In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Some historical knowledge of what shepherds did for their sheep will bring a great deal of illumination to Jesus’ statement. However, a knowledge of how the Old Testament used the “shepherd” metaphor may bring an even greater appreciation to the theological depth of His pronouncement.
In the Old Testament, there are two main threads of thought when it comes to using a shepherding analogy. First, God is the Good Shepherd of Israel. The first reference to God as Israel’s shepherd comes in Genesis 48:15 when Israel blesses Joseph and says, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” (all Scripture is ESV unless otherwise stated). This metaphor is revisited a chapter later in Gen 49:24, a prophecy that again relates to Joseph but uses the shepherd metaphor to speak of God.
Multiple Scriptures elaborate on this theme of God as the Good Shepherd: Psalm 23 most famously, along with Psalm 80:1 (which again mentions God shepherding Joseph!), Isaiah 40:11 (picturing God tendering caring for His people like a shepherd cares for his little lambs), Psalm 78:52-53 (describing God leading His people out of Egypt like sheep), and Micah 7:14 (which calls God to shepherd His people).
So the first thread of theological thought using shepherd imagery is that God is Israel’s Good Shepherd. The second thread of thought in the OT is that human rulers ought to be shepherds of the people, modeled after the Good Shepherd. The people recognize this when they compare David’s leadership to that of a shepherd in 2 Samuel 5:2. 1 Chronicles 17:6 also calls the judges of Israel to shepherd the people.
However, what becomes glaringly clear is that these shepherds are far from good. Oftentimes sinful kings and leaders are chastised by the prophets for doing a terrible job at shepherding. Jeremiah 10:21 calls the shepherds “stupid” and notes that the sheep have scattered because of the awful job the men have done. Jeremiah continues to develop this theme in 23:1-4 (also 25:32-38), noting that Israel’s exile was (partly) due to these terrible shepherds. However, within that passage, God also promises to return the sheep of Israel and give them shepherds that will genuinely care for them (see also Jer 3:15 on this thought).
Jeremiah is not the only prophet to develop this theme of bad shepherds. Isaiah 56:9-12 calls the leaders of Israel, “shepherds who have no understanding.” Zechariah 11 has an especially-long extended metaphor against the shepherds of Israel, even using a couple of staffs as props. It’s worth a read, as is Ezekiel 34, which takes the extended metaphor to a whole new level. Here’s a sample passage from Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 34:1-7 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
The passage goes on to say that God Himself will be their shepherd, and also His servant David (probably a messianic reference, looking forward to Christ). And this is where we can circle back around to the text at hand in John 10.
In the OT, we have seen two things: 1) God is the Good Shepherd of Israel, and 2) Israelite leaders are terrible shepherds. When Jesus declares, “I am the Good Shepherd,” He is pulling from both of these well-known OT metaphors and making tremendous declarations about Himself.
In relation to the first idea of God as shepherd, Jesus’ self-declaration of that same idea is tantamount to identifying Himself with God. Jesus is Yahweh. Just like with His previous declarations of “I am the bread of life” and “I am the light of the world” (not to forget “I Am!”), Jesus takes OT imagery related to Yahweh and applies it to Himself.
In relation to the second idea of Israelite leaders as terrible shepherds, Jesus fulfills what the Israelites could not. He embodies the perfect Israelite, the one who fulfilled all the Law, the true leader of Israel. Being both truly God and truly man, Jesus is able to represent both Israel and God at the same time in this single metaphor.