“Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds. For riches are not for ever: and doth the crown endure to every generation?” Proverbs 27:23,24

We come each week to examine ourselves by the example we revere in our Lord Jesus Christ. We soberly reflect upon the wonder of his complete submission in obedience to his Father’s will—an obedience that culminated in his sacrificial death. One of the beautiful figures selected to express the completely submissive life of our Lord is that of “the Lamb of God”. Throughout the Apocalypse there are such references as “a Lamb as it had been slain”, and “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”, reminding us of the sacrifice of our Lord. That sacrifice was portrayed in figure from the time that sin entered into the world. It flowed through the Passover and down through the ritual of the Law until the shadow was finally replaced with the substance—Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Apocalypse not only is the figure of the Lamb used but also that of the Shepherd. Thus we read of the redeemed who like sheep “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev 14:4), and again “the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev 7:1). The inescapable conclusion is that the Lamb is also the Shepherd, and what a comfort this is to us. He knows therefore the struggle, weakness and frailty we wrestle with daily, for he too was subject to this—yet he never strayed from doing his Father’s will. Whereas “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way”, he never faltered. Finally, though “he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth”, he was “brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isa 53).

Therefore, being both Lamb and Shepherd, our Lord leaves us the example to follow in his steps.

“Be diligent to know the state of thy flocks”

The Proverbs so often take the simplest activity of daily life and give it a spiritual dimension, thus pinpointing profound lessons for daily life in service to our God. This is so with the parabolic picture of shepherding in Proverbs 27:23–27. In our life in Christ there is no specific time when one moves from being a sheep to a shepherd. As we gain maturity and experience through “following the Lamb”, we develop those qualities needed to shepherd others, but we must always remember that we are still sheep who were “going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25).

For those in families, shepherding must first be undertaken in the home. The overseers of the ecclesias were first to have guided their own families faithfully before they could contemplate taking “care of the ecclesia of God” (1 Tim 3:1–5). This is just so logical—one could hardly engender confidence as an overseer of God’s flock if he had lost his own little flock. Our initial training ground for shepherding is within the four walls of our own home in the simple daily care of the lambs in the household, the loving care of wife and children. This becomes the fold, and the door must be vigilantly kept so that no “thief” will enter, nor any “wolf”, no matter how well covered in “sheep’s clothing”.

This work requires diligence. Thus the proverb says: “Be diligent to know the state of thy flocks”. Spiritual shepherds need to continually assess the individual needs of each member of the household, or the ecclesia. What father would go to bed, not knowing where his children are, who they are with or when they will be home? He will ensure they have sufficient food and water, both temporal and spiritual each day, and will care for their safety and spiritual growth. Likewise in the ecclesia true shepherds will take a caring interest in the sheep, both in their temporal and spiritual needs. Just checking the ecclesial roll to see who has been missing over the past two months is not good shepherding. No, the proverb says: “Set your heart on the herds” (mg). Our heart must be in this work at all times.

Knowing the “state of the flocks” is a beautiful figure. The word “state” is actually “face” or “countenance” and is rendered this way in the same chapter. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (v17); and again, “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man” (v19). There needs to be ‘face to face’ contact between the shepherd and the sheep or lambs. This is obvious from the words of Jesus which indicate an intimate relationship between himself and his flock. “The sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out…and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice” (John 10:3,4). To bark out instructions to the sheep is not Biblical shepherding. True shepherding means that time, quality time, is spent talking with each lamb, ewe and ram in the flock. It does take time but it develops love and trust—and happiness. Consider how Christ identified with individual members of the flock—he talked with them, he took them by the hand, he wept with them. He was a shepherd who knew the state of his flock. He did not condemn but rather encouraged—he continually looked into their face and read the deep issues that were troubling them and identified with them.

Let brethren in particular learn this lesson—look into the face of your wife and children. Read what they are saying or asking. Sit with them and listen. Then, when you know the need of each you can lead them to quiet waters, let them rest in green pastures. By this kind of shepherding they will know that you will be with them, even in troubled times when, as it were, they pass through the valley of the shadow of death. This is shepherding at its best. When this skill is learned, then the care of the house of God is a “good work” you may likewise be engaged in (1 Tim 3:1).

