Review: Shepherds After My Own Heart

I recently preached about avoiding pretence and mentioned how cringe-worthy I would consider the title Pastor Luke. It’s better than Reverend (though I treasure a letter I got incorrectly addressing me with that) but it’s still odd for the kind of church I’m part of.

The use of pastor as a job description, however, is a different matter. It’s the Latin word for shepherd and as Timothy Laniak shows in Shepherds After My Own Heart* it is a major metaphor for understanding Christian leadership which mustn’t be avoided.

He begins by showing how ancient cultures, with their dependence on flocks, came to use the idea of a shepherd to understand leadership: the sceptre of monarchy started as a shepherd’s staff. The duties of a king and a shepherd could be seen as similar - rule, guide, protect, provide, be present.
“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people's history.” (G.A. Smith, A Historical Geography of the Holy Land, quoted 57)
Israel’s God taught its rulers that they were responsible for His flock. The people didn't belong to them but to Him. The word-picture creates the imaginative space for both these aspects of leadership to be understood: leadership and submission. In the Old Testament, two men who learnt to shepherd sheep before God gave them people defined what shepherd leadership should look like: Moses (Psalm 77:19-20) and David (Psalm 78:70-72). They were close to God and His flock, followers before they were leaders – leaders, in fact, because they were followers.
Psalm 23 is a reminder than even the king - especially the king - was dependent on the God of Israel for personal nurture and guidance. Israel's kings had to understand that being a member of the flock was more fundamental than being an appointed shepherd over that flock.” (114)
Leadership that sees those being led as simply an extension of the leader’s ambition is utterly rejected. The non-negotiable duty of care that rulers had was understood to have no limit:
“Isaiah [chapters 40-55 especially] is clear about the biblical ironies of leadership: to rule is to serve and to suffer, and to lead is to be both shepherd and sacrificial lamb.” (129)
Failure to fulfil this role incurred God’s fierce anger, but the sheep would not remain scattered and hopeless because God Himself would shepherd them as Ezekiel 34:1-6 and 11-16 illustrates. This is the worldview Jesus came into, and the great mission which He took on:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17)
Jesus now gives this charge to all whom He appoints as shepherd of His flock (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4). He is the Master and the model: “Like Jesus, good shepherd elders can say, ‘Follow me as I lay down my life for you.’” (234).

As he goes through all the texts which have the shepherd image at their heart, Laniak draws leadership lessons and challenges his reader to consider how they are shepherding those whom God has entrusted to them. Reading through the development of the Bible’s presentation of leadership forces pastors to think repeatedly about this, the case accumulates by a magnitude. It would make particularly useful reading for younger leaders who love their Bibles and think they know everything. The examination of texts throughout Scripture will excite them, and what is found there will profoundly challenge them.


* Laniak’s book is part of a great series, New Studies in Biblical Theology, which aims to thoroughly and deeply explore key ideas and themes in the Bible. It is perfectly positioned between books which seem to be little more than ‘My ideas with a few Bible verses added here and there’ and ‘Everything that could possibly be said about anything” minimum length 800 pages, with a million footnotes written in Greek. They are hard work, but not impossible; thorough but clear.