THE HIRELING SHEPHERD by William Holman Hunt

This painting is by the Victorian artist William Holman-Hunt and hopefully we shall see what it can reveal to us about our walk with The LORD.

Let us read from John 10:
1 ¶ Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. [the spirits that seek to rob us of our inheritance]
2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.[Jesus]
3 To him the porter openeth [The Holy Spirit]; and the sheep hear his [Jesus'] voice: and he calleth his own sheep [us] by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.[we must hear Him to follow]
5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.[there are so many spirits out there seeking to lure us away]
6 This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.[but the Holy Spirit reveals all truth to He who diligently seeks – Hebrews 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.]
7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.
8 All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.
9 I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.
10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. [and Jesus did – on the cross]
12 But he that is an hireling [a paid servant], and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

This passage from John is key to an understanding of this painting. Conversely, the painting can help illuminate the text – very useful in times gone by where perhaps only the pastor or minister could read, thus forming a readily accessible sermon in visual form – like television is to us now.

Holman-Hunt was very devout Christian. This work is often put in with His 'pastoral' paintings, but this is not the case.
The first thing that we notice is that the shepherd is paying more attention to the girl than to his shepherding duties, for the sheep are beginning to stray, just as his attention has strayed – indeed one ewe is about to enter the cornfield on the right.
The lamb on the girls lap is eating green apples, and the sheep on the left are wandering off into the distance.
If we think of our reading from John’s gospel, then even without the paintings’ title, this is plainly not ‘the good shepherd’. So what is a hireling exactly. Well, a paid servant, a hired hand – still with a duty to his flock – in other words, a 'stand-in' for the Good Shepherd.
It is clear that Holman Hunt intended his principal character to represent the church – and as is so often the case – the church is too involved with the things of this world, meaning that the flock gets neglected. The Hireling Shepherd, because he is a hired hand, ‘careth not for the sheep’. Is the painting saying that the church does not care for its flock? No, that is too much of a generalisation. In fact I believe both characters are 'the hireling'. There is no male or female in the Spirit. Only Christ.

What Jesus said was ‘I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’. Draw closer to Jesus. Trust in him, - in Him alone. The distinction is being made between believing in Jesus, or in his servants, or between obeying Jesus, or obeying his servants. And clearly, we must obey Jesus. Everything else is of this world, and is therefore not of Him.
1Timothy 1:16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.
It is not the church we are to believe in, but Jesus Himself. He wants us to accept Him as 'our own personal saviour' – to establish a close intimate and intense relationship with Him – which must come first in our lives, before anything else.

Sheep straying :
- we are sheep – Psalm 78:52 But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.

- The broad way – Matthew 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: {strait: or, narrow} - we need to keep our focus narrowed on Him – fallen over sheep [they do that before they die] – Hireling is neglecting His flock – above the fleeing flock is a swallow, often used as a symbol of the incarnation of Christ – swallows thought to spring fully formed from the ground.

The hireling is straying from 'the narrow path', and in doing so his flock are following. They are wandering off - leaving the fold - escaping from Eden. This idea of a departure from Paradise gives credence to the notion that our couple could also represent Adam and Eve.
Here is what Holman Hunt said of his painting, intending it to be ‘a rebuke to the sectarian vanities and vital negligences of the day. The shepherd is a type of the ‘muddle-headed pastors who instead of performing their services to the flock – which is in constant peril – discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a Death’s Head Moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil, and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness. While she feeds her lamb with sour apples, his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn.’

In short, they are not following the Lord. The Lamb can be seen as a representation of Jesus – Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, - ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ taking that sin (represented by the green apples) within him. The apple, of course, traditionally taken to mean the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. No specific fruit is mentioned in scripture, but it became the apple because the Latin word for ‘apple’, malus, also means ‘evil’. Here the lamb waits quietly, ‘eating up’ the sin around it, but neither running away, nor intervening in the ‘worldly’ scene beside it. It is in, but not of the world.
The symbol of the Death’s Head Moth is intriguing. Were it a butterfly, it would represent the resurrection – the analogy being of the caterpiller casting off its old skin to rise again into a new and glorious life – raised to glory. But although a moth has the same characteristics we can relate it more properly to James comment ‘Your riches are corrupted, your garments are motheaten’. A further symbol – should one be necessary – of the disobedience we see portrayed.
This corridor of trees represents the narrow way. Matthew 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. {Because: or, How} . We need to keep our focus narrowed [on Him]

Trees are a type of wise, or righteous man – and all around stand trees as silent witnesses to the event ‘that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified’ Isaiah 61:3

Trees are important symbols in scripture as Isaiah has pointed out – ‘the planting of the Lord’ – representing the upright, the wise (because they have witnessed so much), faithfulness and strength, even eternal life (because of their longevity). We want to be His planting i.e. that His Spirit is leading our lives. They can stand as symbols of life or death depending on whether the tree is healthy and strong or not. Here the trees are in green leaf suggesting life and health – except for the tree immediately behind the couple – another reminder that things are awry. 
The orangey flowers could be ragwort – poisonous to sheep. The Young People are the seed of tomorrow. Their arms form a cross – showing where they need to be.

Galatians 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.

Galatians 3:29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Hebrews 2:16 For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. {took not…: Gr. taketh not hold of angels, but of the seed of Braham He taketh hold}

See that in all this Jesus wants us in a close personal relationship with Him. Lean on Him, not on thine own understanding, or the church's. We are 'kings and priests'.

Proverbs 25:2 ¶ It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.
3 The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of kings is unsearchable. {is…: Heb. there is no searching}
4 ¶ Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer.
5 Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness.

6 ¶ Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men: {Put…: Heb. Set not out thy glory}
7 For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen.

To conclude – the message of this picture is 'trust in God, not in man' – and for this to be made real, we need the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit brings us in to reality and out of the illusion or delusion of our present existence and into His marvellous light.

The Hireling Shepherd 1851
William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
Oil on canvas
Manchester Art Gallery

In a letter to the Gallery, Hunt said that his first object had been to paint a real shepherd and shepherdess 'and a landscape in full sunlight, with all the colours of luscious summer', but he also used it to highlight problems in the Church.

The Bible tells how the 'hireling' shepherd does not care for his flock the way a true shepherd does. Here the hired help flirts with a young lady about a silly superstition of a death's head moth, while the sheep stray into the corn and become 'blown'. The shepherd is likened to the clergy at the time, who neglect their pastoral duties in favour of more high-flown ideals.

Hunt used an innovative painting technique, achieving astonishing clarity and brilliance by painting over a wet, white ground. His bright colours and unflinching realism were as shocking to the public as was the perceived 'coarse' nature of the couple. 


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