Scripture: Ezekiel 34:23-31
Background Scripture: Ezekiel 34
You are my flock, the flock of my pasture. You are human, and I am your God. This is what the LORD God says. (Ezekiel 34:31 CEB)
Sometimes people become very disappointed with leaders who are self-serving and disconnected from their constituents. What remedy can be found when such a person is in a leadership position? Ezekiel tells us that God will provide new servant-leaders who care tenderly for their flock, just as God the Good Shepherd does.
- to explore the promise of a new David who will lead God’s people as a good shepherd.
- to identify traits of servant-leaders, both in others and in themselves.
- to commit to joining and to supporting God’s servant-leaders.
Understanding the Scripture
The opening section of this lesson’s passage could be entitled “Woe to shepherds.” Ezekiel, following the pattern of his prophet-colleague Jeremiah, used the image of a shepherd to cover a wide range of leaders. His sharp words were directed toward all the leaders of the chosen people: kings and princes, as well as scribes, elders, Levites, and priests. The failure of leadership was pervasive; thus, the image of the shepherd was widely applied. Although the leaders targeted for judgment were many, Ezekiel was quite specific in the charges against the leaders of Israel. He boldly accused them of sins of commission and omission. With the flair of self-interest, these leaders were guilty of deriving gain from their supervision of the “flock”; they ate the fat lambs, sheared the young, slaughtered and abused the flock in an irresponsible manner. As reprehensible as were these deeds, the sins of omission were even more troublesome. The supposed “shepherds” of Israel failed to do the most basic task of shepherding: They had not tended the flock. Rather, they allowed the lost to be lost, the sick to be sick, the weak to become weaker. Because of their self-serving approach to leadership, the whole flock was scattered “over all the face of the earth” (34:6). Speaking with divine authority, Ezekiel announced that God’s own flock was in peril. The sadness within Ezekiel’s words judged the shepherds of Israel guilty of betraying the divine responsibility to care for God’s people. Therefore, what the leaders of Israel failed to do, God intended to accomplish. God would depose the shepherds and take up the cause of the flock.
After such specific charges of corruption, a sharp word of judgment or rebuke seems appropriate. Yet, Ezekiel did not deliver a divine curse on the shepherds. Rather, Ezekiel disclosed the significance of the failed shepherding responsibility by stating that God was assuming personal responsibility for the flock. With God as the shepherd, the circumstances of the flock would change: Whereas once the flock was scattered, abused, and vulnerable, God intended to seek the lost, to tend the sick, and to provide pasture and protection for the whole flock. Instead of vulnerability and death, the flock would grow strong and healthy through God’s guidance. As the prophet spoke, his words broke through the agony of the exiles’ daily life and ignited a small flicker of hope among those in captivity. Using the prophetic image, “day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:12), Ezekiel connected his audience with the anticipated Day of the Lord when God would right all wrongs by restoring justice and peace in the land. Using the powerful phrase, “I will bring them out” (34:13), Ezekiel associated the impending rescue with the greatest event in Israel’s salvation history: the exodus from Egypt. Additionally, Ezekiel proclaimed that this divine deed was greater than the former exodus since the scattered people of Israel were to be rescued from many locations, not from the singular domination of the Egyptian pharaoh. Finally, Ezekiel’s imagery climaxed as he described God’s shepherding the flock to good pasture where neither fear nor deprivation threatened. This description of God as the shepherd of Israel echoed Psalm 23 and foreshadowed Jesus’ self-disclosure as the Good Shepherd (John 10). These poetic descriptions of the shepherding God resonate with our contemporary understanding of God as the source and guarantor of all life.
God’s declaration to be the shepherd of Israel did not, however, exempt the people from judgment. Indeed, Ezekiel’s prophetic task was to explain God’s purpose within the exile in such a way that the people would understand God’s judgment, repent, and turn their hearts to God. Thus, even as God’s grace toward the “flock” of Israel was affirmed, Ezekiel reminded the people that internal dangers persisted. Among the people some grew greedy and some took advantage of the weak. To these, Ezekiel stressed God’s judgment: Persistent sinners would be eliminated from the flock. To all, Ezekiel declared that God intended to establish both internal and external justice. Ezekiel employed an ancient promise to signify the unity and peace characteristic of God’s future. With the promise, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David” (34:23), Ezekiel affirmed the restoration of the whole people of God as promised in the original covenant with David (see 2 Samuel 7:16). Amazingly, this restoration was to be greater than the golden days of David’s rule. In God’s future with Israel, the leader would be spiritually mature. None of the sins that David confessed would ensnare this new leader. Rather, the one shepherd would always lead according to God’s direction.
Thus, a judged people led by a divinely appointed shepherd entered into a restored life—a life made spiritually complete with a new “covenant of peace” (34:25). This remarkable description of God’s intervention described the transformation of all creation. Wild animals were banished. Seasonal rains were dependable. The earth yielded abundant grain, vegetables, and fruits. There were neither slave owners nor slaves; indeed, there was no form of oppression. Humanity lived in complete freedom from fear. With such idyllic and idealistic words, the prophet offered solid hope to the exiles. All the circumstances they were powerless to change—political, social, environmental, and spiritual—God would transform. Although Ezekiel cast the covenant of peace in visionary terms, he offered it to his audience with intimacy and tenderness. The true import of this peaceful transformation resided in a new relationship between Israel and God. It was not enough that God was willing to rescue the people. God’s intentions were greater than another rescue; God intended that the people know God’s presence and power consistently and personally. This unique relationship, “You are my sheep . . . and I am your God” (34:31) made peace possible. By such a strong bond, Israel was prepared to fulfill its calling as a witness to all nations. The covenant of peace described by Ezekiel was, therefore, a full disclosure of God’s ultimate purpose: a peaceful, just, and righteous creation.
Interpreting the Scripture
When Leaders Set the Wrong Example
Whether in the family, politics, or business, every leader faces opportunities and temptations. When rightly received, opportunities lead to success; when wrongly pursued, temptations bring failure. Religious leaders also distinguish between opportunities and temptations, but their choices include an additional dynamic: Religious leaders are constantly announcing or denying their faith by the choices they make.
Every public choice, direction, intention, and deed becomes an announcement of an inner conviction—or the lack thereof. If a religious leader has disappointed you, you understand the additional dynamic within the role of a religious leader. Perhaps a pastor failed to be a faithful steward of the financial resources of the congregation or a nationally known evangelist was caught in a sexual scandal. Whether the disappointment was experienced within a small country congregation or spread across the mass media of the nation, the impact is singular: The sin of a religious leader may weaken the faith of the followers.
In our text, the scale of the wronghearted leadership described by Ezekiel is almost incomprehensible. The leaders he condemned used their positions for personal profit and well-being. These leaders feasted upon the young of the flock, sheared and slaughtered randomly, and ignored the needs of the whole flock. Surely, the people noticed these actions. Surely, some in Israel were outraged. Yet, the text is silent on the peoples’ response to their selfish leaders. In this silence is a terrible sorrow. Those who ignored the sins of the leaders also slid into sin. It is absolutely true that leaders set an example; when the leaders are self-serving, the people gradually begin serving their own needs as well. In other words, the people followed the leaders by mimicking their values, decisions, and deeds. Thus, as the people followed their leaders, their hearts turned from God. The leaders were greedy, and the people swiftly conformed. As the leaders neglected the weak, the lost, or the sick in order to fulfill their own desires and passions, the people learned to look out for their own needs of food, clothing, and health. Thus, a people once trained to depend upon God for all the blessings of life became greedy. Just as the leaders ignored the special opportunities and temptations of religious leadership, so the people forgot how to depend upon God, the source of their well-being.
