The Pursuit of God

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Parables of Yahweh: The Good Shepherd Rescues His Flock (Ezekiel 34)

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When you think of parables, who do you think of?  Jesus, of course.  This is because the Church discourages you from reading the Old Testament.  While she highlights Jesus’ words in red ink, she never highlights the words of Yahweh, even though He does far more speaking in the Bible.  What kind of sense does this make?  Are we pleasing Jesus by obsessing over Him while we virtually ignore the glorious Yahweh?  Not hardly.  Our Gods teach us to worship, honor, love, and serve Them all with equal enthusiasm.  Playing favorites is simply unacceptable. We don’t have one great God and two less great Gods.  We have three magnificent, glorious, fabulous Creators and all Three should be getting equal devotion from us.  If you’re not there, ask your Gods to help you get there.

Now when it comes to parables, we should be thinking of Jesus and Yahweh, for They are both Masters of metaphors.  While Jesus is famous for spinning off imagery of sheep and shepherds, centuries before Jesus ever called Himself the Good Shepherd, Yahweh was claiming that role for Himself.  In this post, we’re going to roll back the clock to the days of the prophet Ezekiel and learn about a long parable that Yahweh fires off to address three issues: wicked shepherds, naughty sheep, and His plans to bless souls who are loyal to Him.

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT

At this point in Israel’s history, there isn’t much Israel left.  The northern part of the nation was mowed down by Yahweh over one hundred years ago, and now all that’s left is a spiritual hellhole in the south which is called the kingdom of Judah.  It’s hard for modern day Christians to fully appreciate how awful things were in Judah at this time.  Gather thousands of hardcore demon worshipers together, throw law and order out the window, let carnality run amuck, and that’s ancient Jerusalem at the time of Ezekiel.  Words like “bad” and “wicked” don’t capture it.  Yahweh’s chosen people delight in hating Him, and they just can’t do enough to mock, defy, and scorn Him in public ways.  Of course Yahweh has given the little jerks a billion chances to repent because that’s how awesome Yahweh is.  But the rebels aren’t listening.  Instead, they are intentionally persecuting anyone who shows signs of sincerely caring about Yahweh.  Prophets are getting tortured and slaughtered and other believers are getting abused every way that there is.

Well, the time for reveling in sin has come to an end.  Yahweh has just used the mighty Babylonian army to utterly demolish both the city of Jerusalem and His Temple—two structures which the Jews never thought would fall.  Living as a captive in the distant city of Babylon, Ezekiel receives news that Jerusalem has been taken in Chapter 33.  Now in Ezekiel 34, Yahweh specifically addresses the issue of wicked Israelite leaders who have a long history of abusing people.  Even though many Israelites were slaughtered during the attack on Jerusalem, many others are being hauled away as slaves like Ezekiel was.  But wherever the wicked Israelite leaders go, they continue to make trouble.

WOE TO THE EVIL SHEPHERDS

False prophets are speaking lies in Yahweh’s Name and making a nice profit by telling people what they want to hear.  Priests are intentionally handing out bad spiritual advice and publicly practicing idolatry.  Community leaders and government officials are encouraging the worship of false gods.  In short, the common people are surrounded by bad leaders who are pushing them to go down wrong spiritual roads.  In a long parable about sheep, Yahweh likens the common people to sheep and the leaders of Judah to abusive shepherds.  His nickname for the prophet Ezekiel is “Son of man,” which was a synonym for “human” at this time in Jewish history.

Then this message came to me from Yahweh: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Yahweh: 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. So 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.” (Eze. 34:1-6)

The Israelite leaders of this time don’t care about helping people—they are just using them.  You’ll see the same shady activity happening in the Church today as false prophets and wicked shepherds intentionally deceive souls about spiritual matters in order to get money, fans, and worship.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of Yahweh: As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Yahweh, you abandoned My flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And 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. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of Yahweh. This is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: 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.” (Eze. 34:7-10)

Yahweh now says that He is going to punish the leaders who have done so much harm.  He will take away their authority and afflict them with personal miseries.  Notice how He says He will stop the shepherds from feeding themselves. Instead of protecting the flock of souls in their care, these leaders have been acting like wolves and devouring them. Yahweh swears that He will personally punish these wicked shepherds for the wrongs they have done.

