Jeremiah was sent to the rebellious house of Judah to prophesy against them and foretell their destruction as a nation by the hand of Babylon. Judah was being overthrown by God because they “perverted their way, and they [had] forgotten the Lord their God” (Jeremiah 3:21).
Judah’s defection from their covenant with God began at the top, with their supposed spiritual leaders, and trickled down to the common man. Observe the shame of the house of Israel: “As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the house of Israel ashamed; they, their kings, their princes, and their priests, and their prophets” (2:26). Jeremiah was being sent to prophesy against “the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land” (1:18) – in that order.
Through the wicked schemes of their leaders, the people were being led from one error to another (9:3). They went backward and not forward (7:24).
The common man certainly was not innocent of this treachery against God. The citizens of Judah and Jerusalem were very much supportive of the wickedness of their leaders.
Note, “The prophets prophesy falsely, the priests rule by false means (power, NKJV), and my people love to have it so” (5:31). They had developed an attitude that was revolting and rebellious in their compromises with false religion (5:23).
The Shepherds of Israel
As with any error pertaining to things religious, the fault can be attributed personally to the individual and more widely to contributing factors. As in Judah’s case, the apostasy began at the top, with their leadership. As went the leadership, so went the flock.
From the Lord’s indictment against the shepherds of Israel in the book of Ezekiel (chapter 34), it appears that the spiritual leaders of God’s heritage had become negligent in their responsibilities to the flock.
The Lord addressed this issue by asking, “Should not the shepherds feed the flock?” (Ezekiel 34:2) We can and should ask the same question today (cf. Acts 20:28). When the shepherds of the flock become careless with their responsibility of feeding the flock, apostasy will result.
The shepherds of Israel were not concerned with strengthening the weak, ministering to the sick and broken, bringing back those who had been driven away, or seeking the lost (Ezekiel 34:4). Instead of functioning as godly and faithful keepers of the flock, they drove away the flock by ruling them with force and cruelty (Ibid.).
The result of this type of failed leadership was a people “scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered” (34:5). The Lord said, “My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them” (34:6).
Due to the negligence of the shepherds of Israel, God took the matter into His hands proving to us the importance of seeking and saving the lost. The Lord said, “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out” (34:11). “I will feed My flock” (34:15). “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick…” (34:16). Ultimately, God would establish His Son as Shepherd over the flock (34:23-24; 1 Peter 5:4).
The Shepherds of the Church
Throughout God’s dialogue with Ezekiel, He continually referred to Israel as “My sheep” and “My flock.” By such statements we are reminded that the flock does indeed belong to God.
Equally true is God’s possession of the church today (cf. John 10:14, 27; 1 Peter 5:2-3). How can we prevent this same type of trickle-down apostasy from occurring in congregations of the Lord’s church today?
Let us provide what we hope will be a few helpful suggestions.
- Use the guideline God has given us for determining elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Seek only those who are qualified to serve as shepherds. Lay hands on no man suddenly (1 Timothy 5:22). Decide carefully and prayerfully who will lead you as God’s people.
- Encourage faithful elders. Be sure that they know how much they are appreciated for their love for your souls and for their stand for the truth (Acts 20:17-35).
- Remember your elders in prayer (Hebrews 13:7; Acts 20:36). Pray for their souls, their wisdom, and their leadership of the flock.
- Obey and honor those who rule well (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17). A faithful and godly elder is one who is concerned for the well-being of your souls. He should be continually encouraged to this end. Honor him for his life of seeking the lost and restoring the wayward. Obey him as he obeys the Lord (Hebrews 13:7). Be careful not to distract him from the work he is called to do by burdening him with the sundry matters of little or no significance.
It has been said that the greatest need in the Lord’s church today is the need for godly, faithful, and scripturally qualified men to serve as elders. I cannot help but agree.
Simply put, it is not good enough to have shepherds. Israel had shepherds, but they were not faithful, and as a result the people were led into apostasy. So too must shepherds in the Lord’s church be the right kind of men to do the great work they have to do. Only by following God’s instructions in appointing, encouraging, and following these men, will we be sure to avoid the sinful effect of a trickle-down apostasy.