It is not surprising that, in the sacred writings of a pastoral peoplelike Israel, the work of a shepherd and thehabits of his flocks should yield frequent illustrations, The nation displayed to the godly prophetsall the waywardness and helplessness of sheep, and it was their need of leadership and feeding that prompted, for example, the language of the 23rd Psalm. An intelligent human being and a flock of silly sheep – what an apparent gulf betweenthe two, and yet in fact what intimacy and mutual under-standing I Just so did Israel’s relationship to Jehovah suggest itself to many writers of theOld Testament.
The 80th Psalm opens with the specific words: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel," addressed to Jehovah. He it was who “made His own people go forth like sheep," who in “His pasture” would “both search My sheep and seek them out”; yet in Psalm 77. 20 we are reminded that God led His people out of Egypt “by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” Isaiah 63. 11, 12 presents the Lord and His servant Moses as intimately bound up in the work of leadership, and God’s words of condemnation in Ezekiel 34 ("Woe be to the shepherds of Israel") make it plain that under Cod there were certain men to whom He had committed a responsible ministry similar to His own. The man who spent 40 years in the back side of the desert tending sheep in Median was being trained by God to shepherd His flock safely out of Egypt, and it was no accident that another great leader of Israel served the apprenticeship of sheltering his father Jesse’s sheep from the lion and the bear.
The greatest of God’s under-shepherds were able faithfully to feed, lead and protect God’s flocks because they understood the responsibilities of their office, but a nice of men arose who failed in all these functions. “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?" “My flock became a prey, and My flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd" – no true protector or guide for the people of God. Jehovah had to declare Himself against the shepherds, and to take upon Himself alone their responsible work of seeking that which was lost and bringing again that which was driven away. “I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David," says Jehovah through Ezekiel, and we know that His promise received a partial fulfilment in the advent of the Messiah.
Now at the first coming of this good shepherd into the world the good news of His birth was significantly imparted to shepherds. These men are depicted for us in Luke 2 as abiding in the fields and keeping watch – as though theHoly Spirit would remind us from their faithfulness that the world had at last received One who would abide andwatch, who would not neglect the flock of God, who would be alert and not slumber in the midst of danger. There was a time on the lake when the disciples thought the Lord did not care, when they forgot the meaning and power of His mere presence; and in the garden it was the disciples who failed to watch even one hour with Him. “I abide," said the faithful shepherd: “watch with Me" said the Saviour who more than earned the names of “chief shepherd," “the good shepherd," and “that great shepherd of the sheep.”
But as under the old order, so in the new, God still looks to men as His under-shepherds. The God who could do without one and all of us chooses not to, and still endows men with gifts of leadership for the benefit of His people. Doubtless very few today can have been shepherds in real life like Moses and David, but God is not limited in the way He trains men to be bishops. If it needed forty years’ preparation for Moses to become a leader of men, it is not surprising that one of the terms applied to such leaders today by the Holy Spirit is that of “elder," thought we must remember that spiritual maturity, like all things spiritual, is independent of the factor of time, “Taking the oversight" and having spiritual maturity – these are the function and qualification of God’s under-shepherds, and the words God addressed to their predecessors of the Old Testament era should throw a Hood of light on their present work.
The sheep of God’s flock are as needy as ever, and the gifts of wisdom and selflessness required in Ezekiel’sday are called for now. Cast your eye once more over the chapter 34 and see from the failures of the under-shepherds of old what is required in a leader. Do we feed the: Hock of God, or ourselves? Do we strengthen the diseased, heal the sick, bind up that which was broken, bring again that which was driven away, seek that which was lost? Do the weak and sickly too often excite our impatience rather than our tenderest care? May this meditation, coupled with the exhortations with which we are all familiar in Acts 20, Timothy, Titus and Peter, stimulate the shepherds to stir up the gift that is in them, and lead the way for tin; flocks into green pastures.
As we said when this series on “Preaching" began, opinions will differ on some of the points raised, but if some young preachers have been encouraged to strive after a higher standard in their important task, the messages will have been well worth while.
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