Over and over again in the scriptures the Lord compares himself to a shepherd, and we are his sheep. He also talks about the shepherds of Israel. Who are the shepherds of Israel? What is the behavior Christ expects from his shepherds? This is just one of four things this lesson talks about. The other three are: the valley of dry bones prophecy that talks about the literal resurrection, as well as the restoration of Israel to their former glory in the last days, the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph, and finally, repentance and forgiveness.
The True Shepherd
There are two kinds of shepherds, one you hire, a hirling, and the one who is a shepherd, who lives with the sheep and makes them part of his life. The shepherd is the actual owner of the sheep. The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is intimate, in that the shepherd names all the sheep. He calls them by name, and they come at the sound of his voice. He knows each sheep by sight. This alone is remarkable, because to the casual observer most sheep look alike. A regular person off the street would be at a complete loss to tell one sheep from another most of the time.
The shepherd has not only named his sheep, and they respond to his voice, but he is the sum of their world. At night they are in their pen, but in the day he leads them to water and to pasture land. He guards them at the watering hole, watches for danger during their grazing time, then leads them safely back to the enclosure at night. He feeds their young if the mother dies, and protects the sheep from enemies that would scatter or destroy them.
The sheep pens of old often had no actual gate on the pen. The shepherd slept across the doorway, making him the gate by which anyone would have to pass to get access to his sheep. The pens were often built with high walls lined on top with thorns for further protection. If something or someone did vault the walls and get in, the shepherd would put himself between the intruder and the sheep to protect the frightened animals. His body was used as the shield to protect them. The bond between the sheep and their shepherd was so complete that several flocks could sleep together in the same pen, but when the shepherds called to their sheep in the morning, the sheep would sort themselves into their respective flocks and would only follow their shepherd. They would not listen to the voice of a strange shepherd.
Unlike a true shepherd, the hireling was only an employee. He would use his walking stick to drive the sheep to where he wanted them to go, instead of walking ahead of them and leading them to safety. It was far more likely that a hireling would lose a sheep from negligence than would a shepherd. A real shepherd would leave the flock and go in search of the lost sheep.
The hireling would also sleep at the sheep pen, but if danger presented itself, it was far more likely the hireling would flee for his own life and for his own safety than to put it in jeopardy by defending the flock. When the Lord talks to us of being his under shepherds, he is saying that he wants us to think and act like true shepherds, not like the hireling. The Lord has no interest in employing hirelings to watch over his Church.
The Saints as Sheep and Shepherds
As the Lord’s covenant people (members of Christ’s church), he treats us as his sheep. He also expects us to act towards others in our callings like under shepherds to the good shepherd – Christ. In Ezekiel 34:11 – 16 (I recommend you read these beautiful verses) the Lord talks about what he will do for his sheep. He uses the following verbs to demonstrate what he will do: search, seek, deliver, gather, feed, bind up, and strengthen. In each of these verses he demonstrates how he will search out his lost sheep, how he will deliver them from the wild beasts, etc.
Christ as the good shepherd is faithful to us. He wants us to be faithful to him and to each other. Most of us have one calling or another where we are given charge of at least one other soul in the kingdom. It may be as a visiting teacher/home teacher, a classroom teacher or the head of a quorum or program in the Church. We may even just be the head of the activity committee or over something we consider minor. But to the Lord, when it comes to the welfare of his children, his sheep, nothing is minor.
The Lord expects us to be binding up the wounded hearts, seeking for the lost souls, feeding those in our charge with love, doctrine, and care. He expects us to protect those for whom we have been given charge from those who would harm them. That means both inside and outside the Church organization. This also means that we need to get to know each person in our classroom, each person in our family, those in our assigned responsibilities, and become their most ardent defenders, their patrons, their caretakers, their leaders.
Being a shepherd is a position of responsibility. The Lord will hold each of us responsible for the exercise of our duties in caring for his sheep. These sheep may be our brothers and sisters, but the Lord has called us to each be watchful over each other. Getting back to our God is supposed to be a family effort, a community effort, a Church-wide effort. None of us can do this alone. We need each other. We need to defend each other, protect each other, feed each other, and strengthen each other. This is what makes us true shepherds in Israel.