Sure, there are some great verses that always get pulled out and posted somewhere (or made into a sign at Hobby Lobby), but if you try to read one of the books from start to finish, unless you have been taught about their structure, it can feel like you are being thrust into a movie filled with battle scenes, destruction, mythic creatures, judgements, legal proceedings, and declarations of love, switching from one scene to another without a predictable pattern.
Reading through the prophetic books of the Old Testament can be a daunting task.
Part of the issue is simply that we are expecting one type of writing style when in reality there are many styles represented, and they aren’t in chronological order. The literary elements that you learned back in high school are very much in play – and when you read it like that .. some of it makes more sense. Or at least it helps you realize that when Jeremiah says something like “Every head is shaved, and every beard cut off; every hand is slashed and every waist is covered with sackcloth” (Jer 48:37) – it doesn’t mean this is true of every single person. You are able to understand that he’s exaggerating – but for sure, people are mourning, they are devastated, and it’s not just a family. It’s an entire people group he is talking about (in this case, the Moabites)
One book I’d recommend that will give you a good overview of the types of writing styles you see across the prophetic books is “Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic” by D. Brent Sandy.
I know some trains of thought hold that since we are living in New Testament times, we don’t have to pay THAT much attention to the Old Testament. I do not agree with that at all. It might seem that the Old Testament doesn’t have anything to do with our world today, and yes, many of the stories and prophetic words address historical issues with nations of bygone eras. Yet there are also portions that, if you study them from a human failure/flourishing perspective,we can easily find ourselves and our world in the stories.The text can then also inform our understanding of what it should look like as God’s kingdom works itself out in our world.
Trust me….the frustration with leaders, the pain of national struggle and moral failure, the injustice…. It’s there in the text just like it is here in our world today.
Yet what I am fascinated with again, after studying John 10, is something from my final paper in a class a year ago.
The prophetic books are full of passages scattered throughout that look forward to “one day” when all things are made right. Taken together, they yield a prophetic hope of what God would do and how it would look…and let me tell you.. it was a good picture. Like really good… for EVERYONE.
It’s this prophetic hope that the Israelites clung to when they were refugees returning to their homeland with nothing. They were discouraged, because they suffered due to choices of those that had gone before them, and now they were left with the rubble and difficult work of rebuilding. They were trying to remember who they were, and who their God was, and what He had said of them. There was discord between those that left and those that stayed, so you had some disagreements even within the community as it was being rebuilt.
Read that again – slowly – and think of it in global terms, not just a western-American-first-world mindset. Especially if you have never had to worry about a place to live (like me). People experience this today all the time.
So they remembered. They remembered the promise of God to their ancestors, words collected over the past generations, and the promise of something better. One day, God would come for them – and when He did:
- They would have a good king, one that would rule them well, like David (and in his family line of course)
- Their enemies would be conquered!
- They would once again be a shining example that would draw the world to Yahweh!
- Everyone would sit under their own vine and fig tree (prosperity and blessing for the land)
- The old would live a long time and kids wouldn’t die young (good health)
- Justice and righteous living would run down like water from the mountains (no one taking advantage of another, honest leaders, everything fair/equitable)
- Peace all around in community. People caring for each other!
- Laughter and dancing, celebrations galore!
- Everyone would know the Lord, and he would teach them!
- Everything would be holy and good again, not stained by sin!
- Sin would be forgiven forever (release of burden and fear)
Pretty big list huh? Prosperity, health, peace, forgiveness and freedom. All the nations coming to Yahweh and living rightly in his ways. On top of that, there were all these other documents showing even more of what people thought it would look like when Yahweh returned (called extra biblical texts). These were written in the timeline between the last book of the Old Testament and the time when Jesus was born. What you end up with is this larger than life picture, one that I’m not sure I fully grasped until now.
Sure, I knew Jesus fulfilled prophecies. But I think there is a tendency to reduce the “bigness” of expectation to just a list, thus reducing the level of impact their fulfillment should have for us. Yet if you can take time to marinate a bit in the world into which the prophets spoke, it makes the things that Jesus says and does come to life in a way you never would have expected. It ceases to be an apologetic list of prophecies Jesus has fulfilled and becomes LIVING HOPE.
