During a recent heavy-snow winter, we had record snowfalls in Northwest Montana with anywhere from 13 to 18 feet accumulating in the valley (more in the higher elevations) from Thanksgiving through early January. As the snow melted in the spring we had a “lake” in our field and a stream flowing through our front yard. As the geese returned from their southern wintering grounds, we had geese swimming in our new “lake.” Every year since that time, we have at least one pair of geese show up looking for the water. They still often spend a few days grazing on any new grass that is up, and I’m sure, wondering what happened to the “lake.”
Well, today is the first day of spring, and sure enough four big “honkers” (Canada Geese) landed out by the old “lake” site and are currently feeding on the little patch of grass exposed under a lodgepole pine tree (our field is still covered with close to a foot of snow!). And, is their custom, one of the four geese stands watch for danger while the other three feed. They are called sentinels and have a very important job, crucial to the safety of the others. Many birds and other animals have that practice. We also have a couple rafters of turkeys that hang out in the area and as they are feeding, there is always one standing watch.
The crows have recently returned as well from their migration. You definitely know when they are back as they are very noisy and love to hang out in groups, which are called “murders”! (So, if you only have two or three crows in a group is it an “attempted murder”?!) Crows too have sentinels that keep watch while the rest are feeding and they put so much emphasis on the position that if a sentinel is careless and doesn’t pay attention and allows an enemy to approach without warning the flock (murder), the first feeding crow to notice the danger will sound the alarm and the sky will suddenly be full of crows making a terrible ruckus, but before flying away from danger they will likely attack the negligent sentinel and shred it to death with their sharp beaks. (Maybe that’s why a flock of crows is called a “murder” !) By the way, crows are very intelligent and great communicators, with a vocabulary of at least 50 different messages that they convey and as a result they work together extremely well to accomplish their goals.
Sentinels have a very important job which needs to be taken seriously. The welfare of the others depends upon their giving an alarm of any approaching danger. That is not only true in the animal world, but also in the body of believers. In the ancient world, cities often had walls around them for protection and had sentinels called “watchmen ” who stood on the walls to warn of impending danger. The Israelites also had prophets whose job it was to not only convey messages from God but also to warn the Israelites of danger from false teachings that threatened the spiritual health of the people. In the book of Isaiah, we see the sins of Israel’s wicked prophets denounced: their spiritual blindness, and false sense of optimism. Isa. 56:10,11 says, “His watchmen are blind. All of them know nothing. All of them are dumb dogs unable to bark, dreamers lying down, who love to slumber…shepherds who have no understanding.”
Ezekiel was commissioned by God to be a watchman for Israel (Ezek. 3:17). As a watchman, it was his job to warn the wicked of pending judgment. If He didn’t warn them and they died in their sin, God said, “his blood will I require at your hand” (vv. 18-21). God’s message to Ezekiel is repeated in Ezek. 33: 6-11.
Throughout biblical history, shepherding was one of the primary occupations and provided many illustrations of caring for the “flock of God” (We are called “His people and the sheep of His pasture” …Psa. 100:3). As David said, “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psa. 23:1), and Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). He protects His sheep and will not lose one of them (Jn. 6:39). But “the hireling (who is not concerned about the sheep)…beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them” (vv. 12,13).
God also has “undershepherds” to care for local flocks of His sheep–to guide and guard and graze them. Sheep are very vulnerable and dependent for their welfare on a good shepherd who watches out for them. Paul told the elders from the church at Ephesus, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert…” (Acts 20:28-31).
We are living in a period close to the return of Christ when, as prophesied(I Tim. 4:1-4; II Tim. 3:1-7) there is a proliferation of false teachers who are luring believers away from the truth and confusing unbelievers as to what truth is or if there even is any absolute truth. It is more important than ever that we have “watchmen on the walls,” sentinels who are warning of these threatening heresies and perversions of the truth. As believers, especially those in positions of leadership as pastors and elders, we serve as sentinels, warning the flock of these dangers and protecting from the many false teachers in the world as well as within the church. And just as the sentinel crows or geese, we need to take our responsibility seriously.