Sunday, October 6, 2013

Chapter 31: Against "a Multitude of Shepherds"

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1).

There is, perhaps, no better-known verse of scripture in the Old Testament than the opening line of David's twenty-third psalm.  And because David--the shepherd king--was a type of Christ, we tend to think of the Lord in those terms. During his mortal ministry, Jesus declared, "I am the good shepherd," and prophets from Nephi to Paul, from Peter to Mormon, have referred to him in those terms (John 10:14; see also D&C 50:44, Hebrew 13:20, 1 Peter 2:25, 1 Nephi 13:41, Mormon 5:17). 

Even Isaiah refers to the coming Messiah as a shepherd (40:11), which is why the violent imagery of Isaiah 31:4 seems so surprising. In chapter 31, Isaiah is again warning Israel not to trust in Egypt for deliverance: "Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help" (31:1). Isaiah is the only voice, seemingly, raised in opposition to an alliance with Egypt; the "shepherds" of Israel are leading God's children astray by urging them to trust "the Egyptians . . . and not God" (31:3).

It is in this context that Isaiah introduces what is, perhaps, his most surprising metaphor: "For thus hath the Lord spoken unto me, Like as the lion and the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, he will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so shall the Lord of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof" (31:4). Readers familiar with the story of David--a shepherd--killing a lion to save his sheep (1 Samuel 17:34-36) should be shocked at this metaphor. Why does Isaiah figure the Lord as a roaring lion rather than in his more familiar role as a protective shepherd? I suspect that this choice is meant to emphasize the fact that God will not allow false prophets (those shepherds advocating an alliance with Egypt) to lead his people astray. This metaphor also recalls Elisha's counsel when the Syrian army surrounded the prophet in the city of Dothan. When Elisha's servant sees the Syrian host surrounding them he is alarmed, but Elisha comforts him: "Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them."

Isaiah's metaphor is a reminder that one on God's side is always a majority; the roaring of a lion and a single servant of God will always be a more reliable guide to righteousness than the collective wisdom of men, false shepherds relying on the philosophies of men.

Truly, great are the words of Isaiah!

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