Matthew 9:36 records that when Jesus went on a preaching tour through Galilee, he found the people he met to be “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Most commentators agree that Matthew’s phrasing, “like sheep without a shepherd,” was a deliberate allusion to similar phrasing in Numbers 27:16-17 (“May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”), 1 Kings 22:17, (“Then Micaiah answered, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd…’”), and Zechariah 10:2 (“The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.”).
In all three of these passages, the people of Israel (“sheep”) are found in to be a state of danger and distress that comes from either an absence of godly leadership (“shepherd”), or a corruption of authority placed in leaders. Eduard Schweizer explains, “The image suggests a flock that is tormented and almost totally exhausted, or is at least being led astray and neglected by careless shepherds.”
“Matthew 9:36 thus also implies,” Bible historian Craig Keener says, “that those charged with shepherding Israel, its leaders, were failing.” And theologians John Walvoord and Roy Zuck add, “Like sheep bothered by wolves, lying down and unable to help themselves, and having no shepherd to guide and protect them, the people were maligned by the religious leaders, helpless before them, and wandering about with no spiritual guidance.”
By connecting Israel’s current circumstance with Old Testament warnings about “sheep without a shepherd,” Matthew gave tragic commentary on the religious leaders of his day—yet also offered hope for change in the person of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd.
[BKB, 201; GNM, 233-234, BBC, 72; BKC, 41]
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