Will God keep his promises?
In the previous five-part series on the blog, we learned that God had made very clear promises to his people Israel. In Ezekiel chapter 33 we learned that Babylon invaded and destroyed Jerusalem. As the people of Israel looked around the smoking rubble of their city, they wondered if those promises were empty. You and I know that feeling.
How often do we look around at our world and wonder about the promises of God? Are things going on in the world today that make you wonder, “God, where are you?” Your wonderings might stem from international events, like North Korea reportedly launching a hypersonic missile, or from Russia threatening to invade Ukraine, such as what the news is telling us as I write in the first week of 2022. Or our unsettledness might be due to national events, like the political and racial tension shaking our nation for years. Many times, our doubt about God’s promises flows from personal events. A health concern, a job loss, a relationship struggle, leaving us wondering, does God care? Is he real? We can doubt. Though we might feel guilty about the doubt, if we start talking to people about it, what we find is that it is quite natural to feel doubt, to wonder if God will keep his promises. When we talk about it with others, we realize that many other people doubt too. Doubt is a common human experience.
In Ezekiel chapter 33, God tells Ezekiel that the people 900 miles away in Israel were saying that since God gave possession of the land to one man, their forefather Abraham, then of course he would give them, a nation of millions, repossession of the land.
When they speculate about how God should act, the people are doing theology. They are wondering, will God keep his promises? God’s clear answer in chapter 33 was, “You’ve got to be kidding me, people. This situation you’re in has nothing to do with me keeping my promises. Instead you’ve gotten yourselves into this situation because of your persistent choice to rebel against me.” God is right, of course. The people absolutely did behave poorly, and they were now facing the consequences of their behavior, as God allowed the city of Jerusalem to be destroyed.
What next? Have the people forfeited the promises of God? Is there any hope? What should they do? By the end of chapter 33, God has not answered that question. But in chapter 34, God gives Ezekiel a prophetic word that will.
In verse 1, we read that this is another prophecy God is giving Ezekiel to speak to the 10,000 Jews who he lived with in exile in Babylon. Then in verse 2, God asks Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Who are the shepherds of Israel? Is God talking about the many people who had the actual job of shepherding sheep?
We hear about shepherds every Christmas. The shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem were shocked by a surprise visit from angels declaring that the Messiah, the savior of Israel, had been born just a short walk away from them in the town. Those shepherds were literally sheep herders.
I live in a community where there are flocks of sheep in many of the farms around us. When my dog and I are out running on one local road, Stumptown Road, we regularly pass a flock of sheep that are contained by fencing. If we’re on that side of the road, and sheep are close to the fence, my dog will lunge at them. The sheep jump back in fright. But the threat is not real, as my dog is on a leash, and the sheep are safe behind the fence. In Lancaster, we have many flocks of sheep, but we have neither a profession of sheep-herding nor a class of workers that herd sheep. Instead farmers own flocks of sheep, and they keep them fenced in. Ours is a very different practice of shepherding than that in Jesus’ and Ezekiel’s day. It is also very different from shepherding in many parts of the world still today.
When my family lived in Kingston, Jamaica, a man would walk his cattle through the streets of the city looking for places for them to graze. It could have just as easily been a herd of sheep. Imagine, a herd of animals in the middle of the city! Our neighborhood was located up the side of a fairly steep hill, so the man would herd the cattle up our road, into our lawn where they could eat and do their other business. Then he say to us, “Beg you a couple limes?” and when we nodded, he would grab some from our lime tree, and once the cattle were finished, he would keep them moving on up the road to find another yard.
In Ezekiel’s day sheep herding was like that. It was far more nomadic than the fenced in sheep I run by on Stumptown Road. In ancient times, as in many places around the world still today, the flocks of sheep wander across vast stretches of land in search for grass to eat, water to drink. Shepherds would sometimes follow them, sometimes guide and direct them, and also protect them from theft, from predators, and from natural pitfalls. Shepherds would bind up wounds, train the sheep how to move and not wander off. If and when a sheep walked away from the flock, it was in exponentially increased danger. So a shepherd was to pay close attention, count the sheep, and know the sheep. The sheep were the source of the shepherd’s livelihood.
In Ezekiel 34, verses 2-10, God says the shepherds of Israel have done a horrible job. They have not cared for the sheep, while at the same time they have cared for themselves. I find it fascinating that God calls the sheep, “his sheep.” He had given the shepherds of Israel the task of stewardship of his sheep, and he is incensed at how selfishly the shepherds acted, leaving the sheep in a position that was the opposite of flourishing. God says that his herd of sheep are now on the verge of being eradicated. The sheep have been scattered over the whole earth, preyed upon by wild animals.
But God is not talking about shepherds and sheep.
Check back in the next post where we’ll learn who he is actually referring to.