Israel served for a spouse, And for a wife he tended sheep. (Hosea 121:12)
So often, when we think of and speak about Christ as our shepherd, we use the figure of David to as the type or prophetic promise. This is, of course, entirely correct. There is much in life of the shepherd who defeated the giant and delivered his people, and who became king to illustrate the richness that is in Christ. But as I read the Word the other day I was reminded of another type, one which presents a beautiful motif of our Saviour which is seldom highighted in sermons and teachings. It is contained within the story of Jacob – or Israel as he became known – and his search for a wife.
Certain parallels leap out at us as we read Genesis and look at Jacob’s story. He marries Leah first, the elder, and then Rachel. This obviously speaks of the nation of Israel and then the church. But today’s voice points to a very important truth: Jacob toiled for both his wives. He worked for Laban a total of twenty years, during which time his father-in-law attempted continually to cheat him of his just rewards.
Which raises an interesting consideration. In exploring this a a type of Christ the shepherd, Laban becomes the ‘father of lies.’ He symbolises the work of the devil who comes to steal, kill and destroy.’ Jacob, in essence, ‘rescues’ both Leah and Rachel – Israel and the church – from the authority and power of the evil one. Lest there be any confusion on this issue, remember that Rachel stole her father’s idols when they fled from him – idols of the gods of her father which she intended to take with her into her new life with her husband in his land. How like all of us, to hold on to things we perceive are important even in our new life in Christ.
Very few of us will be able to fully understand the hardship – the toil – of those twenty years. The life of a shepherd required full time commitment. It involved danger from the attack of wild beasts looking for an easy meal and living what amounted to a fairly isolated existence with the sheep. There was little social contact. And, just to add insult to injury, sheep are not the most inspiring of companions. They are either unimaginatively docile or inexplicably reckless, and can panic over nothing at all. I had to chuckle as I searched for an image for this post, because a common tag used was ‘idiots.’ I guess that about says it all.
The Bible describes humanity as sheep very deliberately. For one thing, our foolishness defines the level of care we require. Left to our own devices, we are bound to wander off and get involved in something just plain stupid or downright dangerous. But the core of today’s voice is the bride. While the focus of the work was the care and protection of the sheep, a driving purpose behind it was obtaining the bride. This is one of the central messages within the story of Jacob – the Saviour who laboured in a ‘foreign land’ to obtain His bride.
Remember that Jacab had left behind the wealth and prosperity of home. Admittedly, he had precipitated his own exile through cheating his brother out of his birthright, but he nevertheless clearly epitimises Christ coming to live among us, and to toil among us to purchase His bride. He toiled for the right to the elder, Leah being Israel, and He toiled for the right to the younger, Rachel being the church. But He also toiled for the possession of the sheep. Genesis 31 differentiates between the fourteen years collectively that he worked for his wives, and an additional six years working for the sheep. Our God has a particular focus on all the small details, leaving nothing to chance.
The other parallel, of course, is that Jacob, like Christ, entered the territory of the enemy. Their toil was within enemy territory – remember that Jesus Himself descibes Satan as the ruler of this world – and yet both recognised the ultimate sovereignty of God while still ‘rendering unto Caesar’ that which was his. It’s so important that we understand the importance of being able to be led and directed by the will of God, even in situations where we must operate within the earthly authority. This is the key factor that enabled Jacob to remove his bride from Laban’s authority, and the same sovererign power of God empowered Christ to deliver His bride from the authority of the devil. God Himself is the ‘uncommon’ denominator.
What emerges most strongly here are two things. Firstly, Laban required Jacob to give account for the sheep. Genesis 31:39 says this: You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. In entering into the role of shepherd, he assumed full responsibility and full accountability. Remember that in John 17:12, Jesus says: While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept.
The shepherd-sheep relationship is an integral part of the second motif of the bride. It is caring for the sheep that ‘earns’ the bride. Jacob was entitled to both Leah and Rachel because he fulfilled his contractual obligations, and fulfilled them well. His total obedience in this – even in the face of unfair treatment – brought God’s blessing. This is the type of Christ who fulfilled His covenant agreement with the father, who toiled in care for the sheep, even to the point of laying down His life on their behalf. This total obedience brought the blessing – a bride for the bridegroom.
To illustrate the significance of this, it’s worth taking a quick look at David. He is universally known as the shepherd who became a king. Conversely, Jesus is the king who became a shepherd, and who then became the King of Kings. He thus encapsulates completely the messages inherent in both Jacob and David. He is the truth that completes the picture.
This is a poignant reminder of a Saviour willing to lay His life down for the sheep, to lay His life down for His bride, and to do whatever it takes. It’s our perfect example, and it’s our assurance of a love that defies and transcends the world and our limited expectations. Jacob is so much like like us – obstinate, reckless, foolish, and self-focused. Yet he also represents the Christ in us. Perhaps that is the purpose of his names – Jacob who is of the world and Israel who is of God. Our task is not to work to earn our salvation or our place in the bride, but rather to recognise that the toil has already taken place.
What Jesus has done is perfect and complete. Like Leah and Rachel, we are required to leave behind the ‘idols of our father’ and enter into the ‘new territory’ of our husband’s authority. Our only ‘task’ is to rejoice in the knowledge that we have a husband who toiled and surrendered all to call us His own, and to learn to live only to please Him. How wonderfully perfect are the ways of our God.
Father, thank You for Your wisdom and grace, and for the eternal covenant with Your Son. Thank You, Jesus, for coming as shepherd, to toil and to suffer to purchase our freedom and to bring us into a place of privilege as Your bride. Empower us to live according to Your righteousness. Help us to rejoice in all things, knowing that Your commitment to us and Your care for us is perfect and complete.