The Shepherds of Israel

I am a teacher in my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint congregation. The following article summarizes some of my feelings on a few chapters from the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. This lesson was presented on 23 November 2014 and corresponds with lesson 43 in the Gospel Doctrine class.

Who is Ezekiel?

This week and next we’re going to study the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel, whose name means, “May God Strengthen Him.” Let me give you just a little background information because there truly is just a little background information.

The Bible doesn’t say much about him except that he was the son of Buzi (I wonder if his mother was named Ruth?). He was called “the priest” and whether or not that meant he was from the tribe of Levi and held the Aaronic priesthood and officiated at the Jerusalem Temple, we’re just not sure. His ancestral home was in a village called Anathoth, which is about three miles north of Jerusalem. He was among the 10,000 high-class Judeans (along with King Jeconiah and Daniel) who were taken captive on 16 March 597 BC and sent to Babylonia. He was married at that time, and about 25 years old when he was forcibly removed from his home. In Mesopotamia, he and his wife lived in a home on the bank of the Chebar River which was northwest of Babylon. After they were there for about five years, Ezekiel was called by the Lord to be a prophet. You can read about his call to the ministry in the first couple of chapters of his book. He continued with this mission for the next 22 years. His wife died when he was about 34 years old, and the record isn’t clear when or how he died. But I’m pretty sure he did.

There were two other prophets at his time who also labored among the Jews. Daniel, was a prophet to the royalty and the movers and shakers in Babylon, the capital city, where he studied and taught in the courts of the kings, starting with Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah, who we learned about last week, was a prophet to the people who remained back in Jerusalem, at least for 10 more years, before they, too, were carried away captive, disbursed, and their city was destroyed and their once holy temple was completed desecrated.

Ezekiel mission field was to be a prophet to the captive Jews in the area around Babylon, which we call Babylonia. He job was to preach the word of God and cry repentance to the slaves and the exiles in the suburbs. He lived and toiled among them, sharing in the poverty and despair that comes with being a conquered nation. It wasn’t a glamorous job, and sometimes the Lord asked him to teach the people in some pretty unique, theatrical ways, including using pantomime, but he did what he was told to do.

This has nothing to do with the lesson, and I don’t really want to disparage mimes, after all it is an interesting craft and these people put lots of time into honing their spatial skills, but it seems like they aren’t well-liked now-a-days. Does anybody else in this room dislike mimes? How about clowns? Just sayin….

Now let me give you a quick overview of the Book of Ezekiel. Chapters 1-24 are essentially words of doom for Judah and Jerusalem, words which they fully deserve for breaking their covenants and failing to repent. But there is a lot of great counsel in there, counsel we will review today. Chapters 25-32 contains words of doom for the foreign nations who contributed to the downfall of Israel. These nations included Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistine, Tyre and Egypt. And chapters 33-48 contain words of hope for Israel and Judah. Wonderful promises for anyone who repents and desires to have their blessings restored to them.

So let’s open up the scriptures and talk about a few of these teachings. Today, as usual, we just have time to skim along the surface, but I would recommend a deep dive. If you just read the scriptures, rather than studying them and pondering them, it is sort of like taking a boat right along the coast of an ocean, there’s lots up ups and downs and you might turn pale and get sick. But if you stop the boat, drop the anchor, and put on your snorkel or scuba gear, then jump into the water with gusto, you’ll experience a whole new world, often full of life, and yet very tranquil. In fact, it takes your breath away—literally.

Just make sure you stay away from the sharks, sting rays, and jelly fish. And what I mean by that is if, during your studies, you turn to non-scriptural commentaries written by our brothers and sisters, like those found in bookstores or on the Internet—which I do quite often—you need to be careful. While there are many, many good sources out there, produced by many people of many different faiths—many produced with the very best of intentions—you still need to have the Holy Ghost with you to separate the good from the bad, the truth from the error. There are too many out there willing to preach all sorts of false doctrine and man-made philosophies. If you don’t have the Spirit as you’re studying, then immediately stop what you’re doing, open up a dialog with Heavenly Father, and go back to the scriptures until you find the peace, joy, and light that only comes from God.

