What the Old Testament Teaches Us about Shepherds

We are in the midst of a study of the various roles GOD has placed within the church and we’re currently thinking about elders.

As we progress, it’s important to keep in mind what we have already established: the overall purpose of the church is to help transform individuals be into the image of Jesus, so that their thinking, speech, and behavior match His.

In the previous post, we looked at what the Old Testament teaches us about the role of elders in Israel, and even in pagan nations, during ancient times.

In this post, we will look at what the Old Testament says regarding the role of these elders to serve as shepherds over the flock of Israel.

Recall that we also established that, in the New Testament, the terms bishops, elders, overseers, pastors, presbyters, and shepherds are used interchangeably to refer to the same position or role within the church.

The various terms the Holy Spirit used to describe this role are very helpful toward our proper understanding of the intended function of the role.

History of Shepherds

The shepherd vocation dates back to Abel.

2 Later [Eve] gave birth to [Cain’s] brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
(Gen. 4:2 NIV)

In ancient times, wealth was often at least partially measured in terms of the animals one possessed.

Abraham and Lot both had large flocks of animals and servants to tend to them (se Gen. 12:14-16; 13:1-5).

Abraham’s son Isaac (see Gen. 26:12-14) and grandson Jacob (see Gen. 30:25-43) also had large flocks that they oversaw.

And Jacob’s sons were also shepherds (see Gen. 46:31-47:12; it’s interesting that we learn in this text that the Egyptians despised shepherds).

Jacob also referred to GOD as Israel’s Shepherd in Gen. 49:24-25, as he blessed and prophesied regarding his sons.

So we can clearly see that the Israelites were quite familiar with the occupation of shepherding.

Shepherds of Israel


As GOD’s eternal plan continues to unfold, two of Israel’s most significant spiritual leaders were called from the role of being a shepherd. 

Moses was called while shepherding his father-in-law’s flock in Midian to lead and shepherd of GOD’s flock, the children of Israel (see Ex. 3).

GOD used Moses and his brother Aaron as His mouthpiece to Pharaoh and would clearly demonstrate His power over all creation and false gods.

Then, after leading the people to Mount Sinai, GOD would give Moses the Law which would govern the new great nation of Israel for the next 1,500 years. Moses interceded on behalf of sinful Israelites on multiple occasions, pleading for GOD to turn away from His anger toward them.

Interestingly, part of Israel’s punishment for disbelieving GOD would give them the land of Canaan at the border was that they would have to be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years (see Num. 14:32-34).

As Moses’ death drew near, he asked GOD:

16 “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community 17 to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
(Num. 27:16-17 NIV)

GOD appointed Joshua as Moses’ successor to lead and shepherd Israel.


Many years later, GOD called a young shepherd, David, to become king over His people Israel (see 2 Sam. 5:1-2; 7:5-8; Psalm 78:70-72).

David loved GOD dearly and clung to Him repeatedly for his strength, refuge, comfort and victory. Despite his great failures with Bathsheba and in his family life, David developed a relationship with GOD that was so close that GOD promised to keep one of David’s descendants upon his throne for all time.

David wrote the beautiful Psalm 23, which begins, “The LORD is my Shepherd…,” a theme mentioned multiple times in the psalms (see Psalm 28:8-9; 80:1).

Israel’s Shepherds Failed

After Solomon’s departure from GOD toward idolatry, GOD split Israel into two nations—Israel and Judah.

Both nations were plagued by a series of idolatrous and wicked kings, ultimately resulting in the northern nation of Israel’s destruction and fall into Assyrian captivity, and subsequently, the nation of Judah’s fall into Babylonian exile.

Ahab, the worst of the kings of the northern nation of Israel, had an interesting encounter with a prophet during which GOD used the shepherd imagery:

17 Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’”

18 The king of Israel  [Ahab] said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?”

19 Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. 20 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’

“One suggested this, and another that. 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’

22 “‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.

“‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.

“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’

23 “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
(1 Kings 22:17-23 NIV)

Ahab would enter into battle, just as GOD said he would, and he died.

As Israel and Judah fell further into idolatry and sin, GOD sent other prophets with messages against the shepherds of Israel. GOD said many shepherds had destroyed His vineyard and trodden His portion underfoot, making it a desolate wilderness (see Jer. 12:10-11).

The wind would eat up the shepherds and humiliate them (see Jer. 22:22).

GOD pronounced woe upon the shepherds of Israel for destroying and scattering the sheep (see Jer. 23:1). Because of this, GOD promised to bring back a remnant and set up new shepherds over them who would feed them, that they might no longer be afraid (see Jer. 23:3-4).

34 Weep and wail, you shepherds; roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock. For your time to be slaughtered has come; you will fall like the best of the rams. 35 The shepherds will have nowhere to flee, the leaders of the flock no place to escape. 36 Hear the cry of the shepherds, the wailing of the leaders of the flock, for the Lord is destroying their pasture. 37 The peaceful meadows will be laid waste because of the fierce anger of the Lord. 38 Like a lion he will leave his lair, and their land will become desolate because of the sword of the oppressor and because of the Lord’s fierce anger.
(Jer. 25:34-38 NIV)

Jeremiah prophesied that if the people would repent, GOD would again give them shepherds after His heart (see Jer. 3:15). GOD rebuked the shepherds of Israel for their dull hearts.

21 The shepherds are senseless
and do not inquire of the Lord;
so they do not prosper
and all their flock is scattered.
(Jer. 10:21 NIV)

GOD promised through Isaiah (see Isa. 40) and Ezekiel (see Eze. 34) that He would personally shepherd Israel:

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
(Isa. 40:10-11 NIV)

Jesus, of course, would be the fulfillment of these prophesies.


  • Shepherding, being one of the world’s oldest occupations, provides a great metaphor for the concern, oversight, responsibility, and protection required of souls in the church.
  • In Old Testament times, GOD placed certain shepherds in leadership responsibility over His people because they were capable of loving, leading and protecting the flock.
  • When GOD put shepherds in place, much was expected of them. When they failed to perform their job well, the nation suffered, the shepherds took advantage of the sheep as opposed to caring for them, and GOD got angry.
  • When GOD’s anger towards the flock was full, He removed, punished and replaced the shepherds.
  • Jesus was promised to be our eternal Shepherd and His sheep graze under His careful watch.


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