Shepherds have uniquely valuable insights into this most beloved of Bible passages.
By Mark D. Harris
t was almost Christmas as my young family and I left for church from our town house in Bad Kissingen, Germany, a few miles north of Schweinfurt. A middle-aged German couple lived next door, and one day I asked the wife if they attend church, and what were their holiday plans. She replied that she and her family had attended services occasionally long ago, and were planning a quiet Christmas. Hoping to encourage her to go back to church, at least for Christmas, I mentioned that the Bible has some wonderful passages and asked her if she had ever heard of the 23rd Psalm. “Der Herr ist mein hirte!” she shot back, “Of course! Germans learn that as children. Do you think we know nothing?” I apologized for my inadvertent insult, but couldn’t help thinking about Psalm 23 as cultural classic versus Psalm 23 as living truth. My neighbor memorized Psalm 23, but showed no sign of living it. Followers of Christ must know it, and live it.
God uses the research, experiences, and insights of other Christians to help us see into the Scriptures. Much of the Bible is written in the language of farmers and herders. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful, symbolic description of our Father’s care for His people through a shepherd’s eyes. As a professional shepherd and the author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller shares some valuable insights, which I have included.
I work as a medical doctor, not a veterinarian, which would be handy at times like this, but nonetheless I have added a few thoughts of my own.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want
Just as a shepherd does not leave his sheep to fend for themselves, so Christ does not leave us to fend for ourselves. He takes care of us. Darwinian philosophers might argue that the fall of rain, the growth of crops, and other natural processes that produce food have nothing to do with God. Sociologists might object that individual and corporate human effort produces social systems that distribute natural resources to members of society, again excluding God, if there is one. Christians do not deny natural processes or human effort, but understand that an all-powerful, all-loving and utterly sovereign God created and controls these processes. In an inexplicable sense, and while allowing for human responsibility, He controls people too.
As a result, followers of Christ can and should have complete confidence that He will care for us. His children can indeed say, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
He maketh me to lie down
Sheep cannot lie down unless four requirements are met: They must be free from fear, free from tension with other sheep, free from aggravations (like pests) and free from hunger. The shepherd provides these freedoms by his care of the sheep. There is nothing like Christ’s presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown. 9/11 brought home to all of us the uncertain life in which we live. “He maketh me to lie down” When we rest in Christ’s presence, we can physically and emotionally rest.
Why are we perpetually in such turmoil? Why do we let worries gray our hair and wrinkle our brow? In brazen disobedience to John 14:1, why do we let our hearts be troubled? Is it because we don’t actually want God to take care of us, lest we relinquish control? Is it because we have not taken the time to remember God’s faithfulness in our lives and in our churches, and so we don’t believe Him?
In green pastures
The land where David wrote the 23rd Psalm is parched. In order for sheep to survive, pastures must be prepared. Animal handlers work long, hard hours to clear land, plow, seed or plant and irrigate. The result is lush, green pastures.
God led His people from Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey (agricultural terms which denote a land of plenty). He wants abundant lives of joy for His people. Our Father attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. Truly, our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has prepared lush, green pastures where we can find peace and plenty.
Philip Keller writes that his neighboring rancher was cruel and did not provide for his sheep. The starving animals watched the animals under Philip Keller’s care receive plenty to eat and tried to get through to their property. One day Mr. Keller found several of the sheep collapsed on his property, they had managed to get through. He loaded them in a wheelbarrow and took them back to his neighbor. The neighbor slit their throats on the spot. What a picture of what Satan is anxious to do!
He leadeth me beside the still waters
Sheep need water that is still, deep, and pure. Their sources are dew on the grass, streams and springs, or deep wells, but it is up to the shepherd to find them and to bring his sheep safely there. Philip Keller once watched a flock being led down into enormous hand-hewn caverns. They were like great rooms with ramps running down to the water troughs. Pure water awaited the flock but deep down in the cistern was the shepherd, bailing the water so the sheep could drink. A good shepherd works hard for his sheep, but our Good Shepherd went much farther. He provides natural water for our physical bodies, but also sacrificed his life to bring us the Living Water for which our souls thirst.