“For this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: I Myself will search and find My sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find My sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. I Myself will tend My sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Yahweh. I will search for My lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!” (Eze. 34:11-16)

Here Yahweh portrays Himself as a good and caring Shepherd who will personally track down and help every soul who has been harmed by the wicked human shepherds.  By now many Jews have been dragged out of Judah and forced to relocate to other nations which the Babylonians have conquered.  Some of these souls, such as Ezekiel and Daniel, sincerely care about pleasing Yahweh and Yahweh wants these souls to know that He has not abandoned them.  He emphasizes how personal and direct His care of them will be.  He will be their Shepherd—He won’t just get someone else to shepherd them on His behalf.  He will help the struggling, sick, and weak, but He will destroy those who are fat and powerful.  But now it turns out that not every sheep in God’s flock is sincerely seeking Him.

JUDGING THE MIXED FLOCK

“And as for you, My flock, this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: I am going to judge between one sheep and another, I will separate the sheep from the goats. Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Why must My flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled?” (Eze. 34:17-19)

A critical theme that Yahweh returns to over and over in the Old Testament prophetic books is that He never loses track of the righteous among the wicked.  God judges each soul individually.  Our choices are being closely watched by Him.  No one gets lost in the crowd.  This is particularly comforting to hear when you’re stuck living in the midst of a morally corrupt society, and when times are particularly dark, we’ll find Yahweh often reminding His faithful followers that He knows who they are.  Once you understand how furious Yahweh is with Israel as a whole at this time, it really underscores how encouraging His words are to those who are trying.  Yahweh teaches His followers that they never need to fear catching it for someone else.  Yahweh doesn’t beat on His obedient kids.  Certainly He will put us through difficult circumstances, but we can deal with hardships when we can be confident that we are personally in a good place with God.  The way Yahweh sides with His sincere followers here and elsewhere in Scriptures is an encouraging reminder of how easy He is to succeed with even when He’s throwing down violent forms of punishment all around us.

In this second portion of His parable, Yahweh is chewing out the rebellious members of His flock for hogging the best pasture lands, and then intentionally ruining the mediocre grazing areas by trampling on them.  When the bad sheep and bad goats find a clean source of water, they enjoy a nice drink and then they intentionally foul the water for everyone else.

Both sheep and goats were acceptable animals to use in various Old Covenant sacrifices.  But when it came to parables about Divine judgment, goats were often used as symbols of the spiritually rebellious while sheep often symbolize the spiritually obedient.  Here in Ezekiel 34, when Yahweh separates the sheep from the goats, it’s understood that the goats are the unacceptable ones.  Jesus will use this same imagery in the Gospels when He talks of separating the sheep from the goats in eternity.  In Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep end up in Heaven while the goats get eternally damned (see Know Your Bible Lesson 64: Finishing the Olivet Discourse).

Well, goats are not the only zeroes here in Ezekiel 34.  There are some rebellious sheep as well, and they are described as fat, while the good sheep are thin.  What is this about?  Does Yahweh have a problem with fat people?  Certainly not.  Yahweh loves variety and He doesn’t think thin is better than rotund.  But in this parable, the fatness of certain sheep symbolizes the greedy, wicked character of rebellious souls who have abused others for their own selfish gain.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded My sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. So I will rescue My flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. And I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. And I, Yahweh, will be their God, and My servant David will be a prince among My people. I, Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 34:20-24)

It was common knowledge that David was a good man and a good ruler who was sincerely devoted to Yahweh.  He was one of the best kings Israel ever had, so when Yahweh speaks of putting David over His flock, He’s talking about ending this period of abuse and rewarding His faithful sheep with peace and rest.

Now are these promises going to be literally fulfilled in the lifetime of the folks Yahweh is talking to?  Not at all.  After a seventy year exile, only some Jews will return to the ravaged land of Judah to try and rebuild.  Those Jews will be quite rebellious.  Israel will not see any golden era, nor will she ever get some wonderful ruler.  Instead, she’ll be oppressed by empire after empire until the Romans finally come onto the scene. So if Yahweh isn’t being literal, what’s His point?

