The Keeper of the Sheep


A sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

“You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,” says the Lord GOD. (EZE 34:31)

Our first lesson was the 34th chapter of the book of Ezekiel. It stands out both as a prophecy of the end of the Jewish Church to be followed by the establishment of the Christian Church, and as a parable that warns every church of the dangers it faces when it leaders and members forget their obligations.

The first part of the chapter sets the scene: A man has many sheep, and so he hires shepherds to help him care for the sheep. Unhappily, the shepherds are not reliable, they take the good food for themselves so the sheep become ill, they don’t watch over them carefully so they become lost, and no one goes looking for them.

As a prophecy, and in the natural historical sense, this is a representation of the state of the Jewish Church that shows why it was necessary for the Lord to come to earth and execute a judgement upon that church. The leaders of that church, instead of caring for the people, had instead let them come into mortal danger through their carelessness and neglect.

The second part of the chapter tells how the owner drives out the shepherds and takes over the care of the sheep himself. Then the owner must judge among the sheep, for in the flock are those that “push with the shoulder” and “butt the weak with their horns.” It’s not just the leadership that has gone astray, there is corruption at all levels.

In the third and final part, a new shepherd, like king David (representing the Lord in His Divine Human), will care for the sheep and there will be a blessing. From that time forward, they shall live in a “garden of renown.”

Now, let us look at each of the three parts of this chapter in more detail. In the first, the Lord hired shepherds to watch His flock, but they were they were bad shepherds who allowed the flock to be harmed and scattered.

(EZE 34) {1} And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, {2} “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.

It should be noted that the chapter begins with the Lord speaking to Ezekiel, and calling him the “Son of man” – a term that we usually associate with the Lord Himself. In the context, however, it makes perfect sense because the phrase “the Son of man” signifies the Lord in respect to the Word, and before the incarnation the Lord was present with mankind by means of the prophets who spoke for Him, and thus were, in reality, the “word” of the Lord. Everything that follows, therefore, needs to be seen in this context that it is the Lord speaking through the Word as it existed with the Jewish Church at a time when there was still some hope that it would heed the many warnings He gave it, and bring itself back into order.

(EZE 34) {2} Prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? … {4} “The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.

This part of the prophecy speaks about the diseases among the flock resulting from the improper care of the shepherds: poor food, exposure, and simple wounds gone untreated. It is a simple thing to see how these things are related to spiritual diseases. A person who has been deprived of spiritual nourishment will come into evils of life because their spiritual equilibrium has been interfered with – the sheep have not been fed with the truths from the Word that are needed to counteract the power of hereditary evils. And, since any time that a person is in an active evil, heaven is closed to them while they remain in that state of evil, by withholding the truths from the Word – feeding themselves instead of the flock – those who knowingly withhold truth from the Word can close heaven to those in their care.

(To clarify, this is not a permanent state. Heaven is “closed” whenever someone is in a state of selfishness and evil. It is “open” when they bring themselves back into a state of evil. If you encourage another person in their evil, or introduce them into evil states or activities, you “close heaven” for them while that situation continues. A freely chosen return to the good of life opens it again.)

As by “diseases” are signified the corruptions and evils of spiritual life, therefore by the various kinds of diseases are signified also the various kinds of corruptions and evils of that life.

It is described how the “sheep have gone from mountain to hill.” It is known that everywhere in the Word a “mountain” because it draws ones eyes upwards towards heaven, represents love to the Lord. It is clear then that a “hill” represents a lesser love. What is here being described is how the spiritual state of a church that does not have proper leadership descends from Love to the Lord to lesser loves, and eventually into evils and falsities. In the same way it reveals how a mind that is not being led by the Word but seeks for good and truth from other sources finds evils and falsities instead, and makes them its own.

The Apocalypse Explained teaches that the sheep seek good and truths, but cannot find them and seize on evils and falsities instead. The question that comes to mind is why can’t they find good and truth? What can we learn from this? Perhaps the most basic answer, one that fits with all the places in the Word where the Lord calls Himself a shepherd and calls us His sheep, is the simple fact that sheep need their shepherd. Left to their own devices they fall off rocks and injure themselves, and eat the wrong plants and become ill. We, like sheep, want to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, that we have the power to change the world into a form of our liking.

When we are without a shepherd, when we do not look to the Lord in His Word for guidance, we soon travel from mountain to hill to valley, and we become scattered, ill, and devoured by wild beasts. But, when we act “as if from ourselves” taking responsibility for our actions, yet seeking leadership from the Lord, then we come into the order of heaven. This also sets the stage for the “king like David” that is mentioned in the next section, the Lord in His Divine Human which is the centre of worship for the New Church.

The second part of the prophecy tells how the Lord will come Himself to be the Shepherd of the flock; and when He comes, He will judge among the sheep, for some of the sheep have pushed with the shoulder, and butted the weak with their horns.

EZE 34 {17} ‘And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. {18} “Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture; and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet? {19} “And as for My flock, they eat what you have trampled with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet.”

To think that the whole problem with the Jewish Church was a corrupt leadership is clearly too simplistic a view. It has often been observed that people get the kind of government that they deserve – and this seems to be the case here. Looking to scripture for specific examples, we easily find many of them, such as the story of the Golden Calf. It was the people who first became impatient and murmured against the leadership.

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” And Aaron … received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a moulded calf. Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

A second example comes from the book of Samuel, where we are told that the people were tired of being led by the Lord through judges, but wanted to be like the nations around them and have a king.

If we can see that one of the reasons that Israel suffered under poor leadership was because that was the kind of leadership they themselves wanted, we can accept that it would be necessary, when the Lord came to lead them Himself, to sort out the “sheep from the goats” to cause a judgement upon that church.

The Arcana Coelestia teaches

“Here also ‘he-goats’ means adherents to faith separated from charity, that is, those who set doctrine above life and at length have no interest at all in life. Yet it is life that makes the human being, not doctrine separated from life; and it is life that remains after death, not doctrine except insofar as this teaches about life. Of these people it is said that they feed off the good pasture and tread down the rest of the pastures with their feet, and that they drink the water that has settled down and stir up the rest with their feet; also that with their horns they butt the weak [sheep] till they have scattered them.”

The Arcana further teaches,

“The adherents to faith separated from charity do not see anything in the Word apart from what substantiates their own accepted teachings, for they have no real insight Indeed people who are not moved by the affection belonging to charity have merely external sight, or an inferior insight With this no one can possibly behold higher things, for higher things are seen by him as darkness. Consequently such people see falsities as truths, and truths as falsities, and so by explanations based on the sense of the letter they ruin the good pasture and pollute the pure waters of that sacred spring which is the Word…

And further, thinking now about the sheep that push and butt the other sheep, we read in Ezekiel:

{20} ‘Therefore thus says the Lord GOD to them: “Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. {21} “Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, {22} “therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

In Apocalypse Explained we read,

“In Ezekiel: Ye thrust with side and with shoulder, and push all the sick sheep with your horns till ye have scattered them abroad (EZE. 34:21). “To thrust with side and with shoulder” is with all strength and endeavour; to “push the sick sheep with horns till ye have scattered them abroad” signifies to destroy by falsities the well-disposed, who are not yet in truths from good, and yet desire to be.”

Finally, a new shepherd, like king David will care for the sheep, and there will be a blessing, they shall live in safety in the garden of renown. This clearly signifies the coming of the Lord in His Human, and the new heaven and the new church that will be established at that time.

{23} “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them; My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. {24} “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

And when the Lord rules in the spiritual life of the church, or the individual member of the church, there will be a blessing. The Heavenly Doctrines teach that

“He who sees the Word merely in its natural sense believes no other than that “blessing” means such things as are mentioned in that sense, namely, that rain should be given to make fruitful the gardens and fields, and thus the tree should yield its fruit and the land its produce; but it is a spiritual blessing that is meant, for “rain” signifies everything Divine that flows into man from the Lord out of heaven.”

When the Lord is the Shepherd, the sheep will dwell in safety, they will live in the garden of renown. Arcana Coelestia93 teaches:

The state of the celestial man, thus gifted with the tranquillity of peace-refreshed by the rain-and delivered from the slavery of what is evil and false, is thus described by the Lord in Ezekiel.

To summarize the teachings of this chapter, we see that on the historical level it is a prophecy of the end of the Jewish Church and the establishment of the Christian Church. On a higher or more interior level it speaks to our own states of regeneration. It causes us to ask ourselves who is in charge of our spiritual life, and if it’s not the Lord encourages us to do something about it before permanent spiritual harm takes place.

And what about the states of the New Church on earth? We must all be good shepherds, stewards over those things for which we are responsible. We need to be sure that we are good innocent sheep in those parts of our lives where it is our part to follow. We need to keep ourselves in the order taught in the Word. We need to get our minds into the order of the Lord’s government. And finally, we need to reaffirm our covenant with the Lord. When we do our part, then the Lord will do His part, as He promised:

{25} “I will make a covenant of peace with them, and cause wild beasts to cease from the land; and they will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. {26} “I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing. {27} “Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase. They shall be safe in their land; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. … {30} “Thus they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people,” says the Lord GOD.’” {31} “You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,” says the Lord GOD. Amen.

 


First Lesson: EZE 34

(EZE 34) And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, {2} “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? {3} “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. {4} “The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. {5} “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. {6} “My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” {7} ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: {8} “as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”; {9} ‘therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD! {10} ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” {11} ‘For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. {12} “As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. {13} “And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. {14} “I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. {15} “I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord GOD. {16} “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgement.” {17} ‘And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. {18} “Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture; and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet? {19} “And as for My flock, they eat what you have trampled with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet.” {20} ‘Therefore thus says the Lord GOD to them: “Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. {21} “Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, {22} “therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. {23} “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them; My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. {24} “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. {25} “I will make a covenant of peace with them, and cause wild beasts to cease from the land; and they will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. {26} “I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing. {27} “Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase. They shall be safe in their land; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. {28} “And they shall no longer be a prey for the nations, nor shall beasts of the land devour them; but they shall dwell safely, and no one shall make them afraid. {29} “I will raise up for them a garden of renown, and they shall no longer be consumed with hunger in the land, nor bear the shame of the Gentiles anymore. {30} “Thus they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people,” says the Lord GOD.’” {31} “You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,” says the Lord GOD.

Second Lesson: AE 600:5

He who does not know what is signified in the proper sense by “sheep” and what by “goats,” might suppose that “sheep” mean all who are good, and “goats” all who are evil; but in the proper sense “sheep” mean those who are in the good of charity towards the neighbour, and thence in faith, and “goats” mean those who are in faith separated from charity; thus all upon whom the judgement in the last time of the church will come; for all who were in the good of love to the Lord, and thence in the good of charity and faith, had been taken up into heaven before the Last Judgement; while all who were in no good of charity, and in no faith therefrom, consequently all who were inwardly and at the same time outwardly evil, had been cast down into hell before the Last Judgement; but those who were inwardly good and not equally so outwardly, also those who were inwardly evil but outwardly in good, were all left until the Last Judgement, when those who were inwardly good were taken up into heaven, and those who were inwardly evil were cast into hell. From this it can be seen that “goats” mean those who have been in faith separated from charity; … This makes evident that the “right hand,” where the “sheep” are, means the good of charity and of faith therefrom, and the “left hand,” where the “goats” are, means faith separated from charity. Amen.

 


 

Copyright © 1982 – 2007 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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