He restoreth my soul
What does this have to do with a sheep? These animals can sometimes become ‘cast’ or ‘cast down’. This is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again. Sheep become “cast down” when they are too fat, when they have too much wool, or when they get too comfortable in a resting spot and simply roll over. If the shepherd does not find the sheep which is cast down and pick it up within a short period of time, it will die.
Christians can become “cast down.” Too much wealth and too many possessions make us spiritually fat and loaded down. Too much ease makes us too comfortable in our lives. The Lord restores us, if we will let him, when things creep into our lives that shouldn’t be there, such as when we become slaves to possessions. As a shepherd talks to his sheep with tenderness and love, and sets them aright, so our Savior does for us.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake
The greatest single safeguard for the shepherd in handling his sheep is to keep them on the move. If left to their own devices, they would graze the same land repeatedly and ravage it. So it is with us.
My wife, five children, and I have moved 13 times in 27 years of marriage. Some of these moves were unwanted, but the Lord moved us anyway. Even when Christians stay in the same geographic location, God wants us moving emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to become more like Him. Hebrews 12 describes the Christian life being like a race, and so it is.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me
A good shepherd takes his flocks to the high summer ranges to graze. There are many dangers along the way. The shortest routes, and also the ones with the best watering places, are through the valleys. The shepherd always prepares by going to the ranges in advance. He finds and moves obstacles along the path. He looks for signs of predators and tries to eliminate their threat. Nonetheless, the shadow of death always looms over the shepherd and his sheep.
We sing a chorus, Touch Me Again Lord, and one verse states “Wherever I’m going, you’ve already been.” The shepherd never takes his flocks to a place where he has not been.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me
The rod was used for discipline, protection, to count, and to examine. Any sheep who had ‘passed under the rod’ felt the shepherd’s care. When we obey Him, God searches us with the ‘rod’ of His Word. By reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating on the Bible, our souls gain a Christ-like mind, and protection from the confusions and lies of the world.
The staff represents that which is longsuffering and kind. The staff is used for drawing sheep together, for drawing a sheep close to the shepherd, and for guiding the movements of the flock. Just as safety for sheep is found in staying with the shepherd and the flock, so safety our lives is found in staying with the Lord and the Church. The staff of Christ guides those who follow Him.
Let us remember the words of Ps 143:8, ‘Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in You. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies
The summer ranges are referred to as tablelands. The Spanish word for table is mesa. What David referred to as a table could have been the summer ranges. The shepherd prepared in advance, making the ranges ready. He would take salts and minerals, determine where camps would be and remove poisonous weeds. Whether in the fold, in the valleys, or on the high ranges, only the shepherd’s constant care and watchfulness protected the sheep from predators. Christ provides for us in the presence of our enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil
At certain times of the year, shepherds rub the heads of their sheep with a preparation such as linseed oil. This keeps them free from pests and the resulting conditions. The protection wears off after several weeks and must be repeated. We need to be anointed by the Holy Spirit daily through prayer and Bible study. This keeps us in touch with our Good Shepherd.
My cup runneth over
No other season finds the sheep so strong as autumn; they are refreshed from grazing on the summer ranges and are free from pests. No wonder David wrote ‘My cup runneth over’. At the same time, unexpected blizzards and storms can come up and cause the sheep and shepherd much suffering.
Jesus referred to His agony in Gethsemane and the subsequent trial, scourging, and crucifixion as His cup. The Lord’s cup ran over with the sins of the world, the iniquities of you and me. At His death, Christ’s cup overflowed with his lifeblood, that washed away the wickedness that we had put in it. Jesus’ blood made His cup holy. Otherwise, we would have perished.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
Pasturing sheep on land enriches the land. They eat weeds and undesirable plants and with their manure richly fertilize the pasture on which they graze. Through good works done for the glory of God, we as children of God leave behind goodness and mercy in every life we cross. Through evil deeds or even indifference, we leave behind turmoil, bitterness, conflict and frustration. Our legacy is our choice.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
Sheep that are well-cared for are very contented; they do not look for other pastures. They are happy to dwell in the pastures of their shepherd forever. As Christians, we will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever. How thankful we should be to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd”
Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Zondervan, 2007