In the previous post, we learned that in Ezekiel 34, God gave Ezekiel a prophetic word condemning the shepherds of Israel, because they selfishly cared for themselves while allowing the sheep to be hurt and preyed upon. But God wasn’t talking about shepherd and sheep. He was using them as a metaphor to depict what the kings of Israel and Judah allowed to happen under their watch for many centuries.
A summary of the history of the nations of Israel and Judah before Ezekiel’s era is a very, very sad story. Every human king of Israel had a rebellious streak, just as we all do. But it was after the reign of the great king Solomon, who himself had numerous issues, that the nation split in two. Ten tribes to the north formed the new nation of Israel, and two tribes to the south formed the new nation of Judah. The kings in the north were basically one bad king after the other. When I say “bad,” what I mean is that those kings in Israel chose not to follow the way of God. They themselves did evil, often motivated by greed and power, and they allowed evil to be done among the people. They led the people to worship foreign gods and idols, sometimes including child sacrifice, and they committed acts of treachery, slavery and injustice. In the end God allowed the foreign superpower Assyria to invade and conquer the northern kingdom of Israel.
In the southern Kingdom of Judah things were better. It was, however, a bit of a roller coaster ride, with bad kings following good ones, and so on. Some were quite wicked like the kings in the north, and some were exceedingly good, like King Josiah or Hezekiah, who made significant reforms to bring the kingdom back to God. But eventually, Judah had a streak of bad kings, which led to Babylon defeating Judah’s capital city, Jerusalem, and exiling 10,000 Jews back to Babylon, including Ezekiel.
During these centuries, whenever there was a bad king and the people would rebel, God would send prophets, pleading with the people and the kings to return to following God’s ways. Sometimes the kings and the people heeded the prophet’s words. Often the kings and people did not. They were too tempted and pressured by the powerful nations around them.
Even after that first wave of exiles was deported to Babylon, including Ezekiel, the people could think, “At least the temple is still intact.” As they sought to answer the question of whether God was keeping his promises, which we talked about in the previous post here, rather than consider their role in breaking the covenant, they looked at the temple standing strong as evidence that things were fine, they could keep doing what they were doing, which was behave terribly.
But that didn’t last long. Babylon eventually decimated Jerusalem, burned the temple and sent the people away. Exiled in Babylon, you can imagine people wondering, “Now, what about the promises of God?” God answers that question in Ezekiel 34, verses 11-15, by answering another question, “Who is the true king of Israel?”
There were plenty of human kings over Israel, but largely that human monarchy had been a disaster. Israel needed to see that God was the true king. In God’s covenant with Israel for centuries past, he said that if the people and kings of Israel would worship, serve and love God as their true king, and if their earthly kings would lead the people in proclaiming and obeying God as the true king, then God would bless them.
But the kings and people did not follow God, so now he proclaims that he is the true king, and he will shepherd his people. This is a theme that pops up in many places in the Bible, perhaps most famously by David in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” In that psalm, while David was the human king, it is the Lord who was his shepherd. David, though he is king, has the right perspective on God.
Now in Ezekiel 34, God is attempting to restore that correct understanding of himself as the Shepherd King of the people. He has some rehab work to do because there were so many bad kings, and the people looked to human kings, as well as foreign kings, to save and protect them, rather than to God. We’ll learn about this remedial work in the next post.