Sheep in the Bible, Part 2: Identifying the Sheep

Sep 1, 2010

Jesus Christ is without question the central figure of the Bible. Second to Him among the primary players are the people known as the Israelites. It is these people whom the Bible identifies as “sheep.” Indeed, it is only Israelites who are ever identified as sheep. No Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Moabites, Eskimos, Orientals, Incas, Arabs, Africans or any other people are ever referred to in the Bible as sheep. This does not mean that other people groups have no place in God’s house; they do, but that study is for another time. The first occasion where Israel is metaphorically called sheep is in the Book of Numbers.

Numbers 27:15 And Moses spake unto the LORD [properly, YHWH], saying,

16 Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,

17 Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd.

It should be noted that the “congregation of the LORD” is not the equivalent of the New Testament “church.” The “congregation of the LORD” included the entire body of Israelite people, whereas the New Testament church includes only true believers in Jesus Christ. The next passage to use sheep symbolically is set during the reigns of King Ahab of the Northern House/Kingdom of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of the Southern House/Kingdom of Judah. There we see Micaiah—a solitary, true prophet of God who stands against 400 false (i.e., politically-correct) prophets—and he is given this word from the LORD to tell these kings:

1 Kings 22:17 And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.

In addition to identifying “all Israel…as sheep,” notice also the idea in both Numbers 27:17 and here in 1 Kings that the sheep are without a shepherd. Shepherds in the biblical metaphor stand for either civil or religious leaders or both. Surprisingly, there is at least one case where a shepherd is a non-Israelite king! (Cyrus; see Isaiah 44:28). The first and surface application of this metaphor here in 1 Kings 22 is that the body politic (i.e., the entire congregation or population) of Israel is without a leader who has the peoples’ best interests in mind. There is, of course, a further and spiritual application to this metaphor to which we will return in due course. When David was confronted with a choice of punishment for his sin of taking an illegal census, he, too, referred to the Israel people as sheep.

1 Chronicles 21:17 And David said unto God, Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be on me, and on my father’s house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued.

The psalms are replete with references to Israel (but to no other nation) as sheep.

Psalm 44:11 Thou hast given us [Israel] like sheep appointed for meat; and hast scattered us among the heathen.

Psalm 95:7 For he is our God; and we [Israel] are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand…

Psalm 100:3 Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we [Israel] are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

The term “flocks and herds” is a common biblical epithet for sheep and cattle respectively; but when used alone, “flocks” is usually assumed to refer to sheep. (Rarely, it refers to goats.) Hence, we find:

Psalm 77:20 Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 78:51 And smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength in the tabernacles of Ham:

52 But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.

Isaiah 40:11 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.

Lost sheep

Some of the previously cited verses have also made mention of the sheep being scattered. This ties in with the “lost sheep” motif. It is prominently developed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and usually appears in conjunction with the condemnation of false or bad shepherds—whether civil or religious leaders.

Jeremiah 50:6 My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place.

God holds both types of shepherds, the political leaders and the religious ministers, responsible for the sheep getting “lost.” (Nonetheless, the people themselves are not guiltless either.) The religious teachers and authorities had failed to teach and obey God’s laws, while the governmental leaders failed to enforce them so they could follow their own desires for power and wealth. As a result, the nation meandered in a downward moral spiral over several generations until God brought judgment upon the nation. It manifested in military invasion and the deportation of the people to foreign lands.

Jeremiah 50:17 Israel is a scattered sheep; the lions have driven him away: first the king of Assyria hath devoured him; and last this Nebuchadrezzar [Nebuchadnezzar] king of Babylon hath broken his bones.

This verse refers specifically to the Assyrian invasions of the late 700’s B.C. upon the northern Kingdom of Israel, followed by the Babylonian invasion of the southern Kingdom of Judah in about 586 B.C. During these invasions and deportations the vast bulk of the population of the Israelites and Judahites (the latter group later nicknamed “Jews”) were “scattered” and “lost” among the “heathen” (i.e., non-Israelite) peoples. Many ministers and theology “experts” claim that these “lost” Israelites were amalgamated among those heathen peoples and are lost to history, and that God will never deal with them again as His people. However, this is contrary to what God himself declares as His plan in several Old Testament scriptures.

God condemns the shepherds

In fact, while condemning the leaders who grow wealthy, famous and powerful at the expense of the flock, Yahweh-God plainly states that He himself will seek and gather His lost sheep.

Ezekiel 34:10 Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves anymore; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.

When this happens, false shepherds will be unemployed and they will be held accountable for all their deeds.

11 For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.…

16 I will seek that which was lost,…

And sure enough, God himself did just that. He fulfilled this prophecy when He, YHWH-God, came in the form of Jesus Christ. (Hence, this is one of scores of proofs of the deity of Christ). For we find that Jesus himself declares His mission in Matthew 18. And to make sure that His hearers (and later in history, we, as readers of His word) would know that He had His Chosen People, Israel, in mind; Jesus immediately connects “that which was lost” to the sheep symbolism again.

Matthew 18:11 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.

12 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.

In Ezekiel 34, the prophet was writing about the millions of Israelites who had been captured, deported, dispersed and scattered among non-Israelites. Amalgamation, however, was not to be the final result, but rather regathering.

34:12 As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.

13 And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country.

All of this finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and Christianity. The “gathering” is both a spiritual gathering under the banner of Christianity and a literal gathering to a geographical land area. In verse 13, the phrase “their own land” should not be construed to mean that these Israelites would be regathered into that tiny, New Jersey-sized sandbox in old Palestine, modern prophecy preachers notwithstanding. Rather, God had assured David that there was a second and obviously larger Promised Land for Israel sometime in the distant future (2 Samuel 7:10). That in itself, like the land, is a much larger subject, which is beyond the immediate scope of this study. The key point here is that the so-called “lost sheep,” namely, the ten-tribed House of Israel (as distinguished from the House of Judah) were not to be amalgamated and “lost” forever. (To be continued.)

Category: Teaching