The Good Shepherd
“Lo, Your Salvation Comes” – The Messiah in Isaiah Special Series
The prophet Isaiah’s grand portrayal of Zion’s future monarch continues in Isaiah 40:9-11where the coming ruler is identified as “The good shepherd.” Herein to the coming one is ascribed the unique and comforting combination of power and tender compassion. “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Some seven hundred years later the language of a strong and tender shepherd thus described finds its ultimate expression and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, self-proclaimed in John 10:11 as “the good shepherd.”
The Shepherd Theme in Isaiah and the O.T.
The term shepherd(s) is found seven times in the book of Isaiah. Twice the reference is to actual shepherds (13:20; 38:12); once to God’s Old Testament lawgiver, Moses (63:11); once to King Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C), founder of the Achaemenid Persian empire (44:28); once to the promised Messiah (40:11) and twice to wicked leaders of Judah and/or Egypt (31:4; 56:11). Thus, when the term shepherd(s) is used metaphorically in Isaiah (and likewise throughout the Old Testament) the reference is often to wicked leaders who through selfishness and greed brought down God’s disfavor and judgment upon the people. At the time of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry the people were being led astray by the wicked shepherds of God’s flock and would soon be suffering the consequences (Isa. 56:9-12; Ezek. 34:1-10); the consequences being seventy years in Babylonian captivity (605 and 536 B.C.) The message of comfort later offered to God’s lost sheep by Ezekiel during the cloudy and dark days of captivity consisted in nothing less than the advent of the True Shepherd, a prophetic reference to the spiritual blessings later available under Jesus, the Messiah (Ezek. 34:11-31).
Shepherd Images in the Ancient World
The greatest shepherd image in the Bible is that of God himself. As protector and leader of his flock God naturally takes on the identity of a shepherd, an image and description of God employed by several inspired writers (Gen. 49:24; Psalm 23; 80:1-2; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:12).
Also found in the Bible are numerous shepherd images referring to the many servants of God who labored in that pastoral occupation. Genesis 4:2 describes Abel as the very first. The Patriarchs followed suit as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons are all identified as shepherds. The general occupation of the Hebrews who dwelt in the land of Goshen was that of shepherd (Gen. 46:32-34). Four hundred years later, Moses was a working sheep herder in the land of Midian when God called him to lead Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Many Old Testament passages, such as Num. 27:17 in reference to Joshua, describe the leaders of God’s people as shepherds, far too many of whom became wicked and were condemned as shepherds who misled the flock of God (1 Kings 22:17; Jer. 10:21; Zech. 10:2; 11:15-17) By far the most famous literal shepherd of biblical times was David. As a youth David tended the flock of his father, Jesse (1 Sam. 16). Later becoming king and the greatest leader of God’s people, David is known as the shepherd king. Speaking of King David, the Psalmist Asaph writes, “So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skillfulness of his hand.”(Psalm 78:70-72)
Beyond the sacred page, kings in ancient times wore the mantle of a shepherd. Their work was that of leading, protecting and caring for the people. For example, Hammurabi, makes clear the purpose for creating his famous law code; “to make sure that justice prevailed in the end and to protect the weak from abuse of the powerful.” A common royal image in ancient Egypt features the crook and flail, the crook being that of a shepherd. “Few objects are as closely associated with the rulers’ dominion over Egypt as the crook and the flail. They are sometimes thought to represent the two functions of the king: the crook stands for the shepherd, carer (sic) of the people, while the flail as a scourge symbolizes the punishments deemed necessary to sustain society.” The Medo-Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great is named by God and commissioned as a shepherd to rescue the people of God from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 44-45). Cyrus accomplished that task over 150 years after it was prophesied by Isaiah.
A Dual Prophecy
The prophet’s description of the tender shepherd in Isaiah 40:11 is a duel prophecy similar to the prophecy of the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14 and Nathan’s prophecy concerning King David’s descendent in 2 Samuel 7:12-17. The similarity lies in the two-fold fulfillment of each of the three prophecies. As Jeff Smelser discussed in a previous chapter, the virgin birth prophecy “is a prediction of a near term event that occurs in chapter 8 and which foreshadows a distant event, the birth of the Messiah to a virgin.” Likewise, “the 2 Samuel 7 prediction of David’s descendent who would build the Lord’s house first had application to Solomon who foreshadowed the Christ.” Similarly, we see a dual fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a shepherd king in 40:9-11. Just four chapters forward, in Isaiah 44:28 we read: “Who says of Cyrus, he is my shepherd, and he shall perform all my pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, ‘you shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘your foundation shall be laid.’” Chapter forty-five goes on to describe how God would use Cyrus as His instrument to free the people from Babylonian captivity. The redeeming work of God is thus seen through both Cyrus as God’s shepherd and ultimately through the Messiah, Jesus Christ – “the good shepherd.”
