Monday and Tuesday of the Fourth Week after Epiphany: Ezekiel 34.
This chapter marks a turning point in Ezekiel: after several denunciatory prophecies, YHWH announces that he will fix the problems with Israel, beginning at the top, by replacing Israel’s leaders and doing the job Himself.
The shepherd metaphor bears considering: Shepherds are responsible for everything about the sheep. It is not a relationship of mutual obligation, where blame might fall equally on ruler and ruled. The shepherds of Israel have exploited the flock. It is interesting that Socrates’ refutation of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic book I also makes a similar point. Socrates says:
You [Thrasymachus] thought that the shepherd as a shepherd tends the sheep not with a view to their own good, but like a mere diner or banqueter with a view to the pleasures of the table; or, again, as a trader for sale in the market, and not as a shepherd. Yet surely the art of the shepherd is concerned only with the good of his subjects; he has only to provide the best for them, since the perfection of the art is already ensured whenever all the requirements of it are satisfied. And that was what I was saying just now about the ruler. I conceived that the art of the ruler, considered as ruler, whether in a state or in private life, could only regard the good of his flock or subjects; whereas you seem to think that the rulers in states, that is to say, the true rulers, like being in authority. (Jowett translation)
So here YHWH asks, “Should not the shepherds feed the flock?” (34:2) That is, the telos of a ruler is not his own good, but the good of those he rules. (A fundamental problem with our American political system is that it makes career politicians who do not seek the good of their subjects, but their own.)
Second, the shepherds of Israel are failing to tend to the ills of the flock: they have not “healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away.”
The tone of the whole chapter is that of a master calling his servants to account. It is a weighty thing to fail in one’s charge as a shepherd of YHWH’s people. After announcing that the shepherds will be sacked, YHWH then paints a picture of His own activity shepherding the flock.
The judgment also extends below the top, however. Also the flocks themselves will be judged: “Behold, I Myself will judge bweteen the fat and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, therefore I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be a prey, and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”
Ultimately, the picture is of an Israel purged of wicked rulers, and purified from unjust violence among its people, dwelling with security and prosperity under the rule of YHWH and His servant David. Yes, David: for the kingdom of YHWH is depicted as the being brought about by the Messiah. This is a prophetic hope, laid out for Israel in the poetic language of prosperity — “there shall be showers of blessing. Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit…” It is calculated to make Israel despise and hate its present oppressive rulers, and love and long for the reign of YHWH and His Christ.
Chapters like this one speak to deep human needs. I was talking with a friend who is active in the Occupy movement in Louisville, KY. She testified about the overwhelming awareness of the injustice that has been done by the rulers of this country. Ultimately, however, the Occupy movement is looking for answers in the wrong place: only in Jesus Christ can men find a true Shepherd who will lead them beside the still waters.