Chapter 1: The Oldest Profession: Keeping the Flocks
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
The crisp spring air of the starlit night echoed with muddled voices. As the flickering of firelight caused soft shadows to dance playfully up into the starry sky, the men huddled around the warm flames while the sweet olive smoke and aroma of cooking food passed them by. In the near distance, the soft baying of their restive flocks broke the night’s vast stillness. Some prepared for peaceful sleep while others’ watchful eyes kept the lookout across the starlit grassy hilltops. In the far distance, the faint urban light of Bethlehem bustled with abnormal care and worry in stark contrast to the shepherds’ serenity.
As the night and flocks grew still, an angel descended from the heavens. Darkness gave way to the angel’s pure light and “the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:90). This messianic messenger changed forever the shepherds’ usual evening. “Fear not,” said the angel, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10). And then, as the angel delivered the good news, countless concourses of the heavenly host appeared “praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). On this night in Bethlehem, the announcement of the Lord’s birth came not to the royal court of kings of men but to humble field of the shepherds of sheep.
I dare not attempt to ascribe a magnitude on the importance of the events transpiring that night in Bethlehem. But the condescension of God, the long-awaited fulfillment of the coming of the prophesied Messiah, went almost unnoticed. He would be the “King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:16), the “hope of Israel” (Jer. 14:8), and the Savior of all mankind. Surely the significance of His miraculous birth could only be surpassed by the eternal impact of His voluntary death on the cross at Calvary and glorious resurrection three days thereafter. Yet, on this starry night, there was no room for Him in the inns of Bethlehem. Most could not be bothered by the birth of just another baby boy. But these shepherds, theirs was an entirely different story.
I often wonder what made these few fieldsmen so special. Why shepherds? And why not the majestic court of Herod the King or the greatest courts of men found not far away in Rome? Why send a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God” announcing the Lord’s long-awaited birth across the unpopulated plains of Judea where only a few humble shepherds and their slumbering sheep could hear their hosannas as they raised their hallelujahs high into the heavens? (See Luke 2:13–14). Many reasons initially come to mind—they would hear the angel Gabriel, they would hearken to the good news, and they would bear witness of the most miraculous birth in the most humble of circumstances. The scripture surely validates these: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem . . . And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:15–17). But there is something more.
In the two thousand years passed since the Lord’s humble birth, these modest shepherds have secured a sacred place alongside the Baby Jesus in Christmas scenes throughout the world. Their presence in the Nativity—alongside the magi who traveled from afar and the newborn King of Kings—stemmed from their willingness to see and follow the long-prophesized signs of their Savior’s birth. Yet their very presence at the Christ Child’s side transcends coincidence. Elder James E. Talmage recognized this importance: “Pastoral conditions prevailed in Palestine, and the dignity of the shepherd’s profession was very generally recognized.” And as other scholars have confirmed, “Among the pastoral people of Palestine, service as a pastor or shepherd was one of the most honorable and respected vocations.” The Lord included these shepherds in His birth both in order to instruct and to inspire.
Since the first family populated the Earth, the shepherd has played a central role in human life; whether that be actual, metaphorical or spiritual. Beginning with Adam and Eve, their slain son Abel “was a keeper of sheep” (Gen. 4:2). It was Abel’s ability to shepherd and his willingness to give to the Lord the best of his precious flocks as an offering, even “the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof,” that yielded the Lord’s “respect unto Abel and to his offering” (Gen. 4:4). When Cain was confronted by the Lord for his transgression, he confessed to the Lord that “Satan tempted me because of my brother’s flocks” or, in other words, it was jealousy of Abel’s skillful shepherding and willingness to give of his best to the Lord that led Cain to perdition. (Moses 5:38).
Noah and his family received the charge to gather “two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life” and lead them in to safety within the ark. (Gen. 7:15). Truly, this was the work of a master shepherd. For the scripture records, “the waters prevailed . . . [a]nd all flesh died that moved upon the earth . . . and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark” (Gen. 7:19, 21, 23). Had Noah not led the animals to the shelter from the impending storm within the ark, none would have survived the forty days of rain and flooding that followed.
Father Abraham, too, was a man of many flocks. The scriptures record his travels with his wife in Egypt and the Pharaoh bestowing “sheep, and oxen” among other riches on the great patriarch. (Gen. 12:16). Later, it is recorded that “Abimelech took sheep, and oxen and menservants, and women-servants and gave them unto Abraham” (Gen. 20:14). And Abraham had much—including many flocks—and behold, “Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac” (Gen. 25:5).
