Sheep, green pastures, and the promised land
In Scripture, Christians are identified with sheep who are led by Christ to green pastures, and still waters where they may drink. David wrote:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
In the metaphor of sheep in this psalm, Christ, who is the shepherd, leads his saints to places where they may find plenty of nourishment, and spiritual water to drink. The green pastures suggest that they are taught new things, that have an aspect of freshness and newness, rather than old, familiar things. New wine is a metaphor with a similar meaning in other prophecies. Jesus characterized his teachings as new wine. He said men do not put new wine in old wineskins. [Luke 5:37, NIV]
Jeremiah used the same metaphor of a shepherd leading his sheep, along a straight path, by the waters of a river, in a prophecy about the gathering of the people of Israel from the foreign lands where they were scattered. They are brought back to their homeland, which represents their spiritual inheritance. Jeremiah’s prophecy is not referring to the modern phenomenon of Jews returning to Palestine, but to a spiritual renewal, and reconciliation to God. Not much of that has occurred as Jews emigrate to Palestine. The land, the river, and the sheep in Jeremiah’s prophecy are figurative. These people come with weeping. The statement “I am a father to Israel” implies the prophecy refers to God’s children, the saints, not ethnic Jews.
Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither.
They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the LORD, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock.
In the figure of scattered sheep being brought back to their sheepfold, the spiritual significance of becoming scattered and being “lost,” corresponds to people not knowing God being led back to the sheepfold, where they are in the care of Jesus. It is a figure representing people learning the truth, and returning to the “faith once delivered.” In Hebrews 3:18-19, entering the rest represented by the promised land requires belief.
Jesus sent his disciples “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” [Matthew 10:6] The sheep he referred to were lost, even though the people actually lived in Judea, or Galilee, or other places in Palestine. It did not necessarily mean they were living in other countries. In John 21:15-17, Jesus asked Peter three times to “feed his sheep.” Jesus said all his sheep will be brought into one fold.
As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
The disciples were commissioned to preach the gospel to all nations. [Matthew 28:18-20] The effect of their preaching was to make sheep of them. Whatever their race or nationality, Christians were brought into the “the commonwealth of Israel” and included in “the covenants of promise” by faith in Christ. [Ephesians 2:12-13]
In Ezekiel 34, the saints are described under the metaphor of sheep scattered in all countries. Christ searches for them, and leads them back to their own land, where they may feed upon the pasture of the mountains of Israel, by the rivers.
And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country.
In nature, the pasture of other lands is basically similar to the pasture in the land of Canaan, and may even be superior. For example, English or Irish hills are probably greener. But the promised land has a spiritual significance; Ezekiel’s prophecy does not mean people should literally move to Palestine, but that the saints need to return to what Canaan represents, which is the knowledge of God, and of the gospel.
Ezekiel further showed that while the sheep are feeding, some animals tread down the pasture with their feet, and pollute the waters, to which God brings his sheep.
And as for you, O my flock, thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I judge between cattle and cattle, between the rams and the he goats.
Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunk of the deep waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet?
And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.
Flawed teachings associated with various sects and denominations, and wrong interpretations of prophecy, are examples of the pollution described here. For example the theory of dispensationalism construes the revelations of God in Scripture as a series of discontinuous administrations, or dispensations. But Scripture portrays the revelations of God by the metaphor of rivers, which are continuous. The promises of God are represented by mountains, which are described as “everlasting.” These metaphors discredit the basic premises of dispensationalism.