Rule or Shepherd?

Long-time reader and commenter at this blog, Bob MacDonald asks on the Share page:

How come the reference to Psalm 2:9 in Rev 2:26-27, 12:5 and 19:15 (this looks suspiciously like a frame in Rev) is translated as rule where noted and in the body of the Apocalypse is translated as feed.? I would suggest ‘shepherd’ might be more appropriate in all cases.

Here are the four passages he mentions in his question (all from NET)

Psalm 2:9

9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them like a potter’s jar!'”

Rev. 2:26-27

26 And to the one who conquers and who continues in my deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations –

27 he will rule them with an iron rod
and like clay jars he will break them to pieces,

Rev. 12:5

So the woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who is going to rule over all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was suddenly caught up to God and to his throne,

Rev. 19:15

From his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod,  and he stomps the winepress  of the furious, wrath of God, the All-Powerful.

Bob’s question is quite smart. All the other references seem to be to shepherding or animal care.

Here’s the list: Matt. 2:6; Luk 17:7; John 21:16; Acts 20:28; I Cor 9:7; 1 Pet 5:2; Jude 1:12; Rev. 7:17;

Since we’re in the Christmas season, I’ll also mention Luke 2:8 which has a related word for “flock.”

Luke 2:8

Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.

So returning to Bob’s suggestion, what do you think about translating this word as “shepherd” in all the places it occurs in the New Testament? How does the connection to Psalm 2:9 affect our interpretation of the verses in the book of Revelation?

32 thoughts on “Rule or Shepherd?

  1. Yancy Smith says:

    One might also add in Micah 5:4b-6 (NRSV), where feed and “shepherd” or “rule” occur together.

    And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
    in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
    And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
    and he shall be the one of peace.

    If the Assyrians come into our land
    and tread upon our soil,
    we will raise against them seven shepherds
    and eight installed as rulers.

    They shall rule the land of Assyria with the sword,
    and the land of Nimrod with the drawn sword;
    they shall rescue us from the Assyrians
    if they come into our land
    or tread within our border.

    The frame of Psalm 2:9 is complex. It involves both “shepherding/ruling” and breaking pottery vessels with a rod of iron. Doesn’t sound like shepherding in the sense we typically think of it. But in the ancient near east, part of enthronement involved a magical ceremony in which the representative gods or figurines of vassal/enemy cities or countries were ceremonially broken by the new king as an initiation of his rule. A description of this type of rites and its relevance for Bible translation, especially for Psalm 2:9 is found in Othmar Keel, The symbolism of the biblical world: ancient Near Eastern iconography and the Book of Psalms, 250-267. Since most translators will not likely think of ANE iconography and visual culture as relevant to textual endeavors, it is good to address this occupational blind spot from time to time.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    The related use of tending feeding in Rev 7:17 is also relevant to the issue – it reflects the Micah that Yancy notes. And here the subject verb is translated as feed rather than rule. “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them…”

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I don’t think one should try to equate “breaking” with “rule/shepherd” since they are two completely different Hebrew words which just happen to look similar.
    רעע to break
    רעה to shepherd, rule or feed

    We must assume that “to break” in Ps. 2:9 is a synonym of “to smash” in the next line.

    The LXX, however, seems to have assumed that Psalm 2:9 had the latter instead of the former. If all these references in Rev. to Psalm 2:9 were to be translated as “shepherd” it might create a rather jarring, and false, image of “shepherding” with a rod of iron. I don’t think any contemporary reader would have taken it that way. The alternate meaning “to rule” was common to both readers of Hebrew and Greek, but not to us.

    Since what actually happened, the derivation from the LXX, cannot be made transparent to the reader today without notes, it is probably not helping much to retreat into concordance. IMO, it is difficult to create in the reader today, the understanding that the contemporary readers had. We simply don’t have the ruler/shepherd equation, and the rod of iron, in any case, was originally attached to the verb “to break.”

  4. Bob MacDonald says:

    Yes, Sue, but shepherding with an iron staff is just what NETS has since the Greek translation appears to have interpreted the rule as more beneficial…

    Also the sharing of that rule is given to the chasidim of psalm 149…

    Is there a move here in the interpretation of the psalm that reveals more about care and feeding to us – namely that we are to care for and feed ‘enemies’ rather than rule in the traditional domineering sense. Does this have the potential to change our reading of violence in both the psalms and the apocalypse?

