The Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.  As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.  And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

John 10:11–18

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Jesus isn’t safe, but He’s good. Like Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jesus is King: He always affirms His sovereignty. Our modern impression of The Good Shepherd is undoubtedly correct in its understanding of Christ’s compassion, but we miss the mark when we think it means our Savior is somehow vacant of ferocity.

As Ken Kovacs writes in his book Out of the Depths:

The image of Yahweh as shepherd takes on flesh in Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd.” He is more than a metaphor. He is the real thing. This is a very significant statement.

Unfortunately, too often Jesus’ claim has been domesticated and made into something as docile as a well-behaved sheep. “Good” has been equated with “nice.” It’s sometimes (mis)understood as, “I am the nice shepherd.” But “good” doesn’t do justice to the text. It’s not that Jesus is a well-behaved shepherd who really knows how to do his job without offending anyone. The Greek word for “good” is agathos. In this text, John reads, kalos. Kalos means “noble.” Jesus is really saying, “I am the noble shepherd.” By “noble” Jesus is claiming for himself an identity and authority reserved for Yahweh. “Noble” refers to Jesus’ kingly rule over every other political and social authority.

Jesus is being very intentional here. He is placing himself in that long line of shepherd-kings that began with David, who led his people with compassion and with power, with justice and with love. The Old Testament prophets promised that another shepherd-king would come, like David, who would lead the people with equity, justice, and peace. The shepherd is a metaphor of governance. By describing himself as the noble shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself the very same symbol and image of Yahweh found through the Old Testament.

D I G  D E E P E R

 The Good Shepherd

The title of Christ based esp. on His discourse in Jn. 10:7–18 and the parable of the Good Shepherd in Lk. 15:3–7 (cf. Mt. 18:12–14). The theme, which rests partly upon OT imagery (esp. Is. 40:11 and Ezek. 34), is taken up later in the NT, e.g. in Heb. 13:20 and 1 Pet. 2:25 and 5:4. In early Christian art Christ was frequently represented (e.g. in the *catacombs) as the Good Shepherd with a lamb upon His shoulders. The Second Sunday after *Easter has sometimes been known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’, on account of the traditional Gospel for the day, which in the RC Church is now used in only one year out of three.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 694.

Yahweh as Shepherd

This pastoral image for Yahweh is not unrelated to other metaphors for governance, for a long tradition reckons human kings as shepherds of the flock—that is, the community (cf. Isa 44:28; Ezek 37:24). The image evokes a wise, caring, attentive agent who watches over, guards, feeds, and protects a flock that is vulnerable, exposed, dependent, and in need of such help.

The most important usages of the image of Yahweh as shepherd appear in the exile. The exile is said to be a time when the flock was “scattered”; that term is used regularly to refer to the exile. The work of the shepherd Yahweh is to gather the sheep in safety, often when they are exposed to serious danger. The imagery of the gathering shepherd is a powerful one:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isa 40:11)

He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock. (Jer 31:10)

The fullest exposition of the theme is in Ezekiel 34. In that narrative, commenting on Israel’s past and future, the shepherd-kings of the Davidic dynasty are indicted for being irresponsible shepherds, who by their neglect caused the exile (vv. 3–6; Jer 23:1; 50:6). Yahweh’s response to the crisis of the flock in exile is twofold. Major attention is given to the rescue of the flock, which royal neglect has placed in great jeopardy. Yahweh will act as a proper and responsible shepherd in order to recover the flock:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited part of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezek 34:13–16)

Yahweh will not only restore the flock. Yahweh will also attend in harshness to the “fat sheep” who abuse and exploit, who deny food to the “lean sheep,” and who trample the pasture (vv. 7–19).
In this assertion, the positive image of shepherd turns harsh and negative; the shepherd looks harshly on exploitative sheep, and distinguishes between strong, abusive sheep, and vulnerable, weak sheep. Thus the good shepherd attends especially to the most vulnerable sheep—in this case, needy exiles.

On the basis of this imagery, Israel appeals to Yahweh, “shepherd of Israel,” for help: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!” (Ps 80:1). On the basis of the same imagery, moreover, the most familiar Psalm 23 can be seen, not as an isolated poem, but as a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh. In Psalm 23 Yahweh the shepherd is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provides what they cannot secure for themselves.

In the use of this metaphor, Israel also provides texts that speak not only about the shepherd, but also about the sheep. Thus Israel, as the flock of Yahweh, lives in glad trust of the shepherd:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. (Ps 95:7)

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps 100:3; cf. Ps 79:13)

These psalms echo the confidence of Psalm 23. But Israel’s honest testimony also recognizes the jeopardy of the flock. Sometimes the trouble is the fault of Yahweh, who has been inattentive and neglectful (Pss 44:11, 22; 74:1); but sometimes the sheep have gone astray (Isa 53:6). Thus the imagery holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel.

This imagery functions in dramatic ways in the New Testament. Jesus is the good shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). Jesus comes upon a great crowd who were “like sheep without a shepherd,” for whom he has compassion (Mark 6:34). And clearly the parable in Luke 15:3–7 is freighted enough to make a statement about Jesus, surely enough to witness to the Shepherd whom Israel has long confessed and long trusted.

Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 259–261.

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life