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah consist of a description and condemnation of the immorality and idolatry of both men and nations. Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tyre are among the foreign nations that because of their immorality, idolatry and/or mistreatment of God’s people would be forced to drink from the cup of God’s wrath. But God’s own people also, Israel and Judah, had sinned along with the rest of the world. God would not allow their blatant sins to go unpunished forever. Judgement is thus pronounced upon all.
But for the faithful remnant of God’s people and the faithful even from other nations there is good news. Enter the “rest of the story” of the prophet’s message. The text of Isaiah’s “good shepherd” prophecy (40:9-11) falls within the context of the good news message of hope that is the theme of the last twenty-seven chapters of the book. A foundation of hope resounds through the book from this point onward. In the very first verse Isaiah is admonished by God to speak words of comfort to the people. “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. Speak words of comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord double for all her sins.’” Even though the inhabitants of Judah, as prophesied (39:6) would be carried away into Babylonian captivity “they are assured of their return and of Jehovah’s care for them until the coming of the Seed of Abraham.” (Hailey).
According to Isaiah 40:9, a great announcement is being broadcast to the cities of Judah. Zion is told to “get up into the high mountain.” Jerusalem is instructed to “lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be not afraid.” Good news is to be proclaimed.
The reference to Zion and Jerusalem is metaphoric in nature. Keil and Delitzsch describe Zion and Jerusalem here as “preachers of salvation.” Zion-Jerusalem is the evangelist and the cities of Judah that are to be evangelized. Keil and Delitzsch go on to describe: “When Jerusalem shall have her God in the midst of her once more, after He has broken up His home there for so long a time; she is then, as the restored mother-community, to ascend a high mountain, raising her voice with fearless strength, to bring to her daughters the joyful news of the appearance of their God.”
Grammatically, the perspective of verse nine is from the fulfillment of the prophecy. Hailey states, “Fulfillment of this promise is so certain that the prophet speaks as if it were already accomplished.” It is as if the announcement of God’s arrival is then being made, even though the actual announcement was made my John the Baptist some 700 years in the future. Isaiah 40:3 prophecies of a messenger: “the voice of one crying the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. . .” Speaking of John the Baptist, Matthew 3:3 states: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.” In Mark 1:7 John is preaching, saying: “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” Later, John sees Jesus and declares: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me” (John 1:29-30).
Isaiah then goes on to describe in verses 10 and 11 the qualities of the coming God. Verse 10 describes His strength and power which will be infinitely greater than that of man, whose strength is likened in verse 6 to grass, “All flesh is as grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.” The strength of the Lord is said to be in his hand and arm. “Jehovah’s arm is the power by which He overthrows His enemies, redeems His people, and exercises His rule.” (Hailey). The reward and work (i.e. recompense) which he brings is presumably retribution on His enemies and salvation for His people (62:11).
Isaiah continues his prophecy in verse 11, but the metaphor is changed and a comforting balance is achieved between the strength and power of a ruler with the tenderness and compassion of a shepherd tending his flock. What more confidence, comfort and assurance could be instilled within a flock of sheep or a nation of people in times of trouble than to have a leader who is at the same time strong enough to rule and protect, and yet kind enough to feed, gather in his arms and gently lead?
The Cyrus Fulfillment
As previously noted Isaiah’s prophecy announcing the advent of God’s shepherd ruler has a duel fulfillment. The more immediate fulfillment is in the person of King Cyrus II. The prophetic references to Cyrus in Isaiah begin in 41:2: Although he is not named here, it is believed that Cyrus is under consideration. “Who raised up one from the east? Who in righteousness called him to His feet? Who gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? Who gave them as the dust to his sword, as driven stubble to his bow?” Similar language in used in 41:25; 46:11 and 48:15, in all cases most certainly a reference to Cyrus. The climax comes in 44:28-45:7 where Cyrus is actually named. “Who says of Cyrus, he is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem ‘you shall be built, and to the temple,’ ‘your foundation shall be laid’” (44:28). The prophecies made of Cyrus were not fulfilled for another 150 years. The details of this prophecy and the accuracy with which it was eventually fulfilled illustrate clearly the Divine inspiration behind the prophet’s words and explains why the book was and continues to be a source of and a reason for the hope, trust and faith of God’s people in Him and in His word.