  5. Iver Larsen says:


    As you have noted the Greek verb ποιμαίνω occurs 4 places in Revelation. Three of them are echoes of Psalm 2:9 and include the iron rod. The LXX decided to translate it with ποιμαίνω in Ps 2:9.

    Rev 7:17 is an entirely different context. I was surprised that you said it was translated by “feed”, but I can see that KJV does that. Other translations don’t and it is misleading to do so. A shepherd does not feed his sheep, he leads them to a place where they can feed themselves and he protects them from wild animals. I was dismayed that even NLT uses “feed” in Acts 20:28. It is probably one of the remnants from the Living Bible which was based on the KJV which also wrongly use feed here..

    As far as the meaning goes, we need to look at the object for the verb. If the object is the sheep, the meaning is to take good care of them and protect them from wild animals, lead them to green pastures, etc. If the object is the wild animals, the shepherd will use his rod to fight them and even kill them. You will find these two different objects in Revelation. The positive sense of Jesus taking care of the Christians is found in 7:17. Here I would accept “be their shepherd” as most English versions have it, since Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd.

    Now, in Rev 2:27, 7:17 and 19:15, the object is the enemies of God who will be punished and destroyed with “a rod of iron” just like a shepherd would use his rod to kill the wild animals that want to attack and kill the sheep. This is part of the King’s rule that will extend into the millenium. I don’t think you could use “shepherd” here in English, and even KJV does not do that.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    The Greek word ποιμαίνω can certainly mean “rule” as well as “shepherd” so I think the NETS decision is unnecessarily literal. However, it does indicate to the reader that the Greek translator has interpreted this as a completely different Hebrew word than what the English translation does. I have to ask mysef if the NETS translator is not trying to give insight into the mistaken nature of the LXX translation decision.

    But the Greek word ποιμαίνω has a far broader range than “shepherd” in Greek. It means to rule, govern, be chief, captain and master, and so on. It also means “to herd, guard, and lead to food.”


    Are there any examples of ποιμαίνω with wild animals? I would think that the object always means “to herd” in some way, rather than to drive off. I feel that the examples in Revelation do not really tell us much about the word ποιμαίνω since these references all derive from a mistaken translation in the LXX. The use of ποιμαίνω is always an allusion to Ps. 2:9 and should not be understood to have its normal lexical meaning here. I am going to guess that ποιμαίνω does not mean to “drive off.” However, I would be interested in any examples of that meaning outside of these allusions to Ps. 2:9.

    It just seems to me that there is no one way of translating ποιμαίνω in Revelation that is going to clarify to the reader all the ins and outs of it. It is a very tricky problem and I don’t see an easy answer.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I would think that the object always means “to herd” in some way, rather than to drive off

    I meant the verb rather. But I suspect that regardless of the object, ποιμαίνω always means to gather, guard of herd. These examples which are allusions to Ps. 2:9 are, IMO, an anomoly based on a mistranslation. These examples probably do not indicate that ποιμαίνω can normally mean “to fight” and “to kill.”

    I simply think this is a case of muddled translating of the Hebrew into the Greek, and any translation can only make this clear in the notes. I offer this as an oversimplification of my view, because I do recognize that ultimately a translation decision must be made, somewhere between “to shepherd and feed” and “to fight and kill.” I would fall into the middle, “to herd.”

  8. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    PS Bob,

    I note that the Rotherham translation has exactly what you suggest, “shepherd.” I highly recommend this translation to you as delightfully literal. It has been a long time favourite of mine. You can view it as, as the Emphasized Bible.

  9. Iver Larsen says:


    I can see your point, and I have not been able to find examples of the literal sense of shepherding involving wild animals. Maybe if I was able to search more widely, I would find it.

    Anyway, I can see the activity of destroying the enemies as a natural extension and result of the protection a shepherd is to give to his sheep.

    BDAG says:
    “γ. the activity as ‘shepherd’ has destructive results (cp. Jer 22:22 and s. ELohmeyer, Hdb. on Rv 2:27) ποιμανεῖ αὐτοὺς ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ (after Ps 2:9) Rv 2:27; 12:5; 19:15 (cp. Heraclitus Fgm. 11 πᾶν ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται=everything that creeps is shepherded by a blow [from God]. Pla., Critias 109b alludes to this).”

