Shepherd in the Old Testament
The OT correctly reflects the milieu of shepherds and their flocks. Shepherds are mentioned a dozen of times throughout the OT. The first shepherd mentioned in the OT was Abel. Principal characters of the OT such as Abraham, Moses, and King David were shepherds. Psalm 78 nicely describes David, God‘s servant, taken from the sheepfolds, ―from tending the nursing ewes he [God] brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance‖ (vv. 70-71).
In the OT the metaphor of shepherd is portrayed with the leadership exercised by political and military leaders and by God. Rulers should act like a shepherd of his subjects. When leadership is poor or absent, Israel is likened to sheep without a shepherd. Like a good shepherd, the shepherd function of a leader includes gathering the dispersed, righteously ruling his subjects, and caring for the weak. The same metaphor is likely applied to God YHWH. According to Joachim Jeremias,
In the OT the description of Yahweh as the Shepherd of Israel is ancient usage, but the surprising paucity of references in which the title is used of Yahweh shows that this is not just a formal oriental divine predication. The application of the shepherd image to Yahweh is embedded in the living piety of Israel.
There are a number of passages that use the rich imagery of shepherd vocabulary in reference to God. One good example of this is found in Isaiah 40: ―He [God] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep‖ (v. 11).
Susan Ackerman thinks that this ―image may have helped inspire Christianity‘s image of Jesus as the ‗good shepherd‘ (see John 10:11-18). Another example is the Shepherd Psalm, found in Psalm 23. Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson in their commentary on Psalms state, ―The claim that God is my shepherd is unparalleled in Scripture. This familiar metaphoric title for God actually appears in only two other psalms (28:9; 80:1).
The shepherd God goes before his flock leading them to the pastures and to places where it may rest by the waters, who protects it with his staff and gathers the dispersed. The flock Israel is safely sheltered in God. Psalm 23 portrays the shepherd as meeting all the needs of his sheep: ―Because the Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. This divine shepherd restores my soul.
A true shepherd needs to know the condition of his flock for it brings the shepherd a lot of benefits. The shepherd metaphor is reflected in Proverbs 27:23-27 to teach people to be responsible stewards acting with foresight in what we do with our riches:
Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever or a crown for all generations. When the grass is gone, and new growth appears, and the herbage of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing and the goats the price of a field; there will be enough goats‘ milk for your food, for the food of your household and nourishment for your servant-girls.
The sheep needed constant protections there were plenty of dangers to the flock from the wild animals that came up from the jungle surrounding the Jordan River gorge.
Lions and bears were common (Judges 14: 8; 2 Kings 2:25). The shepherd David is said to have protected his own flock from lion and bear (1 Samuel 17:34-36). In the Book of the prophet Amos, the Lord says, ―As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who lived in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed‖ (Amos 3:12). The shepherd had to fight back, because he had to make good any losses‘ to the owners (Genesis 31:39; Exodus 22:10-13). His instruments of rod, a symbol of vigilant protection, and his staff, a symbol of care, reassure the flock.
In the midst of Israel‘s false leaders or shepherds who have exploited their positions to serve themselves, the prophet Ezekiel gave an assurance of the one shepherd God will provide, a messianic descendant of David who will feed his flock and be their shepherd (Ezek 34). The Lord God says: ―I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness‖ (34:11-12).
In sum, the roles of the shepherd include feeding, watering, grooming, leading, and protecting the flock. He puts his life on the line for the sheep. The OT portrays God as a shepherd who does all of these roles.