Book Review: Shepherds After My Own Heart, by Timothy Laniak
Good biblical theologies like Timothy Laniak’s Shepherds After My Heart make me want to know my Bible better. Reading them is like learning something significant about an old friend: “I never put those pieces together about you. But now it makes sense. Wow!”
What prompted his study, Laniak says in sentence one of the book, is the dizzying pace at which books on leadership are being published these days. He wondered if the Bible has anything to say about the topic. Good question.
And answering it requires more than a concordance and a word search for “shepherd.” Biblical theologies look for overarching themes and typological structures rooted in the narrative of the entire canon. The “shepherd” metaphor only occurs several times in the Pentateuch. But with the help of later writers we discover that God uses the wilderness narratives to fill out what a shepherd is: “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Ps. 77:20). Statements like these (and many others) allow the reader to understand that what Moses did in the wilderness was the work of a shepherd. Later Scripture helps to interpret earlier Scripture.
Let me say right off the bat, then, what’s remarkable about Shepherds After My Own Heart is that it demonstrates how important the shepherding metaphor is in the Bible. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter by suggesting that it’s one of the main characters in the Bible’s storyline, or a girder beam that helps hold it all together. It’s as if my wife wrote an autobiography after I died about our lives together. No matter how much or how little she used the words “marriage” or “wife” or “husband,” the reader would know that even the occasional use of such words pointed to the internal structure of our lives together. Everything that I did in relation to my wife would fill out what it meant for me to have been a husband. Likewise, Laniak moves from genre to genre through the course of redemption history to show how God relates to his people by dwelling with them, by protecting them, by feeding them, by ruling over them, and by guiding them. God relates to his people as a shepherd, a multi-faceted metaphor that wonderfully captures many aspects of God’s relationship to his people. Not only that, Laniak shows how Scripture reveals a “divine preference for human agency” (248) as God calls his undershepherds to represent his own rule and care over the flock.
The book is explicitly aimed at academics and “thoughtful pastors.” It’s a shame, of course, that Laniak implies by this that a category even exists for thoughtless pastors. Nonetheless, his stated intent probably makes sense in light of what’s on pastor bestseller lists. The book doesn’t read like John Maxwell. It reads like a footnote-packed, bibliographically-intense dissertation. Chapter 1 is an erudite discussion of what metaphors are—”systems of associated commonplaces” (!). Chapters 2 and 3 explore how this particular system of associated commonplaces would have been understood in the ancient Near East, as well as how it was used to characterize Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek gods and kings.
The Bible study begins in chapter 4, where God’s own pastoral and protective work of leading a people through the wilderness is described and then embodied in the archetypal shepherd, Moses. It continues in chapter 5, where God’s own pastoral work of ruling is described and then embodied in a second archetypal shepherd, David.
Laniak next traces the metaphor into the prophetic tradition, taking time to explore the more significant passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. (Commentary provided by the Psalms is interspersed through the entire book.) He then moves to the four Gospels and a certain Good Shepherd who fulfills both the Mosaic and Davidic archetypes as the Shepherd King and who leads his flock though the wilderness of a second exodus.
The Bible study ends by tracing the metaphor into 1 Peter and Revelation (he skips Paul, interestingly, because “Although Paul is quite ‘pastoral’ in his ministry, engages second exodus theology at times…and refers to church leaders as shepherds occasionally, pastoral imagery is not a central, organizing rubric in the Pauline corpus”; 25, n.7). After briefly exploring God’s tabernacling presence in the new Jerusalem, where God and the Lamb dwell directly with the people, Laniak concludes his study of Scripture with this fascinating observation, drawing together the Mosaic-wilderness stream and the Davidic-royal stream:
Here is one of the rich ironies in the history of salvation: the heavenly Jerusalem, it turns out, was all along as much anticipated by the deserts and dispersions of the community’s journey as by the earthly city bearing its name. In both experiences the Shepherd-Lamb was teaching them to follow him to their real home (245).
Do you see what I mean by calling the metaphor a girder beam? Wow.
The book concludes with several overarching reflections and an epilogue, which I’ll return to in a moment.
Perhaps if I had a Ph.D. in biblical studies, I could offer a response at the level at which the book is written. In other words, maybe if I was a Tom Schreiner or a Kevin McFadden I would have observed some exegetical oversight or canonical foul play. I’m not, and I didn’t.
