Softly Leading

Softly Leading
Robert Wurtz II

But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are weak, and the flocks and herds which are nursing are with me. And if the men should drive them hard one day, all the flock will die.”  (Genesis 33:13 NKJV)

Genesis is a book about beginnings. Many of the subjects that will fill the pages of sacred text will be introduced in this first book. The subject I wish to consider is that of a shepherd and his flock. It is a common motif found all throughout the scriptures. God begins here in Genesis building revelation, so that by the time the word “shepherd” is used in the New Testament, we will have a good understanding of what God means by that term. 

A cursory read of the Bible reveals that frequently God used sheep and shepherds as a metaphor for His people and His representatives. For example, in the Old Testament, it is “sheep” that shepherds watch for, but in Hebrews 13:17, it is “souls” that elders watch for. The word watch in the Greek means “no-sleep.” The idea being that someone is awake and watching (keeping watch) over the sheep (souls) while others are asleep. It is not an office but a primary function within the churches of God. The flock must be fed, and the flock must be kept safe by men who delight in them (See Mark 13:33; and compare Luke 21:36 and Ephesians 6:18). Early on in Genesis 33:13-15, God is laying down His qualities of leadership that will serve as the guideposts for Israel and the churches of God. 

Foisting Upon the Flock

Every passage of scripture is useful for our edification and instruction — as God takes hold of it and applies it to our hearts by revelation. Let us observe that Jacob and Esau have met up as Jacob is trying to move his family and herds as God had instructed Him. Jacob is very sensitive to the flocks’ condition and is highly concerned that they cannot handle what was about to be foisted upon them by Esau (Genesis 33:12). By foist, I mean specifically that Esau is wanting to impose upon the flocks and herds a pace that they cannot handle at this time. These were more than animals fit for the slaughterhouse, they were beloved flocks and herds. Jacob is “watching.” God had given him a word to return to his people, but now Esau is trying to take the lead. Keep this very clear. 

Jacob nursed his flock from infancy. He was close to them and cared deeply for them. On the other hand, Esau is a “Johnny come lately.” He never raised these animals. He has no idea what it took to see them come of age. Therefore, the tendency is to be reckless with those on whom he bestowed no labor. Nevertheless, Jacob knows this and will not tolerate his flock being mishandled. As we will see, it was a very dangerous situation for the sheep. Esau was about to kill many in the herd; however, Jacob had the courage to take control before it was too late. 

All that God had blessed Jacob with could have been lost in a single day had Esau been allowed to drive his herds. A man like Esau has no business leading someone elses flock, because they are not sensitive to their needs. Jesus uses an illustration of a hireling that reveals the attitude of Esau. Understand that when trouble comes, the hireling flees. Why? Because he is in it for the money, and does not care about the sheep. (John 10:13 NKJV) That’s why he is called a “hire-ling.” Webster defines hireling as a person who works purely for material reward. This is figurative language. Nevertheless, as A.T. Robertson points out, “He may conceivably be a nominal shepherd (pastor) of the flock (saints) who serves only for the money, a sin against which Peter warned the shepherds of the flock ‘not for shameful gain.’ ” (1 Peter 5:2). This is the key thing. Does the shepherd really care about the flock? You can tell by the way he feeds and protects them. 

The Blessing at Risk

Esau spoke up and said, “Let us take our journey; let us go, and I will go before you.” He wanted to take the lead. I get the impression here, and it seems that Jacob got the impression, that Esau was in some kind of a rush. “Let us take… let us go… I will go…” Again, this is the same flock that God had blessed Jacob with, while his father-in-law had been changing his wages. It was a supernatural flock in one sense, but it was not invincible (Genesis 30:32f). It had already been a perilous journey that put at risk the entire herd. It was difficult, but they managed. This is a picture of a faithful shepherd, who is patient and careful with their flock, leading them through this present evil world. 

Murder and Eternal life

And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob. 

Jacob knew what kind of man Esau was; this is why he feared him. He had been worried during the whole trip that Esau was still filled with hate and anger. We have this passage in 1 John 3:15, Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We read the two passages together, and we realize one of the reasons why Esau was rejected of God. Here was a man capable of killing his own twin brother in cold blood. Jacob knew this and stirred the family with his personal fears. He even set the people in order in case Esau started killing everyone, that Rebekkah and Joseph would be killed last. This was a dangerous time because Jacob believed Esau was a murderous man. 

When they met up it went much better than expected. Esau seemed to have cooled off, but he was still “Esau.” Time could not change the essential character of this man. We learn later from the life of Paul the Apostle, that it takes the love of God poured out in the heart by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), the transforming power of genuine regeneration, to remove the murderer from the man. 

A Flock Unsettled

In W. Phillip Keller’s classic book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 we have this insightful perspective, He is the owner who delights in His flock. For Him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing His sheep contented, well fed, safe and flourishing under His care. This is indeed His very ‘life.’ He gives all He has to it. He literally lays Himself out for those who are His. He will go to no end of trouble and labor to supply them with the finest grazing, the richest pasturage, ample winter feed, and clean water. He will spare Himself no pains to provide shelter from storms, protection from ruthless enemies and the diseases and parasites to which sheep are so susceptible. 

No wonder Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd — the Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” And again, “I am come that ye might have life and that ye might have it more abundantly.” From early dawn until late at night this utterly self-less Shepherd is alert to the welfare of His flock. For the diligent sheepman rises early and goes out first thing every morning without fail to look over his flock. It is the initial, intimate contact of the day. With a practiced, searching, sympathetic eye he examines the sheep to see that they are fit and content and able to be on their feet. In an instant he can tell if they have been molested during the night — whether any are ill or if there are some which require special attention. Repeatedly throughout the day he casts his eye over the flock to make sure that all is well. Nor even at night is he oblivious to their needs. He sleeps as it were ‘with one eye and both ears open’ ready at the least sign of trouble to leap up and protect his own.”

Keller was writing from his own experience as a shepherd. Men who have been real shepherds in real life have a unique perspective on how to lead a flock and handle the dangers. This is why many of God’s great leaders started out as real shepherds before He allowed them to shepherd His people. Abel, Jacob, Moses and David were all real life shepherds at one point. This is a very significant pattern.

Overdriving the Flock

When the flock is unsettled by circumstances beyond their control, nervousness, loss of appetite, lack of rest, can all signal that danger is waiting in the wings. We are taken by Jacob’s words, ” …if the men should drive them hard one day, all the flock will die.” (Genesis 33:13) Jacob, as a good shepherd, understood that you cannot over-drive a herd when they are already weighed down,  or you could kill all of them in one day. If Esau, who has no connection with these flocks and herds, is allowed to drive this flock just one time (not twice or three times) he will put the entire group in their grave. There is a great lesson here early on in Genesis. No matter how   humble and submissive Jacob might have been towards Esau his brother; no matter how   fearful he was of the man; he refused to allow him to put his flocks and herds at risk.  He was more prepared to put his recent reconciliation with Esau at risk  than he was to put the flock at risk. 

God’s leading

Jacob has a solution, “Please let my lord go on ahead before his servant. I will lead on softly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure, until I come to my lord in Seir.” (Genesis 33:14 NKJV) Notice that Jacob, not Esau, is going to lead his flock. He articulates his strategy, I will lead on softly.” This is pure wisdom. He will move them at a pace that they can handle. He will lead them in safe places where he is able to closely guard where the dangers are. 

Sheep are very vulnerable. They have no way to defend themselves but to run; and they are not particularly fast. They are copy-cats. If one sheep does something, the others will follow. If one jumps a cliff they may all jump the cliff. The sheep cannot tell danger, this is why they need oversight and protection. This is why God created shepherds; not to be abusive and Lord over his heritage, but to protect them from harm and to lead them in a path of spiritual health. 

W. Phillip Keller continues, “The shepherd went up to the plateau before the sheep came to make sure everything was in order for his sheep. There were certain wild plants that were poisonous, he would find those and destroy any. He made sure the pastures were lush and there was amble room to move to another area. He placed a supply of salt and minerals  around at various spots on the range. Predators were numerous watching for a stray sheep, the shepherd was constantly on the alert to take care of his sheep. Though it was a great time for the flock, the shepherd never stopped providing for them. Just like Jesus with us, we don’t realize how much He cares for us and has our welfare in His heart.”

Father’s of the flock

Jacob watched many of the sheep and other livestock being born; he raised them and he cared for them through the hard times. They were his. He had a tenderness for them. He did not view them as expendable assets. I’m reminded of the relationship between a shepherd and a sheep as I think about Nathan telling David the story of the little ewe lamb. David could relate to the scenario and it made him furious to think that someone would carelessly and callously kill some little and beloved lamb. This is what the scripture means when it says, “David was a man after God’s own heart.” David loved God, yes; but this is not all that it means to be a man after God’s own heart. There were times in David’s life when the very heart of God was being expressed by his actions. As a shepherd, He loved his sheep and he laid down his life for them when the lion and the bear came to devour them. He even rescued a dying lamb from the jaws of death. This tender care was found early-on in Jacob. He told Esau plainly, …I will lead on softly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure.” This is the pattern set forth for all shepherds. Amen. 

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