Isaac’s son Jacob “fled into the country of Syria, and Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep” (Hosea 12:12). Thus, he earned the right to wed his beloved Rachel in the fields, keeping dutiful watch over his future father-in-law’s flocks. Jacob then carefully taught his craft to his twelve sons. And as they fled from the famine afflicting the land of Canaan to find refuge in Egypt, the sons of Jacob were brought before the Pharaoh. He asked of them, “What is your occupation?” to which they replied to the Pharaoh, “Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and also our fathers” (Gen. 47:3). Thus, it is apparent from the ancient record that Abraham,Isaac,Israel and his twelve sons were themselves a long line of skilled and faithful shepherds.
And Moses, the descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who went from captive to nearly king, was blessed and prospered in Pharaoh’s court because of his diligence in keeping the Pharaoh’s flocks. The scriptures record: “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock” (Ex. 2:16–17).
King David, the son of Jesse and progenitor of the Good Shepherd, began his work as shepherd on those same Judean plains. The scriptures teach us that instead of heading to battle against the Philistines, “David went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Beth-lehem” (1 Sam. 17:15). From there, we all know the story of David. When he delivered needed supplies to his brothers at the battle’s front and volunteered to accept Goliath’s deadly challenge, he responded to King Saul’s skepticism with courageous accounts of the adversities he overcame as a young shepherd:
Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.
And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:
And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him (1 Sam. 17:33–35).
David forged the faith he needed to face Goliath in the fiery furnace of adversity he encountered while keeping his father’s flocks. This fired faith compelled David to stand boldly before Saul and say, “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). These lessons are those of a true shepherd.
From their beginnings, the Israelites were a pastoral people, and David embodied the long tradition of his fathers. To Israel, shepherding was more than a way of life; it was their life. The Lord promised the “children of Jacob, his chosen ones” long ago that they are His sheep and He is and would forever be their Shepherd. (See 1 Chron. 16:13). The ancient prophets of Israel prophesied that the Millennial Messiah “shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isa. 40:11), and “they all shall have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24). Throughout the standard works, Jesus Christ—the Great I Am, Jehovah, the literal Son of God—has been known to His people as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Ps. 80:1), the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20), the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), the “great and true shepherd” (Hel. 15:13), and, most notably, the “good shepherd” (D&C 50:44; see also John 10:11, Alma 5:38–39 and Hel. 7:18). When Jacob (Israel) blessed his posterity, he prophesied that through his lineage would come “the shepherd, the stone of Israel,” even Jesus Christ. (Gen. 49:24).
And in every dispensation of the Gospel here on Earth, teachings abound of the Lord as the Shepherd and those that follow Him as the sheep. Truly, every book in the scriptural canon bears the hallmark teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ—if we follow Him, He will be our Shepherd and we His sheep; and He will lead us to the safety of His sheepfold, in which we will find His promised safety. For “His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.”
Speaking to the shepherds of ancient Israel, the Lord said:
For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. . . . I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold and . . . I will feed my flock, and I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick (Ezek. 34:11–16).
This type of teaching is typical and characteristic of the Lord’s many instructions to His faithful (and, sadly, unfaithful) followers.
During the Lord’s premortal ministrations, He instructed His prophets to teach His people through the symbolism of the sheep and shepherd. When the Israelites grew wicked, Isaiah lamented that “we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). And Jeremiah later prophesied that “He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock” (Jer. 31:10). Then later comes the Lord’s rebuke of His chosen servants called to care for His chosen people: “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?” (Ezek. 34:2).
In the New Testament, we have the words of Christ Himself: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” and further “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,” (John 10:14, 16). Throughout His ministry, the Lord used the symbolism of the shepherd to teach His followers who He is in relation to them, teach His chosen disciples who they must be in relation to us, and ultimately, that every lost and lonely lamb on Earth can seek out and find safety in His fold. Christ truly is “that great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20).
From the Nephites in the Americas we learn: “And he gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture” (1 Ne. 22:25). Later, when the Lord ministered to the Nephites personally, He again affirmed that the Nephites indeed were His “other sheep” of whom He spoke (see John 10:16) but added that, “I have other sheep, which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem . . . But I have received a commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear my voice, and shall be numbered among my sheep, that there may be one fold and one shepherd” (3 Ne. 16:1, 3).
In our day, following the restoration of Christ’s true and living church, He frequently taught that He is still our shepherd. I love the calming consolation, “fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, ye cannot prevail” (D&C 6:34). Again, His words offer assurance in the face of growing affliction: “Fear not, little flock, the kingdom is yours until I come” (D&C 35:37). And finally, “Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall” (D&C 50:44). Those words capture it perfectly—from the beginning of time to the end of days, He is with us. This is His work, even the work of “the great and true shepherd” (Hel. 15:13.). And if we forge the faith to follow Him, though the path may darken and the way be rugged, we have His word that we shall “never fall.”