God’s Way of Leading
The leadership failure in Israel was pervasive and persistent. The people were on the verge of extinction. Thus the remedy was dramatic and deep. There was one way, and only one way, to restore justice and peace: God must become the leader of Israel. Ezekiel described God’s leadership as a comprehensive approach for the welfare of the whole flock. God assumed the responsibility to rescue, nurse, heal, feed, water, and provide security to all the sheep of the flock. To the contemporary reader this image is captivating, but it is also easily dismissed. In order for us to hear Ezekiel’s words as more than lovely poetry, an ancient scriptural perspective on faith must inform our hearing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the promises of God and the actions of God are tightly interwoven. What God had done in the past and what God promised to do in the future is a single story of a just and peaceful creation. In the past, God’s deeds of rescue were complemented by God’s gracious provision of the law. In the present exile, God’s prophets announced judgment and blessing. In the future, God’s grace would right all injustices and cleanse all infidelity.
In Hebrew theology time is unified—all circumstances eventually are transformed in God’s salvation. Thus, as Ezekiel described God as Israel’s shepherd-leader, time literally stood still. Israel’s heritage of divine rescue joined with their present situation of exile and became salvation. In this unity of time, God’s actions were both memory and hope. The people understood Ezekiel’s words because they remembered the stories of rescue and divine blessing. The people accepted Ezekiel’s promises because in exile they lost all but the most precious elements of faith, that is, a confident hope in God. Accordingly, Ezekiel’s description of God’s leadership was neither poetic nor visionary; it was, rather, an affirmation of the essence of the Hebrew faith.
The relationship between a leader and his or her followers is multidimensional. Leaders are expected to understand the opportunities and challenges that surround their followers. Followers trust their leaders to make decisions based on the welfare of the whole. Leaders know their actions have immediate and long-term consequences. Followers absorb the values of their leaders and imitate their actions.
Within the faith community, leaders and followers have a common responsibility to live just and peaceful lives in communion with God. When leadership fails, as it did prior to the exile of Israel to Babylon, it is insufficient to blame the leaders; blaming does not restore right relationships. When followers are poisoned by the greed or irresponsibility of their leaders, it is insufficient to condemn their sins; condemnation does not promote peace. Rather, leaders and followers share a common responsibility to understand and to maintain a healthy relationship with God. No one is exempt from cultivating an honest heart and a righteous lifestyle. All are expected to contribute to the welfare of the whole: Leaders contribute through breadth of visions, and followers contribute through attention to the details of justice and righteousness. Each contributes to the common good, and both common responsibilities shape the spiritual life of the whole. Together they present a unity of responsibility and compassion, of diligence and justice, and of service and reconciliation.
A Vision for All
How do you envision creation’s reconciliation? Do you see happy, healthy babies everywhere—even across the famine-swept deserts of Africa? Do you see workers able to afford health insurance for their families? Do you see the end of all form of tyranny— even the tyranny of drugs and alcohol? Do you see mutual respect among all peoples and nations? Do you see pure rivers and clean skies?
Ezekiel saw God’s restored creation reflected through the concerns of his time and his people. For example, he envisioned all wild and dangerous animals chased from the inhabited land and sent to the woodlands to live. He saw a circle of blessing radiating out from God’s holy mountain; within that circle there was sufficient rain and sunshine to produce an abundant harvest of grains and fruits. Ezekiel saw a changed physical environment able to sustain a restoration of peace among the nations. Wars ceased. Plunder no longer threatened. Every yoke of domination was broken. National humiliation and public shame ended. And at the very center of Ezekiel’s vision was reconciliation between people and God. No longer did the people doubt or fear; instead, they lived with God in complete security and joy. Finally, Ezekiel’s descriptive words fail his prophetic intentions. With a tenderness born of grieving and comforting, Ezekiel spoke for God saying, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God” (34:31). Having tested this image against the failed leaders of Israel and having filled the image with God’s new intentions, Ezekiel’s words affirmed the psalmist’s declaration: The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want.
