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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.
More than any other class of livestock, sheep require constant and meticulous care. Sheep are timid and fearful, stubborn and stupid, and will move with the mob, even to their own destruction. At the sight of a predator, sheep panic, losing their babies through miscarriage and even their lives in unrestrained fear. Within the flock there is tension, rivalry, and cruel competition. Sheep lead other sheep down treacherous paths and then butt them into injury. Sheep are notorious for getting “cast down”, in which they have rolled on to their back with their feet in the air. A “cast down” sheep is helpless to right itself, and will die in a few hours if not turned upright. Sheep that have too much wool, are too fat, or rest too long in a soft and easy place are in grave danger of being cast down.
A brief look at human behavior in the past, and in the present, is enough to make anyone with insight realize that people are very much like sheep. That is why we desperately need a shepherd.
A good shepherd loves his sheep. He walks with them over many hard miles, carries them when they hurt, protects them from predators, and sleeps with them in the cold. He finds food and water for them even in rough places, lifts them up when they are cast down, and is willing to put their needs before his own. Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd. The Shepherd’s Crook is a symbol of the shepherd and was one of the earliest symbols used by Christians. It helped them find strength and comfort, and the courage to face ridicule and persecution.
The Shepherd’s Crook also reminds us that the lamb was sacrificed in Old Testament worship to atone for the peoples’ sins. The blood of the lamb protected the Children of Israel from the Angel of Death when it was passing over the Egyptians in judgment. Ultimately, Jesus’ sacrificed Himself for the sins of the whole world. He is the true and final “Lamb of God”.
We can never understand human behavior until we accept that we truly are like sheep. How often do we remark, when told of another’s foolish act or sin, “How could he have done that?” Instead we must realize that without the common grace of God given to all men, and the special grace given to those who trust Him, mankind could never do anything else. We cannot exalt in the pinnacle of grace until we confess the depth of depravity of the human heart.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, took the just penalty for all of our sins upon Himself. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares for His sheep, protects them, and loves them. The power and life of what He did, and does, for us, beggars description. Take a few minutes, or hours, to meditate on Him and His works. Whenever you see a sheep or a shepherd’s crook, let these memories and thoughts flood your heart with a peace that only the Lord can provide.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, And gathered all above, While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wondering love. O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth And praises sing to God the King, And Peace to men on earth!
How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is giv’n! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven. No ear may his His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray, Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born to us today! We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!