Sheep Without a Shepherd: Jesus’s Mission and the Rescue of Israel, Part 1

Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

This passage is the closing bookend on the section of Matthew I’m choosing to call “Encounters with Jesus.” The section describes Jesus’s public ministry in terms of healing and deliverance.

The opening bookend is found in Matthew 4:23-25 and uses nearly identical wording:

Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Then the news about Him spread throughout Syria. So they brought to Him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics, and the paralytics. And He healed them. Large crowds followed Him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.

The difference, of course, is found in the description of the crowds. Whereas the description in Matthew 4 describes their condition — afflicted, suffering, sick, and oppressed — Matthew 9 highlights Jesus’s response to that condition, his perspective on their needs.

I find the description both simple and immensely poignant:

When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd.

By extension, this description also sheds light on Jesus’s self-understanding — on how he saw himself and his mission. And as usual, it connects him with the rich prophetic history of the Old Testament in powerful and startling ways.

Shepherds and Sheep in Ancient Israel

Before we go any further, let me bust a myth: Sheep are not dumb. (I owe this insight to a good friend, who actually looked it up before repeating it.) Instead, they are highly relational, and this probably has far more to do with God’s use of the “flock” metaphor for his people than any supposed measure of intelligence.

(In other words, God doesn’t think you’re stupid. You’re welcome.)

Sheep were a major source of wealth in the ancient world because they provided wool, the primary source for one of our basic needs — clothing, and by extension warmth and protection from the elements. Because they are grazing animals, they lived fairly nomadic lives, traveling from one pasturing ground to another as the elements dictated.

Led, all the way, by a shepherd.

Shepherds had an intensely personal connection to their sheep. In some cases they actually owned them, so the sheep represented their wealth, their livelihood. In other cases they simply stewarded them. But either way, shepherds in ancient Israel bonded with their sheep at birth, gave them names, formed personal attachments with them, and were literally willing to lay down their lives to protect them.

There’s an interesting story that highlights just how deeply this shepherd-sheep relationship resonated within the culture of Israel. It’s found in 2 Samuel 12:1-6, when the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba.

In order to awaken strong feelings of justice and empathy in David before openly accusing him, Nathan told the story of a man and his sheep:

There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up, living with him and his children. It shared his meager food and drank from his cup; it slept in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him.

In Nathan’s story, the rich man steals and slaughters the poor man’s lamb in order to feed his guests. David, infuriated and indignant, declares, “The man who did this deserves to die!”

The story illustrates that within this culture, the relationship between shepherd and sheep was not simply utilitarian in nature. It was personal and emotional, so much so that Nathan declares this lamb was “like a daughter” to the poor man in his parable.

A History of Shepherd Kings

The use of “shepherd” language is not unique to the New Testament. The Old Testament frequently referred to Israel as “God’s flock,” and Moses and David — the Deliverer and the King — were both actual shepherds of sheep who became “shepherds of Israel” (Isaiah 63:11, Psalm 78:70-71, et al).

Perhaps the most interesting passage in light of Jesus’s words here is Numbers 27:16-17, where Moses asks God to appoint a successor for him:

“May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the community who will go out before them and come back in before them, and who will bring them out and bring them in, so that the LORD’s community won’t be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Of course, the immediate answer to this prayer was Joshua, but Moses’s prayer proved to have a much longer-term vision as well. Over the centuries, the “shepherds of Israel” failed to care for the flock. Both kings and priests became corrupt and oppressed the people, and eventually, the people were removed into exile for their sins.

The prophet Ezekiel denounced the cruel and faithless shepherds of Israel, but along with his condemnation of their wrongdoing came a promise from God:

For this is what the Lord GOD says: See, I Myself will search for My flock and look for them. As a shepherd looks for his sheep on the day he is among his scattered flock, so I will look for my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy and dark day … I will seek the lost, bring back the strays, bandage the injured, and strengthen the weak, but I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will shepherd them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16)

Jesus, the Shepherd of Israel

In invoking the “sheep without a shepherd” language, Jesus made it clear he saw himself as fulfilling Ezekiel 34. He was God come in the flesh, searching for his flock, gathering them together, and doing exactly what he had said he would do — healing them, strengthening them, and bringing them justice.

Another Old Testament Scripture underlies both Matthew 4 and Matthew 9. That Scripture is Isaiah 40, which clearly connected Jesus with the coming of Yahweh in Matthew 3:1-3, and which here in Matthew 9 clearly identifies him again as God come to seek out his sheep:

See, the Lord GOD comes with strength,
and His power establishes His rule.
His reward is with Him,
and His gifts accompany Him.

He protects His flock like a shepherd;
He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them in the fold of His garment.
He gently leads those that are nursing. (Isaiah 40:10-11)

Jesus viewed himself as God come to find, heal, and nurture his flock. He viewed his people, the battered, oppressed, wounded people of Israel, as rightly belonging to him and needing his compassionate care.

Along with the Yahweh connection made by Ezekiel and Isaiah, the shepherd language connects Jesus to the throne of David and to the Moses-and-Joshua mission of deliverance from slavery. Identifying himself as Israel’s shepherd was yet another way for Jesus to say, “The kingdom of God is here.”

Jesus saw the lost and wounded people of his day as his wealth, his inheritance. He saw them as victims of injustice, and he had come to seek them out and save them — to reconstitute his ancient flock, tend their wounds, and go before them, even to the extent of laying down his own life for their sake.

This wasn’t some new idea. It was who he, as Yahweh eternal, had always been. It was what he had always intended to do.


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This is Part 135 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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