    Micah 5:5 (5:6 in English) uses the word in this extended sense of a punishing rule over the enemies.

    Whether the LXX in Ps 2:9 made a mistake or decided to use ποιμαίνω in this extended sense, I don’t know. In any case, the 3 instances in revelation are clearly indebted to the LXX version of Ps 2:9. To use “shepherd” in these places would be quite misleading, in my view.

  10. Rich Rhodes says:

    Slightly off topic, but I’m finding this very helpful.

    I’ve had my eyes peeled for places in the NT where there is evidence that the writers were using the LXX rather than the Hebrew OT. (There’s more of that going around than one might at first have guessed.) In Sunday School we’ve been studying (among other things) the context of the early church, and the point has come up that the thoroughly Hellenized Jewish culture of Roman era Palestine only went back to the Hebrew in the late Roman period as a way of asserting Jewishness in the various rebellions of the 1st and 2nd century and to maintain it in the diasporas that followed.)

  11. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    The problem with using Micah 5:6 as evidence for a “punishing” rule is that this is also a disputed case. Perhaps in this verse also the verb is רעע to break and not רעה to shepherd. Several Bibles have a note to this effect.

  12. Iver Larsen says:


    Which Bibles have a textual comment about Micah 5:6? I can see translation notes, but not textual notes. I don’t have proper resources for OT textual criticism.

    There is no textual note in my BART version at Micah 5:5. However, there is a textual note at Ps 2:9, which says:
    “LXX and Syr appear to have read a form of רעה ‘you will shepherd/rule them’.”
    Based on this it is possible that the Hebrew text of Ps 2:9 may be a copying mistake or an adjustment to the context and that the LXX and Syr reflect the original. But I am far from competent in OT textual criticism. My version of the Vulgate has “reges” (rule) for Ps 2:9, although it has et pascent terram Assur in gladio (and feed/shepherd the land of Assur with a sword) in Micah 5:5.

  13. Yancy Smith says:

    Sue, the homonymy between the two verbs רעע “to break” and רעה “to shepherd” resulting in identical finite forms does not alone account for the ambiguity of a text like Micah or in the parallelism in Psalm 2:9. Further the use of ποιμανεῖ αὐτοὺς ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ is not in itself strange in Greek usage, nor would it necessarily result from a mistranslation of the Hebrew text. Rather, it could be an artful recognition of the homonymy. ANE usage of the shepherd metaphor is pervasive for kingship in the ANE. And Defeating enemies with a scepter—originally a clublike weapon of war—was a common image for ancient Near Eastern kings. Greek usages of the image also extended, apparently, to the image of king as shepherd and his scepter as staff. For example, the ancestral scepter of Agamemnon, and the scepters of other kings, shows the instrument to be a symbol of rank and authority; it significantly appears in context with the phrase “shepherd of the host” (Iliad 2. 75–109; Odyssey 3. 156), a common figure for leaders in war. Egyptian kings extended control over foreign kings beyond their normal sphere of military control by inscribing their names with curses on pottery jars and then smashing them. This ritual is otherwise unknown in Israel, but breaking earthen pottery as a symbol of destroying one’s enemies was understood across the ancient Near East.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    There is a note in the NET Bible, the NIV 1984, TNIV and NIV 2010, but not in the ESV. I consider this a lamentable omission. This is a translation note, and not a textual comment, so I am sorry if I gave that impression. I don’t think it depends on two different original forms of the text, but on the apparent homonymy of “to shepherd” and “to crush” in some forms of the verb.

    Your citation from BART is interesting, and, I suppose, possible. I don’t know. As to the Vulgate, it seems a little odd, but I do know that reges was the way that ποιμαίνω was translated in Ps. 23. The Douay-Rheims opens Ps. 23 with “The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing.”

    The difficulty is that the verb used ranges in meaning from “shepherd and make to feed, to rule”, and is a near homonym with the verb “to crush.”

    I don’t have any answer to the translation problem but at least we can know that the problem comes from what is either an error, or as Yancy suggests, possibly a deliberate play on words.


    I am familiar with the use of ποιμαίνω as a general word for “rule” and “govern” in classical Greek. But I am still hesitant that it could be used for subduing enemies. I just don’t remember this exactly. Your example, “shepherd of the host” still has as object, the people who belong to the ruler, and not the enemies of the leader. You could be right, but I just can’t see enough evidence yet.

  15. iverlarsen says:


    Just a couple of thoughts. The two first presidents of this country carried a fly whisk something like this or this.
    It was intended to show his authority and power as president.

    Now, in Danish we have a noun for shepherd (hyrde), but don’t use it as a verb. I am wondering whether the use as a verb is Biblish or where it came from. Webster’s tells me that this verb was first attested in English in 1790. The verb did not exist at the time of the KJV and was never used in the KJV. The noun is old stock from sheep+herder, and in OE it was sceaphyrde. My suggestion is that in Hebrew and Greek the corresponding verb is more like Modern English “take care of”. If I say “I will take care of him”, you can see the ambiguity depending on who “him” is.

  16. Bob MacDonald says:

    There seems to be a considerable irony in the variations that you all have uncovered. Thank you.

    How does Jesus the child and the servant read this psalm? How does he see himself as the anointed, this ordinary boy of uncertain parentage, reading himself into the place of the king. Does he read himself in Greek into the role of a shepherd, a strength not to be trifled with, but one which includes leading others including enemies or friends who need correction. Friend comes from that same root and there isn’t much of a difference between friend and evil – just drop the ה. The ravaging (shepherding) of the ‘wild boar’ in psalm 80 is the strangest frame. Psalm 80 is the only psalm in which this root appears twice: once as shepherd, once as ravage!

    So the shepherd motif is not a weak idea. What then is ‘ruling with a rod of iron’ for the ‘one who overcomes’ in Rev chapter 2? In my own intuited way, I have thought of Revelation as a meditation on the suffering of Jesus in his destruction of Babylon through his death. The reflections of psalm 137 in rev 18 virtually juxtaposes Babylon with Jerusalem showing how the smashing (smash-dash occurs only in psalms 2 and 137 in the place you all know already about the babies and the rocks) of pots is redemptive for both friend and enemy.

    A Shepherd leads – and Iver in this conversation has expressed concern that certain translations might be misleading. O dear… in this 400th anniversary year, have we been misled by by that justly famous English translation? It’s funny to me that this blog is alliteratively named as ‘better’. All we need is the good, and how hard it is to see with these violent metaphors. So I repeat my thanks.

    Have a happy New Year – and don’t get smashed.

  17. Bob MacDonald says:

    Iver and I were writing at the same time – a half-world apart! The ambiguity in ‘take care’ is a great example. But there is no ambiguity in the love of God. So somehow in the midst of ruling I must find a way that does not just rule by violent subjugation or personal vengeance. I realize this has nothing to do with translation except to the extent that it biases me. But in the midst of a violent and disobedient people, can we hear words that express their opposite? Taking care is lovely – it might even come back to haunt us with responsibility.

  18. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    I find all the suggestions quite interesting, and I don’t have an opinion on how to translate this yet. Part of the problem is that, so far, I have seen no evidence that רעה or its Greek equivalent can be used with enemies as a direct object. I think I may have missed it, but I can’t seem to locate this evidence in the thread. I can yet agree that this verb could mean “to take care of” as in “drive off” or “dispose of.” I still maintain that any passages which seem to have this meaning are based on the other Hebrew verb, “to crush.”

    I may be wrong about this, but I see no reason to concede in the absence of evidence.


    I thought that Iver agreed with the KJV in Rev. 2:27, where it uses “rule.” The ESV and NIV also have “rule.” Are you still defending the use of “shepherd?”

    I think that the preceding verse should read “power over the heathen” instead of “authority over the nations.” There is so much confusion from us reading “authority” instead of ‘power.” This is about raw power to destroy the enemies of the fledging churches. It is not about redeeming the nations and putting them under Christ’s governing authority. This is my first reaction to the passage.

    So I think that the Greek reader of this passage accepted that there was an idiom in which ποιμαίνω had a negative meaning when it was found along with “rod of iron.” But I believe that this came about because of the similarity in Hebrew between “to crush” and “to shepherd.” I don’t think that otherwise ποιμαίνω would have this meaning.

    I feel that it is asking too much to make sense out of the concrete meaning of many passages in Revelation.

  19. JKG says:


    Thanks for leaving things open by saying, “I don’t have any answer to the translation problem but at least we can know that the problem comes from what is either an error, or as Yancy suggests, possibly a deliberate play on words.”

