The leaders of Israel, kings as well as prophets and priests, were sometimes referred to as shepherds because they were responsible for the safety and well-being of God’s people. God condemned the shepherds of Israel and said, “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flock? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock” (Ezekiel 34:2-3). King Zedekiah in particular proved to be a worthless shepherd. When Jerusalem was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, the desperate king fled by night with his army into the desert and left the people of Jerusalem to starve to death (Destruction of Jerusalem 586 B.C.).
Using the metaphor of sheep that were scattered (Ezekiel 34:5), Ezekiel blamed the exile and dispersion of the Jews on a lack of leadership in God’s kingdom. He said, “because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock…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” (Ezekiel 34:8-10). God promised to seek out his flock and to himself become their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-12). He said of the Messiah, “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 34:23-24).
Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd and talked about entering in by the door of the sheepfold (John 10). In order to differentiate himself from the leaders of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out” (John 10:2-3). Jesus’ reference to calling his own by name implied the existence of a relationship, a personal relationship in which a recognition of his voice was possible. The leaders of the Old Testament did not associate with the common or average people with the exception of king David who was himself a shepherd before he became king. It is possible God chose David to be the king of Israel for that very reason.
Jesus’ explanation of his role as the good shepherd pointed to the salvation of his people. He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:7-9). Although Jesus’ reference to being saved included both Jews and Gentiles, his primary concern was the nation of Israel which had been lost due to mismanagement of God’s kingdom. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Ultimately, Jesus’ death served the purpose of setting God’s people free from the political and religious influences that blinded them to God’s love. Ezekiel concluded, “Thus shall they know that I the LORD their God am with them, and that they, even the house of Israel, are my people, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 34:30).