Symbology of Sheep & Goats

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Excerpt from: Watchman, Watchman What of the Night? by Joy Parrott (Chapter 11: Sheep, Goats, and Wolves pp.88-98)

Sheep

Sheep are commonly used throughout the Bible to symbolically refer to God’s people. We see this in Psalm 95:7

Psalm 95:7
For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

In light of that scripture, let us keep in mind the spiritual application from the scriptures that will be used in this chapter. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable using sheep and the goats.

Matthew 25:31-34
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
Matthew 25:41
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

Although there are similarities between a sheep and a goat, there are differences so great that Jesus said the goats would not inherit the kingdom of God. While the sheep are considered God’s children, the goats are not. Though, sheep and goats can remain in the same fold, when Jesus returns in all His glory, He will separate the sheep from the goats.

Sheep are gentle, quiet, innocent animals. They do not give their shepherds a lot of problems. If you are having problems with your “sheep” you may find out that you are really looking at a “goat.”

2 Samuel 12:3
But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

Although this scripture is a parable that Nathan spoke to David when confronting him about his sin with Bathsheba, it reveals that sheep can be affectionate, gentle animals. Not only are the affectionate and gentle, but they can also be considered non-aggressive as seen in the following scriptures:

Isaiah 53:7
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 
Jeremiah 11:19
But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered.

These scriptures show that the lamb or sheep is not aggressive. They are very docile animals. The word “docile” as described in the Webster’s dictionary is, “easily managed or handled, readily trained or taught.” Even though sheep are easily managed, this does not eliminate the need of care and supervision provided by the shepherd, as noted from the following scriptures:

Numbers 27:17
Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd.
Ezekiel 34:5And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.
Matthew 9:36
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.

If sheep are not cared for properly, they will become food for all the beasts of the field. After all, sheep are defenseless animals.

Matthew 10:16
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

Sheep are not only defenseless, but this scripture would also indicate that sheep are vulnerable to danger, reaffirming their need to be shepherded. Sheep love to follow the shepherd. They feel comfort with the presence of a shepherd. Unfortunately, though, sheep will follow the shepherds even if they are irresponsible as outlined in Ezekiel 34. This is because sheep are very trusting animals and are easily led. However, when sheep are not shepherded properly, they become vulnerable to attack. The attack can come from either outside the fold or from within the flock, since sheep and goats can be found in the same fold.

Sheep are grazers, unlike the goat, which instead likes to browse. The sheep enjoy eating in lush green pastures.

Ezekiel 34:14
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 in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.

When the sheep are fed properly, in lush green pastures, they will also find rest there. They will lie down in those good fields. Lying down is a sign of passivity and submission. When one animal obeys another, this is called submission. You can find two types of submission. One is active and the other is passive. Active submission is when a dominant animal forces another animal to obey it. Passive submission is when a subordinate animal lowers itself to the ground without being forced by the dominant animal. By acting submissive in a fight situation, an animal can avoid serious injury. The fact that sheep lie down on their own would indicate that they are operating in passive submission. Sheep would rather submit than fight. Being herbivores, sheep do not prey on other animals. They are content in a safe environment and are harmless and unobtrusive. Their demands are simple; they rarely make a noise except to let you know they are hungry or fear danger. Unfortunately sheep do not always get to eat in lush green pastures.

Ezekiel 34:19
And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.

In some situations, where the pastures have not been lush and green or where the shepherds have been irresponsible, God will scatter His sheep. He will bring them out of the fold and lead them into the fold of His choice where they will be able to eat and lie down in green pastures.

Ezekiel 34:13-15
And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 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 in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord GOD.

God desires for all of His sheep to feed in good pastures with caring shepherds. In Psalm 23:1-2, David relates himself as a sheep to his shepherd.

Psalm 23:1,2
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

David is describing his relationship with the Great Shepherd. David himself was a shepherd so he knew very well the behavior of sheep. In this verse, David shares another characteristic about these animals; sheep love still waters. They love peaceful, quiet conditions and to drink from still waters. They are not comfortable with agitated waters. When the waters become agitated, the sheep become skittish.

Now that we have looked at some of the natural tendencies of sheep, let’s see how we might apply those natural tendencies to the spiritual application of sheep to the shepherd. We have learned that scripture often refers to sheep as being the children of God and shepherds as pastors or leaders. Flocks or folds represent our congregations. Remember that both sheep and goats can be found in the same flock. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that He will come in all His glory and separate the sheep from the goats suggesting that they had been in the same fold. We find a similar parable or analogy in Matthew 13 where Jesus talks about the wheat and tares growing up together.