Sharing the Scripture
Preparing Our Hearts
Meditate on this week’s devotional reading, found in John 10:11-18. In verse 11 of this familiar passage we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.” What does that mean to you? What expectations do you have of Jesus in his role as shepherd? What expectations do you have of those who have leadership positions in the church? How do you feel when those expectations are not met? Pray that you and the group will be ready to follow servant-leaders who shepherd their flocks as Jesus did.
Preparing Our Minds
Study the background from Ezekiel 34 and the study passage from Ezekiel 34:23-31. As you read, ponder the kind of remedy that can be found when those who are self-serving and disconnected from their constituents are in leadership positions.
Leading the Group
- Pray that today’s participants will discern and act on God’s word for them from today’s study.
- Invite the group to think of leaders in any arena (for example, business, government, church, education, nonprofit organizations) who have disappointed their supporters because they served themselves rather than those they were called to lead. The group should not name these people aloud.
- Read aloud today’s focus statement: Sometimes people become very disappointed with leaders who are self-serving and disconnected from their constituents. What remedy can be found when such a person is in a leadership position? Ezekiel tells us that God will provide new servantleaders who care tenderly for their flock, just as God the Good Shepherd does.
- Present a brief talk using the information from Ezekiel 34:1-10 in Understanding the Scripture to help the adults understand the contrast between the unscrupulous leaders who were in place and the change that God will bring about in leadership. “When Leaders Set the Wrong Example” and “God’s Way of Leading” in Interpreting the Scripture also highlight contrasts between these two types of leaders.
- Explain that according to verses 11-22, God will be the Good Shepherd.
- Ask a volunteer to read Ezekiel 34:23- 31.
- Identify the aspects of the vision of the world that will exist when God’s servant David (understood to be someone from the house of David) takes over as leader. Use “A Vision for All” from Interpreting the Scripture as needed to round out the discussion.
- Pause for a few moments to reflect on this vision and pray silently for it to be fulfilled.
- Read these words from the first chapter of Robert K. Greenleaf’s fascinating book, Servant Leadership (1977): If one is a servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making. . . . I am hopeful for these times, despite the tension and conflict, because more natural servants are trying to see clearly the world as it is and are listening carefully to prophetic voices that are speaking now. They are challenging the pervasive injustice with greater force and they are taking sharper issue with the wide disparity between the quality of society they know is reasonable and possible with available resources, and, on the other hand, the actual performance of the whole range of institutions that exist to serve society. . . . A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.
- Encourage the group to respond to Greenleaf’s words:
- Do you think people will accept leaders who are first servants? Why or why not?
- How does Greenleaf’s idea of servant leadership relate to current power structures?
- How does Greenleaf’s idea support or stand in tension with Ezekiel’s words, especially in 34:23-24?
- Invite participants to share stories with the group concerning servant-leaders who have been significant in their own lives. What is it about these people that makes them so special?
- Provide time for quiet reflection on these questions: Which of these traits do I already have? Which of these traits could I work to develop?
- Point out that although the vision of the “covenant of peace” (34:25) is not yet a reality, servant-leaders are working to bring about peace, to end oppression, to end fear, to end suffering, and to end hunger.
- See if the group can name any famous—or not so famous—people working to bring about this vision. Ask: What impresses you about one or more of these servant-leaders?
- Encourage participants to think about ways that they, too, could be servant-leaders for those who are hungry, suffering, oppressed, or afraid.
- Invite those willing to commit themselves to working as servant-leaders on behalf of these people to raise their hands.
- Pray that those who have participated today will go forth to act as servant-leaders and support others who have assumed these leadership positions.
- Conclude today’s session by leading the group in this benediction: Give us new hearts filled with your Spirit, O Lord, that we may live as new creations in Christ. Amen.
Adapted from The New International Lesson Annual 2008-2009© 2008 Abingdon Press