Shepherding sheep was not the first occupation mentioned in the Bible. That distinction belongs to gardening: "the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it" (Gen 2.15). Even after Adam was expelled from the garden he was to till the ground from which he was taken, ground now cursed with thorns and thistles (Gen 3.17-18,23). Keeping sheep was the first new occupation noted after Adams expulsion from the garden. Abel, the younger of Adams two sons was the first shepherd in the Bible. Since then, in both Testaments, shepherds feature generally in a good light. In the Old Testament Jehovah Himself is described as a Shepherd (Ps 23; 80.1; Is 40.11); in the New so is our Lord Jesus (Jn 10.11; Heb 13.20; 1 Pet 5.4), as well as those charged with the care of His sheep in His absence (Acts 20.28-29; Eph 4.11; 1 Pet 5.2-4).
In order that all might understand the role and responsibilities of the shepherd, the Holy Spirit has provided details of a number of shepherds. Immediately, David comes to mind, for he is introduced on the sacred page in memorable words: "Behold, he keepeth the sheep" (1 Sam 16.11). When Asaph wrote of him, he recalled how God took David from the sheepfolds to feed (as a shepherd) Jacob, His people (Ps 78.70-72). Right to the end of his eventful reign, David saw Israel as his sheep, and, in moments of crisis, sought to spare them by standing between them and the chastisement of God (2 Sam 24.17). Others of that noble calling were Jacob (Gen 29-31) and Moses (Ex 3.1-4.18; Is 63.11). Even the Gentile Cyrus was owned as Jehovahs shepherd, long before his entrance into the world, on account of the care he would show towards exiled Judah (Is 44.28).
The lot of the shepherd was not easy in the rough terrain where their flocks grazed in the Middle East. There were wild animals which the shepherd had to face; otherwise his master might demand that the shepherd "bare the loss of it" (Gen 31.39). David revealed to King Saul incidents when the lion and the bear would take a lamb from the flock. When the sparseness of the pasture tempted a sheep to go astray (Is 53.6), the shepherd would need to go after that which was lost until he found it, or his master might assume it had been stolen because the shepherd had been negligent (Gen 31.39).
Shepherds had to endure drought by day, frost by night, and lack of sleep (Gen 31.40).The worthless shepherd might be less than attentive (Zech 11.17), but the true shepherd would seek the young, heal the broken and feed the healthy animals (Zech 11.16). He would ensure that the ewes did not miscarry (Gen 31.38), even if he could not ensure that every one of them would bear twins (Song 4.2). The word of the Lord through Ezekiel asked the fundamental question, "should not the shepherds feed the flock?" (Ezek 34.2). Sadly, Israels shepherds were feeding themselves. The "Woe" pronounced against them revealed the high standards God had set for those who shepherd men as well as those who shepherd sheep. Poor shepherding results in the scattering of Israel, said Ezekiels God, so that God had to seek His sheep "out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day" (Ezek 34.12). One day He will set over that nation "one shepherd…and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them and he shall be their shepherd" (Ezek 34.23). In a future day, Israel will experience the delights of being shepherded by One who is the Seed of David. The Old Testament also pointed forward to the One whom Jehovah called "My shepherd…my fellow" (Zech 13.7). In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit interprets Zechariahs prophecy for our understanding (Mt 26.31; Mk 14.27). We learn there that at Calvary the Shepherd was struck by the sword of divine judgment, wielded by God Himself. The Shepherd was "stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Is 53.4). The immediate effect of the smiting of the Shepherd was the scattering of the sheep, as the Gospels record. From the moment of His resurrection, the Shepherd sought the scattered sheep "out of all places where they [had] been scattered in the cloudy and dark day" (Ezek 34.12). He became their gathering centre. They gained from His shepherd care, for He "strengthened...healed…bound up…[and] brought again that which…was driven away" (Ezek 34.4). That work continues through the under-shepherds even in this present day.
When the Lord Jesus was moving among Israel in public ministry He had spoken of them as sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9.36; Mk 6.34). There were responsible men over them but many of them were feeding themselves, not feeding the flock. They seemed to be concerned no more than Ahab, when Micaiah saw Israel scattered on the hills (1 Kings 22.17). The Lord had come to be the Master whom Jehovah declared to Micaiah Israel needed. The rulers failed to measure up to the standards expected of a shepherd in their treatment of the man born blind: they reviled the mans Healer; they reviled and cast out the man who had been healed (Jn 9.24,28,34). They were in the business of scattering, not gathering. (In John 10 the Lord reveals that scattering is the work of the wolf, not the shepherd.) The character of the true Shepherd contrasts starkly with the naked self-interest of the worthless shepherds: "Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and…found him" (Jn 9.35).
It was against that dark background that the Lord Jesus spoke in John 10 about "his own sheep" and "other sheep" (vv.3,14,16.27); about the "fold" and the "flock" (vv.1,16, RV). He also spoke of Himself as "the door of the sheep" (v.7), and as "the good shepherd [that] giveth his life for the sheep" (vv.11,15); who knows, and is known by, His own sheep (v.14). He likewise speaks of His voice, His hand (vv.16,27,28) and His Father (vv.15,17,18,29-30,32,36-38).
The good Shepherd, moreover, identifies the many enemies that would threaten His sheep: the thieves and the robbers (vv.1,8,10); the strangers (v.5); the hireling (vv.12-13), and the wolf (v.12). His own sheep were safe in His hand and in His Fathers hand; and no man could cause them to perish (vv.28-30). On their behalf, and in the will of God, the good Shepherd laid down His life that they might be delivered from every threatening foe, and in resurrection has taken it again that He might live to defend them (vv.11,15,17). The cost to Him of laying down His life was immense - much more than drought by day, frost by night, and lack of sleep.
The Holy Spirit has revealed further glories of this One who as the good Shepherd went into death for us. Because we are Christs sheep we are able to hear His voice. Because we who once were as sheep going astray have "now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls" (1 Pet 2.25), we are able to hear the Spirits voice as He speaks of the Shepherd of the sheep. He testifies through the writer to the Hebrews that "the God of peace…[has] brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant" (Heb 13.20). Peter is the Spirits voice in reminding us that this One will come again as "the chief Shepherd" to reward His servants (1 Pet 5.4). From that moment there will be for us no more cloudy and dark days. Never again will we need to be sought out, or healed, or bound up. No doubt, then
Well sing of the Shepherd that died,
That died for the sake of the flock;
His love to the utmost was tried,
But firmly endured as a rock.
For those who, after we are in the glory, come out of the great tribulation there will be a portion in that Shepherd: the Lamb Himself will "feed them and…lead them unto living fountains of water, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes" (Rev 7.17). Israel will enjoy the ministry long promised by their prophets when that "one shepherd" (Ezek 34.23) "shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (Is 40.11).
To be continued.