With God’s foresight and through His providence Cyrus is able to accomplish many military victories as 45:1-7 describes. Two interesting points are mentioned in Isaiah 45:3-4, the first being that God calls Cyrus by name – miraculous because the birth of Cyrus was well over 100 years in the future. A second interesting point from 45:4 is that even though God knew Cyrus, Cyrus did not know God. “I have named you, though you have not known me.” Cyrus did not know God in the sense that he was not a Jew, nor a Jewish proselyte. Cyrus was not a follower of God. The discovery of the famous Cyrus Cylinder in the 19th century clearly depicts the Persian monarch as being polytheistic, paying homage in one instance to the Babylonian god Marduk. Cyrus, like other ancient kings and kingdoms may not have known Jehovah, but that did not keep Jehovah from using them to fulfill His purpose in the affairs of men and nations.
When Cyrus issued his decree as recorded in Ezra 1:1-4 he refers to Jehovah “the Lord God of heaven” as the one who had given him “all the kingdoms of the earth” and had commanded him to “build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah.” How and where did Cyrus learn about God and his personal role in God’s plans? It is probable that Cyrus learned of Isaiah’s prophecies and the part he played in them from Daniel who lived at least until the third year of Cyrus, according to Daniel 10:1.
Cyrus, therefore, must be considered as the immediate fulfillment of Isaiah’s shepherd prophecy, due to several convincing facts: 1) Cyrus is called God’s shepherd in 44:28; 2) He defeated the Babylonians, thus rescuing from captivity God’s chosen people; and 3) He provided the funding, provisions and protection necessary for the remnant of Judah to safely make their way back to Jerusalem to rebuild their wall, their temple and their lives. He truly fulfilled the role of God’s shepherd in spite of the ironic fact that he was not God’s follower.
The Messianic Fulfillment
Even though some convincing credentials point to Cyrus as the shepherd ruler of Isaiah 40:9-11, and he clearly stands as the immediate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, is pictured also as the shepherd of His sheep and the prophecy finds its ultimate fulfillment in Him.
Jesus declares Himself the good shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “The word translated good here means ‘beautiful, noble, good,’ and cannot be adequately represented in English by the term ‘good’ In Greek it is the word which sums up the chief attributes of ideal perfection.” Jesus is that perfection! As the good shepherd, Jesus is concerned primarily with the safety of his followers and willingly gives up his life for them. “Christ epitomizes the ideal shepherd of the Old Testament.” (King. 203-204).
The strength possessed by Jesus Christ fulfills the role of the strong ruler prophesied in Isaiah 40:10. “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work is with Him.”
Romans 1:4 speaks of Jesus Christ as having been “declared to be the Son of God with power.” Verse 16 of the same chapter refers to the “. . . gospel of Christ as the power of salvation.” In Ephesians 6:10 beginning, brethren are admonished “. . . be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.” Thus strengthened, we will be able to “stand against the devil; against principalities, powers; rulers of the darkness of this age; and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The strength of Jesus abolished the enmity and separation caused by the Law of Moses and in doing so reconciled all men to God (Eph. 2:14-18). Jesus declares of Himself in Matt. 28:18, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”
Furthermore, in His miracles Jesus proved His power over nature, disease, blindness, lameness, and even death. The miracles of Jesus were for the purpose of confirming his claim of power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6). Ultimately the power of Jesus is seen in His ability and willingness to provide salvation. Acts 4:12: “. . . for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The power of Jesus reflects the language of other Messianic prophecies in Isaiah, such as 9:6-7 wherein the Messiah is called “Mighty God, ” a depiction very similar to “great God and Savior Jesus Christ” in Titus 2:13.
Several poignant episodes in the public life of Jesus illustrate how he fulfills the role of shepherd. “He will feed His flock like a shepherd” is reflected in the miraculous feeding of the hungry multitudes or in John 6:35 and 48 where Jesus seeks to convince the multitudes to accept Him as “the bread of life.” “
He will gather the lambs with His arm and carry them in His bosom” draws our attention immediately to Mark 10:13-16 where Jesus says “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.” “And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.”
The promise of a shepherd, powerful yet tender and compassionate, was uttered by Isaiah over 2,700 years ago. The constant presence of that shepherd in Jesus Christ our Lord supplies the leadership, confidence and comfort that God’s people continue to need today.
Delitzsch, Fran. “Isaiah.” Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes. by C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. Vol. 7 Isaiah. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1976.
Hammurabi: The Shepherd of the People (Author Unknown)
Hailey, Homer. A Commentary on Isaiah. Relgious Supply, Inc., 1992.
King, Daniel, H. The Gospel of John. ed. Mike Willis. Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation: 1998.
Scott, Shane. “I Am the Good Shepherd” – Royal Images in the Ancient World and Jesus.
Florida College Lectures, 2014.
Smelser, Jeff. A Virgin Shall Conceive. Isaiah 7-8
Isaiah Special Series; Expository Files 22.2; February, 2015
Tenney, Merrill C. , ed. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. 5 Vols.
Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse 1975,1976.
The Crook and Flail (Author Unknown)
By Edward Carl Barnes
From Expository Files 22.6; June 2015