The Shepherd of the Covenant
October 13, 2013 / No. 3693
Dear Radio Friends,
The nation of Israel was under God’s ban. God had judged her and found her wanting. She now lay under condemnation and punishment. Quite simply, God was going to destroy this nation, her cities and her towns. Her land was going to be left to her desolate. And that because of her great sin against Jehovah. She had rejected Him. She no longer knew Him but thought of God as only one god among many others whom she also worshiped. Her citizens walked in arrogance and pride. They were characterized by fornication and adultery, by drunkenness and reveling, and by greed and fraud. God had warned this nation repeatedly by means of His prophets, but the people had rejected the prophets and the Word they brought. They had even killed many of the prophets who had warned her of the doom that was to come. Now this nation was ripe for judgment. She lay under God’s ban—she was soon to be destroyed.
But within this nation of Judah or Israel God still had His people. They were only a remnant. But these few believed and had remained faithful. Yet, with the threat of destruction their faith had wavered. What about them? Had God forgotten them? Would they too be destroyed for the sins of the nation? Had God forgotten their ways? Had their righteous cause been passed by? To this elect remnant God now sends Isaiah with the words of Isaiah 40. He is sent to comfort these people? How? By telling them to behold their God. They must take a close look at their God: who he is.
In verses 10 and 11 of Isaiah 40 Isaiah reveals to these faithful few in Israel a most important truth about their God. He is a shepherd, and they were His sheep. These verses read as follows: “Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” The figure of a shepherd and sheep is common to Scripture. In it is revealed God’s great love and care for His people. This is the first truth God’s people must learn about their God! He loves, nurtures, leads, and protects His sheep.
THE SHEPHERD OF THE COVENANT
Shepherd and Sheep
The comparison Isaiah makes between God and a shepherd is not as real to us as it would have been to an Israelite. Many in Israel were shepherds, and if they were not, most were certainly knowledgeable of what a shepherd did. When Isaiah spoke these words, God’s people then could appreciate what this said to them about God. A shepherd devoted his life to tending the needs of his flock of sheep. His central task was to see to it that his particular flock of sheep were fed and watered each day. Day after day he would lead his sheep from the fold, that is, the stable or barn and into the hills where he found them grass and water.
This task of the shepherd was not a simple one. He did not just sit under the shade of a rock or tree and laze about all day. Sheep are ignorant animals. Not only do they entirely depend on someone to find sufficient pasture and water for them each day, but sheep are also prone to wander as if there is not a danger in the world. Like a little child in a grocery store when left unattended, they wander away without any thought of danger. In their ignorance they do not worry about food or safety.
So, the shepherd did much more than simply take his sheep out of the fold and let them wander in the hills all day. He equipped himself with his rod or staff. He led the sheep into the green pastures and then stood constant guard over them. If one wandered off, he took his rod and prodded that sheep back into the flock. Sometimes he had to run after the stubborn sheep that did not listen to him. And since a sheep is so helpless, the shepherd would even risk his own life to fight off predators. All of this belongs to the care and nurture of a flock. The term “feeds” in verse 11 of our text literally refers to “shepherding” a flock and not simply to feeding it.
One cannot help but notice the motivation behind all of this labor the shepherd bestows on his sheep. He is not a hireling, that is, a man hired for a day to take care of the sheep in the absence of the shepherd. The shepherd in a very real way learns who his sheep are. Many times that shepherd even gives them names. He learns the character of each sheep. Because he is with them day in and day out he develops a love for these sheep. Some of us who are pet owners can appreciate that. The shepherd, out of his love for his sheep, cares for them. He, in love, takes care of their needs and protects them from enemies. He lays down his life for his sheep—so much does he care for them. And, in turn, the sheep love their shepherd. They totally trust him. They hear his voice call to them and they, out of their love for him, follow him. All of this is implied in verse 11 of the Word of God before us, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” and so on.
