The Ministry of a Shepherd: In Weakness, Not Made Strong
Scripture reveals the heart of the Heavenly Father for the vulnerable. He commands special care for those who are poor, sick, widowed, or distressed. Indeed, James suggested that the definition of pure and undefiled religion begins with visiting orphans and widows in their distress. God’s concern is also seen in Scripture for the weak. This is reflected in the instructions to Shepherds in Ezekiel 34.
Perhaps this aspect of care is not the most obvious task to which our minds would take us when considering the hierarchy of the shepherd’s responsibilities. However, it is significant that immediately after the discussion of feeding the sheep, the Lord’s attention turned to strengthening the weak.
Sadly, too often, shepherds spend an inordinate amount of time caressing the strong sheep rather than strengthening the weak ones. But the Bible reminds us that sheep are prone to weaknesses. Consider the example from sports. Teams named for animals are always named for strong ones. For example, we have tigers, bears, rams, chargers, colts, bengals, cowboys (Hhmm … sorry about that last one; that hasn’t been a picture of strength recently). What you don’t see in that list is sheep. Sheep aren’t intimidating. They tend to be defenseless, slow, unintelligent, and subject to disease.
It is in fact because of the weakness of the sheep that our Lord castigates the Shepherds, in 34:4, for not strengthening them. The word there implies one that is feeble, sick, exhausted, grieved, pained, or weak. The word occurs 84 times in the Old Testament, three times in this chapter, and twice in this verse. Shepherds are responsible for being ever alert to the signs indicating that a sheep is in trouble. Anything less becomes little more than dignified hypocrisy. We cannot be so preoccupied with matters of our own choosing, while the shepherd-deprived sheep languish enfeebled and unstrengthened.
We cannot be so preoccupied with matters of our own choosing, while the shepherd-deprived sheep languish enfeebled and unstrengthened.
Interestingly, there are nine different Hebrew words rendered “weak” in the Old Testament. Weaknesses in Scripture may be emotional, as in Isaiah 35:3 (also cited in Hebrews 12:12) where the people are weak and fearful because of a loss of hope; intellectual, as in Job 4:3 where Eliphaz implies that Job needs to take his own medicine as one who previously “strengthened weak hands” with his teaching; physical, as in Nehemiah 6:9 where the people are described as “weakened in the work;” or spiritual, as the Psalmist suggests of himself in Ps. 6:2.
Regardless of the causes, God instructs Shepherds to strengthen those who are weak. Accordingly, three implications from that standard are significant. First, God’s instruction to Shepherds to strengthen the weak implies that the weak can be made strong if someone would make the effort to strengthen them. How many sheep are there in the fold (church) who are weak simply because someone has not cared enough about them to give them strength? Thus, their condition becomes the responsibility of those who could relieve it. Is that not at least part of the application of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan?
Moreover, God’s instruction to Shepherds to strengthen the weak also implies the ability of Shepherds to strengthen. If God has called you to a task, He will equip you for that to which He has called you. God’s statement is as much an affirmation of the Shepherds as it is an indictment of their inactivity. You HAVE the ability to make them strong. Don’t ever cheapen God’s call by questioning His ability to equip you for it.
If God has called you to a task, He will equip you for that to which He has called you.
But one final implication from this passage is significant. The Lord’s instruction to the Shepherds to strengthen the weak necessitates the willingness on the part of the Shepherd to do so. Strengthening the weak can be taxing. To be sure, there is a cost to giving strength to others; to expending one’s energy to re-energize others. But, Shepherd, God has made you strong “for such a time as this” so you could make yourself weak to strengthen the sheep. We can strengthen the weak by weakening the strong, because power is perfected in weakness.
If a sheep is weak, that is probably not the time to lecture it on the dangers of careless living any more than a home fire is the time to research the history of firefighting. Instead, shepherds must unweaken the sheep. Perhaps then they are better able to understand the ultimate provision of the One of whom His Word promises that He “gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength.”