Israel’s Failure of Leadership (Ezekiel 34)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Ezekiel 34

Israel's leaders are indicted for their failure to care for the nation. Ezekiel 34 uses the metaphor of shepherding to illustrate how Israel's leaders (shepherds) oppressed the people (flock) within God's kingdom. The shepherds looked only to their own interests by clothing and feeding themselves at the expense of the needs of the flock (Ezek. 34:2, 3, 8). Instead of strengthening and healing the sheep in their time of need, or pursuing them when lost, the shepherds have fiercely dominated them (Ezek. 34:4). This left the sheep vulnerable to wild beasts (hostile nations) and scattered them throughout the world (Ezek. 34:5-6, 8). Thus God promises to save the sheep from the "mouths" of the shepherds (Israel's rulers), search and care for his sheep, and bring them back from where they were scattered (Ezek. 34:9-12). He will lead them back to their own land, feed them, and have them lie down in safety in good grazing ground (Ezek. 34:13-14). Ultimately, God will judge between the fat sheep (beneficiaries and participants in the oppression) and the lean sheep (the weak and oppressed, Ezek. 34:15-22). This deliverance climaxes with the future appointment of the ultimate shepherd, a second David, who will feed and care for God's flock as a prince should under God's kingship (Ezek. 34:23-24).[1] This will mark a time when God will make a covenant of peace with his sheep/people that will ensure God's blessings of protection, fruitfulness and freedom in the land (Ezek. 34:25-31). By this all will know that God is with his people and is their true God (Ezek. 34:30-31).

The shepherding metaphor sends a message promising judgment on Israel's wicked rulers and hope for the downtrodden and disadvantaged of the nation. This message of leadership, drawn from shepherding, is applicable to other occupations. Good leaders seek the interest of others before "feeding" themselves. Leadership that imitates "the Good Shepherd" of John 10:11, 14 is fundamentally an office of servanthood that requires genuine care for the wellbeing of subordinates. Managing people is not about power trips or holding one's authority over others. Rather, godly and righteous supervisors seek to ensure that the people under their care are flourishing. This is consistent with best management practices taught at business schools and employed in many companies. But godly people do it out of faithfulness to God, not because it is accepted practice in their organizations.

Andrew Mein contends that most readers "pay too little attention to the way economic realities may inform any specific use of a metaphor, with the result that all of the biblical images of shepherding collapse into a rather monochrome picture of caring generosity."[2] While Ezekiel 34 reflects God's care for his sheep (like other shepherding passages, e.g., Jeremiah 23, Psalm 23, John 10), the chapter specifically reflects more about the economics of ancient sheep-herding and thus applies more specifically to a leader's economic responsibilities. The shepherds have violated the economics of their obligations by "failing to produce the required return on an investment and misappropriation of the owner's property."[3] God holds them responsible while reclaiming his flock. It is too little merely to say that the shepherds of Israel have failed to look after the interest of the sheep. Rather, the shepherds have not worked for the interests of the sheep's owner who hired them and who expects a valuable return on his investment. This understanding could be applied today to questions of executive compensation and corporate governance. Ezekiel provides no general pronouncement on such issues, but provides criteria by which each corporation’s practices could be assessed.

Thus Ezekiel 34 is a rich text for a theology of work. Leaders are to care for the needs and interests of those under their leadership (Philippians 2:3-4). Beyond that, they are responsible to accomplish the economic task they have been hired to do. We are to work for the profit and welfare of those who stand on rungs both above and below us on the corporate ladder (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-24). Ultimately, all should work for the honor to which God is entitled.

In this light, profit or economic productivity is seen as a godly pursuit. Churches often seem to forget this, as if profit were a neutral or barely tolerable by-product of Christian work. But Ezekiel 34 implies that the worker who produces an economic loss or the manager who fails to get the team to accomplish the job is no better than those who mistreat coworkers or subordinates. Both the people and the job are important. When, centuries later, Paul writes, "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters," (Colossians 3:23) he is standing in Ezekiel's shoes. Do the work you are paid to do (which includes making a profit as an inalienable component) as working for the Lord. If you work in a for-profit enterprise, you are responsible to God for helping to make a profit.

But if profit is an obligation to God, then the Christian is obligated to pursue only godly profits. As followers of Jesus, we owe our company a good day's work — a properly executed sales plan, a sturdy framing job, or whatever our work product is. Employers should learn to expect that from us. Also, as followers of Jesus we can never provide our company with a false environmental statement, never mislead employees or take advantage of their ignorance, and never cover up a quality control problem. Employers should expect that from us as well. What makes us good and productive workers, loyal to our companies, also makes us honest and compassionate workers, committed to our Lord.