“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Ps. 137:1, KJV) Ezekiel’s prophetic book nestles itself by the rivers of Babylon and weeps along with the despondent. Like much of the other prophetic literature, Ezekiel provides the warrant for God’s judgment on his people.
Left disoriented by the tumbling of the city walls and the destruction of the temple, ancient Judah had to come to terms with why God would allow such a catastrophe. The hard word of the prophets, Ezekiel included, presses beyond language of “allowance” to “causation.” God not only allowed the destruction by the Babylonians—he caused it. Such were the hard words of judgment.
The purview of God’s judgment, however, reaches beyond Israel alone. All nations that set themselves against God and his kingdom come under God’s judgment. In our reading today, the Egyptians are no exception. The relationship between God and his elect people and God and the surrounding nations is complicated. In one text, God brings the nations under the rod of his judgment. In another text, he’s pouring out his mercy on the whole lot of them: remember Nineveh in Jonah?
Terms like particularity (Israel alone) and universality (Israel plus all the nations) may obscure at times more than clarify. I think we are on safe ground, though, when we understand God’s relationship to Israel and the nations as gracious when they turn to him in repentance and judging when they stand opposed to God and his kingdom. “[T]urn back, turn back…,” is Ezekiel’s call (Ezek. 33:11). As the pro-life license tags reminds us: Choose life! Ezekiel would honk his horn.
In our reading today, the shepherds of God’s people come under direct fire. These shepherds are the political and religious leaders, the kings and the prophets of God’s people. “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!” (Ezek. 34:2). Tough language rolls off Ezekiel’s lips. “You do not tend the flock.”
Flock-tending within Christ’s church is hard work. I once heard it referred to as a royal pain. But flock-tending is what it’s all about. Such is the call of God on those shepherds of the flock, those under-shepherds called by God to tend his people. What a great ordination text Ezekiel 34 is – a frightening one, mind you. “I will demand a reckoning,” God thunders. Little wonder James warns future teachers and preachers about entering too quickly into the God-talk trade (James 3:1). Tending God’s flock is a high and dangerous calling. Those of us who sit in the pews might do well to remember this as we pray for our shepherds.
But Ezekiel doesn’t leave us with bad shepherds. He promises a coming shepherd who would sit on David’s throne. “He will be a shepherd to them.” I don’t need to connect the dots for you. The link between the shepherd theme here in Ezekiel and Jesus’ self-identification as the Good Shepherd (John 10) presses in on our biblical theological imagination.
In a time where our church suffers from shepherds whose flock-tending is shaped by trending cultural norms instead of the gracious authority of Jesus as handed over in Scripture and the apostolic tradition, we can lay hold of the claim that Jesus never leaves us without a shepherd. Because he never leaves us without himself.