People suffer when bad leaders are in charge. We might feel the pain of disappointing leadership in our workplace, affecting our work, our livelihood, family life, and finances. Those who are to provide leadership within the family can leave family members scarred for life. This happens too often here in Canada, where we have it easy. Consider the poor leadership around the world, whether it be a tyrannical dictatorship over an entire nation, or an enforcement of archaic man-made rules. The so-called “Islamic State” comes to mind.
What are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific, leadership? Ezekiel 34 is about leaders and leadership. As we read this chapter, we may think the word “shepherd” refers to the “pastors” of Ezekiel’s day. However, many Ancient Near East societies, including God’s people Israel, spoke of their kings and political leaders as “shepherds.” Therefore we should think of Ezekiel 34 as being about all kinds of leadership, not just “pastors”. With that in mind, let us take a look:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. Ezekiel 34:1-5 (NRSV)
The first thing we notice is that God is very disappointed in the leaders. To summarize, the leaders were exploiting people rather than caring for them. Rather than caring for the people; “with force and harshness you have ruled them” (verse 5). Sheep should be fed, not fed-up.
I wonder how many people in being asked to define a “leader” would focus on someone who is a ruler. The Bible never gives us a definition of leadership that would suit an entry in Webster’s Dictionary, but it does give us an analogy. A leader is to be like a shepherd. Any self-indulgent person can be a ruler given enough power. Such rulers are usually a disappointment in the eyes of the people under their care. They are also a disappointment in God’s eyes. It takes a person who has high regard and concern for others to be the kind of leader that pleases God, the kind of leader who can be described as a shepherd.
In the midst of His disappointment, God makes a promise:
Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV) For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them . . . I will bring them out . . . I will feed them . . . I will feed them with good pasture . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,. . .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, . . .
God, Himself, will be the shepherd. And He will do this through His servant:
Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV) 23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
While this prophecy includes the restoration of God’s people from exile, the promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” as Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:11,12). Jesus saw the people as scattered without a shepherd, as we are told in Mark 6:34 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:5). Mark also tells us that Jesus made the people lie down on green grass in verse 39, to feed them (reflecting Ezekiel 34:14, and also Psalm 23). In fact all along we see Jesus doing all the things a good shepherd does. And of course we ought to consider Jesus’ teaching in John 10, especially: “I Am the Good Shepherd” in verse 14. Jesus also teaches about leadership in a way that reflects the shepherd leader-as-servant teaching of Ezekiel 34:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:24-28 (NRSV)
From all this let us look at two practical applications.
The first concerns people who are leading. Anyone who is in a place of leadership, who has any kind of influence over others, is accountable to God. Therefore they would do well to look to God for His leadership on how to be a leader. It is not about ruling. It is about caring. The best example of that is the Good Shepherd Himself.
The second concerns people who are led. All human leadership is unsure and temporary. There is not a leader in place today who will still be in a place of leadership 100 years from now. Most have less time that that, some much, much less. Disappointing leaders are really disappearing leaders. In contrast, God’s leadership is certain and eternal. God’s leadership is good. This is especially hopeful for those who suffer a lifetime under a terrible regime, or who suffer a whole lifetime because of one bad decision by a leader. There is a much more caring leadership for those who follow the Good Shepherd, now, and into eternity.
So what are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific leadership? Look to the LORD to take the lead!