Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20-24 (NASB95)
11For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land.
14“I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.
20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you push with side and with shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns until you have scattered them abroad, 22therefore, I will deliver My flock, and they will no longer be a prey; and I will judge between one sheep and another. 23Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the Lord have spoken.”
It’s important context to know that Ezekiel is already among the Jerusalem elites exiled to Babylon at the start of the 6th Century BC. He was a member of the priesthood, who had gained in wealth and influence after the building of Solomon’s Temple. When God first gets Israel out of Egypt, and goes about ordering their leadership structure, He intentionally denies the tribe of the priesthood, Levi, the possession of their own tribal homeland. In a time and place where land ownership was the sum total of wealth and fiscal security, this effectively doomed the families of the tribe of Levi to live in perpetual proximity to abject poverty. In place of those permanent possessions, God includes the tribe of Levi in with any rule about charity to the poor and powerless, along with assigning certain protections specifically for them. It’s a system that’s meant to force the Levites to rely wholly on the provisions of God and the charity of His people, and in so doing, humble them in preparation for the heavy weight of the priesthood.
While the center of YHWH worship was still a tent with no fixed location, wandering the backcountry of Israel, the Levites absolutely were 100% dependent on the charity and kindness of both God and their neighbors. Even so, corruption in the priesthood sprung up with the institution itself, as two of the sons of Aaron, the first high priest, misused their positions, and failed to treat the call of the Levites seriously. From there, you get to the books of Samuel, and again, the sons of the High Priest are abusing and manipulating their position, this time in order to acquire wealth and power. And even after the introduction of Samuel as a prophet given to correct the course of the priesthood and the nation, the priests still continued to abuse their position with only a handful of notable exceptions who prove the rule.
Then David captures the ancient city of Salem for Israel, and dedicates it to YHWH worship, as well as the future seat of Government during the remainder of his reign as king. And David brings the Ark of the Covenant to this city he renamed Jerusalem. With the arrival of the Ark, now the worship of YHWH had a central, fixed location that drew pilgrimages annually. With those pilgrims came their tithes and devotion offerings. With those gifts to YHWH, the priests received a cut of everything as their inheritance rights. And then Solomon built an immense, elaborate temple compound, expending huge portions of the Kingdom’s wealth, and the coffers of the Temple in order to do so; all, at least partially, guided by the insight of the priesthood. Things continued on in that vein for decades and even centuries, with several generations of the priests innovating on the wickedness of their ancestors until the priesthood became the second wealthiest caste in the system after the royals.
This institution, which at its founding was intended to live, if not lives of poverty, than lives acquainted with the specter of poverty, so that they might instinctively identify with the poor and powerless; instead, it had became a fixture among high-class society, and utterly divorced from the cries and pleas of those in need. God sent his prophets warning of the destruction to come if the situation didn’t change, and the priests were among the most vehement opponents of God’s prophets. The Northern Kingdom fell, and God sent oracle after oracle warning that the continued perversion of Justice, and laxity on the commands and ordinances God gave in regards to how He was to be worshiped would ultimately lead the Southern Kingdom to the same fate.
No one listened, Judah fell, Jerusalem and her temple were sacked, and all those whom Babylon perceived to be of noble or high rank or social status were dragged off to be held in captivity in Babylon, except a few they thought would make for a good puppet government. Since the priests were excessively wealthy and powerful, the bulk of the priests were taken to Babylon. Of those who remained, anyone who had the money to flee, fled to Egypt where they once again became second class citizens. It was only a small portion of survivors among the poor and powerless who remained in the land. YHWH reassures the exiles that He has plans to bring them back, but here in this passage from Ezekiel, we see that those plans are not, by any means, unconditional.
When He leads his flock back to their homeland, He promises to separate out those persons whose violence and greed match that of the forefathers whose iniquity had removed them from the land in the first place. Then YHWH will feed his sheep on the grasses of the high places, where the pagan shrines of their ancestors have been replaced with sheep’s paddocks, and good, green, growing things.
But the promise here ends with a peculiar reference to David. It’s not unusual for the prophets to make reference to the promise that David’s descendants would never lack a man on the throne, but this is something else. The image of the, by that time, ancient king, is not of the great warrior who conquered Israel’s enemies, settled her borders, and established her place among the nations, but of the boy who was not yet king; the shepherd boy Samuel found in the pastures of Judah, the last son of Jesse. It’s not a return of “King David”, but the arrival of one who would be, to borrow a Tolkienism, “as David should have been”.
It’s quite notable, in my opinion, when the story comes around to Ezra and Nehemiah, those who return, rather than identifying with the descendants of the poor and powerless who had remained in the land, oppressed them just as the fathers of the exiles had oppressed the fathers of the remnant in the land. The restored Judah of Ezra was not the Judah seen in Ezekiel’s visions. And perhaps the most telling piece of evidence for that fact is that, not only has David himself not come back, but no son of David has returned to shepherd the people either. Priests like Ezra, prophets like Haggai and Zechariah, and administrators like Nehemiah would occasionally rise up to lead the people for a time; but overall, they remained under the rule of Persia and its local Governors.
The next prominent son of David to show up in the story is welcomed into the world by shepherds, resting among animals in the lower level of an overcrowded house in Bethlehem. He came and offered food for the flock of Israel that does not go stale, water that never runs dry. He fed them off of his own life; with His blood spilled at the cross ran a river of redemption that flows to this day through His church.
We meet him in the hills and the mountains, reclaiming the good green earth from the evils of the past, so that God’s life and presence can make new life blossom again. The question then remains, has God separated out the violent and greedy from among us yet? Assuming the answer is “no”, then the next question is, “will I be among those who remain on the hill eating under the watch of the shepherd, or will I be separated out?”