So let me be slightly uncharitable and critique the author for failing to do something he never intended to do, particularly since he’s fulfilling the criteria of both his guild and, what’s more, the series in which his book is published (a favorite of mine). I can’t help but express a modicum of sadness that the book didn’t offer a little more application for the pastor today as well as doxology. No, the book doesn’t mean to provide either. Yet may I, simply as a Christian, have a moment to wax lugubrious? Whatever happened to the days of Calvin’s Institutes and Commentaries when exegesis, systematic, and praise coincided? When a Bible scholar could point, postulate, and praise in the same moment? When the professor didn’t simply hand the results of his dispassionate research to the preacher to dumb down, dilute, and distort, but the professor and preacher were the same man? As Laniak worked his way through such amazing texts and such wonderful truths, part of me wanted to say to him, “Preach it, brother!” Another part of me wanted to shout out in song!
Okay, thank you for my moment. I expect it’s not even Laniak’s fault. Back to the review. The book is excellent, and should be read by every thoughtful and thoughtless pastor, both so that they might better understand the word, and so that they might better understand their own role. (I have heard that Laniak has a follow-up volume in the works that brings much of the exegetical fruit of this work to bear on the ministry of the local church, which will be titled, “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks.”)
As I said, the book concludes with seven very helpful comprehensive observations. First, shepherd leadership is comprehensive in its scope. It’s a metaphor that captures a number of roles—protector, provider, and guide—which is why it’s variously used of prophets, priests, and kings. Pastors are generalists that need to know how to respond to a diversity of problems and opportunities in their particular context. Along these lines, good shepherding calls for the benevolent use of authority: some occasions call for militant protection; other occasions call for gentle care. A man needs to know how to do both.
Second, bad shepherds forget whose flock they serve. Like the hired hand in Jesus’ parable, they care only for themselves (John 10:13).
Third, the Scriptures present a divine preference for human agency, as we have already mentioned. Remarkably, God enlists humans created in his image to exercise his royal rule and authority, a representation that’s made even more pointed and prominent in pastors. Recapturing a sense of awe over this fact may just help some thoughtless pastors become more thoughtful.
Fourth, a theology of leadership in the Bible “can only be understood in terms of a fully integrated theological vision of God and his work on earth.” It requires an understanding of Christology and soteriology, ecclesiology and anthropology. It would be easy to condemn ourselves for failing to have done this in our leadership. But I hope Laniak’s challenge here excites us instead to think through all the exciting possibilities for understanding leadership more deeply and theologically.
Fifth, the metaphor of shepherd is part of a larger historical redemptive narrative, as we have already mentioned.
Sixth, Scripture uses other metaphors for the work of ministers. The shepherding metaphor does not exhaust the possibilities of what a minister is and does.
Seventh, the image of shepherd points to the Bible’s predilection for ordinary images as revelatory vehicles.
This last point leads into Laniak’s initially shocking one-page epilogue. Since the Bible demonstrates a predilection for common, ordinary images, he argues that our responsibility in the church today is to find “dynamic equivalents” which communicate to congregations what the “system of associated commonplaces” that “shepherd” would have communicated to our biblical forbearers. CEO, perhaps? Or coach? Laniak concedes that he cannot think of a metaphor that overlaps perfectly with the “multivalent” biblical metaphor of shepherd, so a mix of metaphors will probably be necessary. The apostle Paul, he proposes, understood this lesson quite well. Paul seldom used the image of shepherd to describe ideal leadership, but a multiplicity of metaphors, all of which relate what a leader should be—slave, friend, midwife, father, ambassador, and overseer.
So what do we think of this proposal? Is Laniak undermining his 250 pages of careful exegesis in a couple of paragraphs? It’s tempting to dismiss the proposal on theological principles, as if he were undermining the authority and sufficiency of God’s word. Yet I’m not so sure. I don’t think this is a conversation about philosophies of Bible translation or radical contextualization. I think his remarks are more akin to a conversation about applying a sermon. Any time a preacher reads a passage of Scripture, and then says something like, “The author’s point here is kind of like the time when…” or “How does the biblical author’s meaning relate to us today?” In this sense, I’m moderately sympathetic with Laniak’s proposal.
Having said that, I will comment on a more pragmatic note, I don’t know that the idea of shepherding is that foreign to us. I’ve never done a survey, but are people today that unclear about what a shepherd does? And to the extent they are unclear, would it take that much work to fill out their understanding? Perhaps the image lacks the emotional resonance it would have had for a people in an agrarian culture. Maybe that’s why Paul didn’t use it very often with his urban audiences. I’m not sure.
In the final analysis, however, I believe that we can have absolute confidence in the clarity and sufficiency of God’s Word as it stands. Were more pastors to ambitiously pursue their jobs and lives as God’s call to feed…to gather . . . to protect . . . to guide . . . to know . . . His flock . . . at the cost of their own lives . . . and to throw off metaphors like CEO, comedian, entertainer, pollster, our churches would look very different. Laniak helps us to recapture such a vision.