Matthew 13:24-30
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

The wheat and the tares are allowed to grow together in the same field until the time of the harvest. At that time, the wheat will be gathered into the barn (kingdom of God) and the tares will be bound in bundles to be burned. Although sheep and goats can dwell together in the same fold, it is important for leaders to recognize the differences so that the sheep are not mistaken for goats.

To review, true sheep (God’s children) are affectionate and non-aggressive. They are easy to manage because they are submissive in nature. They rarely give the shepherd (their leader) problems. If they should give the shepherd a problem it is generally because the presence of a wolf or the butting of a goat has agitated them. Also sheep enjoy still waters, not liking to drink from agitated waters. This means that they are not quick to be where strife, arguing, dissension, or turmoil is present. Such problems make the sheep skittish and they are quick to scurry away from such discord.

Truly, sheep love to graze, meaning they love to eat the Word of God. They love to be in the presence of God. They rarely will miss a feeding or shall we say a meeting. They are hungry and love to graze in the green pastures. They are not in a hurry to move on and will stay as long as the shepherd allows.

Although sheep are easily managed, they also are defenseless and vulnerable to danger. As leaders, it is important to provide the sheep with a comfortable, safe environment. We can do that as leaders if we recognize the danger of allowing wolves into the folds. This will come with the watchman and leader working together. The watchman will sense the danger of a wolf long before it is able to attack the sheep. Before we see how much danger a wolf can present though, let’s take a look at the characteristics of a goat.

Goats

The scripture does not give a lot of indication to the natural tendencies of a goat. What we can find from the scriptures concerning the goats is that they were a useful animal. Just like the sheep, goats were allowed to be used as a sacrifice before God as long as they were without spot or blemish. Goats were also considered to be a clean food and could be eaten. Their skin was used to make clothing and the milk was used for food. These would all seem like very good things. However, we do read that the goats will be separated from the sheep when Jesus comes in all His glory. This would indicate that goats are different from sheep. Since the Bible is not clear on some of the characteristics of a goat, I will have to relate information that I found as a consensus amongst those that have raised or tended goats.

Overall, a goat’s reputation is less than positive. Even goat metaphors are negative. For instance, “Look at the old goat” refers to an old fool or dirty old man. “You get my goat!” applies to a person who irritates another. The poem, “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow; and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go” gives such a positive look at the little lamb, but when the gypsy girl Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a pet goat that performs tricks, the people want to hang the girl because they presume she’s using witchcraft. Anyway you look at it; goats tend to be seen in a negative way. Perhaps it is because of the natural tendencies that a goat displays.

Whereas sheep are gentle, quiet and easily led, goats are pushy, self-sufficient, and headstrong. Most goats are naturally horned, but many sheep breeds are polled or naturally hornless. Those goat horns can be used to bring harm to another. Alas, goats are naturally quarrelsome and have short tempers. They rear and butt in order to establish dominance. Rather than being a passive animal like the sheep, they have more aggressive tendencies.

Goats do not require as much supervision or care as sheep. Perhaps this is because they are a more independent animal. Unlike sheep, goats will easily revert back to their wild conditions if given the chance. Goats do not graze like sheep do, but instead browse. They nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves. Because they are browsers and do not graze, they tend to wander when they eat.

Goats also like the high places, often heading upward. They are not herded as well as sheep because they would rather lead than follow. Two striking differences between sheep and goats are that goats have an excessively bad odor and their tails are short and held high.

How do these goat characteristics relate spiritually to the shepherd or leader? If a “goat” is part of a fold, you may see some of these characteristics displayed. Goats are often pushy and can cause undercurrents and dissension. Turmoil and agitation are part of their nature. I believe this is because the goat has a dominating and controlling temperament, rather than a passive and submissive one.

Goats tend to be more self-sufficient than sheep, choosing to browse rather than graze in the pasture. They don’t enjoy the green pastures in the same way as the sheep. They are not always satisfied with what the shepherd (leader) gives them. They will nibble on the Word of God, a little here and a little there, yet they love to be seen in the high places. The goats walk with their tails held high, spiritually indicating pride, and they emit an offensive odor. There is something distinguishing about the goat, and that is the odor, or “air” about them.

All this said, it is important to note that goats are not wolves. They will not eat the sheep because they are not the meat eaters that the wolves are. They may be agitators and cause some turmoil for the shepherd, but they are not seriously harmful to the sheep. Perhaps that is why Jesus waits until His return to separate the sheep from the goats. The real danger and threat to our flocks and herds is the wolf. †