Charlatans, Not Shepherds

1 And I said:
Hear, you heads of Jacob
    and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice?—
    you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
    and their flesh from off their bones,
who eat the flesh of my people,
    and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
    and chop them up like meat in a pot,
    like flesh in a cauldron.

Then they will cry to the Lord,
    but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
    because they have made their deeds evil. Micah 3:1-4 ESV

Once again, Micah uses the two designations, Jacob and Israel, to direct his message to all 12 tribes of Israel. He is addressing both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and letting them know that they are all equally guilty and deserving of God’s judgment. But in these opening lines of chapter 3, Micah, speaking on behalf of God, turns his attention to the civic and religious leaders of the 12 tribes, accusing them of negligence and injustice. As the leaders of God’s chosen people, they were supposed to know right from wrong. God had given them His law and had made perfectly clear His expectations concerning the conduct of His people.

But sadly, these men were “the very ones who hate good and love evil” (Micah 3:2 NLT). They were modeling the worst kind of behavior, encouraging the citizens of Israel and Judah to follow their idolatrous and immoral example. And God pulls no punches in describing the nature of their sin:

You skin my people alive
    and tear the flesh from their bones.
Yes, you eat my people’s flesh,
    strip off their skin,
    and break their bones.
You chop them up
    like meat for the cooking pot. – Micah 3:2-3 NLT

This is a metaphorical description, not a literal one. But it paints a vivid and unflattering image of these men and reveals just how abhorrent their conduct was to God. Their lousy leadership had been no less horrifying and shocking than if they had literally skinned and eaten their own people.

The prophet Ezekiel shared a similar stinging indictment of God against the civic and religious leaders of Israel.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.” – Ezekiel 34:2-4 NLT

Shepherds were intended to feed the sheep under their care, not fleece them for personal gain. The image here is one of stewardship, in which the shepherds or leaders of Israel were working for God, the Great Shepherd. The sheep belonged to Him and these men had been tasked with providing for their daily care and protection. But they had failed at their jobs.

“…though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve.” – Ezekiel 34:8 NLT

God was going to hold these men personally responsible for their dereliction of duty.

“I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

During the good times, these so-called leaders had abused their positions of power, taking advantage of their authority to line their own pockets. And their actions were no less egregious than if they had cannibalized their own people. God had delegated to them His divine authority to care for His flock. And to get some idea of what God expected from these undershepherds, all we have to do is look at the words of the psalmist concerning King David, the consummate shepherd of Israel.

He chose his servant David,
    calling him from the sheep pens.
He took David from tending the ewes and lambs
    and made him the shepherd of Jacob’s descendants—
    God’s own people, Israel.
He cared for them with a true heart
    and led them with skillful hands. – Psalm 78:70-72 NLT

Elsewhere in Scripture, David is referred to as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). David shared God’s love for the people of Israel and exhibited the same care and concern that God had for their physical and spiritual well-being. And the prophet Isaiah provides a wonderful description of God’s shepherd’s heart.

Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
    See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
    He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
    He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. – Isaiah 40:10-11 NLT

David shared God’s heart for the flock. He cared for them as God would. And one day, another servant of God would appear who would also be a man after God’s own heart. In fact, according to Hebrews 1:3, this man would be “the exact representation of His nature.”

And this man would be the Son of David, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who would shepherd the people of Israel just as His ancestor had done. But unlike David, Jesus would not just care for them with a true heart and lead them with skillful hands, He would lay down His life for the sheep. Jesus would perform the role of the true shepherd, giving His life in exchange for the spiritual and physical well-being of God’s flock.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep. – John 10:11-13 NLT

Unlike the shepherds of Micah’s day. Jesus would prove to be a faithful servant of God, willingly sacrificing His own life in order that the flock of God might find safety and security from those who would harm them.

“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved.” – John 10:7-9 NLT

But the shepherds of Israel and Judah were guilty of neglect and injustice. And when the Great Shepherd decided to hold them accountable for their actions, they would beg Him for mercy.

“Then you beg the Lord for help in times of trouble!
    Do you really expect him to answer?
After all the evil you have done,
    he won’t even look at you!” – Micah 3:4 NLT

But their remorse will prove to be too little, too late. They should have been caring for the sheep all along. They should have taken their God-given roles more seriously and loved the flock of God as He did. But their hearts were not in it. They loved the trappings of leadership and all the perks that came with authority. But they had no love for the people under their care. As Jesus so aptly described them, they were nothing more than thieves and robbers.

And it is interesting to note a life-altering conversation Jesus had with Peter just days after His resurrection. This is the same Peter who had denied Jesus three separate times, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction. Yet, when Peter shared a meal with his risen Lord, the conversation did not center on Peter’s past denials but on his future responsibilities as a shepherd of God’s flock.

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, Then feed my sheep.” – John 21:15-17 NLT

Three separate times, Jesus encourages Peter to prove his love for Him by caring for the flock of God. Jesus had laid down His life for the sheep. Now He was asking Peter, along with the other disciples, to serve as His under-shepherds, providing ongoing care for all those for whom He had died.

And this message from Jesus had a lasting impact on Peter. Years later, he would write to a group of elders, leaders in the local churches to whom he ministered, reiterating the very same words He had heard from the lips of Jesus Himself.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT

Shepherds are to be those who share the heart of God for the flock of God. There is no place for personal gain or the pursuit of selfish interests. Our model is Jesus Himself, who sacrificed His life for the sheep.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson