The Shepherd and His Sheep

March 26, 2023 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezekiel: Tough Love

Scripture: Ezekiel 33:1– 34:31

11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And 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 ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 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, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.


25 “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. 29 And I will provide for them renowned plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations. 30 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord GOD. 31 And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord GOD.”

The last time we studied the book of Ezekiel together, we concluded with chapter 32. This morning, we take up the next two chapters, Ezekiel 33–34.

Now, in Ezekiel 33:21, we have another one of Ezekiel’s frequent date notices. We are in the 6th century BC, specifically, January 19, 585 BC. [1] It is important to remember that the story of the Bible is about these real moments in history, because the redemptive story of the Bible is found in the history of the world, in real times and places and events. As we look through the books of history, we are invited to trace the hand of God, working to bring about his reign, his rule, his kingdom. Of course, the bible doesn’t tell us about every moment in history, but only of the most significant moments in redemptive history.

And here in Ezekiel 33 is one of them. On this day, Ezekiel and his fellow exiles learn the awful news that Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem has been a success. The city has fallen once and for all. Why does this matter to us? Because this is an important moment in redemptive history, and we need to learn how the Bible works, how that story is unfolding. We need to see how this story advances the greater story of God’s promise to redeem, rescue, and save. As we see this, we will see that God's promise to save his people is also his promise to restore his people to be a blessing to the world.

In this moment in the 6th century BC, God is showing his faithfulness to his promise so that we might believe him and his story of salvation. Consider, then, in these two chapters the faithfulness of God—God’s faithfulness required, delivered, and secured.

Faithfulness Required

First, as we take a look at Ezekiel 33, I’d like to point out the faithfulness of Israel’s God and why it is he requires faithfulness from us as well.

Under the Curse

One curious thing about Ezekiel 33 is that what it says in the first nine verses sounds like territory we’ve been through before. These verses sound an awful lot like what we were told in Ezekiel 3:16-21. God tells Ezekiel that he has made him to be “a watchman for the house of Israel,” with the responsibility to warn the people of coming danger. We’ve heard all this before. We wonder why it is repeated here.

When we come to verse 10, we see that God is responding to something Ezekiel’s fellow exiles have been saying. Sent away into Babylonia, obviously under the judgment of God, there seems to be this common complaint, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” (Ezek 33:10). It will do no good at this point to try to say, “Well, cheer up! Hey, at least you’re alive out here in Babylon. You could be dead! Things aren’t so bad.” I mean, that might be one way to look at it. The problem is that what the exiles are saying is not just a complaint about how bad their circumstances are.

They are coming to grips with what this exile means. They understand their current moment in history in light of what God had promised in Leviticus 26. There we find the promised covenant blessings if the people will remain loyal and obedient to their God (vv. 1-13), as well as the promised covenant curses if they don’t (vv. 14-39). Part of that covenant curse includes what Ezekiel’s audience were experiencing, exile to other lands. And if that happens, God decreed that they would “perish among the nations,” that they would “rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them” (Lev 26:38-39).

You see the same words here in Ezekiel 33:10? The people are finally starting to see what has happened to them. They have finally understood that what has happened is not just unfortunate circumstances but rather the very specific, promised covenant curse. And, being under that curse, perhaps it would have been better if they had just been killed rather than to be left to “rot away” in Babylonia.[2]

Turning the Corner

God’s response to this, in verses 11-20—we’ll come back to that in just a moment. But look down to verse 21. “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.” This news completes the bad news that was revealed to Ezekiel in chapter 24, when God told Ezekiel to make note of that day, for it was the day on which “the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem” (Ezek 24:1-2). What a tragic day it was as God claimed to be on the side of Babylon having no mercy on the holy city. Oh, and by the way, Ezekiel’s wife also died on that day (Ezek 24:15-18), and God silenced Ezekiel—he could not even show any public emotion.

It was all a prophetic sign. At the end of Ezekiel 24, God says:

As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul’s desire, and also their sons and daughters, on that day a fugitive will come to you to report to you the news. On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the LORD (Ezek 24:25-27).

Ok, so that’s what happens here in chapter 33. Look at verse 22. “Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and he had opened my mouth by the time the man came to me in the morning, so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute.” So, at the very moment of Israel’s deepest national grief, at just the moment when it seems that it just isn’t worth trusting in their God anymore, at that very moment is when it is now time for Ezekiel to speak.

This material in Ezekiel 33 is interesting just because of where it is found in the book of Ezekiel. It fits with chapter 24, as we’ve seen, seeming to be the last, and most debilitating word of judgment against Israel. Why, then, does it show up here? Why is it chapter 33 and not chapter 25? The answer, as we will see in the rest of our study of the book, is that it is truly a transitional chapter, but one that points the way forward to hope. What follows in chapters 34-48 are predominantly prophecies of hope. As in Isaiah and Jeremiah, the pattern in Ezekiel is that, in between the message of judgment against Israel and messages of salvation are the prophecies against the foreign nations.[3] We have turned the corner here, at the very moment when it seems like all hope is lost, that’s precisely where hope is found.

The Gift of Life

Look now at verse 10. God sends his prophet to speak to the exiles who have lost all hope. They have come to see that they are experiencing the covenant curse. “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” Indeed. To be under the covenant curse, to be experiencing the wrath of God, is to be dead, not alive. Or, if you’d rather, it is to be alive, but “alive” only in a living hell.

We can understand the question these exiles were asking: “How then can we live?” (v. 10). Ezekiel 33 is the answer to their question. Ezekiel himself is the watchman, sounding the warning. And as long as we hear the warning, there is still the opportunity to be saved from the danger.

Leviticus 26 says that, too. God’s promise that his judgment would mean that his people would “rot away” in exile was not the final word. There, in Leviticus 26:40-45 came another promise. “But if they confess their iniquity…” then “the doors to a glorious future will be thrust wide open.”[4]

What Ezekiel goes on to say in verses 12-20 is what Leviticus 26:40-45 says. And it’s all based on the fact that God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (v. 11). God is not out to get anyone. He does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us. Wrath is not one of God’s attributes. He has to be pushed, incited to act in wrath.[5] Make no mistake. What we see in verses 12-16 is that if anyone—whether we call them “righteous” or “wicked”—transgresses against God’s holiness and justice, they will perish. But, if anyone—whether we call them “righteous” or “wicked”—turns from his sin and does what is just and right . . . he shall surely live.”

No, these verses do not mean we can earn or merit life. To even ask such a question is kind of ridiculous. Who was ever born because they earned it? I certainly have never entertained such an idea. Life is a gift that God gives, of his own free will.

But I certainly think quite a bit about the fact that whether I go on living another year or two or twenty or more just might have something to do with how “faithful” I am to living in accordance with good health practices. This is not a question of earning life, though. It’s a question about trying to stave off death for as long as I can. And if you want to live as long as possible, you just might need to show a little faithfulness to the way God meant for life to be.

Faithfulness Delivered

But, of course, the problem here is the problem of unfaithfulness. That’s why Ezekiel’s audience is in exile. It’s the reason why, according to the Bible, we are all heading toward death. Is there really any hope when we’ve all been unfaithful and find ourselves rotting away because of our transgressions and our sins? I mean, really, “How then can we (or anyone!) live?”

Well, don’t miss the first and most important answer to that question. The first thing God says in response to the question is—look at it, in verse 11: “Say to them, “As I live.” This is God’s way of taking an oath on his own name. If God let everyone who is guilty of unfaithfulness perish, this would bring him no pleasure. God will not let that happen! How, then, can we live? “By the life of I,” God says.[6] That is how you will live. God will see to it that the faithfulness he requires will be delivered. He will deliver it himself.

The Failure of the Shepherds

As we come to Chapter 34, we find this prophecy “against the shepherds of Israel.” Ezekiel has not used the term before this chapter, and he will only use it one other time outside of this chapter. Clearly, they are those who exercise some sort of authority over the nation. Are these the “elders” of Israel that Ezekiel refers to elsewhere in condemnatory ways (Ezek 8)? That’s doubtful. The term is customarily used in the ancient Near East to refer to a king, so it seems that this prophecy is directed against Israel’s long line of kings.[7]

God holds them responsible for failing to carry out their responsibility to feed the sheep. He says that they’ve been failing to do that, choosing instead to feed themselves. What this “feeding” means is specified in verse 4. It means strengthening the weak, healing the sick, putting bandages on the injured, bringing back to the fold those who have strayed, seeking out the lost. And it means not ruling over the sheep with unnecessary force and harshness.

The result of the shepherds’ failure to feed the sheep, God says in verse 5, is that the sheep have been “scattered” and have become “food for all the wild beasts.” In other words, while the sheep are culpable for their pitiful condition, for their unfaithfulness to him and his ways of life, God also holds the shepherds of the sheep accountable, too. If God is going to rescue the sheep from their unfaithfulness to him, he's also going to need to do something about their kings who have led the people astray.

God’s Judgment on the Shepherds

That’s what we see in verses 7-10. God declares that he is now against the shepherds of Israel. He will bring them to account since they have failed to do their job, leaving his people, for all intents and purposes, with no shepherd at all (v. 8). When God says, in verse 10, that he will rescue his sheep from the mouths of the shepherds, he’s showing that the problem he’s out to solve is not just a lack of faithfulness in his people but also a lack of leadership for his people.

God’s people need a shepherd because they need to know what faithfulness to him looks like in all kinds of situations. That’s what spiritual leadership is all about. It’s about leading the people of God forward in faithfulness to God in every generation and in every circumstance. While all God’s people are responsible for acting in faithfulness, we all need help to process and to know what faithfulness to God ought to look like so we can do it. That’s what the shepherds are for. But if the shepherds are unfaithful, the whole flock suffers. And God will hold his shepherds accountable for it.

Even still, God will not abandon his people! Look at verses 11-12:

For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

God will be faithful to his sheep, delivering them from their unfaithfulness to him as well as from their own unfaithful shepherds. God will not give up on his sheep!

God’s Replacement for the Shepherds

And when we get to verse 15, we find these reassuring words from the Lord. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” What a promise to the exiles of Israel.

What a promise to you and me.

Some of you have been hurt by unfaithful shepherds. Someone you once trusted to point you to faithfulness has been unfaithful to you. I want you to know that what God promises in Ezekiel 34:15-16 is really good news for you. Do not let the unfaithfulness of others derail you in your confidence in God’s promise to be your Shepherd. It grieves me how many of God’s people have been blown off course by unfaithful pastors. God will hold them accountable. But if that is you, do not let the unfaithfulness of human shepherds drive you away from the sheep, away from the church, away from the rest of God’s people. That’s where all God’s people must be, and that’s where God will lead his people as their Good Shepherd. That’s what verse 16 says. He will “bring back the strayed,” back to the flock that the unfaithful shepherds have devoured.

I know that can be hard to believe if you’ve been hurt by unfaithful shepherds. It must have been hard for Ezekiel’s audience to believe, too. Living in exile, under the curse of their own covenant unfaithfulness, and without the help of faithful shepherds to lead them back, all they had left was the promise of God to bring restoration and justice. Israel—the whole flock of God—was headed toward extinction, and their fate was causing all sorts of problems. Verses 17-24 describe the internal conflicts that are further ravaging the flock. When sheep are without faithful shepherds, the leadership vacuum will be filled by someone.

So God promised not only to deal with the unfaithful shepherds; he would deal with the sheep as well. His promise in verses 20-24 is that he will straighten everything out. God’s people need not only to be delivered from the unfaithfulness of their shepherds; they need to be delivered from their own unfaithfulness, too. And God promised to deliver the faithfulness they need there as well.

Faithfulness Secured

Honestly, it must have been quite difficult to take in everything God was here promising to his people in exile. The same God who had brought upon them the promised covenant curses would somehow turn it all around and once more bring the promised covenant blessings. But how, if his people have not deserved them? How, if they have been unfaithful? How will faithfulness not only be delivered to them but also secured for them? Secured. I mean, it’s one thing for God to deliver his people by his own faithfulness to his sheep. But is it just a vicious cycle? Remember the previous chapter, and God’s insistence that his people do what is just and right, turning from their past wickedness and not trusting in their past righteousness? Is such faithfulness possible?

Remembering the Davidic Covenant

When we get to verse 23, something interesting happens. Because God, who promised himself to be the shepherd of Israel, now says that he “will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” This is a stunning prophecy, not because it promises some kind of resurrection or reincarnation of the long-deceased King David. The reference to David, “a long-standing prophetic tradition” in Israel’s history, “envisions a single person, who may embody the dynasty but who occupies the throne himself.”[8] In other words, Israel is here told to trust in God’s promise to reverse the curse they were under and bring about all the blessings of the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7. Not only would Israel have their king again, but theirs would be a single king, a return to the days before the division of the nation following the death of Solomon.

The message God wanted Ezekiel to communicate to these exiles in Babylonia is that in spite of the collapse of the Davidic kings and in spite of the fall of the royal city, God had not forgotten his covenant with David. Ironically, the faithfulness of God on display in the covenant curses they were under set the stage for them to trust in the faithfulness of God to bring about something dramatic and new.[9]

The Covenant of Peace

God calls this new thing “a covenant of peace” that he will make with his people. We will see the phrase again in Ezekiel 37, where it is further described as “an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 37:26), that is, a peace that will last forever. No vicious cycle. No more threat of a covenant curse. A time when the faithfulness God requires will be delivered and secured forever. Isaiah also spoke of this eternal covenant of peace, in Isaiah 54:10. “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”

There’s only one other place outside Ezekiel and Isaiah where the “covenant of peace” is mentioned, and that’s in Numbers 25:12 where God gives this covenant of peace to Phinehas and his descendants after him “because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.” The covenant of peace, then, is inherently eternal. When it is established, it can never be broken. It is faithfulness secured. The Psalmist, reflecting on this, has a different way of saying it. To be in the covenant of peace means to have it “counted to him as righteousness” (Psa 106:31). In other words, “justified.”

Showers of Blessing

You are ahead of me, aren’t you? This is exactly the claim the New Testament is making: that Jesus, the son of David, is the fulfillment of the promise of Ezekiel 34. He is the “one shepherd” that God has set up over his people. In Jesus, the “covenant of peace” has been made for all of his descendants, for all who are united to him by faith. It was his own zeal for God that made atonement for all God’s flock, the church “which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

It is the church which God has now promised to bless. Indeed, as verse 26 says, “they shall be showers of blessing.” Again, God's promise to save his people is also his promise to restore his people to be a blessing to the world.

And so it has proven true. The past two thousand years of human history testifies to the fact that the world has been blessed immeasurably by the transforming power of Christ and his church.

But there is still more work to be done. As chapter 34 draws to a close, God says his people—his church—will know that he is “the LORD their God with them” (v. 30). He is with us, and has promised never to leave, forsake, or abandon us forever. The curse can no longer fall on those who are under God’s covenant of peace. This is the assurance that is needed for us then to be his “sheep, human sheep of my pasture,” as verse 31 says.

As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). Assured of the eternal life that he gives us (Jn 10:28), we may find in Christ alone that we have been restored to our purpose, hearing his voice so we might follow him, and do his bidding in his world.


[1] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. P. Keith Gammons and Samuel E. Balentine, (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 416.

[2] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 246.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 137.

[6] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 207.

[7] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 161.

[8] Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, 297-98.

[9] Ibid., 300.

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