Here is what I mean:
Ezekiel is pretty much a scathing book of how wrong everything had gotten. He’s a bit more hardline and exacting than some of the other prophets when it comes to the temple, but very much in line with them on his critique of the leaders, teachers, and priests of Israel (three of the top things all the prophets spoke against). For example, in Ezkiel 34:4-6 we read:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves!……You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally… My sheep wandered over all the mountains… they were scattered… and no one searched or looked for them”
What then follows is God’s plan to solve it in verses 11-16
“I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I myself will tend my sheep.. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays, I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice”
We know the pattern of scripture is that when God decides to act, he acts. As good Jews, the Israelites of Jesus day were probably looking for God to act like he had before on their behalf: A just king, a non-corrupt priest, and battle plans where the Lord would go before them and do another exodus thing – free them from their oppressors!
So when Jesus shows up on the scene and claims to be the good shepherd, he’s like “remember when Ezekiel prophesied that God was going to come be a shepherd because the leader’s weren’t?”
Yeah, I’m here now doing just that. Finding the lost. Binding up the wounded
“Remember how Ezekiel also said God would come and live in your midst?” (Ezel 37:27)
Yep, I’m walking right here. Are you willing to believe this is how I want to do this?
“Remember how God told Moses no one could see him without dying? Remember Isaiah’s vision where he thought he would die after seeing the Lord?” (Isaiah 6)
Guess what. You are watching me RIGHT NOW and I’m not smiting anyone. I’m bringing them back to life. Did you catch that?
THIS is why who Jesus is as Shepherd matters so dang much. It’s so much deeper than a list of prophesies he fulfilled. He was walking into the hope they had heard and dreamt about for YEARS.
Yet most of Israel couldn’t see it.
Our world hasn’t changed much in some ways. People are still wandering and longing for better.
Yet we live in the time of God walking with is people! We live in the time of God being shepherd, of God finding the lost and binding up the broken!
It can be tempting to long for “better” when a different leader is in power here in America. Some lived like that the past 4 years, some are longing for that now. But the “better” as believers we are to hope for is really God’s Shalom, and the picture is bigger than we can really understand. So let’s be careful to not confuse Jesus shepherd-leadership with the current mayor/governor/ senator/president. They will all come and go. What Jesus has done will not change.
Now, since the picture of shepherd today might not work well in a society that is largely unfamiliar with sheep-keeping, I have to ask myself: what is the parallel today?
It’s not a church, or a doctrine, or a theological answer.
It’s not an opinion or argument or political viewpoint.
None of that is shepherding.
People need to know there is a resting place for their weary lives and a salve for the pain of their past and present. They need someone to defend them from being attacked.
They need a place to find sustenance when they are on empty. Something steady they can count on. Someone to help lead them when they don’t know what to do. Someone to step in and remind them who they are, so they walk with purpose, not wandering and aimless. Someone to lead them into life giving things.
People are going to have to see some of those qualities in us that know the Shepherd before they will be willing to trust that He’s really there and really able to be a shepherd for their lives.
So my question to you … do you KNOW Jesus as Shepherd, for your life, or do you just know the verses that talk about him as such?
Can you talk about Jesus as your shepherd as clear as you can articulate your political views? (sorry if I am stepping on some toes here). If not.. why not? Is that an area of growth for you perhaps?
One thing I know is that sheep are stubborn. I certainly know I am. Jesus as my shepherd has had to do quite a great deal of prodding me from time to time….. but I always know He’s leading me into places that he wants me.
I’d encourage you to take some time to reflect on Jesus as your Shepherd this week… and recognize you are walking in partial fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the ages!
Blessings, my friends!
Wow! There is so much rich text here. It encourages me to go a few chapters back in my very favorite book so I can embrace even more of the Divine in and among us.
I’ve thought mostly of the Old Testament as a story and prophesy. Although you see it that way as well, you have deepened your understanding to a place is inspiring and filled with hope (and maybe even some answers to today’s troubles.)