It’s Hard being a Good Shepherd
I can’t think about biblical shepherds without hearing in my head the great aria from Handel’s Messiah. It is based on the words of Isaiah 40:11 – “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Scholars suggest that this verse is one of the chief inspirations for and anchors of the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10. If the Lord is “my shepherd” in Psalm 23, the Lord is certainly “our shepherd” in Isaiah 40. In both cases, the shepherd is an image of gentle and constant care.
The image of “shepherd” is used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe a variety of leadership roles among the Israelites. In 2 Samuel 7:7, it is connected to the tribal leaders of Israel, who never received instructions from God to build a fixed temple.
The image of “shepherd” is used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe the role of king over Israel. In 2 Samuel 5:2, the tribes of Israel ask David to become king instead of Saul: “For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
This is especially the case in the “royal” psalm, Psalm 78. The Psalmist writes in verses 70 to 72 that the Lord “chose his servant David, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.”
The Psalmist draws a straight line from David’s early career as a shepherd to the role of the king as shepherd of the people. The psalmist, however, has not created this metaphor out of whole cloth. Understanding a ruler as the shepherd of a people is a common image throughout the ancient Near East. Whether David was a shepherd who was then seen as king or a king who was retrospectively seen as a shepherd is an interesting but not critical question.
In Isaiah 44:28, the prophet speaks for the Lord in calling Cyrus of Persia “my shepherd” who will carry out God’s purposes. This is the same Cyrus who in Isaiah 45 is called a “messiah.” In Isaiah 44 part of Cyrus’ mission as the Lord’s shepherd is to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, laid waste by the Babylonians at the beginning of the Exile.
Future shepherds of Israel are modeled after David, the shepherd. In Jeremiah 3:15, the Lord promises, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” We know that David is described as a man after God’s own heart. The connection Jeremiah makes is quite clear.
Israel’s shepherds can be “good” like David (as described in several texts, anyway) or selfish and corrupt. The prophet in Third Isaiah describes such rulers in very unflattering terms. “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough,” the prophet writes. “The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all.” This seems to be close to the kinds of “hirelings” Jesus describes in John 10. “‘Come,’ they say, ‘let us get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink. And tomorrow will be like today,” they conclude, “’great beyond measure.’” (Isaiah 56:11-12, NRSV).
A “good” shepherd is described in some detail in Proverbs 27: 23-27. That shepherd knows the condition of their flocks and pays attention to them in order to sustain the investment of time and labor. That work will be rewarded, the Wise One writes, as the lambs provide the shepherd’s clothing and the sale of goats will produce enough cash to buy a field. Good shepherd stewardship will make sure that the household is well-provisioned.
If Psalm 23 celebrates the “good” shepherd who is the Lord, then Jeremiah 23 portrays the opposite kind of shepherd. In verses 1 through 4 we get words of condemnation upon such shepherds. They “destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” the Lord says. They have scattered the flock, driven them away, and not attended to them. To the same degree that they have ignored the needs of the flock, so the Lord will pay close attention to retribution for such poor performance.
Once the unfaithful shepherds have been dispatched, Jeremiah says, the Lord will gather the remnant of the flock from the Dispersion (due to the Exile). The Lord will return them to their “fold,” Israel. There they will “be fruitful and multiply.” So, the Good Shepherd is also the Creator and the New Creator. The Good Shepherd shall raise up shepherds who will do their jobs. Because of those faithful shepherds, “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
The prophet who is hardest on the faithless shepherds is Zechariah. The rulers and leaders of the people have relied on diviners and fortune tellers for wisdom and insight. “Therefore, the people wander like sheep,” Zechariah says, “they suffer for lack of a shepherd.” The Lord will punish the faithless shepherds and save the wandering people.
Zechariah 11:4-17 is the longest prophetic condemnation of the faithless shepherds. First, the Lord describes the crimes of these selfish shepherds who are themselves “doomed to slaughter” (verse 4). They have bought and killed the people without consequence. They have become rich by exploiting them. They have had no compassion on the sheep.
As a prophetic sign of the doom to come, Zechariah takes on the role of “the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.” He carries two shepherds staffs and tends to the people. He uses his staffs to remove faithless leaders, but the sheep liked the old system and protest. In response, the Lord calls Zechariah to abandon his role and leave the sheep to the faithless shepherds.
Most telling in this passage is the connection between the faithless shepherds and blindness. “Oh, my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” the Lord thunders against them. “May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be completely withered,” the Lord concludes, “his right eye utterly blinded!” (verse 17). The connections to John 10 are obvious.
The final shepherd oracle in Zechariah is often quoted in connection to Jesus. “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate,’” the Lord laments, “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
The Good Shepherd maintains one flock, gathered, safe and well-fed. We get an image of that shepherd in Micah 5:3-5. When the dispersed people of God are once again brought home, then the Davidic king “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” It is no coincidence that Matthew connects this prophecy to the infancy narrative of Jesus as he quotes from Micah 5:1 – “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
Jerome Neyrey suggests that we would be better served as translating this as the “Noble Shepherd” discourse. While this may seem hairsplitting, it’s worth a moment. The opposite of “good” in Greek is “evil.” The opposite of “noble” in Greek is “shameful.” The bad shepherd (hireling) is not evil as such but fails to uphold the shepherd’s duty of care. That failure is dishonorable and worthy of disapproval. The Good Shepherd is faithful always and in all ways to that duty of care. In the language and understanding of the ancient world, Jesus dies a “noble” death for the sake of the flock (which we know from John 3:16 is actually the cosmos).
Gail O’Day explores the image of the Good Shepherd as incarnating the classical ideal of a good friend. While this theme will come up in far stronger terms in next week’s reading, it is embedded in the Good Shepherd discourse as well. “Greater love has no one than this,” John writes in chapter 15, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus notes here in chapter 10 that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. “This mini-parable could be taken as an illustration of the classical distinction between the true and the false friend,” O’Day writes, “the false friend will not be around in a time of crisis, but the true friend will be” (page 150).
O’Day suggests that in the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus moves from “maxim” to “promise” in verse 15 when he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” He continues that promise in his description of the voluntary nature of his dying and rising. “The first-person language clarifies that Jesus is not speaking generally about the gift of one’s life for others,” O’Day suggests, “but making a specific promise about his own life” (page 150). This promise is not, she concludes, a generalized or theoretical teaching about friendship. Instead, this is “about the conduct of his own life” (page 151).
She notes that the Good Shepherd discourse is enacted in the account of the arrest in the garden, where Jesus steps forward to meet his accusers and his death. “In the life and death of Jesus,” O’Day concludes, “the friendship convention of loving another enough to give one’s life moves from philosophical or moral possibility to incarnated actuality” (page 151).
Jesus is the Noble Shepherd who lives and dies as the Good Friend. “Jesus is the ultimate friend,” O’Day observes in summary. “Friendship in John is the enactment of the love of God that is incarnate in Jesus and that Jesus boldly makes available to the world” (page 157).
References and Resources
Neyrey, J. (2001). The “Noble Shepherd” in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background. Journal of Biblical Literature, 120(2), 267-291. doi:10.2307/3268295.
O’Day, Gail R. “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John.” Interpretation, April 2004, pp. 144-157.
Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.