The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

Jesus called Himself "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." (John 10:11-17).

What does this title mean?


King David

David, the prototype of the Messiah, was a shepherd, whom the Lord took from following the sheep to be the ruler over Israel:

  • “Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel: And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth.”
  • (2 Samuel 7:8-9).

That the kind is a "shepherd" of his people is an almost inescapable analogy, found, for example, in the Iliad: "Thus spoke Thersites, reviling Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people." (Homer, Iliad, Book the Second). Philo explains the likeness:

"And after his marriage, Moses took his father-in-law's herds and tended them, being thus instructed in the lessons proper to qualify him for becoming the leader of a people, for the business of a shepherd is a preparation for the office of a king to any one who is destined to preside over that most manageable of all flocks, mankind, just as hunting is a good training-school for men of warlike dispositions; for they who are practicing with a view to learning the management of an army, previously study the science of hunting, brute animals being as some raw material exposed to their attacks in order for them to practice the art of commanding on each occasion of war or of peace, for the pursuit of wild beasts is a training-school of strategy to be developed against enemies, and the care and management of tame animals is a royal training for the government of subjects; for which reason kings are called shepherds of their people, not by way of reproach, but as a most especial and pre-eminent honor." (Philo Judaeus, On the Life of Moses, Book I, Chapter XI).

David was different from Menelaus and Agamemnon, though, in that he had actual job experience in the field:

"And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: and I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him." (1 Samuel 17:34-35).

The shepherd-king David was following in a hallowed tradition, because Moses was a shepherd, righteous Abel was a shepherd, and in days to come the prophet Amos would be a shepherd: "Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit: And the LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel." (Amos 7:14-15).


The Lord is My Shepherd

In the twenty-third psalm, the Lord God Himself is shown as Israel's shepherd:

  • “A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
  • (Psalm 23:1-6).

So it is seen also in Psalm 77: "You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." (Psalm 77:20).

“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand..” (Psalm 95:6-7).

“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’” (Jeremiah 31:10).

Israel's shepherd is God, but also a man:

As explained by the deuterocanonical book of Ecclesiasticus, this means,

"Man's compassion is only for his neighbor, but the Lord's compassion is for every living thing. He corrects and trains and teaches and brings them back as a shepherd his flock." (Ecclesiasticus 18:13).


The shepherds of the Bible ran the gamut from almighty God Himself:

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth.  Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up thy strength, and come and save us.  Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:1-3).

"Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture." (Psalm 100:3).

"For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness:. . ." (Psalm 95:7-8).

"And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham: But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. And he led them on safely, so that they feared not: but the sea overwhelmed their enemies." (Psalm 78:51-53).

. . .to a foolish and wicked man, Nabal:

And David arose, and went down to the wilderness of Paran.  And there was a man in Maon, whose possessions were in Carmel; and the man was very great, and he had three thousand sheep, and a thousand goats: and he was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal; and the name of his wife Abigail: and she was a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance: but the man was churlish and evil in his doings; and he was of the house of Caleb. And David heard in the wilderness that Nabal did shear his sheep.” (1 Samuel 25:1-4).

What can be made of a range as wide as this, from the heights of heaven to the depths of the earth? Perhaps after all 'shepherd' is too inexact a designation to help us understand who Jesus is. But wait: there is a time-line here, and perhaps situating ourselves upon it more exactly will help resolve the issue. Jesus chided His hearers for their inability to read the signs of the times: "And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" (Matthew 16:3). So let us study these prophecies and locate ourselves precisely on the time-line, and all uncertainty will fall away.

Nabal too is a shepherd, and yet he is not God. The Bible teaches us God's ways by likeness to homely things familiar to us. Sometimes a vine is just a vine, a door a door and a shepherd a sheep-shearer. Yet it cannot be coincidence the way the Bible systematically takes these allusions and applies them to Jesus Christ. Israel's great shepherd is one more on the list of Jehovah God's titles and designations given in the New Testament to Jesus Christ.


Ezekiel's Prophecy

Several of the prophets of Israel take this question of the shepherd's identity in hand, most notably Ezekiel and Isaiah. In one remarkable passage in Ezekiel, God condemns the shepherds into who care He had heretofore entrusted the flock, but who had proved unworthy of this trust, and promises that in time to come He, Himself, will guide and feed the flock. The lost sheep had not been searched for; this omission will be corrected:

  • “And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.

  • “Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the LORD; As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock; Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.

  • “For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord GOD. I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment.”
  • (Ezekiel 34:1-16).

Having clearly stated that He Himself intends to take on the shepherding duties, God then explains that the Messiah will shepherd His flock:

"Therefore will I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between cattle and cattle. And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the LORD have spoken it." (Ezekiel 34:22-24).

There is one set of circumstances in which both of these conditions can be met: namely, if the Messiah, God's servant David, is also God.


Isaiah's Prophecy

Isaiah also prophesies a time when the Lord God and not another will shepherd His flock:

  • “Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
  • (Isaiah 40:10-11).

When will this happen? After the voice crying in the wilderness has cleared a path: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40:3). Who is that voice, and has it yet spoken? John the Baptist, and yes:

Another prophet who speaks of the shepherd is Micah,

"And he shall stand, and shall feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide, for then shall he be great unto the ends of the earth." (Micah 5:4).

