with no direction. They were a people without a true shepherd, led by lying leaders and promoters of false comfort. Their leaders were selfish shepherds who did not care for their own sheep. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 34 was devoted to the metaphor of a selfish shepherd and God’s response to them:
Ezekiel 34:7-16, 23-24
Therefore, you shepherds [ro’im], hear the word of YHWH: “As I live,” declares the Lord YHWH, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd [ro’eh], and My shepherds [ro’ai] did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds [ha-ro’im] fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds [ha-ro’im], hear the word of YHWH: ‘Thus says the Lord YHWH, “Behold, I am against the shepherds [ha-ro’im], and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds [ha-ro’im] will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’”
For thus says the Lord YHWH, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd [ro’eh] cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord YHWH. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment…
…Then I will set over them One Shepherd [ro’eh ekhad], My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, YHWH, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I YHWH have spoken.”
Of course when Ezekiel was prophesying on the planet, king David was a person of distant history. Ezekiel wasn’t speaking of a long dead king, this One Shepherd promised by God was the Messiah from the line of David.
David the Ultimate Old Testament Shepherd
To the Jewish people David was the golden king of Israel’s early years as a nation. But as a ruler, he was a rather odd choice. YHWH sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13). When he got there Jesse presented his sons, but God made it clear to Samuel that these men were not of His choosing. Until asked, Jesse never even mentioned that he had another child. His youngest son was out tending the sheep. Could it be that God wanted David, a mere shepherd-man, to be the next king?
The answer would be, “yes”:
He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him to shepherd [l-r’oht] Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded [weh-yir’em] them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands.
Before David was anointed king, YHWH said, “You will shepherd [ti-r’eh] My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel.” (2 Samuel 5:1). Not long after David’s anointing YHWH made a covenant promise to David:
2 Samuel 7:12-14a
“When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me…”
There is a kind of double promise here. We can read this as YHWH’s promise to David that his son, Solomon, would be his heir. This wouldn’t have been surprising, but knowing that God planned on supporting Solomon would have been a great relief to David. But the promise was to establish David’s throne FOREVER, so there’s more to this passage than meets the eye at first glance.
History tells us that after Solomon the succession of the throne eventually split and was broken. It would need a restoration.
David was, quite possibly, the most famous shepherd of the Tanakh (Old Testament). It only makes sense that David’s future descendant, who would re-establish his kingdom on earth, and YHWH’s eternal kingdom, would be like a New David and a New Shepherd.
In his own day, Yeshua knew the greatest needs of the people around Him. They needed a shepherd who would seek them out, gather them up and spiritually feed them. They wanted a conquering king, like David, but what they needed was a different kind of king… a compassionate, sincere, gently guiding Shepherd:
Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.
Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
The Good Shepherd
Yeshua knew He had to be the kind of Leader that humanity needed, but did not necessarily want. They thought they were waiting for the Messianic King, but a good leader was not the image of an earthly king (far from it), it was the image of a low-on-the-social-scale shepherd:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.
So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”
The Messiah, as the One Shepherd, which we read about in Ezekiel 34, was long foretold by more than just Ezekiel:
“Woe to the shepherds [ro’im] who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares YHWH. 2Therefore thus says YHWH God of Israel concerning the shepherds [ha-ro’im] who are tending [shepherding: ha-ro’im] My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares YHWH. “Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up shepherds [ro’im] over them and they will tend [w-ra’um] them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares YHWH.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares YHWH, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land.”
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd [w-ra’ah] His flock in the strength of YHWH, in the majesty of the name of YHWH His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. This One will be our peace.
Good News and Shepherds
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.
This good news and great joy was for ALL people… not just the privileged. It was a gift given equally to the lowly shepherd and to the highly regarded social elite. It wasn’t just for the Jewish people, either.
Magi from the Far East came to Israel to seek out the great joy awaiting them. At some point, not long after Yeshua’s birth, these magi had a royal consultation with Herod. Immediately concerned for his own crown, Herod asked these leaders where this Messiah was to be born:
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
Yeshua’s birth was wondrous and miraculous, but he didn’t just come to live among us, ultimately He came to die for us.
As people of faith, we often talk about being saved. But what are we being saved from?
At the beginning of human history, the first human couple made a terrible decision. By disobeying God, and trying to become gods themselves, they allowed death, and guilt, and shame to settle into their lives. Humans became slaves to death; it had it’s icy grip on every human …but God promised to save us from that fate.
As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd [mawet yir’em]; and the upright shall rule over them in the morning, and their form shall be for Sheol to consume so that they have no habitation. But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.
We all go to the grave, but because of Yeshua’s sacrifice we don’t have to stay there.
Striking down the Shepherd
In the final hours of His life, after the Last Supper, Yeshua and His disciples went to the Mount of Olives. There He gave words of both discomfort and comfort. Essentially, He told them that although they would leave Him, He would still come back to them:
And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, because it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” But Peter said to Him, “Even though all may fall away, yet I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” But Peter kept saying insistently, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And they all were saying the same thing also.
Redemption, however, came at a grave cost. Yeshua went from being the Shepherd (already very low on the social ladder) to becoming the sacrificial animal.
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves. And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
But Yeshua didn’t come to save Himself… He came to save us. What kind of shepherd would He be, if He saved Himself and left the lambs to rot? Yeshua would die before He would ever contemplate abandoning His flock.
There’s an interesting story in the book of Zechariah. YHWH identified the “flock doomed to slaughter” and He asked Zechariah to shepherd them.
So I pastured the flock doomed to slaughter, hence the afflicted of the flock. And I took for myself two staffs: the one I called Favour and the other I called Union; so I pastured [wa-er’eh] the flock.
After dealing with incompetent staff, Zechariah quit and asked for his wages:
I said to them, “If it is good in your sight, give me my wages; but if not, never mind!” So they weighed out thirty shekels of silver as my wages. Then YHWH said to me, “Throw it to the potter, that magnificent price at which I was valued by them.” So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of YHWH. Then I cut in pieces my second staff Union, to break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
Thirty pieces of silver was the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32) and the payment given to Judas for betraying Yeshua (Matthew 26:15, Matthew 27:3,9). This was the magnificent price at which humans valued Him… the equivalence of a slave.
After Judas betrayed Jesus, he was overcome with remorse, threw the money into the Temple sanctuary, and hanged himself.
The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.” And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers.
It took thirty pieces of silver to buy off the betrayer of the Great Shepherd… but Judas went to the grave without the money, and the money was invested into a cemetery for those who had no place to be buried.
As for us… the grave won’t hold us down! Yeshua, our Shepherd and Saviour, died in our place. By His suffering we’ve been fully healed and redeemed.
1 Peter 2:21-25
For you have been called for this purpose, since Messiah also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
If you feel like a sheep without a shepherd, or if you’ve lost your way, seek YHWH out. He is your Shepherd and He’s been calling your name. If you seek Him, He will come find you and bring you home.
Next week: Blessing