Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Luminous promises radiate from this passage in Ezekiel.
Only here in this otherwise alarming book is God a nurturing Shepherd who rescues and heals God’s people. The preacher may be tempted to treat these lyrical images in isolation from other oracles of Ezekiel, many of which are disturbing prophecies of doom. But the impact of this passage is best appreciated in the context of the prophet’s entire witness.
Ezekiel’s understanding of God is rooted in a terrifying vision of the enthroned Holy One (Ezekiel 1) and expressed through graphic images of sexualized violence as divine punishment for Israel’s sins (see Ezekiel 16, 23, and elsewhere). If God refrains from destroying Israel, it is only for the sake of the divine Name, not for any love of the covenant people (Ezekiel 20). The prophet insists that believers are helpless before an indomitable and wrathful God who is utterly intolerant of sin. For God to guard the sanctity of God’s holy Name, Jerusalem must be purged of its idolatry and moral corruption (Ezekiel 8-9). Only then can it be reconstructed as God’s enduring dwelling-place (Ezekiel 40-48).
Ezekiel prophesies in Babylon from 593 to 571 BCE among Judean exiles. The anguish of witnessing wholesale death and cultural decimation, along with the extraordinary stress of involuntary dislocation, makes for a heavy burden on the exiles, as anyone who works with refugees will recognize. Ezekiel himself comes close to breaking under the strain of what is required of him, suffering powerful cognitive disruption from his visions. Some of his behavior may be interpreted as symptomatic of catatonia (3:15, 24-26; 4:4-8); recent interpreters have suspected post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
Ezekiel is to serve as a sentinel for the diaspora community, warning them that they will die if they do not turn from their iniquity. If he fails to perform his task, God will hold him personally responsible for the deaths of his fellow Judeans (3:17-18). The shocking nature of much of Ezekiel’s prophesying reflects the urgency of his mandate. Ezekiel is desperate to shake his people out of their spiritual complacency.
In Ezekiel 34, the prophet launches into a searing indictment of Israel’s leaders: they have ruled harshly, enriching themselves at the expense of the people and failing to safeguard the interests of those who depend on them. So God will step in as the new Shepherd of this traumatized flock. The image of shepherd was a metaphor for kingship in ancient Israel and throughout the ancient Near East; we may hear not just nurture but power in this metaphor. A wonderful catena of promises spills forth: God will seek the lost and bring them home, feed them with rich pasture, and make them lie down in safety. The preacher here might offer a new perspective on motifs more familiar to believers through Psalms 23 and 100. God’s rule over the community of faith is full of healing and justice, not exploitative in the way that human power so often is. In fact, God’s nurture involves putting an end to the threat of exploitation and harm. God will protect the people from “the fat and the strong” and promises to feed the flock with justice (34:16).
Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.
Many Christian groups these days are riven by internecine strife over social and theological issues, as has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. The preacher may use this passage to extend a rhetorical invitation to church leaders at national and local levels to stop jostling each other and muddying the water for everyone else. The message is especially appropriate for those who are driven by ambition for their own ecclesial careers or who manipulate others to ensure the success of pet projects in the church. God requires that believers treat each other with love and forbearance. The bitterness of global disputes over theology and liturgy, the dynamics of conflict and triangulation that disturb the peace of many congregations, and the competitive posturing that goes on even in seminary faculties would indicate that the faithful still need to hear Ezekiel’s message.
Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-18). We who follow Christ must reconfigure our understanding of power so that we devote all of our passion and energy to the heartfelt love of God and neighbor. Are the sheep of your own flock a bit too relaxed, chewing contentedly on their rich pasturage every Sunday morning without much concern for their behavior during the week? Preach a word of promise that holds them accountable! Use irony, unexpected tenderness, or the element of surprise. Employ a familiar metaphor in a new way that startles your congregation. Do whatever it takes to remind your congregation that though they are beloved of God, there is no cause for smugness. The gate is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14), and the Gospel will require their very lives of them (Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25).
Ezekiel insists that we acknowledge ourselves to be abject sinners before a God who is both nurturing and terrifying. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), so we may trust that Christian witness affirms this same insight, challenging though it be. As we listen eagerly for Jesus’ call (John 10:27), we would do well to remember that grace and accountability together make up the timbre of our Shepherd’s voice.