This passage is all about encouragement.  While many want to see hints of a coming Messiah in this passage, the parallels don’t really work.  Jesus isn’t just a “prince,” nor did He ever rule in Israel.  Yahweh is intentionally using language here that makes it sound like Israel will gain a normal, human ruler someday soon who will lead her into some golden era of blessing.  He’s making it sound like happy days are at the door because He wants to encourage His frustrated followers who are no doubt wondering if He’s forgotten about them.

By now, Israel has a long history of good and bad kings ruling over the south.  Often several evil kings would suddenly be followed by a very good one, so the idea of a good, David-like king suddenly taking the throne was not at all strange.  Yahweh is the national God of Israel, and here He’s saying that He’s going to suddenly move to restore His nation.  Well, good.  During the reign of the real King David several centuries ago, Israel gained a lot of territory and enjoyed supremacy over her enemies.  So by merely mentioning David’s name, Yahweh immediately inspires pictures of wealth and peace.  And since this is a message to ancient Jews who were big fans of exaggeratory language, Yahweh now rolls out the extreme language as He paints pictures of the ideal life in an agricultural society.

A BLESSED LIFE FOR THE FAITHFUL

“I will make a covenant of peace with My people and drive away the dangerous animals from the land. Then they will be able to camp safely in the wildest places and sleep in the woods without fear. I will bless My people and their homes around My holy hill. And in the proper season I will send the showers they need. There will be showers of blessing. The orchards and fields of My people will yield bumper crops, and everyone will live in safety. When I have broken their chains of slavery and rescued them from those who enslaved them, then they will know that I am Yahweh. They will no longer be prey for other nations, and wild animals will no longer devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will frighten them.

I will make their land famous for its crops, so My people will never again suffer from famines or the insults of foreign nations. In this way, they will know that I, Yahweh their God, am with them. And they will know that they, the people of Israel, are My people, says the Sovereign Yahweh. You are My flock, the sheep of My pasture. You are My people, and I am your God. I, the Sovereign Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 34:25-31)

To appreciate the language Yahweh uses here, we need to understand the enormous theological implications that wars had for the ancient peoples.  Every nation was viewed as having national gods, and many gods were viewed as holding certain geographical turfs as a kind of home base.  Once you view the world this way, then having another nation conquer your nation was the same as having your god triumphed over.  Even sincere Old Covenant believers were thrust into a major theological crisis whenever Israel got spanked, because it looked like the great Yahweh—who claimed to be the only God in existence—was getting stomped on by other gods.  Yahweh often mocks idols in the Old Testament, calling them pathetic delusions which only very foolish humans cling to.  Well, this theory works as long as Yahweh appears to be on top.  But when Yahweh’s personal turf gets assaulted by nations who are boasting that their gods are stronger, Old Covenant believers are naturally going to start questioning the validity of their beliefs.  After all, if Yahweh is the only true God, how can He ever be defeated?  And if Israel is Yahweh’s home turf, why would He ever want harm to come to it?

Once you understand that any attack on Israel was seen as an attack on Yahweh, and that any triumph over Israel was interpreted as evidence that Yahweh was weak, you can understand why Yahweh spends so much time emphasizing that He is the One who is ripping Israel apart.  Gods were not supposed to trash their own homelands and temples—that was highly nonsensical behavior.  Punishing their followers for not worshiping them well enough?  Yes, that made sense. But gods allowing themselves to be publicly disgraced?  That was very hard to understand.

When Israel went down, all the nations around her were mocking and laughing at the impotency of Israel’s national God.  The fall of Jerusalem was being interpreted by everyone as the dethroning of Yahweh.  This is why we see Yahweh emphasizing over and over again that He is really the One doing all of these things.  First, He predicts the destruction of Israel in great detail.  Then He talks about His motivations for wanting to destroy her, and those motivations come down to punishing His people for rebelling against Him.  Then He says that the armies that attack Israel are acting on His orders and carrying out His will, even though the humans themselves might be oblivious to how effectively He is manipulating them for His own purposes.  Then, after Israel falls and the Jews are scattered and Yahweh’s looking like a total wimp, He starts talking about how He will restore His nation when it suits Him to do so.  He emphasizes that everything is quite under control.  He emphasizes that He is the One who scattered His own people, and that He can restore anything He tore down because He is God Almighty.  All of this emphasis on His sovereignty is Yahweh’s way of countering the erroneous theological conclusions which the Jews were drawing due to the fact that they were viewing false gods as real.

