Good News and Fair Warning

Today’s reading is from the Prophet Ezekiel, one of the really interesting prophets. Ezekiel was among the first wave of refugees forced from Jerusalem and relocated to Babylon in 597 BC. No doubt he had other plans for his life. He certainly was not planning on becoming a stranger in a strange land nor becoming a prophet to the people in exile. Ezekiel’s problems started back 1 Samuel 8.

Samuel was the last of the Judges and getting old. His sons naturally would have assumed the mantle of leadership, but “His sons did not follow his example, but looked to their own gain, accepting bribes and perverting justice” (1 Sam 8:3). It is at this point that the people came to Samuel and asked, “Now that you are old, and your sons do not follow your example, appoint a king over us, like all the nations, to rule us.” You should read the remainder of 1 Sam 8. It is a tale of “be careful what you ask for.”

Now five years into exile the first wave has the opportunity to ask themselves, “How did we get here? Aren’t we God’s special people? Won’t he rescue us like he did our ancestors in Egypt?” I suspect that somewhere in there, people were questioning the moment when they asked for a king and wanted to be like the other nations instead of God’s special people.

And that brings us to our reading from Ezekiel 34 and prophecy “against the shepherds of Israel.” We are not talking about actual shepherds, but rather the kings of Judah and Israel. It was a motif of the writing of the age to speak about their kings as a shepherd charged with care of the flock, not their own. The prophet Jeremiah uses the same imagery in Jeremiah 23:1-6. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel does not parse his words:

Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.” (Ezekiel 34:2b-4)

In the verses that make up the remainder of today’s reading, God describes the people of Israel as “my sheep” as well as several other references to possession. This is good news! God still honors and maintains His side of the covenant. Ezekiel 34 stands at the beginning of a series of oracles of salvation, the first of which announces the reestablishment of God’s kingship over his people: “For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Ez 34:11) What was done is 1 Sam 8, begins to be undone in Ez 34 in the promise that God will be the Good Shepherd replacing the whole history of bad shepherds of His people. Jesus fulfills and announces that promise’s fulfillment: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14)

Consider the whole of the earthly ministry of Jesus in the light of the words charging the kings: “You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost.” One easily hears the echoes of Matthew 25 when kings, leaders and the people stand before the King of Kings, and are judged in what mattered to God.

Today’s reading is Good News and fair warning.

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