Isaiah, in describing God to the faithful in Israel, wants them to know Him first and foremost as the Shepherd of His sheep. We must remember once again that these sheep were not the nation of Israel or Judah as a whole. This nation was under God’s curse. But the sheep of God are those who know His voice and follow Him. God’s sheep are always and ever those who are given to believe in Him. That was true in Isaiah’s day and it is still true today. There are many in the church today who like to think of themselves as God’s sheep. But they are not. This is proven by the fact that they do not believe on God or follow Him and Jesus Christ. The remnant in Israel were God’s sheep to whom Isaiah now spoke. You believers must behold your God! He is your Shepherd! He does everything with a strong hand—and that hand is powerful. He is a God of strength, and His arm rules over all things. That God is leading you right now. He is caring for you right now. He is protecting you right now. But God shall feed you. He shall gather and carry you. He shall gently lead you. That has the idea of the future. Implied, of course, was the destruction that would come upon this nation. Israel was going to be taken captive. Many would be killed. The rest would be led away into a strange land—to the city of Babylon. But God’s sheep need not worry. Why? Because even if they walk through the valley of the shadow of death they could be assured that their Shepherd was present protecting them and caring for them. God would not forsake His people. Why? Because God loves His people! They are His. The relationship He shares with them is the same as that of a shepherd and his sheep.
Now, we are going to describe the shepherd’s care for his sheep in a moment. But we want to take note of what God was expressing here in this comparison. These believing saints belonged to God’s covenant. God had established it with Abraham and with his believing seed. Not with the whole of Israel, mind you, but with the elect in Israel only. Only with those who were of the faith of Abraham—only with His sheep. But God uses this figure of our text to remind these faithful saints of that relationship of God’s covenant. God’s covenant is this: He is our God and we are His people. These words express an intimate bond of love and fellowship that God Most High has established with His people. In that relationship God is a shepherd. He has chosen His sheep from eternity. He has saved His sheep in Christ. He loves them with an eternal and unchangeable love. And He dwells with them—not as an equal, not as a buddy. God’s friendship with us is that of a shepherd who rules with his arm. He is the one who leads and guides. He cares for His sheep. He protects His sheep. In all of this, however, His relationship with His sheep is one of unfailing love! He is with His sheep, and He will never forsake them, no matter what the difficulties through which He leads them. And we who are the sheep of His fold trust that God! We follow Him. We are devoted to Him. We find our all in Him. We would not know what to do if we could not follow Him.
The point that Isaiah forces upon the hearts of these despairing saints in Israel is this: Behold your God! Contemplate who He is. Understand who He is. He is your Shepherd who leads you. Maybe we do not always understand the ways through which He leads us, but one thing we can be certain of: God does everything for the sake of His people. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, God tells Isaiah! So Isaiah comforts the elect remnant in Israel: behold your Shepherd!
The Shepherd’s Care
Isaiah describes what God does as the God of the covenant when He speaks of God as Shepherd. God indeed feeds His sheep, that is, as we mentioned, He nurtures His sheep. How has God shown us His great love and care? Look at what He has done for us! God has chosen us from eternity and knows us by name. He has called us out of the darkness of unbelief and into His flock. God then pours out the countless blessings of salvation Christ has earned upon us. God leads each of His sheep together with the flock into the green pastures of His Word. God feeds us with the bread and water of life. He gives us a name and place in the church. There He gives us under-shepherds that care for us on His behalf. Through them we are able to hear the voice of our good Shepherd—and, hearing His voice, follow Him.
He loves us dearly, and even when He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death we have no fear. God is with us along life’s pathway, always watching over us and caring for us. He protects us from our enemies, Satan and this world. And when we stray into sin—such dumb sheep we are—He seeks us out and rescues us. He will not suffer our feet to be moved, even though we so often stumble into the way of our sin. This is the care that our God gives to us. Behold that God, believing saints! This Word of God before us speaks to believers today just as well as to the saints of God then. This God is our God forever and ever. That Word we must hear in our joys and in our sorrows.
But that Word we cannot hear apart from Jesus Christ. This is why. We are told by Jesus Himself that the shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep. And that is so very true. God laid down His life in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. In order to protect us from harm and punishment, in order to conquer our enemies, Christ went to the cross and laid down His life—He suffered and died under the burden of the wrath of God. In this way He has redeemed from destruction those for whom He died.
This then explains for us what Isaiah now teaches us in verse 10: Behold this, O Israel: God will come in strength, and His arm shall rule for Him. When will God come? Oh, God would come after the captivity and deliver the remnant back to Jerusalem once again. God would not forget His people in the land of captivity. They would return to Canaan. But the reference here is to another day. It is to the day of the coming of the Messiah. In that day God will come in the person of His Son. When He comes it will be in strength. Why? Because His arm that would rule for Him was none other than Christ Himself. The arm is a symbol of man’s strength and his skill or ability to achieve what he wills. This is exactly what Christ would do. By means of His death and resurrection Christ would be exalted at the right hand of God, there to rule on God’s behalf. He would rule in strength and grace over the sheep of God’s hand. He would rule over all nations and peoples with a rod of iron for the good of His church and for God.
Again, behold, O Israel—Christ’s reward is with Him and His work before Him. In Christ’s rule over the church and the nations of this world, He would earn and give to His chosen people, His sheep, the inheritance of the godly. This He would accomplish by means of the work given to Him by God. But Christ would also give to the wicked their just reward. God in Christ will judge them according to their deeds and find them guilty. That too is a part of the work Christ would accomplish at the cross. The cross would be a stone of stumbling to those who stumble at the Word.
The last part of verse 11 is, in my estimation, the most beautiful and affectionate part of the knowledge we as saints have of our God. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns of believing parents is that their children too are comprehended in God’s covenant with them. They take vows upon themselves in that regard. They vow before God and His church that they will to the utmost of their power raise their children in the fear and nurture of God. They understand full well that God does not choose every child born into the church. Look at Israel in Isaiah’s day. The vast majority of Israel were Israel only in name. They were not truly believers. These people were fellow citizens with the remnant—perhaps family and friends. But they were not God’s sheep! But what did this say to believing parents in Israel? What great fears they must have had. Would God cut them off in their generations too, as he had done with so many in Israel?
We who live in the last days can appreciate the fear of these parents! The temptations that surround our children today are so great! How can we be assured that God will preserve our children from judgment? Indeed, some of our own children have given in to temptation and even now tread the path to destruction. That bothers the believing parent. It frightens him or her. Will God forget us in our generations? Cut us off too? Behold your God! He is the Shepherd of His sheep and He will gather the lambs in His arms and carry them in His bosom. Beautiful! Those who are His little lambs—the little children of the church—He will gather with His arm and carry them. There is that arm of God again! That powerful arm of God endowed with strength and ability. That arm who is Christ.
Christ will gather His children. As a shepherd carries the little lambs when the way is difficult or the enemy approaches, so also God protects the little children of His church. God exhibits a special care for them. He holds them close to His heart. He carries them in His very bosom. He saves and leads and protects our children too!
There are also ewes in the flock, female sheep who are nursing those lambs. They are caring for them. They are busy in the home and family pouring their all into raising those little lambs. The shepherd recognizes the need of these sheep too. He does not force them to hurry and march to the watering hole or to green pastures. He lets them take their time as they nurse their lambs. These the shepherd gently leads, that is, with care and kindness. Jesus knows our every need and He shows God’s great love and kindness by leading mothers with special care. God knows their needs too as they care for the children of the church. And God grants the necessary strength and guidance that will keep them safe as well. Do we have any need to despair when we know Him as the Shepherd of the covenant?
III. The Sheep’s Trust
What words of great comfort these were! When nothing but doom and destruction was heard. When apostasy and ungodliness were all around. When everything seemed dismal and bleak. To hear: Jehovah, the faithful God of the covenant, will come and will as a shepherd feed His sheep. That gave strength to go on. Indeed, comfortable words. But would these saints hearken to those words? Or would they satisfy them for a few days or weeks only to be forgotten again. If that were the case, if that is what they would do, then the comfort given would be lost again. Everything would go back to gloom again. These saints would go back to despairing! Is that what we do? Do we hear a message of this sort and are comforted for a day only to pick up our burdens again? Then this Word of God will not have much of an impact on us.
Sheep trust their shepherd. They trust him implicitly. They follow him and love him, trusting that he will take care of them. Dear believer, are we of so little faith that we do not trust that our good Shepherd will take care of us? He is God. He is in control. All things work together for our good! Fear not, little flock! God has given us the kingdom! Now trust!