December 18, 2020, 5:00 AM

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in his arms
He will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.”

Isaiah 40:11

The very first group to receive the announcement of the birth of the Savior was a rugged group of shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night.” Many Christian teachers down through time have wrestled with the question: Why the shepherds first?

Until recently, I followed the line of reasoning that shepherds were the outcasts in society; the low-life’s who couldn’t be trusted in decent company. It certainly didn’t help their cause that they were involved in a dirty, smelly profession which often prevented them from observing all of the purification rituals demanded of an observant Jew?

It seems to make sense then – goes this line of reasoning – that God chose the lowly shepherd boy who would be king, David, to be the “father” of the shepherd king, Jesus the Christ. God sent his angels to the lowest of outcasts in society to announce the birth of the Savior of the world! This is the story of God turning the tables on human convention and preference! That’s a good story. As we used to say in seminary, “That’ll preach!”

However, I must tell you, the evidence of history paints a somewhat more positive, sympathetic picture of shepherds and shepherding. The moral fiber of a typical shepherd, far from being deficient, was generally, quite the opposite. Instead, we find them to be thoughtful, tender, gentle, strong, and immanently resourceful in times of danger. Shepherds were entrusted with a vital calling in a mostly agricultural culture. They were responsible for the physical survival and welfare of their master’s flocks; locating shelter on a nightly basis; providing medication to the sickly, watering the flock manually when no gentle streams were available and finding sufficient pastures for feeding.

Without the shepherd’s presence and oversight, the sheep under his care would be defenseless. Helpless. Unfortunately, sheep are not particularly bright animals – which should give us pause for reflection when we realize that Scripture refers to God’s people as “sheep” over thirty times!

Shepherding could be lonely work. Being nomads of a sort, they could go for weeks at a time without encountering any human company. National Geographic once observed that shepherds would entertain themselves by talking, singing and playing song using a reed pipe to the sheep. It is said that the sheep became familiar with the shepherd’s voice, and would respond singularly to his voice. On the occasion when flocks mixed with a fellow shepherd’s flocks, they could easily be separated by the sound of their shepherd’s voice. They knew it well and they responded to it. A shepherd, being accountable for the sheep under his watch, counted his flock – flocks often numbering over one hundred sheep – one by one, every morning and every night, knowing and calling each one by name. Under no circumstances would he kill or eat his sheep, no matter how difficult the situation. The shepherd’s devotion to his flock contrasted significantly with the mere hireling, who took no ownership of the sheep under his watch.

As the ultimate tribute to the character of the shepherd, it is well-attested that the shepherd would gather the sheep into a fold at night to protect them against would-be thieves, predatory animals and the cold weather. The folds contained one single opening, and this entrance was guarded with the shepherd’s own body.

I think I have the answer to the question that I asked a few minutes ago: Why did God announce the birth of the Messiah to a bunch of shepherds first? From what we now know about shepherds and their work habits, it’s one of the best analogies from the working world that we have of how God cares for us.

Is it really any wonder that Psalms refer to God as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Ps. 80)? The God who shepherds his people.  The God who “makes me lie down in green pastures… lead[ing] me beside still waters… restor[ing] my soul… lead[ing] me in paths of righteousness for his Name's sake.” (Psalm 23:2-3).

The prophet Isaiah reveals how the “Shepherd of Israel” is on the one hand, high and lifted up, sovereign over all of creation as the mighty Shepherd King. Notice Isaiah 40:10, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” But then in the very next breath, in verse 11, he says matter-of-factly: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Ultimately, it is God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of shepherding perfection. In John 10, Jesus refers to himself twice as “the Good Shepherd.” It is Jesus who has fulfilled, that is to say, giving meaning to Psalm 95:7, “For [Christ] is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

Have you considered the good shepherd? Can you see him through the holiday fog? He sees you, because you are always and ever under the watchful eye of the good shepherd?

The Lord be with us all as we continue to Advent until His Advent again.

Thus ends this blog series.


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