Sunday, May 16, 2021

A Biblical Theology of Shepherding


Shepherding. Shepherding is a key word throughout the Old Testament scriptures Jesus used and the full 66 book Protestant canon we have today. In this assignment, I will survey the usage of ‘shepherding’ within this Protestant canon, tracing the words development chronologically across the covenants which culminate in Jesus, the ultimate shepherd. 91 of the 167 times shepherding occurs in the Old Testament it appears as רעה (‘ra’ah’) so I will focus on this word. 17 of the 23 shepherding occurrences in the New Testament appear as ποιμήν (‘poimen’) and four times as ποιμαίνω (‘poimano’). We will also explore ποιμαίνω which shows up in 1st Pet., Jude and Rev. taking us to the end of the Biblical account. As a pastor, the development of these Greek and Hebrew words are of special interest to me.

Adamic to Noahic Covenant

Gen. 4:1-12 contains the first references of shepherding in the story of Scripture. Adam and Eve had just been exiled from the Garden and their family was expanding. Abel was a keeper of literal sheep who ended up being killed by his older brother Cain out of jealousy. Here we see a good shepherd of sheep who offered YHWH a good sacrifice, being killed out of jealousy by his brother. The blood of righteous Abel (Matt. 23:35) cried out from the ground. In verse 9 Cain asks the Lord if he was his ‘brothers keeper’ as a kind of metaphorical anti-shepherd who didn’t watch over his family flock. 

How it Comes Together

In this section we see a further foreshadowing of the Levitical sacrificial system (the first potentially being Gen. 3:21 with animal garments being made) as well as the first (righteous) shepherd in scripture who was killed out of religious jealousy. This downward spiral from humanity is what ultimately led to the flood in the days of Noah (Gen. 7) anticipating better shepherds.  

Abrahamic to Mosaic Covenant

In Gen. 13 Abram, who was blessed to be a blessing was a wealthy shepherd and overseer of herdsman (Gen. 13:7) who sought the flourishing of his animals and people. Although the word shepherd isn’t explicitly mentioned here, it’s foundational to this coming section.

Gen. 29:1-10 Abraham’s grandson and shepherd Jacob helps provide water for Laban’s sheep who were being watched over by the shepherdess Rachel. A good shepherd watches over and provides for their sheep. In this case, the sheep received life giving water in a dry desert. Gen. 31:38-40 highlights the attributes of a good shepherd who watches over his flock. Jacob stood with his sheep in the heat, cold, sunshine and rain. He guarded them against predators and looked out for their wellbeing. A good shepherd could be seen as a person putting the needs of their flock above their own.

In Gen. 48:15 a somewhat startling development takes place. YHWH is described as “my shepherd all my life long to this day.” Here we see a dying Jacob, who was a good shepherd (not the most moral person or good parent) bless Joseph and refer to himself as a metaphorical sheep in the fold of YHWH. God was his good shepherd and guide. God provided for his every need and watched over him night and day like he had done for his physical sheep. This very statement deepens our understanding of God who provides for the needs of his flock. In Gen. 49:24 God is further associated as a mighty Shepherd and ‘Stone of Israel’. 

Exod. 2:16-3:1 presents Jethro’s daughters as shepherdess’s, providing for and watering their flock. Bad shepherds had interfered with and hindered their work until Moses entered the frame. He rescued the women and sheep from potential danger, assisting them in their acquisition of water. The shepherd Moses saved (2:17) the flock by driving the wicked away at the risk of his life like Jacob had. While on Horeb tending sheep (3:1), God gives him the mission of a lifetime as an 80-year-old. God is said to have led his people out of Egypt like a Shepherd in Ps. 78:52. A shepherd leads and guides.

Num. 32:16 presents shepherds who build sheepfolds for their creatures to safely dwell in. This is in contrast to a ‘free range’ method where livestock could experience greater danger out in the open. These sheep were protected by good shepherds who gave them boundaries to live their lives from.

How it Comes Together

From these scriptures we see the development of ‘shepherd’ in terms of sacrifice, provision, protection and even personal experience in Jacob’s case. Like a type of good shepherd who is willing to lay down their comfort and safety for their sheep, God is the Shepherd of Jacob. As a metaphorical sheep, Jacob (Israel) is guided and led by the one who protects and loves him. We see the concept of shepherding develop beyond physical sheep but to individual people in the folds of God. God himself is Israel’s shepherd, watching over his people.  

Davidic Covenant to the Foretold New Covenant

2 Sam. 5:2 presents the anointed King David as a metaphorical shepherd and prince over the nation Israel. Having been a literal shepherd of sheep from his youth, David learned what it meant to oppose ferocious wild animals (and a giant) to protect himself and his flock. Young David embodied the good shepherding Jacob had performed with greater moral excellence (to this point) included as well as the crossover leadership experience from physical sheep to metaphorical ones like Moses had. King David would be guided and shepherded by God who would in turn do the same for the nation of Israel. In Ps. 23 King David refers to YHWH as his shepherd who provides him with water, protection and food. When a physical sheep has received food, water and protection it can lay down and rest. All its needs are provided for and it feels the great safety the shepherd gives. David as YHWH’s sheep knows this full well, resting in his savior’s arms. He will dwell in the folds of YHWH forever.   

Downward Spiral

After years of increasingly horrific shepherd-kings, Israel’s outlook is bleak. At a very low point in Israel’s history, the prophet Isaiah presents God as a conquering king, loving provider, and a gentle shepherd in Isa. 40:11. YHWH himself will gather the exiles into his very arms! This would have been a shot of hope to those caught up in Babylonian captivity, knowing that despite their sin, they hadn’t been abandoned. In a provocative turn of events, the gentile King Cyrus is classified as a shepherd used by God to fulfill his purposes to set Israel free. Israel will rebuild the temple under the blessing of God’s chosen servant who will serve YHWH’s purposes for his scattered sheep. Cyrus stands as an indictment to the corrupt shepherds of Israel in 56:11 who are blind, greedy and without wisdom, knowledge or understanding. God’s good purposes to shepherd his people won’t be thwarted just because the elect are obstinate. His will, will be achieved. In contrast to Isaiah’s broken ‘servant leaders’, Jeremiah foresees the day in 3:15 that Godly shepherds after Gods heart will feed the people with wisdom and knowledge. This will lead to their flourishing and the ‘sheep-like gathering’ of the nations to Jerusalem. That day hadn’t dawned yet. In Jer. 23:1, “woe,” is pronounced on these shepherds who continually scatter and destroy what God desires to love and protect. He saw the coming day in 31:10 when the God who scattered his people would gather them again all by himself. In a particularly devastating indictment, God through the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 34 blasted these shepherds of Israel who preyed on the sheep they were to lovingly provide for. The weak weren’t protected. The sick weren’t healed. The injured remained unbound and the strayed sheep were not sought after. Without a good shepherd they were lost (Zech. 10:2). God declared in Zech. 13:7 that his very hand was against these pseudo-shepherds. What would become of God’s sad sheep?  

How it Comes Together

The understanding of shepherding in this section moves from God as the shepherd of his people to selecting a representative king to fill this role. God is becoming increasingly intimate and personal with his people. God would shepherd the king while the king would shepherd the people. Israel’s success and failure was largely tethered to the character and integrity of the civic leaders over them. We see that God isn’t limited to the proverbial sheep of his fold and can in fact use whomever he chooses to guide his people (Cyrus). After the sustained shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds, God declares that he will rescue his people himself for the sake of his glory and those chosen sheep in his fold.  

The New Testament (Covenant)

Hundreds of years after the oracles of God’s prophets and the closing of the Old Testament, the thematic climax of ‘shepherd’ across scriptures reaches its pinnacle; Immanuel enters the scene. Jesus came to do what no civic leader or king fully could; perfectly shepherd his people with total wisdom and complete love. Harkening back to the laments of the prophets, Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowds of people, who in Mark 9:36 “were harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” He fulfilled the words of Mic. 5:4 that the messiah would shepherd the flock of Israel. Jesus himself locates good shepherding within his very person and work. John 10:1-18 presents Jesus as shepherd in the most explicit terms. He is the good shepherd who doesn’t prey on the sheep but lays down his life for them (10:11). He is the shepherd who protects and controls the gate into the sheepfold, knowing and calling the names of each individual sheep. In Matt. 26:31 he foresaw (based on Zech. 13:7) that as a shepherd he would be struck down and his sheep  (disciples) would be scattered, but this would be for their future benefit. 

How it Comes Together: The Gospel 

In Jesus, God himself would fulfill the role of good shepherd by protecting and providing for the flock. He would be the better sacrifice than Abel could give, who’s bloody death would perfectly atone for his people’s sins once and for all. This is tremendously good news! Like Jacob, he would tarry night and day recognizing that the Father God was with him even on the darkest of nights in the garden. Like Abraham, he would stand as the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) above all other under-shepherds asking them to participate in his sufferings. Like Moses, despite opposition his sheep would receive life giving water in a dry and weary place where survival held together by a mere thread. Jesus was the better ruler and wiser representative shepherd-king over Israel like David attempted to be and Solomon failed at. Jesus was the long-promised provision the prophets foresaw for God’s people. He was God’s answer to our repeated failures. What a sheep couldn’t provide for itself, God would do through the completed work of the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20) who himself was sacrificed on behalf of, and in the place of we, his sheep.    

The Church

The mission of Jesus would now continue on through his Church. Paul exhorts the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20:28 who were empowered by the Holy Spirit to shepherd, to pay attention to right teaching for themselves and their flock. In Eph. 4:11 Paul unpacks how the new Israel and recently Spirit-powered leaders were to work together for the building up of the body. These Spirit filled shepherds were commissioned to do their part in the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. Unlike the wicked shepherds in Ezek. 34, these shepherds were to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, doing all that he did and teaching others to do likewise. This wasn’t to be a privileged position within the body, but one that sought to actively lay down their lives for the sheep. The high calling and qualifications for overseer’s (synonymous in the NT for elder, pastor and shepherd) are explicitly spelled out by Paul in 2 Tim. 3:1-7 to help safeguard the sheep in Christs’ fold from exploitation. These men must be above reproach in every avenue of life, filled with the mind of Christ for his church body. Like Jesus, these shepherds must point each straying sheep to the ultimate Shepherd and Overseer of their souls (1 Pet. 2:25). They would not be Ezek. 34 shepherds that fed themselves, but rather the Lord’s sheep (Jude 6:12). 

How it Comes Together

Finally, and most triumphantly the Bible comes to a near close with glorious shepherding imagery. In Rev. 7:17 Jesus is presented as a Lamb who is also a shepherd. A Lamb who will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his fellow sheep. We close with a most intimate and loving picture of God for his flock that is largely beyond comprehension. God has always been moving towards his people and we look forward to this day with great hope. This is a climactic moment within the theme of shepherding. 


While knowing that the theme of shepherding went from cover to cover in the pages of the Bible, I never fully understood it’s development and expansion between the heroes of the faith. Because the Bible is a unified story inspired by one chief author, we can truly pursue a Biblical theology of shepherding as it unfolded to God’s people. I was deeply encouraged by the gentle love of my God and the rescuing of my perfect savior. He is our ultimate guide when all other guides had failed. God is the one who leads us on paths of righteousness for his namesake. In him we’re safe and secure. In him, we find our rest. As a pastor, I’m called to sacrificially love and care for those he’s entrusted me with, just like my great shepherd Jesus did. 

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