God is identifying that, over the course of Israel's history, a chief cause of its despicable behavior and the resulting cultural deterioration was an almost continuous breakdown of leadership. He uses the term “shepherd” to identify the source of the cause, but we need to consider it in more detail because a shepherd is generally associated with a person who leads sheep. We will see that the figurative use of “sheep” is the focus in this context.
In Isaiah 1, God describes Judah as “a people laden with iniquity.” God personified the nation, describing its breakdown as a diseased body: “From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it” (Isaiah 1:6). The nation was corrupt and deceived from the lowliest citizen in the realm all the way to the highest, most powerful governmental leader.
It is easy to assume that in Ezekiel 34 “shepherd” refers only to Judah's religious ministry. Jesus directly refers to Himself in John 10:11 in such a way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” However, minister is not the only occupation to which the Bible applies the term. A clear and perhaps surprising example appears in Isaiah 44:28, where God Himself calls Cyrus, a Gentile king, “My shepherd.” In II Samuel 5:2, David is commanded by God to “shepherd My people Israel, and be ruler over Israel.” (See also Numbers 27:15-19.)
Shepherds of literal sheep were providers, guides, protectors, and their constant companions. Thus, they were figures of authority and leadership to the animals under their care. So close is the connection between shepherd and sheep that, to this day, separate flocks can mingle day or night at a well, and a shepherd has only to call his sheep, and they will separate themselves to gather to him. In Genesis 31:38-40, Jacob witnesses to the closeness of a shepherd to his flock, as does Jesus in John 10:5.
The Bible uses the term “shepherd” in Ezekiel 34 to designate anyone responsible for giving guidance to a community. In today's language, in a national sense “shepherds” includes the president or prime minister or royalty, for that matter. It also includes representatives in the legislature and court justices all the way down to the local level. In addition, besides governmental functions, in principal it also includes leaders of corporations and in education, most especially in universities that exist to train the next generation of community leaders. We must not forget the leadership provided by entertainers and media figures. In other words, “shepherd” broadly includes anybody who should be providing righteous leadership over others.
Then comes what might be the most important shepherding category of all, because they are closest to us and have the most meaningful relationship with us—parents. A noteworthy example regarding the impact of parental leadership is that of Adam and Eve. The Bible provides no specific instances of why things turned out as they did, but it is clear that Adam and Eve did not follow through on God's teaching as well as they could have. In the first generation after their sin, they played their roles in producing a murderer.
We find a distinct answer on Adam and Eve's shepherding of Cain when we combine two principles from Scripture. God says in Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” To this we add the apostle John's statement in I John 3:11-12: “For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous.”
God's judgment in Genesis 4 does not lay the greatest weight of blame on Cain's first guides and leaders, Adam and Eve. John shows Cain to have been a disciple of Satan. Everyone who sins bears in himself the greatest burden of guilt. There is no doubt that people become enslaved to sinful thinking, but no one can excuse himself from a huge measure of blame.
Righteousness and sin are serious responsibilities; in the end there is no dodging the burden. Every human being has had less-than-perfect family, church, neighborhood, school, and work associations, having been given some measure of guidance through them. But God's Word is clear: God's judgment is fair, and each person is judged individually on the basis of his own record.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Leadership and Covenants (Part One)