In ancient Palestine, caring for sheep looked different from what we see today. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “Sheep were not fenced in and left to fend for themselves. Instead, they were totally dependent on shepherds for protection, grazing, watering, shelter and tending to injuries. . . . Sheep are not only dependent creatures; they are also singularly unintelligent, prone to wandering and unable to find their way to a sheepfold even when it is within sight.”
This is the cultural background for God’s condemnation of false shepherds in today’s reading. Metaphorically, “shepherds” were the nation’s leaders, especially kings and priests. Instead of watching over the sheep (v. 4), they’d acted irresponsibly and unjustly. Instead of taking care of the flock, they’d taken care of themselves (v. 2). As a result, the people were lost, confused, and easy targets for predators.
To fix this problem, God promised that He would be the nation’s shepherd (vv. 11–16, 30–31). He would act with love, protecting and providing for the sheep. He would also act with justice. He would pay attention to the vulnerable—helping the weak and injured, finding the lost—as well as opposing the proud and powerful. “The sleek and the strong I will destroy” (v. 16) shows that God’s justice will be meted out to those who oppress and exploit the weak. They’re pictured as rams or goats who trample the grass and muddy the water to spoil the grazing, and in general bully the other sheep (vv. 17–22).
Ultimately, God would keep His promise by placing over the people one Shepherd from the line of David (v. 23). This Messianic prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Under His new “covenant of peace” there will be “showers of blessing” (vv. 25–26)!
>> In this chapter, a key distinctive of biblical justice is whether power is used for one’s own benefit or for the good of others. How might we pursue such justice in our own communities?