With that said, let’s jump into the lesson. We’re going to talk about three or four topics that Ezekiel, and the people from the Sunday School correlation committee, thought was important. And the first one has to do with herding sheep.

Becoming a shepherd

Now I’m not an expert in animal husbandry. I’m not a rancher. I wasn’t even a member of the FFA or 4H as a kid. I appreciate a good woolen coat though. And I also like sheep cheese, though, like Feta, Roquefort (roke fir), Ricotta, and my favorite, Pecorino Romano—ummm. Technically these should be called ewe’s cheeses, because they come from the milk of the female sheep, the ewe, but calling delicious cheese “ewe” is just baaaad.

But what I know about sheep I’ve learned from Wikipedia and General Conference. So let me give you a few sheep facts, and I do so rather sheepishly. A typical flock of sheep contains about 40 to 80 animals, although they can be much smaller and much larger in size. In fact, the Savior mentioned a flock of 99 plus one sheep. Maybe 100 sheep is the ideal flock size for one person to handle, I don’t really know.

Back in olden times, if you were in the sheep business, you most likely owned your own flock. If you were a woman, perhaps you were named Mary. You were probably present at their birth. You raised your little lambs for 10 years or so, until they finally ended up in a stew pot. You cared for them, nurtured them, and may have even given them names. You fed them, watered them, healed their injuries, de-wormed them.

During the day you led them to green pastures where they could find the grass, alfalfa, clover, and other broad-leaf or flowering plants. Because they have four parts of their stomachs to fill (rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum), they would graze for about three to four hours in the morning, then rest and chew their cud for another three to four hours, and then eat for another three to four hours in the late afternoon, and then sit back for another three or four hours and watch a football game.

At night, you placed them into a sheep-fold, an enclosed area with tall fences, usually with thorns on top, where you, and very often, other shepherds, would place all the sheep to keep them safe from predators, especially thieves, wolves and dogs. Then, after taking turns with the other shepherds in watching your flocks throughout the night, just before dawn, you would go to the gate of the sheep-fold and call your sheep. Your sheep knew your voice, they trusted your voice, they knew that you would take care of them, and so they quickly came out from amongst the other sheep and exited the pen. They won’t follow a stranger. They weren’t even branded on the outside—they were marked on the inside. They knew you and you knew them really well because you spent lots and lots of time with them.

In fact, because you valued your sheep—because you loved your sheep—you would do everything you possibly could to keep them together. If one adventurous sheep went astray, or if one inadvertently got lost or left behind, you would leave the flock someplace safe and go out in search of it. Of course this presumes you know them well enough to tell when one is missing. Then, when danger came, which it always did, you would do everything possible to defend your flock, even risking your own life at times. It was quite a commitment to be a shepherd. But that is what a shepherd does. Or that is what a good shepherd does.

But not every shepherd is good. Some are not so good. Some are more sheep herders than shepherds. The sheep herder is usually dozing lazily on the back of a horse at the back of his flock while his dogs scare the sheep into submission. Rather than leading out in front and knowing that the sheep will follow you because of your relationship of trust, sheep herders lag behind and use fear and intimidation and coercion. They are usually just trying to earn a paycheck, and they certainly won’t risk life and limb to protect the flock. The sheep are simply the means to an end.

So now that we know a little more about sheep and shepherds and sheep herder; it is time to turn this into a metaphor and apply it to the people in the scriptures and then the people in this room.

For the children of Israel, leadership was essentially entrusted to three groups of people, the prophets, the priests, and the kings. In Ezekiel’s day, most of the people who were entrusted with leadership responsibilities had gone rogue, and had become false prophets, self-serving priests, and tyrannical kings. They had become bad sheep herders. In fact, they had endangered their flocks—the people of Judea—to such an extent that those under their care were taken away into captivity, sold as slaves, murdered, raped, pillaged, plundered, and scattered everywhere. These were definitely bad leaders. And Ezekiel was commanded by the Lord to talk about these leaders by comparing them to shepherds. That’s what we find in Chapter 34. Let’s open up the scriptures and see what’s in there.

Ezekiel 34: The Shepherds of Israel

Ezekiel 34

1 And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

2 Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

3 Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.

4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

5 And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.

6 My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.

I love that part. The Lord is saying that these are His sheep and they are part of His flock. Truly, they are. They were bought with a very steep price and belong entirely to Him. Let’s continue with verse 10.

10 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; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.

So the bad sheep herders are going to be fired. The false prophets, the self-serving priests, and the tyrannical kings will be out of a job. Everything that they worked for will be lost. Everything that they spent their money on will be taken away. Their power and authority will be terminated. And they will go hungry. Both physically and spiritually and emotionally and socially.

But here’s the good part.

11 ¶For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.

12 As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.

13 And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country.

14 I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.

15 I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God.

16 I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment.

Did you notice the active verbs in there? You see words like search, seek, deliver, gather, feed, bind up, and strengthen.

Truly Jesus is the Good Shepherd. There is none that is as good as He. He has demonstrated this willingness to do whatever it takes to save Father’s children over and over and over again. The scriptures are full of story after story. Our own family histories and our own lives, if we look carefully and honestly, are also full of story after story. This is an absolute reality that cannot be denied: Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

This would be a nice place to stop, but the Lord, through Ezekiel, has more to say. But this time, he’s not talking to the shepherds. He’s talking to the sheep. The “baaaad” sheep.

17 And as for you, O my flock, thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep [see the footnotes], between the rams and the he goats.

18 Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunk of the deep waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet?

19 And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.

20 ¶Therefore thus saith the Lord God unto them; Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat cattle and between the lean cattle.

21 Because ye have thrust with side and with shoulder, and pushed all the diseased with your horns, till ye have scattered them abroad;

22 Therefore will I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

What’s the Lord saying here about the sheep? What are they doing wrong?

There may be some sheep in the flock, perhaps even some people in this room, who might be happily following the Good Shepherd but are eating from the green pastures just to satisfy their own needs. They don’t care about the other sheep. They aren’t willing to go home teaching, to accept a calling, or to set up and take down chairs. They may make a mess, whether literally or figuratively, and not clean it up. But rest assured, the Lord, even though He is extremely merciful and extremely charitable, He will still judge us by how we treat other people. So the lesson from this passage of scripture is that we really ought to swap out selfishness for selflessness, and get over ourselves once and for all.

Now we’re at the good part of this chapter. The part where we learn what makes Jesus the Good Shepherd and what He’ll do for those who follow Him. It even talks about what He will do with His flock during the Millennium. But we’re not going to take the time right now to read it. That’s your homework. But I promise you, there are some wonderful insights and promises and blessings in there. It really is the best part of this story. So please take some time to read them and savor them, and figure out if you really want them for yourselves, or, I should say, for those around you.

There’s one last thing I’d like to bring out before we move on. In this metaphor we are not just the sheep, but we are also the shepherds.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:

“Anyone serving in any capacity in the Church in which he is responsible for the spiritual or temporal well-being of any of the Lord’s children is a shepherd to those sheep. The Lord holds his shepherds accountable for the safety (salvation) of his sheep” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 710).

And, to take it one step further, to go the extra mile, let’s apply this principle to our own families.

If you are a parent, do you shepherd your children or do you herd them? Do you lead by example, giving your children every reason to think that you love them, care about them, and will do everything you can to keep them safe? Then, if one of them goes astray—which they all do from time-to-time—do they know that you’ll be searching for them, praying for them, and will welcome them back with open arms?

Or do you herd your children with force, fear, coercion, condemnation, criticism, blame, bribery, or other manipulative and devilish tactics?

If you’re like me, honestly, you’ve done a little of both from time-to-time in the past. But what matters is what you’re going to do today and in the future. What matters is whether we’re going to turn and repent and improve and forgive and move on. In fact, that’s the very next thing Ezekiel is going to teach us today.

Ezekiel 18: Repentance and forgiveness

Let’s turn to Ezekiel 18:21–32.