    And thank you also some time ago for suggesting, for showing, Psalm 23 in (LXX) Greek and also in (your) English as a stereotext:

    Your asking “How does Jesus … read this psalm” is a most important question. Iver already pointed out “the good shepherd” as one of Jesus’s self identities (and I posted on that some time ago too — see Suzanne’s link in her stereovision post). The question of one text alongside another is critical. There’s an evolution of meanings, a metaphorizing, whether it’s homophonic / homonymic Hebrew terms or Greek beside Hebrew equivalents (Revelation with Psalms or Micah) or the Odyssey read with Revelation. But the personal perspective is important. Is Jesus the only one allowed to make meanings here? I’m thinking of how in Jn 21:16, there’s Jesus telling Peter to “shepherd” the flocks (with John listening and now John here recording and translating the conversation into Greek). Then, in 1Pt 5:2, there’s a similar now-just-written-Greek imperative from Peter to “elders”: “Shepherd”! (And isn’t it a biblish verb?) Who are we now to look back and to assign only one meaning, when there are evolving personal meanings for the Hebrew terms, and then the Greek, and then their connections in various contexts (many where a “John” — the same John? — is writing them)?

  20. Bob MacDonald says:

    Sue – I was not defending any particular translation. I am fascinated by this discussion. I recently heard a documentary on how Samuel Johnson changed in his view of the absolute nature of language as he created his dictionary. Does a language stop changing when it is no longer spoken or do the words continue to be spirit and life?

    I do not think for a moment any longer that rule with a rod of iron or any other word against enemies can be read by us as a license to raw power. All raw power is in the hand of God, and if we are God’s hand to another, it is always with a view to our and the other’s salvation and entry into the rule of God through the anointing of the Spirit. (For God seeks such to worship in spirit and in truth). But as I said, this is not translation. This is my bias. Now that the questions are raised, I am satisfied. I love ambiguity over absolutes.

  21. David Ker says:

    Thanks all for an interesting discussion. I plan to close comments on this thread in about 12 hours. I’m planning to go on holiday January 1 for a few days and would like to close up any open threads. Thanks.

  22. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    This has been a great topic – thanks so much for bringing it up. I mentioned that Rotherham, who offers an extremely literal translation, does use the word “shepherd” in Rev. 2. It seems to be one option, as long as there is a note which points back to the LXX. Yancy has brought up other points which ahould be mentioned in extended notes or commentary on this passage.

    I also have a bias against the use of raw power by human beings against each other, and I shrink from seeing the word “authority” used here, and perhaps giving the idea that this kind of power is legitimate in the hands of human beings.

    I also think that the version of Ps. 2;9 in the ESV requires a note. It reads,

    they shall shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword,
    and the land of(A) Nimrod at its entrances;
    and he shall deliver us from the Assyrian


    Thanks for this post. Have a good holiday.

  23. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob asked:

    Does a language stop changing when it is no longer spoken

    Yes, I think so since there are no speakers to change it.

    or do the words continue to be spirit and life?

    Yes, I do believe this.

  24. Gary Simmons says:

    In Revelation, God is not the only one with ἐξουσία; He delegates it to others often and He looms as a shadowy figure upon the throne. Everything answers to Him, yes, but He does delegate power. The verb didomi occurs 53x in the book, by my count, and very often in the passive edothe with ἐξουσία. Other characters are seen as possessing ἐξουσία, including Jesus in 2:26f and the ones to whom He delegates it. In short: ἐξουσία is both delegated-authority and ability/power. How to translate it is an interesting question in its own right.

    As for ποιμαίνω, I’m with Sue on this one. To shepherd means either to feed or to lead, depending on context. Violent action doesn’t seem to be what the verb is used for, though defense of the flock is part and parcel to the role of shepherd. I don’t think it can be understood in the sense of “to dispose of.” Or, at least, I see no clear examples of that.

    However, what if it means “to tame?” As in, “[to begin] to shepherd?” In that sense, it could refer to conquest in a shepherding sense.

  25. Yancy Smith says:

    Great discussion, thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course ποιμαίνω does not have to “mean” or refer lexically to any violent action to be used metaphorically or even ironically. Language is so amazingly supple, especially in poetry. Happy New Year.

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