When pastors become predators
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
21 Mar, 2024

Shepherds are God’s gift to the church, given because He wants His dear flock to be well looked after. But sometimes the shepherds turn rogue and instead of caring for God’s flock, they put their own interests first. Pastoral ministry becomes all about their own position and prestige and what they can get out of it. The needs of the flock are left unmet and instead they suffer spiritually at the hands of those supposed to nurture them. As the Westminster Assembly member William Greenhill noted, this may be endemic in a church culture, and daring to speak out against it may be penalised. While we are familiar with high-profile scandals in evangelicalism in recent years, this is not a new problem. Nor do things have to reach extremes of financial, emotional or sexual abuse in order for pastors to be guilty of flouting their responsibility to feed the Lord’s flock. Harshness, neglect and a multitude of little ways of lording it over the Lord’s heritage belong to the same category of un-shepherdlike behaviour. Yet as Greenhill points out in his remarks on Ezekiel 34, when the sheep suffer, God notices, and He will ultimately intervene to rescue His maltreated people.

Ezekiel has already reproved the people and threatened the judgments of God against them for their sins. Now he comes chapter 34 to deal with their ‘shepherds,’ whose fault it was that the people had become so wicked. The first ten verses are God’s reproof of the shepherds, and the judgment He will bring on them.

The behaviour of the shepherds

The ‘shepherds of Israel’ (v.2) were the chief rulers, whether in church or state. A ‘woe’ or general judgment is threatened against them — a variety of evils, not just one but several sad judgments will come on them.

The shepherds should have been ‘feeding’ the people, leading and teaching them. But here was their sin — they ‘fed themselves, not the flock.’ Those who are shepherds in the church, are set up for the good of the people, to benefit and advantage them, not to seek themselves, to draw from the people what they can to make themselves great. They should be content with their allowance, and give themselves fully and wholly for the good of those who are committed to their trust. This interrogative, ‘Should not the shepherds feed the flock?’ highlights the heinousness of their sin, and the indignation of God against it. ‘What? You are shepherds, and you don’t feed the flock? You are perverting the course of nature, and violating the order which God has set!’ That is intolerable, and God will treat them severely for it.

Office-bearers should care like shepherds

Those who are set over the people in the church are shepherds, and ought to act like shepherds do towards their flocks. They should govern them gently, protect them constantly, provide for them carefully, feed them faithfully, and seek their good diligently.

God who is the great Shepherd does this. ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young’ (Isaiah 40:11). ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ meaning He provided green pastures and still waters for him, and for all his (Psalm 23). He gave them David for a shepherd, ‘to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance;’ and he ‘fed them according to the integrity of his heart’ (Jeremiah 5:7).

Ministers should be like to God in all these ways. Yet few of those who are over God’s flock in the church prove to be what they ought to be. The political rulers were wicked, and so were the ecclesiastical rulers. They are called shepherds, but they did not do the work of shepherds. The shepherds of Israel did not feed the flock! From Ezekiel 22:25–28 you may see what the prophets, priests, and princes were like — not a true shepherd amongst them.

The three defining characteristics of wicked shepherds in the church are given here.

They feed themselves. They are covetous, self-seekers. They eat the fat, clothe themselves with the wool. They kill them that were fed, full of fat and flesh, they made a prey of the rich and wealthy. See how butchers deal with oxen and sheep, killing, flaying, chopping in pieces, breaking their bones, selling some parts, and eating others, and whatever they do is for their own interest. The shepherds in the church were selfish and covetous. ‘They are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter’ (Isaiah 56:11). One’s gain comes from one quarter, a second’s from another quarter, a third’s from a third, and their eyes were upon their gain and nothing else. ‘The heads of Jerusalem judge for reward, the priests teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money’ (Micah 3:11). They all sought themselves, and so declared what they were.

They do not feed the flock. A good shepherd’s care and delight is to feed his flock. He shows his care by strengthening the weak, by healing the sick, by binding up the broken, by bringing back those that have gone astray, and seeking out those who are lost. These shepherds did none of these things.

They treat the flock harshly and cruelly. ‘With force and cruelty have ye ruled them’ (v.4). These shepherds did not distinguish between the weak and strong, the healthy and sick, so as to rule them wisely, gently, compassionately. Instead they were rough, rigid, bitter, and cruel to them. As the political shepherds were out for dishonest gain (Ezekiel 22:27), so the ecclesiastical shepherds also ruled after their own wills. The prophets were roaring lions ravening the prey — they devoured souls, they took the treasure and precious things, they made many widows in the midst of Jerusalem. The priests violated the law of God, and so wronged the people (v.25–26). The prophets and priests conspired together to tyrannize over the people, who were so accustomed to it, that they were content to have it so (Jeremiah 5:31). ‘My people hath been lost sheep; their shepherds have caused them to go astray’ (Jeremiah 50:6).