Ezekiel 18:21–32

21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

22 All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.

By the way, the word “repentance” isn’t used very often in the Old Testament. In fact, that specific work is used only once in Hosea 13:14. But its synonyms, “turn” and “return” are used over and over again.

23 Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

Our Savior loves us immensely; deeper than we can comprehend. Can you imagine how much it hurts Him when someone He loves willingly chooses to divorce himself or herself from the family of God and suffer the consequences of their actions? I’m sure each of us have experienced this loss in our own families, or are currently experiencing it, or will shortly experience it. Now multiply that times a few billion and you can imagine just how painful that can be for Jesus, and our Father and Mother in Heaven. Agency is a two-edge sword and can sometimes be quite damaging, even fatal, to one’s soul.

24 ¶But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.

Whoa, did he just say what I think he said? Even if you’ve done wonderful and great things in your life, if you ultimately stop doing those things and choose to sin instead, then none of those things will have mattered. Apparently there is no credit and debit system in heaven that you can bank on if you decide to stop living righteously. You aren’t trying to do enough good deeds to overcome your bad deeds. But is that fair? Well, let’s see.

25 ¶Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?

26 When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die.

27 Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.

28 Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

What’s another way of expressing this principle?

Most of us, at some time or another, have made a choice to sin. We deliberately chose sin over righteousness. The eternal laws declare that with every sin and transgression and crime there is a penalty attached. If that penalty has not been paid, if the debit is not replaced with a credit, if we do not do the time for our crime, we cannot return to a sinless state. We cannot be released from our spiritual prisons. We cannot become clean again, and no unclean thing can return to the presence of God. So we either have to pay that penalty ourselves, or, if we’re really loved by someone, that person will pay for it themselves and bail us out. That person, of course, is Jesus. But Jesus has also set some terms that we have to willingly follow to get out on probation. They aren’t easy terms—but they are all far easier and far healthier than the alternative. So we, if we choose to accept our Redeemer’s offer, have also chosen to follow his terms.

Once we put our hand to the plow, there is no turning back. Once we’ve seen the light—which we all have to one degree or another—if we willingly choose to ignore that light and hide in the darkness, the foundational principle of agency will always trump mercy. When we make a choice, we are always choosing its consequence. We will always inherit the kingdom of glory we truly desire. The Lord has no choice but to respect our agency, because we are sentient, intelligent beings who have partaken of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. We know the difference between right and wrong. We are accountable for our own actions. We will always reap what we sow—that is an eternal truth.

Elder Bruce McConkie taught the following:

“Personal accountability for sin lies at the very root of the plan of salvation. Every man is accountable for his own sins, not for those of another. Men are judged for the deeds they do in the flesh, not for those of another. Men work out their own salvation, not the salvation of another. This is what the plan of salvation is all about—every man being judged according to his own works and every man being awarded his own place in the kingdoms that are prepared” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 100).

Fortunately, the being who loves us the most, our Good Shepherd, will also be our judge, and he will be as merciful as he can be without violating the demands of justice.

30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.

31 ¶Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.

I am so thankful for second chances. And third chances. And 7 x 70 chances. Hopefully I won’t need all of those chances, but if I do, I know that when I turn back to God, He will always be there and give me light, and peace, and joy. I know that is true. I’ve experienced it time and time again as have all of you. I am so thankful to have such a Good Shepherd “who maketh me to lie down in green pastures, who leadeth me beside the still waters, who restoreth my soul.”

Now, speaking of restoration, let’s turn to one more chapter. Chapter 37.

Ezekiel 37: The Restoration

In this chapter, Ezekiel tells about a vision he had where the Lord sat him down in a valley that was completely filled with millions of dry bones. The Lord tells him to prophesy to the bones about how they will one day be restored. The Lord then fulfills this prophecy and causes the bones to be covered with ligaments, and muscles, and fat, and skin, and filled with the breath of life until they become, once again, a living soul. Soon the entire valley is filled with a living and breathing army.

So what is going on here? What is Ezekiel witnessing?

There are actually two things going on. The vision symbolizes both the Resurrection and the restoration of the children of Israel to their promised lands. Both the ones on earth, and the ones in heaven. Here’s how the Lord explains it. Let’s turn to verses 11–14.

11 ¶Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,

14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.

There’s also another interpretation of this vision. It is also an analogy that describes a renewal of the “hope” of Israel referenced in verse 11. Remember that the people of Ezekiel’s day were captive and in bondage and had most of their hope beaten out of them. In fact, their hope was about as dead as the great army of bones that Ezekiel saw. But the Savior can bring their hope back to life again. All they have to do is hear and obey the word of the Lord!

How has the Savior renewed your hope? How has He given you life?

In my life, there have been a number of times when I’ve been depressed and have felt hopeless. Whether it was because of spiritual weakness, or financial pressures, or problems in the family, or a myriad of health issues, or just the general feeling like the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it—all of these things can lead to a feeling of hopelessness. But I’ve learned that that is just stinkin’ thinkin’. I am just not thinking straight. I am forgetting about the Savior. He is the source of hope. Because of Him I can be forgiven. Because of Him I know how to live a better life. Because of Him I know that I will live again. Because of Him I have been endowed and taught what I need to know to return to His presence, and one day, be resurrected with a glorified body of flesh and bones. My faith give me hope. And my hope gives me love. And when I treat others the way the Savior treats me, all things will be just dandy.

There’s just one more thing to point out before I end today. And that’s found in Ezekiel 37:15–28.

Ezekiel 37:15–28

15 ¶The word of the Lord came again unto me, saying,

16 Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:

17 And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.

What is this stick? What does it symbolize?

The stick in these verses refers to a type of wooden writing tablet commonly used in Ezekiel’s day. Sometimes they would cover it in wax and then they can write on it over and over again if they needed to.

Has this scripture been fulfilled?

Yes! Elder Boyd Packer said:

The stick or record of Judah—the Old Testament and the New Testament—and the stick or record of Ephraim—the Book of Mormon, which is another testament of Jesus Christ—are now woven together in such a way that as you pore over one you are drawn to the other; as you learn from one you are enlightened by the other. They are indeed one in our hands. Ezekiel’s prophecy now stands fulfilled. (Conference Report, Oct. 1982, 75; or Ensign, Nov. 1982, 53).

I’d love to hear exactly how our scriptures—all of our scriptures—have blessed your life. Obviously we don’t have time right now, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear about these things? I mean, sometimes we forget how much the Word of God can help in real and practical ways. Sometimes, we all need to a reminder that most of Father’s children throughout the history of the world, did not have immediate access to written scriptures. It is a blessing that I’m afraid we don’t often think about. But we need to express how we feel about the scriptures to others, especially those that might be struggling with them. Which, is all of us, from time-to-time. So I’d love to hear how you feel about them sometime. I suppose that’s why we have regular testimony meetings. I suppose that’s why we write out our testimonies and store them in our journals, in our letters to missionaries, and in our family records. I suppose that’s why we have family home evenings. I suppose that’s why we’re all called to be teachers and—shepherds.

But this scripture also has another meaning. It isn’t just talking about scriptures. It also refers to the latter-day reunion of the kingdoms of Judah and Joseph (Israel).

In verse 21-22 we learn that the children of Israel will be gathered together and united into one kingdom with the Savior as King. In verse 23 we learn the people will be cleansed and purified. In verse 24 we see that they will observe the Lord’s statutes. In verse 25 we see that they will dwell in a promised land? And in verse 26-28 we see that they will have the opportunity to have a temple in their midst.

Brothers and sisters it is my testimony that we are living in the days when these prophecies are being fulfilled. And in the future, they will be fulfilled on an even grander scale as the Millennial kingdom is established and Jesus, our Good Shepherd, will personally gather his sheep, restore them to the green pastures and the lands of their inheritance, and walk among them, and feed them, and water them, and heal them, and forgive them, and protect them, and love them. May be live in such a way that we can be worthy of such a blessing! And this week, as we remember our blessings, let’s be thankful for great prophets, like Ezekiel, whose words will bring us closer to Christ.

The Prophet Ezekiel

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