The Shepherd King

November 23, 2014   Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24

Rev. Catherine Purves


     There are a lot of strange images or metaphors for God in the Bible.  Two of my favorites are The Rock and The Hen gathering her chicks.  Talk about your mixed metaphors!  How can God be like a rock and like a hen?  Well, how can God be both a king and a shepherd?  They don’t seem to go together either.  Just as surely as rocks and hens conjure very different images in our minds, so too kings and shepherds seem to have nothing in common.  But you may be surprised to learn that this particular combination was actually very common in the ancient Near East.  Not just in Israel, but in the surrounding countries as well, deities were often described as being Shepherd Kings.  Even though this sounds like a mixed metaphor to us, we must concede that it made perfect sense to them.  And so it is probably worth our while to try to wrap our minds around what is, for us, a strange combination of images.  What did Ezekiel and other Old Testament writers mean when they referred to God as their Shepherd King?    

     Let’s start by looking for any connections we might see between the two different identities, that of shepherd and that of king.  What, if anything, do they have in common?  We are at something of a disadvantage here, since we don’t have a whole lot of shepherds or kings running around in 21st century America.  But the Bible is a rich resource for us, since it is full of both.  What do we know about shepherds and kings?  Well, both are in charge.  The king rules over his people, and the shepherd is in complete control of his sheep.  Kings were thought to be divinely appointed, so their authority was absolute.  Remember the story of the anointing of David in which all of the sons of Jesse were brought before Samuel to see which one would be named king, and each, in turn, was rejected by God.  Then the youngest who was out keeping the sheep was sent for, and God told Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”  David became the first divinely appointed Shepherd King of Israel. 

     In a surprisingly similar way shepherds ruled their flock with a kind of absolute authority.  The sheep didn’t get a vote, and all aspects of their lives, from birth to death, were determined by their shepherd.  They were completely dependent upon him.  It turns out that the relationship between a king and his subjects was not all that different from the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep.

     Now, when we combine the roles of King and Shepherd as an image of God, we see that we are doubly being put in our place.  When you hold together the divine right of kings, which guarantees the king’s unquestioned power and authority, with the total vulnerability and dependence of sheep upon their shepherd, you get a clear picture of our relationship with God.  We owe God our total and unquestioning allegiance and we fully recognize God’s rule in our lives to be like that of a king over his subjects.  We also see that we are totally helpless apart from God, our shepherd; we must rely upon God for everything – food, shelter, protection, healing, guidance.  We are not independent free agents; we are sheep. 

     Now we have to transport this learning about God as our Shepherd King into the 21st century where we live.  Can you imagine a sheep deciding to sleep in on a Sunday morning rather than responding to its shepherd’s call?  Can you envision the subject of a king going king-shopping in the same way that people today go church-shopping?  Would it make sense for either a sheep or a subject to contemplate what they want to believe about their shepherd or king, or even if they want to believe in their shepherd or their king?  Because our relationship with God is like the relationship between a sheep and its shepherd and like that between a subject and his king, then our whole notion of freedom and independence and individual choice has to change.  We need to start relating to God in ways that are acceptable and appropriate, given that relationship, given the fact that God has absolute authority and control over every aspect of our lives and we are totally (totally!) dependent upon God for everything, because God is our Shepherd King.

     We’ve looked at how these two images of God are surprisingly complementary.  Now we need to think about how they are different, and how by combining the two the Bible is saying something more and something different than what either image would communicate on its own.  It is obvious that the king and the shepherd have very different ways of exercising their authority and their power.      

     We’ve seen that both the king and the shepherd rule their subjects and their flock, but the king rules from above while the shepherd rules from among.  The king rules by unquestioned, overt power over his subjects.  The king rules with armies and with might, by laws and by demanding allegiance and obedience.  The shepherd rules by living with the sheep, by gathering and leading and guiding them, by providing for their needs, healing them, and by defending the sheep which actually requires the shepherd to risk his own life for them.  Both the king and the shepherd rule with absolute authority, but the king rules from on high and the shepherd rules by giving his life for the sheep.

     When the Bible combines these two images for God to produce a Shepherd King, it is holding together both ways of ruling in the one God.  That means that we cannot only have a sense of God as one who rules from a distant throne by fiat, through laws, and with unlimited power.  But neither can we just have a sense of God as our divine friend who understands and walks with us, meeting our every need.  David, Israel’s own Shepherd King, certainly wrote in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” but he also wrote in Psalm 99, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!”  God is not just king, and God is not just shepherd.  God is our Shepherd King, and we need to hold together in our minds both of these ways in which God rules, because this is who God has revealed himself to be.

     If we again try to transport this learning about the Shepherd King into our 21st century experience, we see that often people seem to opt for an either-or understanding of God rather than a both-and understanding which tries to hold together the characteristics of shepherd and king.  God is both near to us and involved in our lives, doing everything to save us, and God is high and lifted up, enthroned above all, demanding of us obedience and faithful living. 

     Those who rely solely on the 23rd Psalm for their sense of who God is can become as lackadaisical as sheep, so trusting and unthinking that they fail to give God the honor and obedience that he requires as our king.  Those who tremble in response to Psalm 99 can become so fearful and obsessive about appeasing a distant, angry God that they may come to resent the apparent straightjacket of the Christian life, or they might reject his rule altogether, not realizing that they are rejecting their Good Shepherd whose will it is to save them.  Either way, we have sheep and subjects who do not really know the one who rules over them.  Certainly, our world in this 21st century is full of people like that who have a one dimensional and inaccurate view of God.

     It is interesting that on this Christ the King Sunday our set text from Ezekiel declares that God is our Shepherd.  Here, God claims that role as Israel’s Shepherd who will gather, lead, heal, strengthen, and feed his sheep, and who will also judge them.  He will rule over them with both compassion and justice.  In fact, the text says that he will feed them with justice.  Then, at the end of our reading, God declares, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David… I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.” 

     Did you notice the shift?  At the beginning, God says that he is the Shepherd, but at the end, David becomes Shepherd over them and among them.  This does not mean the original David, the first Shepherd King, because he was long dead.  And it is not hinting that he would somehow be resurrected to rule again.  This is a hope that from the kingly line of David another Shepherd King would be raised up to accomplish God’s will for Israel.  Israel’s hope for a Messiah was based on prophetic texts like this one.  And our understanding of Jesus Christ is also guided by texts like this.  Jesus is our Shepherd King.  Now we can see what this means.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is also our King, and Jesus our King is also our Good Shepherd.

     I started out by observing that some of the biblical images for God seem like mixed metaphors.  How can we say that God is both our Rock and that God is like a Mother Hen caring for her chicks?  We can say that in the same way that we must say that, in Christ, God is our King and God is our Shepherd.  In Jesus we see the rock-hard will of God, the unyielding righteousness and justice of God, the sheer rock-like power of God.  But in Jesus we also see God weeping over Jerusalem, God gathering and protecting lost sheep and wandering chicks, and, in Jesus, we see a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  Rock and King, Hen and Shepherd – this is who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ.  On this day when we claim Christ as our King, let us also embrace him as our Shepherd.  Not one or the other, but both.  For Jesus is our Shepherd King.