We are accustomed to understanding the shepherding language in Scripture in warm, pastoral terms of comfort. Certainly, that is appropriate, since the Bible often uses shepherding imagery in such a way (for example, Ps. 23). However, the language of shepherd and sheep also appears in reference to military leaders. It is applied to Assyrian generals in Nahum 3:18. Ezekiel 37:24 likens the king of Israel, who commanded the nation’s armies, to a shepherd. We could multiply examples, but the point is that any reference to shepherds as the leaders of God’s people, at least for ancient Jews, carried with it militaristic overtones.
Consequently, the use of shepherding imagery for Jesus in Mark 6:30–44 points us to a situation in which the crowd He fed with five loaves and two fishes would likely have expected Jesus to lead them in a military coup against the Roman Empire. That the Galilean and Judean wildernesses were gathering places for many first-century Jewish uprisings that sought to cast off the yoke of Roman rule under the military command of a would-be messiah also makes it likely that at least some in the crowd would be looking for Jesus to be a military leader. But the most significant evidence for this belief on the part of the crowd is found in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. There, we read that after the miracle, the crowd wanted to “take [Jesus] by force to make him king” (John 6:1–15).
That helps explain the urgency with which Jesus made His disciples depart from the wilderness where he fed the five thousand (Mark 6:45). The people’s false expectations could draw the notice of the authorities before it was time for Jesus to end His earthly ministry, so He and the disciples had to leave before the crowd could cause more of an uproar. Notably, however, Jesus did not go all the way to Bethsaida with them, at least not at first. Instead, “after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray” (v. 46).
Here, we see the importance of prayer in Christ’s own life of devotion to the Father. As the second person of the Trinity in eternal communion with His Father, Jesus nevertheless knew success in His ministry required dedicated time in prayer. This was particularly key at a moment when others sought to give Him premature acclaim, just as Satan promised Him the kingdoms of this world (Matt. 4:7–11). In an hour of temptation and for the sake of His continuing ministry, our Savior turned to His Father in prayer.