What does ‘the Good Shepherd’ mean?

I have grown up understanding the description of Jesus as the good shepherd to be full of agricultural symbolism. We hear the term in so many Biblical passages:

John 10:11 (ESV): 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:14 (ESV): I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

Psalm 23:1–2 (ESV): The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.

The imagery usually includes Jesus as the shepherd, Jesus’ followers as sheep, and the setting is usually fields or pasture. Lurking danger is often depicted as animals of prey, or the sheep’s only folly by wandering off into wilderness. The meaning is clear and understandable. Jesus takes care of us by nourishing us and protecting us. Going outside of his will and boundary will end us in trouble. The imagery also includes him stepping out of the fold to find us when we have got ourselves lost.

A couple of times recently, I’ve come across an extra layer of meaning that would have been understood by ancient readers of Biblical texts but seems to have been forgotten by the modern world - at the very least it is rarely discussed as part of the term’s meaning. This meaning is that the term ‘good shepherd’ was often a euphemism for a king in the ancient Near East.

Ben Witherington III writes in Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy, that,

It can not be stressed enough that in the ancient Near East it was precisely by the constructing of cities and temples that a king became the organiser, protector, and controller of a country, it’s people, and it’s political and religious life. The ‘Good Shepherd’ as such ancient kings were called, was at once chief executive, high priest, supreme commander of the army, and supreme-court judge all rolled into one. The city of a great king had a cosmological aspect - it became the abode of the god. (Ch 3 Courting the Prophets, 68)

Later in the chapter, he refers to the story of King Ahab in 1 Kings 22:1-40 who has sought his court prophets out in order to find a positive prediction for his future. Micaiah is brought in. When he is sworn to speak the truth,

he tells a tale of all Israel scattered upon the mountains by their foes and leaderless, like sheep without a shepherd, and their having nothing to do but wander home. Since the term ‘shepherd’ was a not uncommon euphemism for the king in the ancient Near East (see, E.g. Zechariah 13:7), the implications of the oracle are clearly bad for the king.

Looking at all Jesus’ self-references as the good shepherd throughout the gospels takes a deeper level of meaning. Now, I have to get my head around not just agricultural symbolism, but the significance of a great royal ruler overseeing a nation. The inhabitants of any powerful city rely on the king for protection and provision, just as a farming shepherd would also do for his sheep, except this time the significance is far greater.

It suddenly makes Jesus’ claims to divinity throughout the gospels take on more weight, and I feel that this can be missed quite often in the modern culture.

Are others aware of this meaning, and has it affected your understanding of all Jesus’ self-references as a shepherd in the Gospels?


This was a new meaning to me that definitely adds a layer of meaning to Jesus’ self-references and parables throughout the Gospels.

One thing I noticed while checking this out in some Bible dictionaries was how often this shepherd imagery was applied to God throughout the Old Testament. The Lexham Bible Dictionary lists 16 OT Passages in which God is called a shepherd or is depicted in the role of a shepherd (Gen 48:15; 49:24; Pss 23:1–4; 28:9; 74:1; 77:20; 78:52; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7 Eccl 12:11; Isa 40:11; Ezek 34:12-15, 31; Jer 31:10; Zech 9:16).

Particularly striking was Ezekiel 34:12-24, but especially these portions:

14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.

This reminds me of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus literally fed the Israelites in the land. I’m not certain if this is really a significant connection at all, but it is interesting that right before the feeding of the 4,000 Gentiles in Matthew 15, Jesus is talking with the Canaanite woman about being sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and then switches to a metaphor about food in which the woman pleads that surely there is enough for her (and I believe the Gentiles in general) to receive the crumbs. Jesus then goes on to heal her and feed the 4,000 right afterward.

Regardless though, the next verses of Ezekiel 34 are more clearly connected to Jesus’ ministry:

16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. 17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.

These seem to parallel well the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7) and the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46). With the sheep and the goats Jesus also says it will be the Son of Man - the most common title he uses for himself - that does the separating where the Ezekiel passage says the Lord God is doing the separating. So, in addition to the royal layer of meaning, I think Jesus may have been using the language of being a shepherd to reveal his divine nature. The last few verses of the Ezekiel passage seem to point toward Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy as well:

23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.

This was all new and interesting for me and I’m excited to see how it shapes my understanding of the gospels as I keep these royal and divine references in mind! I’m also excited to hear others’ thoughts and how they have understood Jesus references to himself as a shepherd!


Hi @alison,

Thanks for starting this interesting topic for discussion. Recently, as I have been studying Walking with God in the Desert by Ray Vander Laan with a church group, I have begun to appreciate why scriptures describe God as a Shepherd and its relation to the Messianic Kingdom.

What I have learnt is that the geography of the lands of the Bible - Egypt, the desert and the promised land, played a significant role in the history and spiritual development of the Jewish people, and biblical writers used imagery from everyday experiences of these ancient cultures assuming the reader’s familiarity with that world. God had led the Israelites through the deserts of Sinai, wilderness of Paran, Negev, Zin and Judea. Unlike the lush green pastures that we modern day readers tend to imagine as we read Psalm 23, the desert terrain had steep rocky mountains, scarce water, few trees, a meager amount of grass along with dangers such as scorpions and snakes. The western edge of the steep Judean mountains was the main area that received enough rain to provide sufficient grazing. Like the sheep in the desert, whose lives depended on the shepherd’s knowledge of daily pasture and water to survive, this relationship became an appropriate metaphor for God and his people. The desert imagery such as wadis, thirst, miry clay, hunger, darkness were often used to describe hardships the Israelites faced. However, the desert was also where Israelites came to know God as a shepherd, as when God provided the Israelites with manna, quail, water from the rock and protection from enemies (Ex 13-17), David found safety from King Saul’s murderous intentions (1 Samuel 23:14) or as when Elijah escaped Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-8). The desert was the classroom where they learnt about moving away from self-sufficiency to dependence on God.

This may be related to the fact that the shepherds exercised complete and undisputed authority over their flocks. The sheep had to obey the voice of the Lord and follow him or face danger of death. So, if Jesus Christ is our Shepherd, we put ourselves under his complete authority, as a sovereign King! Through my book study, I came across several scriptural references in both the Old and New testament that link Jesus as the Messianic King who has been given divine authority as a shepherd over God’s flock- Isaiah 9:6-7, Jer 23:1-6, Micah 5:2, Matt 2:5-6, Micah 5:4, Zech 9:9, Matt 21:2-5, Zech 9:16, Eze 34:20-31, Rev 7:15-17.

The idea that the ancient cultures viewed a shepherd as a king is particularly evident in Psalm 78:70-72 where David’s rule as a king is compared to shepherding. What is also unique about this verse is that David is described as both shepherd and sheep! In King David just as @blake mentioned, we see the foreshadowing of prophecy that was, is and will be fulfilled in Jesus, as our King, Shepherd and Lamb!

Rev 7:15-17 ESV

15 Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 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.”

It was striking for me to see the continued usage of the desert imagery like hunger, thirst, sun, heat, and the identification of God as Shepherd and King, all the way from the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament. Considering Israelites knew the stories of hardships and God’s deliverance in the desert, the prophetic language with desert imagery would have brought great comfort to readers living in that context.


@alison, thank you for raising this interesting topic for us!

I appreciate the historical and cultural context you, @blake, and @lakshmi provided.

The daily liturgical reading for today included Psalm 80, which Blake referenced above.

It starts:

Listen, Shepherd of Israel,
who leads Joseph like a flock;
you who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine on Ephraim,
Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Rally your power and come to save us.
Restore us, God;
make your face shine on us,
so that we may be saved.

Beth Tanner, in the NICOT commentary, notes,

The psalm begins with an epithet for God that appears only here: Shepherd of Israel. The image of God as shepherd, however, is a recurrent image in the Bible. It is also known as a title meaning king in Israel and the greater ancient Near East. The opening line is in essence a request for an audience with the King God.

Further, in the commentary on verse 4,

This section opens with another title for God, ʾᵉlōhı̂m ṣᵉḇāʾôṯ (“God of the armies”), which indicates a powerful title for God equivalent to the Shepherd of Israel (v. 1). Both titles carry the understanding of king and warrior.

One further referent that I have learned, and need to keep learning, is that cherubim are not cute chubby angels. When we see God enthroned between the cherubim, this is a reference to the King’s throne.

As J.A. Motyer explains,

The cherubim overshadowing the Ark were a pedestal for the invisible throne of the invisible God and also the meeting–place between the Lord and his people (Ex. 25:18-22).

The mental image of a scraggly, low-class, smelly shepherd doesn’t quite fit this imagery at all. Asaph is distressed - the nation is ruined, desolate, attacked, and weak.

So, do God’s people want some wool and mutton?

No, they want the omnipotent King who reigns over Creation to come to their aid!

Perhaps we should use Willem Vangemeren’s phrase (which I have seen elsewhere): “Shepherd-King” (when it fits the context), so that we remember this connotation.


@blake , Thank you for these OT references to the Good Shepherd.

So fascinating - and having spent so much time talking to cults that deny the deity of Jesus, I find the points you made to be incredibly affirming for the divine identity of Jesus that can be brought into future conversations that I might have.

@lakshmi the choice of symbolism in the language throughout the whole Bible is really interesting when looking at Jesus’ role as shepherd and king.

This understanding highlights our deficiency in the west to fully comprehend the message in the symbolism. Very few of us can claim to have any experience as shepherds today! I imagine that most of us have formed a picture of shepherds from nursery rhymes and these always include luscious verdant scenes with fluffy sheep and a happy shepherd. The geographical setting of scripture illustrates a thoroughly different picture for us. Taking time to reflect on the role of both shepherds and kings in the hot, dry and perilous conditions of the ANE terrain is necessary to understand what Jesus is offering of himself to us as our king, shepherd and saviour.

This is a good term to reflect more on which I think encompasses more of who we’re meant to understand Jesus as. I confess the image of the scraggly smelly shepherd is one that has dominated my idea of Jesus in the past, and therefore limited how I saw him, especially when it came to his sovereignty, authority and power. My current practice when thinking about Jesus is to remember both the gentle and humble man of the Gospels, and the warrior with the mouth-sword and thigh tattoo of Revelation!