1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. – Ezekiel 34:1-10 ESV
While every Israelite was personally responsible for their own sin, God placed blame on the nation’s leadership and held them culpable for the sorry spiritual state of the His chosen people. The civic and religious leaders of Judah had played an undeniable role in the nation’s demise. According to God, these powerful and influential men were guilty of using their positions of authority to mislead and abuse those under their care. Rather than serving as loving shepherds for God’s flock, they had used their God-given authority for personal gain.
Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, accused these men of fleecing His flock. When they should have been protecting God’s people, they had chosen to use their roles for personal profit and self-promotion. And God warns them that He will hold them responsible for their abuse of power.
“What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep?” – Ezekiel 34:2 NLT
God is unsparing in His assessment of their crimes. Using the shepherding metaphor to full advantage, God accuses them of neglect, abuse, cruelty, and dereliction of duty.
“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 34:4 NLT
But who are these shiftless shepherds? Throughout the Old Testament, the term “shepherd” is used to refer to kings, governors, priests, and even prophets. Since God is addressing His chosen people, His reference to shepherds would include the king and his royal court, as well as all the civic and religious leaders of Israel. Anyone in a position of authority would have been included in God’s indictment.
Earlier in his book, Ezekiel recorded God’s displeasure with the self-proclaimed prophets of Judah who were purporting to speak for God but were actually propagating false messages that contradicted the words of Ezekiel.
“…these prophets of yours are like jackals digging in the ruins. They have done nothing to repair the breaks in the walls around the nation. They have not helped it to stand firm in battle on the day of the Lord. Instead, they have told lies and made false predictions.” – Ezekiel 13:4-6 NLT
The people viewed these men as spiritual leaders and took their words as having come from God. But their messages were nothing but lies, intended to deceive and designed to provide false hope. They were nothing more than snake-oil salesmen promoting a self-concocted product offering beguiling but completely bogus benefits.
But the prophets weren’t the only ones whom God held responsible. The priests also played a role in the nation’s spiritual freefall. The very ones who should have been promoting obedience and modeling faithfulness were guilty of gross misconduct and failure to fulfill their God-given role. The prophet Hosea recorded God’s stinging rebuke of the priestly order and His intention to punish them for their catastrophic abuse of power.
“My people are being destroyed
because they don’t know me.
Since you priests refuse to know me,
I refuse to recognize you as my priests.
Since you have forgotten the laws of your God,
I will forget to bless your children.
The more priests there are,
the more they sin against me.
They have exchanged the glory of God
for the shame of idols.
“When the people bring their sin offerings, the priests get fed.
So the priests are glad when the people sin!
‘And what the priests do, the people also do.’
So now I will punish both priests and people
for their wicked deeds.” – Hosea 4:6-9 NLT
The prophet Malachi provides God’s clear explanation of the priestly role and His blunt assessment of those responsible for carrying it out.
“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:7-8 NLT
As the spiritual leaders of His people, God held the priests and prophets responsible for the well-being of the flock. They were the teachers and truth-tellers, the guides responsible for leading and feeding the sheep of God’s flock. But they had dropped the ball. Rather than model righteousness and promote holiness, they had led the way in wickedness and unfaithfulness. When God had made His covenant with the tribe of Levi, setting them apart for their role as the priestly order, He declared, “they did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin” (Malachi 2:6 NLT). But all that had changed. Over time, the priests had become corrupt and used their God-ordained roles to promote sin rather than sanctification, and God would hold them accountable.
But there’s one more group of shepherds whom God must expose and excoriate. At the top of the leadership pyramid sat the king and all his royal counselors. As the designated head of state, the king was ultimately responsible for the well-being of the nation. His position as supreme ruler meant that the buck stopped with him. His role as God’s vice-regent provided him with great authority but it came with significant responsibility. The king was to serve as the primary example of submission to God. His power and authority had been delegated to him by God and it was to be used to provide protection and promote godliness. Yet, all throughout the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, there appears a recurring theme. The vast majority of the kings “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Kings 15:9 NLT). They promoted idolatry, encouraged wickedness, and modeled unfaithfulness.
King David had encouraged Solomon, his son and heir to the throne, to remain faithful to God. His ascension to the kingship would require obedience to God.
“Observe the requirements of the LORD your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the LORD will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 2:3-4 NLT
Yet, Solomon had proved to be far from faithful. While he started out well, he ended his reign by promoting idolatry and causing the people to sin against God. As a result, God divided his kingdom in half, creating the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And both kingdoms demonstrated a propensity for unfaithfulness. The sins of the kings resulted in God’s judgment of the people and their scattering among the nations.
“…my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.” – Ezekiel 34:5-6 NLT
God accuses His shepherds of abandonment. Not only had they been the cause of their sin, but they had also done nothing to restore them to God’s fold when they had become scattered. And God declares His intention to hold these men responsible for their actions. And, more than that, He promises to step in and do what they should have done all along.
“I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.