Need for Forethought

The Proverb goes on to state: “For riches are not for ever: and doth the crown endure to every generation? The hay appeareth, and the tender grass sheweth itself, and herbs of the mountains are gathered” (v24,25). The lesson here is that things will degenerate if not cared for properly. The delightful pleasures of a happy family can soon be stressed and destroyed when Father or Mother become distracted from their primary role as parents in service to God. When lambs are left to daycare centres while extra work or pleasure is sought, or because of business or other pursuits Dad is not there to do the readings and have a warm and comforting chat with the little flock, then there will be a cost and loss. If studies, TV, music, sport or other such things excessively disrupt the flock’s time together with the shepherd then there will be an ultimate cost. The quiet time to hear the shepherd’s voice is not there—the daily issues are not brought into a spiritual context and the flock is not properly cared for.

Extend this to the ecclesia. Shepherds need to devote time to positive and edifying discussion with the flock. Practical guidance, Biblically based, must be given in a spirit of love and care. Laws and rules in themselves are no substitute for loving care and leadership by example. David loved Yahweh his Shepherd, for although He led “in paths of righteousness” he also knew his Shepherd’s “goodness and mercy” would follow him all the days of his life (Psa 23).

Though a shepherd must be ever alert to the dangers that threaten the flock, he cannot be constantly distracted by external issues from his primary responsibility of feeding them. This will leave the flock without water and pasture to nourish them. In Israel the flock was scattered in “the cloudy and dark day” (Ezek 34:12). If shepherds know such gloom is on the horizon, either domestically or ecclesially, then they need to keep the flock together, protecting them from fear and doubt. To be always “contending” with wolves over obtuse issues is not the way to care for the flock. It is far better to carefully explain to them the points of difference between “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and true sheep and continue on with the positive work of the Truth, so necessary for the strengthening of each sheep.

Gather the Food Now

Shepherds need to gather food continually throughout the year so that when winter has come and food is short there is adequate in the barns. The “hay” and “tender grass” and “herb or grass” needs to be mown and “gathered”. Gathering takes time and effort but it is folly to neglect this. Likewise spiritual shepherds need to constantly study the Word of God, gathering in so that they can give “meat in due season”. They also need to constantly evaluate the quality of food given in Bible classes, exhortations and lectures for by this the ecclesial flock is fed. True shepherds will keep discussion both in the home and in the ecclesia free from destructive ‘crotchets’ and try to minimise the negative flow of matter that at times sweeps across the ecclesial fields like the dry and parching east wind.

The Ongoing Benefit of Diligent Shepherding

The parable of shepherding concludes, showing the accrued benefit of performing this duty faithfully—“The lambs are for thy clothing, and the goats are the price of the field. And thou shalt have goats’ milk enough for thy food, for the food of thy household, and for the maintenance for thy maidens”. If the flock is well cared for there will be wealth, wool, food and milk to sustain the whole household. So with the spiritual. If the flock is carefully nurtured there will be those who grow to develop the qualities of their shepherds and so will be equipped to guide, feed and care for the flock of the future. Young brethren will develop into students of the Word and be able to impart knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. Young sisters will see their role and become faithful and diligent mothers or carers in the ecclesia. A loving bond will be developed if true shepherding is manifest on one hand and a submissive “lamb”-like spirit displayed on the other by each member of the flock.

As we partake of bread and wine each week let us remember that our Lord said: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). What an amazing display of true shepherding he has left for us to consider and then follow. He continued: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life”.

How blessed we are to be among those “other sheep”. Surely if the Father loved our Lord because he laid down his life for the sheep, his example should compel us to love him and those for whom he died, our brethren. The wonder of these things is marvellous for us to quietly contemplate—but contemplate it we must, and strive with all our heart to follow our Shepherd’s example.