HAVE NEVER MET A GENUINE old-fashioned shepherd of the Bible sort—the kind who wanders over the hills with his flock, staff in hand. I suspect they are rather rare nowadays; certainly rarer than they were in Jesus’ day. I did, however, once meet a man who had 5,000 sheep in a huge feedlot. I asked him, “What are sheep really like?” He thought for a moment, and said, “Stupid. Basically machines for eating and breeding.”
Somewhere out there, I’m sure, someone will rise to defend the personal charms of sheep. As I said, I haven’t known any sheep personally, but I must tell you that the bulk of the testimony falls on the side of their being decidedly dim.
And here’s what bothers me: that’s the animal the Bible keeps comparing us to. That’s the metaphor it uses when it talks about us. “You [are] my sheep, the sheep of my pasture.”1 It just seems to me that it is not very considerate of God to have saddled us with such an uncomplimentary self-image.
I can think of many other animals I’d prefer to be compared to. Dogs and cats are delightful animals. Couldn’t God have said, “You are My pets, the kitty cats of My household”? “You are My friends, the faithful dogs at My feet”? These are smart, companionable animals, nice to have around, capable of learning, useful, affectionate, and grateful. I wouldn’t mind being the Lord’s dog or cat. But His sheep? Stupid machines for eating and breeding? I’m not sure I like that.
Let’s suppose ancient readers didn’t know dogs and cats as pets, as we do today. Yet there are other metaphors in the animal kingdom. We could have been, say, lions. “You are My lions, the kings of My jungle.” Eagles are noble and beautiful. “You are My eagles, the monarchs of My sky.” Horses are graceful, intelligent beasts. He could have said, “You are My horses, proudly speeding across My earth.” Fine animals, all of them.
Even the insect world would yield examples. Ants are at least industrious, and sometimes it seems to me like we human beings in our big cities inhabit the earth like ants. Or bees—creatures of considerable merit, I think, for their industry, and the sweet product that comes of it. Butterflies are especially lovely. Who doesn’t like to see a butterfly dancing from flower to flower? “You are My butterflies, the beauty of My garden,” He might have said.
Or how about elephants? Massive, dignified animals. “You are My elephants, dominating My earth.” Or whales—handsome creatures of the sea, that live peacefully together and communicate with one another. I would be willing to be compared to them.
But no. He said we are sheep. Dumb sheep. Faces always to the ground. Making stupid, annoying noises. Eating and eating and eating, one clump to the next. Stopping only long enough to make more dumb sheep.
It could have been worse, I suppose. I doubt we would have liked it had God said, “You are My pigs, the porkers in My pen.” Or, “You are My snakes, slithering through My grass.” “You are My sharks, ripping apart other creatures.” Although come to think of it, I’ve seen some of those qualities in us. Sometimes we are selfish and greedy, sometimes sneaky and underhanded, sometimes rapacious and destructive.
And that’s probably the key here. Perhaps God didn’t intend to compliment us by comparing us to sheep. Perhaps He intended to give us a picture that would make us think about who we are and how we act. Remember especially this passage: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.”2 At our best, we human beings are occasionally capable of a few noble qualities. We can be strong and kind and good, hardworking, even beautiful. We are capable of exhibiting the qualities of the nobler animals. But far more often than we like to admit, we are rather stupid creatures, choosing things that aren’t good for us, making mistakes that could have been avoided.
The more I look at human culture, the more it seems that we, too, at our worst, act like machines for eating and breeding. And so Scripture’s description: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.” And is it not true? Were it not true, would we be reading every day about another war in another part of the world? Another horrible crime, another terrorist attack, more innocent suffering? We may, upon reflection, have to admit that we are a bit sheeplike. Moving and thinking in herds. Trying to fill our stomachs and fulfill our desires, no matter the problems we create.
No, our actions in this world, especially when seen through the eyes of an infinitely good, infinitely kind God, aren’t especially good. There are certain scenes from human history, certain vignettes of our lives, where comparing us to sheep may actually be more flattering than we deserve!
On the other hand, this metaphor may not be entirely about us sheep. It may be that the reason God spoke of us as sheep was so that He could describe the Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”3 There’s a lot more in this passage (including one of the most church-neglected truths of Jesus, that He has other sheep who are not part of our particular sheepfold). But the point is that whatever animals we are, or act like, our Master, our Caretaker, our Shepherd is always good if we follow Him as we ought to.
When Isaiah described us as sheep, he said: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.” But then he adds one more thing: “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” That’s the real meaning here. Our Shepherd is so good that He has laid down His life for us. And if anything can lift us from our sheepness and make us the kind of fully human, fully good people that God wants us to be, Jesus can.
2Isa. 53:6, NKJV. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3John 10:14, 15.
Loren Seibold is the pastor of the Worthington Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio.