'The good Shepherd'

Pastoral imagery pervades scripture.

Spiritual comparisons involving flocks, lambs and sheep, and their relationship to a shepherd, abound. The symbolism is ingrained in the consciousness of virtually every follower of Christ. It is so familiar, in fact, that we might gloss over it and miss some instructive nuances.

At the outset, some modern readers must undergo something of a cultural paradigm shift to fully grasp the parallels. Shepherding in the ancient milieu of the Bible differs from sheep herding in contemporary Western culture.

The "sheep" entry in our Bible Dictionary explains: "Immense numbers of sheep were reared in Palestine in biblical times, and in some parts of the country this is still the case. The flocks were protected from wild beasts at night by men who watched them with their shepherd dogs. Shepherds still, as of old, go before the sheep, and the sheep follow, being apparently more or less attached to their masters, whose voice they instantly recognize" (emphasis added).

By contrast, in nations of the Western Hemisphere, sheep are driven by a herder, who goes behind instead of in front of the flock. It is easy to see how that would seem foreign to a shepherd in ancient Israel. Sheep that fled from a shepherd would indeed be considered wild, in danger of being scattered and vulnerable to predators.

Thus, in Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, we find an unusual and highly insightful application of the shepherd-flock imagery. In Chapter 8, king Limhi, leader of a Nephite colony, praises God for His mercy and laments over the nature of the children of men who "will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them" (verse 20).

He goes on to observe:

"Yea, they are as a wild flock which fleeth from the shepherd, and scattereth, and are driven and are devoured by the beasts of the forest" (verse 21).

What better comparison could there be in regard to those who reject the teachings and counsel of the Master — and His servants, the prophets and apostles — and pursue their own course? How better to illustrate the plight of those who, having fled from the fold of God, then fall prey to some of the many inducements to wickedness, to false philosophies and dogmas, to intellectual sophistries?

Limhi, of course, was the son of king Noah, whose subjects upheld him and his priests in wickedness and debauchery while persecuting and ultimately slaying Abinadi, a prophet of God. In this context, the above passage is especially meaningful as applied to those who, in fulfillment of one of the prophecies of the last days, sustain wickedness while despising the word of God, who "call evil good, and good evil" (see Isaiah 5:20; see also Moroni 7:14).

Another striking application of the shepherd-flock metaphor is in Isaiah 40:9, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (emphasis added).

What a comfort this passage can be to parents, who are charged by the Shepherd with the responsibility of bringing up their young "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4; Enos 1:1). If, in that effort, parents sometimes feel that an impenetrable wall hinders them, they can draw assurance from the Savior's promise to "gently lead" them. This guidance may be manifested in scriptural passages, in words of living prophets, or in the still, small voice that often amounts to personal revelation with regard to their parental duty.

Finally, at times when the forces of wickedness seem to be arrayed against the Lord's Church and kingdom, we can take assurance and courage from these words of the Master, reiterated in latter-day revelation:

"Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).

"Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail" (Doctrine and Covenants 6:34).

"Fear not, little flock, the kingdom is yours until I come. Behold, I come quickly. Even so. Amen" (Doctrine and Covenants 35:27).

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