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Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 – Failed Kings and the Good Shepherd

By Walter Brueggemann

In Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ezekiel ponders a) how his society has come to the disaster of destruction and deportation and, b) how to move forward beyond the disaster. He reflects on the kings in Jerusalem, past and future, and he does so under the metaphor of “shepherd.” The image of “shepherd” is much used in the biblical world for “king,” an image that permits great elasticity in his interpretive commentary.


In verses 1-9, Ezekiel concludes that exile has come about for Israel because of poor kings in Jerusalem:

You shepherds of Israel have been feeding yourselves…so they were scattered.

The linkage of shepherds/scattered exhibits the way in which bad leadership brings disaster. The shepherds have been self-indulgent, coveting the riches (mutton, wool) of the flock, but giving no heed to the needs of the flock. The result is sheep left vulnerable to the “wild animals” of imperial threat.

After that judgment, Ezekiel turns toward the future and God’s own resolve for a new regime of good leadership. In the imagination of Ezekiel, God has decided that if “you want anything done right, you must do it yourself.” Thus God resolves to be the “good shepherd,” that, is, the good king in Israel. Utilizing the metaphor of shepherd, the new governance of God will be for the common good. God will not be self-indulgent as the previous kings have been, but will be fully and attentively concerned for the vulnerable flock that is Israel. Because of God’s new resolve, Israel will have as new future that is no longer defined by the failed leadership in Jerusalem. More than that, this new king will destroy “the fat and the strong” (v. 16). The phrase may refer to rapacious leaders in Jerusalem or even to the imperial threat that comes against Judah. Either way, God will protect Israel in time to come.


In the second paragraph of our reading, there is a remarkable transition in the argument. In verses 20-22, God will engage in direct, personal rule. But then, in verses 23-24, without missing a beat, God resolves to designate a new human ruler over Israel. Thus the “direct rule” of God will be entrusted to [a] future human ruler.

We note three things about this promised ruler. First, he will be of the lineage of David. The Davidic dynasty so harshly condemned in the first verses will now be restored and renovated for effective governance. Second, this new ruler is not called “king,” but is a “prince.” That is, God remains the real king, and the human, Davidic prince will be regent to effect God’s good governance. Third, the new leader will do the required work of a shepherd and feed the flock. That is, the new king will not be self-indulgent as the previous ones. Thus God is going to reconstitute the public order that will be in contrast to the old, failed order.


In Christian churches that follow the revised common lectionary, we read this text on Christ the King Sunday. While Ezekiel surely had in mind the immediate restitution of the Davidic house in Jerusalem, it was an easy interpretive move in the early church to take this Davidic reference as an anticipation of Jesus. He is to be the new ruler and he will be the good shepherd, and care for the flock of Israel. He will seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Luke 10:3-7), and he will provide an “abundant life” for the flock (John 10:10). That of course is exactly what the early church saw in Jesus the new king who forgave, cleansed, healed, and fed, that is, who engaged in restorative leadership. Thus the “messianic” hope of Israel for a new king was seen to be fulfilled in Jesus. He gave himself for the common good and had not a shred of self-indulgence.


The contemporeneity of this text invites a focus on leadership, for we in our society are in an acute leadership crisis. When we take in turn Ezekiel’s judgment on failed kings and Ezekiel’s vision for a new shepherd-king, we may bring the text close to our own society in crisis. There is no doubt that our society is now governed by an oligarchy of the wealthy who not only control all the branches of government but who have established an alliance between corporate power and government oversight to the great benefit of the wealthy and the powerful. Thus tax law, regulatory agencies, and judicial decisions are all administered by the “fat and strong” to their own benefit and to the neglect of the “hungry sheep” who are without resources.


There is no doubt, moreover, that such self-aggrandizing leadership has created the socio-political, economic crisis now before us.  Regulators have been deliberately asleep at the switch while the banking community, the insurance companies, and the arms dealers, in collusion with powerful media and educational institutions, have appropriated all of the resources for themselves. The current discussion about taxes is all about protecting the wealth of those who shrug off any responsibility for society, while shifting that burden to those with fewer resources. The protection of such wealth echoes the ancient shepherds who disregarded the sheep, the ancient kings who did not notice the coming “hell in a hand-basket.” Consequently the public infrastructure is nearly in collapse with a loss of schools, libraries, good medical services, etc. etc., to say nothing of the environmental crisis, because regulation might “hurt the economy.” Indeed, the only bills Congress can readily pass are “free trade agreements” that promise more commercial income for the big players. All members of the oligarchy can agree to only that much!


It is not difficult to conclude that the current national Occupy movement is an abrasive response to the economic injustice perpetrated by self-indulgent “shepherds” in the corporate world. Indeed, if Ezekiel were among us now, he might well conclude that the emergence of the “99%” is a scourge from God that intends to expose and bring down social policies, practices, and institutions that are out of sync with God’s will for shalom.

But the news of Ezekiel is that because of God’s resolve, mediated for Christians through Jesus, the Son and regent of God, it need not be so. As Israel need not have poor self-serving kings, so a democratic society need not suffer poor outcomes from an exploitative oligarchy. The promissory nature of Ezekiel’s oracles articulates what good leadership looks like…in government, in corporations, all through the private sector. That rule consists in,


Seeking the lost,

Bring back the strayed,

Binding up the injured,

Strengthening the weak,

Feeding the hungry.

In a word, good leadership consists in the restoration of the common good so that all members of the community, strong and weak, rich and poor, may live together in a common shalom of shared resources. The text is a powerful reminder of what might be; it is at the same time a summons to a political will for leadership that is not occupied, through ideological cant, with feathering its own nest. It is not enough to recite, in pious tones, the twenty-third Psalm about “The Lord is my shepherd.” What is envisioned (and required) is the formation of a different leadership that has in purview all members of the community. Ezekiel knew that is the only way to have a future that does not replicate the failed past. It is still, among us, the only way!


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