This is a prophecy of the Messiah (several verses prior is the familiar reference to Bethlehem), as commentators recognize:

"The ruler in Israel, before described and prophesied of; the Messiah, as Kimchi himself interprets it, and other Jewish writers. Kimchi's note is,

"'after the affliction, the King Messiah shall stand and feed Israel in the strength of the Lord;'

"and so R. Isaac paraphrases the words exactly in the same way: wherefore, as another learned Jew observes, these expressions evince that the ruler here spoken of can be no other than the Messiah; not Zerubbabel, who never attained to this height and happiness. He is both King and Shepherd, and to each of these the act of feeding is ascribed." (John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, Commentary on Micah 5:4).

Concluding with a prayer and a promise,

“Shepherd Your people with Your staff, the flock of Your heritage, who dwell solitarily in a woodland, in the midst of Carmel; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in days of old. 'As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, I will show them wonders.'” (Micah 7:14-15).

Chief Shepherd

Certainly it is a free country; people are free to believe, or disbelieve, that John the Baptist was the fore-runner who ran ahead for one who is a.) Jesus Christ, and b.) Jehovah God. But if you believe this scheme, and it is the Biblical scheme, then you must wiggle and squirm to avoid saying that Jesus Christ is God. And besides, how many 'Chief Shepherds' can there be?

"Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers...nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." (1 Peter 5:4)

The identification of Jesus as the shepherd of the assembly, the people of God, is found throughout the New Testament:

"For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls." (1 Peter 2:25);
"Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." (Hebrews 13:20-21).

This New Testament theme goes equally far back into the Old Testament, where God is the shepherd of the flock:

"The archers have bitterly grieved him, shot at him and hated him. But his bow remained in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God of Jacob (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), by the God of your father who will help you, and by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb." (Genesis 49:23-25).

"And he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed [ra'ah, 'pasture' or 'tend'] me all my life long unto this day, The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." (Genesis 48:15-16).

Those readers who see in this an odd coincidence have great faith. We can all pray with the Psalmist, "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments." (Psalm 119:176).


My Fellow

"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones." (Zechariah 13:7).

Who is the shepherd who is Jehovah's "fellow"? Jesus says that it is He:

"Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad." (Matthew 26:31,  Mark 14:27).


Christian ministers, in imitation of their Master, are called 'pastors.' 'Pastor' is Latin for 'shepherd.' Thus 'pastoral poetry' is poetry romanticizing the country-side:

“After all, the traditional thinking goes like this: A Jewish religious leader is called a rabbi, but a Christian religious leader is called a pastor. And since Jesus was the founder of Christianity, his disciples would have called him a pastor, as in Pastor Christ. Well, that certainly would have been news to his first disciples, all of them Jews. They never heard of 'Christianity' in their lifetimes.” (Brown, Michael L. (2012-04-03). The Real Kosher Jesus: Revealing the mysteries of the hidden Messiah (p. 26). Strang Communications.) (This author is a Messianic Jew and gifted Bible expositor.)

When Jesus says He is the Good Shepherd, in the Latin translation He is almost bound to say He is a "pastor:" "ego sum pastor bonus bonus pastor animam suam dat pro ovibus. . ." (John 10:11 Latin Vulgate). It's true His earliest disciples were not Latin-speakers, but it does seem that words like "poimen" and "ra‘ah" and "pastor" and the English "shepherd" are all aiming at the same target, namely somebody who takes care of the sheep. When Jesus commanded Peter,

"So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs." (John 21:15).

. . .in the Latin tongue He's telling him, "pasce agnos meos," shepherd the flock. "Pastor Christ" can hardly have been any great surprise to the disciples, because it means no more than 'Shepherd Christ,' which He said He was. It's interesting to reflect that first century Jewish author Philo Judaeus already realized that the word of God is the Shepherd of His people:


  • “Thus, indeed, being a shepherd is a good thing, so that it is justly attributed, not only to kings, and to wise men, and to souls who are perfectly purified, but also to God, the ruler of all things; and he who confirms this is not any ordinary person, but a prophet, whom it is good to believe, he namely who wrote the psalms; for he speaks thus, 'The Lord is my shepherd, and he shall cause me to lack nothing;' [Psalm 23:1] and let every one in his turn say the same thing, for it is very becoming to every man who loves God to study such a song as this, but above all this world should sing it.
  • “For God, like a shepherd and a king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the air, and the fire, and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing, as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason, his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king; for it is said somewhere, "Behold, I am he! I will send my messenger before thy face, who shall keep thee in the road." [Exodus 23:20.] Let therefore all the world, the greatest and most perfect flock of the living God, say "The Lord is my shepherd, and he shall cause me to lack nothing," and let every separate individual say the same thing; not with the voice which proceeds from his tongue and his mouth, extending only through a scanty portion of the air, but with the wide spreading voice of the mind, which reaches to the very extremities of this universe; for it is impossible that there should be a deficiency of anything that is necessary, where God presides, who is in the habit of bestowing good things in all fulness and completeness in all living beings. ”
  • (Philo Judaeus, A Treatise on the Tilling of the Earth by Noah, Chapter XII).