APPLICATION

Here in Ezekiel 34, Yahweh uses very exaggeratory language.  This is nothing new.  Frequently in the Old Testament prophetic books, we find Yahweh describing some limited act of Divine discipline as the end of the entire world (see Distinguishing Between the Real End Times & the Day of Yahweh).  Here in Ezekiel, He describes the restoration of His people as some perfect paradise.  Well, the world hasn’t ended, and Israel will never be a perfect paradise.  But when we look past all of the extreme language, we can glean many important theological insights.

God is always in control.  Nothing we do goes unnoticed by Him.  Even though He is the One creating hardship in our lives and allowing bad leaders to abuse others, He cares about those being abused and He does not just abandon them.  Today we can look around the world and see God intentionally pairing abusers with victims who suffer greatly at their hands.  When you’re the one who was molested by the coach or born to abusive parents or sold into sex slavery, it’s only natural to feel like God abandoned you.  When God hurts us, we feel unloved and rejected by Him.  But here in Ezekiel 34, Yahweh emphasizes that the downtrodden are not at all unloved or forgotten by Him, nor are malicious abusers getting away with anything.  Everyone will answer to God, and He treats us all differently depending on our circumstances.  There is a lot of comfort we can draw from Yahweh describing Himself as bandaging the injured and helping the weak.  He doesn’t just mass herd us and yell at the slow ones to keep up.  He knows what each soul’s experience of life has been and He tends to each of us personally.

The souls who Yahweh is addressing at this time are really struggling with feeling abandoned by Him.  He has done horrible things to them—graphically killing their loved ones, utterly destroying their property, and turning their nation into a wretched disgrace.  This is a very humiliating time to be an Israelite, and yet notice how Yahweh shows concern even for battered pride in the language He uses:

“I will make their land famous for its crops, so My people will never again suffer from famines or the insults of foreign nations.” (Eze. 34:29)

At a time when many true believers are filled with anxiety and doubts, Yahweh pours on the assurance that their faith has not been misplaced.  He is still strong, He is still good, and all who remain devoted to Him will end up in a glorious place.  Israel might be lying in ruins and the Temple might be burned to the ground, but Yahweh has not abandoned His people.  Yahweh never abandons those who sincerely care about Him: this is the inspiring bottom line of this parable.

“You are My flock, the sheep of My pasture. You are My people, and I am your God.” (Eze. 34:31)

While many today erroneously apply these kinds of promises to all ethnic Jews, a thorough reading of Yahweh’s Old Testament messages makes it clear that He only ever promises rewards, restoration, and peace to souls who sincerely seek Him.  Under the Old Covenant, souls of all ethnicities were welcome to convert to Judaism and become religious Jews (see More Lies from Paul: God Loves Jews More Than Gentiles) .

In the book of Ezekiel, Yahweh promises to destroy all those who refuse to repent out of their rebellion, and He makes no promises about how much time He will give rebels to repent.  But He also makes it clear that any rebel who does repent and turn to Him will be accepted by Him.  Maybe today you’re not the victim, but rather the abuser.  Maybe you’re the father who beat on his kids or maybe you’re the coach who molested, or maybe you’re the guy who made a mint kidnapping and selling children into the sex slave market.  If we’ve done awful things in life, does it mean we can’t ever be accepted by God?  If we were the fat, bully sheep who spent years viciously driving others away, or if we were the shady shepherds who got rich off of trashing others, does that mean we’re unforgivable?  No, it does not.  As long as God is still calling us to come to Him, there is hope, and if we do sincerely submit to Him and ask Him to have His way with us, we will be counted as members of His flock.  Yahweh is a very kind and gracious God who is very easy to succeed with.

FURTHER READING:
Zephaniah 3:17 In Context: Does God really sing over us?
Isaiah 26:3 In Context: Does God really give us perfect peace?
Analogies of Jesus: The Good Shepherd (John 10)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Psalm 23: Yahweh is a Good Shepherd
Questioning God’s Methods: Is this really the best He could do?

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