Shepherds After God’s Own Heart

sheep‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart,
who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
– Jeremiah 3:15 –

In a chapter lamenting the spiritual adultery of Israel, Yahweh promises to give his people shepherds who will feed them with knowledge and understanding. He calls these “pastors” “shepherds after his own heart.” In the context of the prophets (and in Jeremiah especially), the arrival of these God-centered pastors marks the coming of the new covenant. While there were  faithful shepherds in the Old Testament, there were few. It would take the arrival of the Spirit to fulfill this verse and to supply God’s people with shepherds after God’s own heart.

Today, firmly situated in the era of the new covenant, this verse prompts pastors and churches alike to consider the gift, calling, and responsibility pastors have to shepherd the flock of God among them. And from this verse we can see at least four truths worthy of remembrance and application.

Shepherds After God’s Own Heart

First, shepherds after God’s own heart come from God.

Not surprisingly, God-centered shepherds come from the God who is the Great Shepherd. As verse 15 indicates, faithful shepherds come from God (“I will give”), and verse 14 provides the rationale for God giving them. Yahweh calls his “faithless children” home saying, “I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion” (v. 14). Then in verse 15, he introduces his shepherds. Stocked with the Word of God, these shepherds are to care for the sheep who have been brought into God’s fold. Thus, as God gives his redeemed shepherds, they are extensions of his care. While God uses means to raise up shepherds, true shepherds are gifts from God himself.

Second, shepherds after God’s own heart care for the sheep delivered by the Good Shepherd.

In Jeremiah 3:15 shepherds are caretakers, literally “feeders.” They are to supply the sheep with the wisdom and knowledge they need to live in God’s presence. They are not saviors but shepherds.

In canonical context, there is another shepherd, a single Good Shepherd needed to rescue these sheep. This shepherd is foretold in Ezekiel 34 and Zechariah 9. In those contexts, the Good Shepherd is described as laying down his life for his sheep (see John 10).

In truth, there will be no sheep to shepherd if there is not a good shepherd. Thus the shepherds spoken of here are themselves sheep raised up by the Good Shepherd to lead other sheep, which indicates the kind of work shepherds must perform.

Third, shepherds after God’s own heart will give themselves to feeding the flock.

While the good shepherd lays down his life to rescue his sheep, the (under)shepherds are called to feed those whom the Lord has redeemed. In the Old Testament, false shepherds fattened themselves on the sheep’s food (see Ezekiel 34) and ignored teaching the people. Under the new covenant, shepherds after God’s own heart are moved by the Spirit to singularly committed to the Word and to feeding God’s people with the Word. As gospel messengers, true shepherds point the sheep to the one true shepherd.

Thus, the undershepherd is called not to speak his own words, but like Jeremiah was told, “whatever the Lord commands, that will we speak” (Jer 1:7). Shepherds after God’s own heart ought to have mouths overflowing with God’s Word, which means that the men God calls to the ministry must have hearts filled with Word and lives disciplined to study the Word.

Last, the shepherds who are given by God and speak the Words of Christ will have success.

In the Old Testament, many shepherds fall into sin. Many others failed to instruct the people. Many others were ignored by the people. In a word, the prophets, priests, and kings of Israel (the shepherds) were marked by failure. In Jeremiah 3:15, this trend is reversed.

Looking into the future, to a new (covenat) era when God will gather his children into Zion, Jeremiah records the unwavering success of God’s shepherds. In contrast with what some might call success today, success defined here are a band of faithful shepherds who rightly instruct the people of God. As John 10 says, the sheep will hear the voice of their Shepherd through the words of God’s undershepherds and they will follow him (John 10:4, 27).

But there is more. Success is not just faithful teachers; it is teaching that is effective (cf. Isa 55:10–11).

In context, Jeremiah 3:15 says that God’s shepherds will feed his people with knowledge and understanding. Unlike the unfaithful shepherds of old, these Word-centered pastors will see a  response to the Word that Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah did not.

As Isaiah 54:13 foretold, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” And Isaiah 11:9, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In short, through God’s promise of good shepherds, sent out by and in service to the Good Shepherd, the Lord promises that his sheep will hear his words and will return to Zion.

Of course, the fulfillment of this passage does not overturn barren seasons, hard mission fields, or seemingly insignificant labors. Faithful heralds of the world will often experience difficulty and spotty results. Still, the promise holds: the work of the Lord is not offered in vain (1 Cor 15:58). It will produce fruit—in God’s way, in God’s time, just as God promised!

A Pastoral Application

For pastors and ministers of the Word today, this verse in Jeremiah 3:15 provides sobriety and stimulus. It should sober us that we are responsible for the very sheep for whom Christ died (Acts 20:28). And thus our commission is never to lead those sheep to think much of ourselves. We are to shepherd them as Christ’s possession. We are to protect them, guide them, and feed them with the Word of God. Woe to the shepherd who turns this ministry to any kind of self-promotion.

At the same time, Jeremiah 3:15 (and Isaiah 54:13) spurs us on and encourages us. It exhorts us to stand on the Word of God. And it should strengthens us to keep trusting that God’s sheep will hear the Shepherds voice through the weakness of our efforts.

Our calling—praise the Lord—is not to build big churches, but to announce the largesse of God’s grace and the largeness of his saving power. If we do this, we will prove ourselves to be faithful shepherds—shepherds after God’s own heart.

Lord, forgive us pastors for our all-too-common practice of self-serving ministry. May we lay down our lives to feed the flocks that you have entrusted to us. May we have confidence in your Word and proclaim it profusely, so that those sheep under our care will remain strong in Zion, until the day of your return.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds