Shepherding: A Biblical Motif for Leadership

There may not be a stronger biblical picture

within the whole scope of Scripture

that suggests the responsibilities of leadership

than the concept of “shepherd.”


In the Ancient Near Eastern world “shepherd” was synonymous with kingship.[1] Often a king was shown with a shepherd’s crook, much like what is seen on a sarcophagus of Egyptian pharaohs. Even though Egypt cast a jaundiced eye toward hillside herders (Joseph could not eat at the same table as nomadic shepherds, Genesis 43:32; 46:34)[2], Egyptians still accepted the motif as equivalent with kingship. In Israel, the famous Psalm 23 is a picture of a king from the shepherd-king himself, David (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:6).  Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah prominently equated kings as metaphorical shepherds.  Jesus tied his messianic mission directly to the throne room when he stated “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), declaring his kingship in the face of stone throwing separatists.  Indeed, the interconnectedness of the sheep-shepherd theme throughout Scripture culminates in this statement about The Christ, “for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd” (Revelation 7:16-17).  A symbolic thread of the shepherd-king woven throughout the tapestry of Scripture is the same thread used to create a mantel for Christian leadership.

Yahweh’s leadership is directly referred to as “the shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80:1; cf. Genesis 49:24; Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11).  In the same way, God’s community was considered a “flock” led by Moses in the wilderness (Psalm 77:20).  Succession of regal or priestly leadership was understood as imperative.  Numbers 27:16-17 anticipated human kingship with an oft repeated Old Testament phrase “so that the Lord’s people will not be as sheep without a shepherd” (cf. Matthew 9:36 and Mark 6:34).  But, as always, human beings disappoint.  Indeed Ahab’s poor performance as a shepherd-king is referenced twice in Scripture with the same words (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16).  Examples such as Ezekiel 34 could be multiplied as one of many Old Testament warnings against human shepherds who scatter sheep. The apostle Peter picks up the same concept in 1 Peter 5 showing human shepherds and their responsibility toward “the chief.”  Cultural, historical, and political bridges must be crossed by the twenty-first century interpreter in order to fathom the depths of importance “shepherd” brings to a Christian concept of leadership.[3]

Characteristics of shepherds are cited frequently in the Bible.  Flocks were committed to sons (1 Samuel 17:34) or hirelings (John 10:12-13), who drove the sheep and goats of wealthy owners (Genesis 29:2-13; 37:12-17).  In other situations, the shepherd himself may have been wealthy in flocks (Genesis 13:2).  Shepherds were required to make up losses (Genesis 31:39; Exodus 22:10-13) if sheep fell to injury or carnivorous attack.  Because of the flocks’ overwhelming dependence upon the shepherd, dedication to the sheep could then be summarized by two major traits: provision and protection.

Supply of food and water was a life and death duty of the shepherd.  He sought the best fields for flock feeding (1 Chronicles 4:39-40; Jeremiah 33:12; Zephaniah 2:6-7) with a water supply (Psalm 23:2) and led them there (John 10:4).  Shepherds were committed to individual attention (Jeremiah 33:13; Matthew 18:12; Luke 15:3-7).  Because of the close relationship developed with the sheep (2 Samuel 12:3; John 10:3-4), the herders gave their constant care (Ezekiel 34:4-5; Matthew 9:36; 26:31).  But the close relationship of shepherd to sheep may also have given affective impetus to herders who cared (Psalm 119:176; Isaiah 53:6; Luke 15:3-6).  Indeed, God Himself was seen as provider (Isaiah 40:11; 63:11). Messiah[4] sent from God was to be a shepherd (Ezekiel 37:24; Matthew 18:10-14; Mark 6:34; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4).  As did the Sovereign Shepherd, so supplying God’s people with “food” would become a metaphorical responsibility of the pastor-shepherd in both testaments (cf. Ezekiel 34:7-10; Ephesians 4:11).

In addition to fodder, defending the sheep from lions and bears was just as urgent a task (Judges 14:8; 2 Kings 2:25) as David’s experiences attest (1 Samuel 17:34-36).  A staff was carried for support and a rod[5] for protection (Psalm 23:4; Exodus 21:19; Zechariah 8:4), a sling for attack (1 Samuel 17:40), and dogs were used (Job 30:1)—as was the sling—to keep the sheep together (Ezekiel 34:1-3).  At times, the loss of sheep was inevitable (Amos 3:12).  Jesus Himself suggested that a shepherd may have to give up his life for the sheep (John 10:11).  Hired hands might not have had the same kind of commitment (10:12-13).  Sick sheep were carried on the shoulders of the shepherd (Luke 15:5) while lost sheep demanded special attention (Luke 15:4).  Keeping watch over sheep at night was of grave importance (Luke 2:8).[6] Shallow caves, mouths filled with a stone “gate,” were common nighttime stalls (1 Samuel 24:3).  Open territory required stones alone topped with thorns (Ezekiel 34:14).  In such rustic cases, the shepherd himself might have to provide the door to the pen (John 10:7).  All these precautions were necessary because thieves were want to “break in and steal” (John 10:10) sheep from the pen by climbing over the wall (John 10:1-3) or otherwise accessing the fold.  In this light, the prophets railed on kings who did not take their leadership seriously, leaving people to “wander” (Zechariah 10:2-3) all the time anticipating the great Shepherd King (Micah 7:14).  In the New Testament, Paul would commend ecclesiastical leaders to their shepherding responsibility of protection when he was gone (Acts 20:28-31).

The entire concept of provision and protection through leaders rested upon a personal relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. Isaiah 40:11 registers an important picture, “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.”  Jesus emphasized “knowing” the sheep (John 10:14) and being “known” by the sheep as significant even in that the animals might respond to the shepherd’s “voice” (John 10:4-5).  Similarly, the shepherd knew which sheep did not belong to him (John 10:16).[7] So these divine qualities would be those enjoined when God stated, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15).  God’s people were often referenced as sheep needing a shepherd: one of Jesus’ final commands to Peter (John 21:15-17).

Anyone privy to Hebraic instruction such as Peter would have made the immediate connection to concerns about godless shepherd-leaders.  Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah distained poor leadership.  With a consistent metaphorical reference to shepherding, these guides were considered “senseless,” who did not “inquire of The Lord,” did “not prosper,” and “scattered” their flock (Jeremiah 10:21; cf. 23:1-3).  People look for escort through life that will not make them afraid, terrified, or left behind (23:4) to be “devoured” by enemies (50:7).  Godless shepherds, however, led people astray (50:6), only took “care of themselves” (Ezekiel 34:2), “ruled harshly and brutally” (34:4), while not healing, helping, or searching for the lost (34:3).  Old Testament readers knew full well the judgment to fall on these leaders, not the least of which would be that their “flocks” and “pastures” would be taken away (Ezekiel 34:10; cf. Jeremiah 25:34-36; Zechariah 10:3; 11:3-8, 15-17).  Negative examples of leadership can also be the catalyst for practicing positive biblical principles.

The affirmative New Testament Greek word for “pastor” is “shepherd.”  Ephesians 4:11 identifies “pastors” as the exact word for a literal shepherd of sheep.  Jesus adopts the term in a simile showing the problem “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  Paul uses a metaphorical connection to the real-world term signifying the responsibility of leaders is to deliver responsible care and guidance to the “sheep” (e.g., the people under the shepherd’s care; Acts 20:28-31).  Of all the “I am” statements made by Jesus about Himself, “shepherd” seems to have comparable qualities with “light” as Jesus is The light while followers are to be a light (cf. Philippians 2:14).  Leaders of The Church are to be shepherds responsible to The Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1).  The New Testament description of leaders (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4) warns against the negative, highlighting the positive.  Shepherds were to keep watch, be on their guard, serve as overseers, be willing, be eager, setting examples.

A preponderance of textual evidence concludes that leaders of any age should bind themselves to principles garnered from the shepherd motif in Scripture.  Over and over again the key responsibility is care for people.  Tending to needs, teaching truth in a world of error, self-sacrifice, nursing wounds, and standing ground against potential enemies are just a few of the more obvious universal ideals.  Neglect, abuse, self-serving needs, and abuse of authority are clear distortions of duty given.  While authority and its use is a creational ordinance established in the early chapters of Genesis, twisted motivations may soon produce a sheepfold bereft of a shepherd.

Small Group Interaction

After reading the texts below, brainstorm key characteristics of shepherds, applying textual observations to leadership in the twenty-first century.

Numbers 27:16-17

Jeremiah 3:15; 10:21; 23:1-3

Ezekiel 34:1-10

Acts 20:28-31

1 Peter 5:1-3

How might we summarize statements concerning key categories of shepherding application to leadership in the 21st century?

Using the shepherd-leader principles above, apply Christian thought and practice to our responsibility in evaluation of either a ministry process or persons for whom we care.

State one specific, personal, relevant means by which biblical shepherding will be accomplished under our guidance.

Sarcophagi (Egyptian coffins for pharaohs) are often used by Mark to illustrate the provision-protection emphases of the ANE’n world.  This paper was first written in 2006 and has been copied to be read for other venues since.

[1] Jeremiah 6:3; 23:4; Micah 5:5-6; Nahum 3:18. See also John H. Walton, The Bible background commentary: Old Testament.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006, 721-22 and Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after my own heart: Pastoral traditions and leadership in the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2006, 58-74.

[2] “In a number of cultures sheep are not herded or taken care of; they serve primarily as scavengers…” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament based on semantic domains, 2nd ed.  New York: United Bible Societies, 1989, 518.

[3]While it is beyond the scope of this research to identify each cultural reference to the animals or the herders themselves, the salient features of shepherding will be launched.  In particular, the large content base concerning sheep will be little referenced.

[4]“Messiah” could also be an unbelieving shepherd!  Cyrus, the pagan ruler of Medo-Persia, acted as God’s shepherd-king for His people by allowing them back to Israel proper to rebuild the temple (Isaiah 44:28).

[5] The “rod” and “staff” used for protection were eventually immortalized in symbol by a scepter (cf. Genesis 49:10: Micah 7:14).

[6] Some have wondered why initial revelations of Jesus’ birth were given to shepherds.  While the cultural nuance of shepherd’s being dirty folk, unfit for connections to a king, it might be posited here that God allowed those who bore the vocation of shepherd to see the shepherd-king first: perhaps a subtle reconnection to the messianic Genesis 49:10 (and also, 49:24).

[7] In Matthew 25:32 Jesus says that he will separate believers from unbelievers as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  In Ezekiel 20:37-38 Yahweh emphatically declares that rebels will not return to the promised land after exile noting that they must “pass under my rod”—the means by which a shepherd counted his sheep going into the pen at the end of the day.  Leviticus 27:31-33 also indicates that every tenth sheep was marked with dye applied by the end of the staff denoting those to be sacrificed.

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  1. I have actually attended to a lot of prayer worships and religious leadership training. I might take into responsibility some day, fingers crossed. It’s rather hard to please all those people than God.

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