* This editorial is the (revised) 2010 graduation message of the Protestant Reformed Seminary, more a sermon than a speech. It appears only now in February because other editorials took precedence this fall and winter. May the message, heard by a goodly number last June, also be of use to the churches and the SB community at large. In this new year, please commit us at the seminary to God in prayer.
Graduates, members of the Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Theological School Committee, members of the PRC, family and friends of the graduates, and those who have traveled from the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland and from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland…
The Protestant Reformed seminary aims to train pastors, that is, shepherds. Indeed, we train men to be scholars; and to be theologians, who love the truth of God in Christ; and to be preachers. But we aim especially to make them pastors, and to use all their scholarship and facility in theology to serve God’s flock.
These graduates—scholars, theologians, and would-be-preachers— desire to be pastors, shepherds, of God’s sheep.
This is why the PRC require their seminary professors themselves to be pastors of considerable experience. It takes a pastor to train pastors. If you look at the seminary curriculum, you will see that it is robust in its offerings in practical theology. We require a full range of courses that enable a man to practicetheology. You may also know that all the courses—even those not strictly designed to teach the practice of the ministry—are taught with the ministry in view. Dogmatics, Church History, Exegesis, Old and New Testament history—all are taught to prepare men to be pastors.
We may be very thankful for the denominational (our church-run) seminary that trains men to be shepherds, and for a Synod and a Theological School Committee that understand that. And we may be thankful for God’s provision of these aspiring shepherds.
For God uses shepherds for the good of the sheep—including our children and grandchildren. Everyone who has had a faithful pastor knows what a blessing a good pastor is to the people of God.
And that’s precisely why it’s so ominous that God through Ezekiel said (and at times still today says), “I am against the shepherds.”
That is a sobering message for a seminary graduation. So sobering that for a time I considered it impossible to use as a graduation text. A happy occasion such as this, for an indictment of shepherds, which these men aspire to be?
Yet this evil day is not the time to be shy. When there are so many faithless shepherds, this is not the time to be worried about offending sensitivities. When else would such a message be appropriate in the churches?
Besides, Scripture here offers a marvelous opportunity to be positive. God’s message “against the shepherds” opens up to another. It not only promises the people’s deliverance, it also leads to God’s promise of the Faithful Shepherd.
So I have as my theme tonight (for I am really preaching on Ezekiel 34), “Jehovah Against the Shepherds.”
Against the Unfaithful Shepherds
A prophet in Babylon, Ezekiel is sitting with other captives about ten years after he was carried away. Five years after his capture, Ezekiel was called to the prophetic office. He prophesied terrible judgments upon Judah for her impenitence. Then God called him to a long period of silence, terrible silence for the people. If anyone has ever given you the silent treatment, you know how terrible silence is. No word from God. The prophet will not speak. “You heard God’s word already. Now judgment will come. God is finished speaking.”
Judgment did come. Under the hot displeasure of God, Jerusalem fell. Babylon humbled her, carried captive almost all the people, and took as spoils what was left of their possessions.
Now the penitent remnant come to the prophet. The elders and others congregate to hear God’s word. This time Ezekiel has a message of hope: Jerusalem will be restored; God’s people will return to their land; God will be good again to His people.
The goodness will come, however, only through the work of faithful shepherds. And faithful shepherds will be provided only after the unfaithful shepherds are removed.
The judgment of the shepherds needs to be seen against the background of the national wickedness. Judah had been adulterous—men had defiled their neighbor’s wife (Ezekiel 33:26). They were covetous and greedy; they were interested in possessions and homes, playthings and leisure. They involved themselves with “abominations,” disgusting and revolting behavior. They trusted in their own strength for their deliverance, depending “upon their own sword” (Ezekiel 33:26). And because they were pompous “the pomp of their strength” would cease (Ezekiel 33:28).
What made it worse is that they had appeared to be religious, but were hypocrites. Even now, some of this remnant reporting to Ezekiel the final fall of Jerusalem were hypocrites. In the last part of Ezekiel 33 God warned His prophet that some were listening to him, appearing to be excited to hear a good sermon from him, even inviting their neighbors to hear his orations. But they were ignoring the heart of his message to repent in humility.
We would call them connoisseurs of good sermons. If they had recording equipment, they would have had a collection of sermons. If they had libraries, they would have had a wall full of Ezekiel’s works. But they were idolaters, lovers of self more than lovers of God and their neighbor. They loved concerts of good music, fine wine, soft clothing. But they did not love their neighbor, or help the poor. In fact, they became fat from their poor neighbors. And if they would have been rebuked for their failures, their response would have been a dismissive, proud silence, or a response that their neighbors were weak, or unbelieving, and therefore unworthy of their attention.
God judged the wickedness of that people.
But if the people were evil, the shepherds were worse. And the shepherds are on the foreground here (vv. 3-6).
They fed themselves and failed to feed the sheep. They ate the fat and clothed themselves with the wool, but did not care for the sheep. They did not strengthen the diseased nor heal the sick. They did not bind up the broken, restore those who were driven away, or seek out those who were lost. With cruelty and force they ruled them.
So the sheep scattered, wandered through the high hills, and became prey to the beasts. Their backs were torn with the claws of the bear and their throats were slashed by the lion’s fangs.
A modern description of this reality would be of men seeking the pastorate for their own advantage. Or, having originally sought it with purer motivations, they now use it for their own advancement, to the great hurt of God’s flock. They do not seek the welfare of the people, but their own. If they do think of the flock, they pay attention to those who can do them service and advance their cause.
They have no interest (beyond the merely superficial) in the wandering sheep. They are too busy to pay attention to the children of the lesser known or less influential families, or to do the dirty work of healing the broken marriage of the young couple who have no connections to the church. Their interest in seeking out the lost in missions and evangelism— either of the house of Judah or others—comes in a distant second. They could not imagine themselves saying to an Agrippa: “I would to God that you were a Christian as I am.”
How they attempt to minister to the flock, then, is not so much by the word as a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit, but by force and threat. These proud shepherds are not shy to intimidate, to assume an air of condescension and a tone of superiority. It probably amazes them how anyone could allow sin to get him in such a tangled mess— by which they show clearly that they know nothing by experience of the mercy of God to themselves.
Therefore, God is against the shepherds!
“Woe to them. Prophesy against them. Bring charges. Indict them. Pronounce a sentence upon them. I am against the shepherds.”
It is hard to imagine a more terrible reality than God saying to you, “I am against you.”
God will depose the unfaithful shepherds. “I will cause them to cease from feeding the flock” (v. 10). And then God will judge them for the loss of the sheep, for the souls of those who perished on account of their shepherds’ selfish conduct. Punished for their own sins, they will also be punished for the sins of those they led into sin.
I imagine a scene in the judgment day: The wicked preachers standing together, answering for the sheep who perished under their care. The shepherds who had led the flock into sin, connived at their sins, or simply failed to seek them out, so that they became meat for the beasts. What will the Judge say?
Remember, the evil shepherds are to be blamed for the sins of Israel and Judah. These shepherds not only failed to check the wickedness of those under their care, they also took the lead in the heathenish abominations.
The people themselves, it is true, were judged for their own sins. And an aspect of this judgment is that Judah got the kind of shepherds that they deserved. So the church today, if there is trouble, must examine herself before she points the finger at unfaithful shepherds.
Nevertheless, Ezekiel here lays the blame for Judah’s trouble at the feet of the leaders. They led the people—by their own despicable examples of wickedness. One after another “departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.” God said through Jeremiah, an older contemporary of Ezekiel, “I have seen folly in the prophets…they prophesied in Baal, and caused my people Israel to err…they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers” (Ezekiel 23:13, 14; emphasis added).
What will it be to fall into the hands of an angry God because you were an unfaithful shepherd? Woe to the shepherds!
… to be concluded.