God notices the behaviour of bad shepherds

God’s flock here needs shepherds to look after it. Some in God’s flock are diseased or infirm, some sick, some broken, some driven away, some straggling and in danger of getting lost. God’s sheep are vulnerable to many evils, diseases, and dangers. These could be ‘vain customs’ (Jeremiah 10:3); being bruised and broken (Jeremiah 6:14); being hunted by wild animals (Ezekiel 13:18); being beaten and ground to pieces (Isaiah 3:15); being devoured (Psalm 14:4); errors, heresies, corrupt opinions and practices (Matthew 24:5; 2 Peter 2:2); backsliding (Jeremiah 8:5); mistakes and all sorts of evils (Isaiah 5:20).

It is mercy, indeed, great mercy, that God has appointed shepherds for His flock, to make provision for the weaknesses, maladies, and dangers of the soul. Where the shepherds are wicked, it is bad for the flock. If they are selfish, negligent, or harsh, the flock will suffer.

O pray to God earnestly, that He would give us good shepherds! There is a wonderful promise or two in Jeremiah. ‘I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking’ (Jeremiah 23:4). And, ‘I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you according to knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15) These promises speak of good shepherds for the church. Let us put these promises to a good use, and urge God to fulfil them.

In fact, wicked ministers, in God’s account, are effectively not ministers at all. He says His flock were scattered, ‘because there is no shepherd’ (v.5). There were many shepherds in the church, yet as good as none, because they were wicked, self-seeking, did not feed the flock, but ruled with cruelty. When shepherds degenerate so far as to be contrary to what they should be, then they are as non-shepherds before God. In Zephaniah 11:17, they are called ‘idol shepherds,’ and idols are nothing. When things are like this, then the sheep are scattered.

Yet God eyes the ones in positions in the church, and He deals impartially with them. He observed what the ministers did in their places, and, seeing them selfish, negligent, and cruel, he threatens them all: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel.’ He saw they were all guilty of grievous sins, and they did not amend after His had shown them long forbearance, and therefore without respect He denounces judgment against them. God is greater than the greatest. He has no fear of the faces of princes or prophets. Let them cover their ways with whatever pretence they wish, the Lord discerns them. However terrifying they are to the people, the Lord will be a terror to them. However long they continue in their wickedness, God will eventually be avenged on them.

The Lord is against bad shepherds

‘Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord’ (v.7, v.9). Great indignation was in the breast of God against these shepherds. ‘Hear the word of the Lord, shepherds: He is vehemently displeased with you, and can hold back no longer.’ As surely as He is the living God, He will punish the shepherds who treat His flock like this (v.8), making laws, imposing burdens, finding out ways to enrich themselves and impoverish the people.

Verse 10 enumerates the punishments of these shepherds. The first is God’s enmity against them. They were so great that they kept all in such awe that no one dared to say or do anything against them. If any did, they were soon crushed. So the Lord says, ‘ Behold, I am against the shepherds’ — ‘I, that am the Governor of nations, the Lord of heaven and earth, the dread Sovereign of princes, priests, and prophets, I am against them.’ The Hebrew means, ‘I come to set myself against them;’ the Vulgate puts it, ‘I am above them;’ others translate it, ‘I am against them.’

Secondly, ‘I will require my flock at their hand.’ ‘Not only will I demand an account from them, what is become of My flock, but I will have recompence for every one that is wounded, weak, lost, or slain. I will require at your hand limb for limb, blood for blood, and life for life.’

Thirdly, He will displace them. ‘I will cause them to cease from feeding the flock.’ Some were cut off by the hand of justice (e.g., Jeremiah 52:10–11, 24–27; Lamentations 5:12). Others were carried away captive, and held in chains and bonds.

Fourthly, ‘Neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more.’ They will be deprived of the opportunities they had to enrich themselves. They made a prey of the flock, using it to their own advantage, but they would not do so any longer.

The sins of ministers in seeking themselves, and neglecting and wronging the flock, greatly provoke God, and bring certain and severe judgments upon themselves.

God will eventually put things right

God promises, ‘I will deliver my flock from their mouth’ (v.10). Like a shepherd rescuing a lamb out of a lion or bear’s mouth, so God will pull His flock out of these predators’ mouths, so that they will no more be violated and devoured by these tyrants.

Instead God will relieve them, make them safe and set them at liberty. Many years His flock had been molested by wicked princes, priests, and prophets. They had eaten up many of His flock, and the rest were in danger of being devoured. The poor sheep could not withstand their violence; these shepherds were like young lions among the flocks, going through, treading them down, and tearing them in pieces, and none can deliver (Micah 5:8). But though the sheep had no one able to deliver them from these lion-like shepherds, yet God was able to do it, and did it. He was a lion to these lions, and tore them in pieces, rescuing his flock. He will do it eventually.




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