The connection between herding sheep and ruling as a king is rather unique to Scripture. In the Old Testament it is King David — dramatically raised from lowly shepherd boy to the throne of Israel (1 Sm 16:1-13; 2 Sm 5:1-4) — who personifies most vividly this connection: “[God] chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfolds. From tending ewes God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage. He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them” (Ps 78:70-72).
Yet, significantly, it is God who is described in the Old Testament as being perfect king and righteous shepherd. He is named in the Psalms as “the great king over all the earth” who reigns over the nations and “sits upon his holy throne” (Ps 47:3, 8-9). Recall, however, that when the elders of Israel demanded the prophet Samuel appoint a king over the nation, it was a renunciation of God’s kingship. “They are rejecting me as their king,” God said to Samuel, “deserting me to serve other gods” (1 Sm 8:4-9). God granted the selfish demand for a human king, but warned that mere mortal men would ultimately fail and disappoint as rulers, turning their subjects into slaves and separating them from a right relationship with God (1 Sm 8:10-18).
So even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sm 13:14; 16:7), failed miserably in many ways, most notably by committing adultery with Bathsheba and then arranging for the death of her husband, the loyal soldier, Uriah the Hittite. “Against you, you alone have I sinned,” wrote David, “I have done what is evil in your eyes; So that you are just in your word, and without reproach in your judgment” (Ps 51:6). God, the true and perfect king, will render judgment on all men.
David’s most famous psalm is probably the one quoted in today’s responsorial: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Ps 23:1). It is a short but beautiful depiction of God’s care for his people. The same theme is found in abundance in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel: The Lord God will tend his sheep, as well as rescue them, pasture them, give them rest, seek out those who are lost, bind up the injured, and heal the sick. There will, however, also be judgment: “I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” Mercy and justice exist perfectly in God, who knows every heart and intention.
Just three chapters later is this passage: “David my servant shall be king over them; they shall all have one shepherd” (Ez 37:24). This servant is the Son of Man and the Son of David, Jesus Christ, the new Adam who brings life to those who belong to him and destruction to those who oppose him.
The stark contrast is just as obvious in the parable of the sheep and the goats. There is no third animal; there are only two possibilities: to inherit the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” or to be sent “off to eternal punishment.” In the Old Testament, of course, it is God who judges and separates the rams from the goats. The Son of Man can only judge the sheep and the goats because he is God Incarnate. He is “the true Christ, the divine and heavenly Logos,” wrote Eusebius of Caesarea in his “Ecclesiastical History,” “the only high priest of the world, the only King of all creation.” At his name, at history’s end, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess he is King and Lord.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.