I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: God's Love and Care for His People
Rick Ezell, on the website Preaching.com wrote an article on the idea of God being our good shepherd. In that article, he gave this illustration:
"The eastern shepherds raised sheep for wool rather than for food. Thus sheep were usually with a shepherd for years and were often known by descriptive names like “Brown-leg” or “Black-ear.” The shepherds knew each sheep, every one of them. Sheep know the shepherd’s voice. The shepherd knows the uniqueness of each sheep.
Have you ever gone to a gathering, and didn’t know a soul? You felt so alone, so isolated, so distant. Then all of a sudden someone from a across the room calls your name. You are recognized. You are known. A flood of acceptance and honor comes over you. You relax, you belong.
The Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name. The Indian theologian D. T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping a huge flock of sheep. He stopped and asked, “How many sheep do you have?”
“I don’t know,” answered the boy, “I can’t count.”
Niles asked him, “How do you know if some of the sheep haven’t wandered off when you get to the place where you’re going to camp at night?”
To his astonishment, the boy answered, “I don’t know how many wander off, but I know each one. I can’t count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names.”
In Psalm 23, one of the most known and beloved Psalms in the Bible, King David calls God his Shepherd. It is a beautiful illustration of the Lord's love and care for His people and shows us that, throughout life and into eternity, we have nothing to fear because He is there with us every step of the way.
Let us look at this Psalm and see the ways in which God is our good shepherd and how that affects us in our lives.
I. He is Yahweh, the Covenant- Keeping God (1)
To begin with, as we look at the first verse of this Psalm, we can see a thesis statement from which the rest of the Psalm flows in order to demonstrate the truth of that statement. It tells us that:
"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." (1).
King David, who wrote this Psalm, was himself a shepherd as a lad. So he could tell the good ones from the bad ones. Bad shepherds didn't care for their sheep well. They were simply in business for selfish reasons, or worked for someone else who owned the sheep and weren't invested in them.. Sadly, they would never think of giving their lives for them to save the poor creatures from predators. . Also, any unfortunate sheep, who might get lost, had little or no hope that the bad shepherd would come looking for him.
David could see shepherds on a regular basis because the world that he came from was one of a pastoral lifestyle.
This type of life was one of shepherds herding livestock around open areas of land according to seasons and the changing availability of water and pastureland and green grass. The shepherds had to lead the sheep throughout the various seasons, helping them to find pastures to feed in, all the while clearing the area of the weeds that could kill a sheep. Keeping the pasture clear of toxic plants was important for the health of a flock.
From the very beginning we see that the one who is our Shepherd, the one leading us and clearing our path is unique. Many Bible versions have the word LORD capitalized. This is to show that He is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God. When He appeared to Moses at the burning bush to command him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, there was quite a revealing exchange that they had. According to Scripture, the Lord begins:
And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:9-15)
The "I Am" in this passage is the term Yahweh. This is the name for the one true self-existent, eternal creator and God of the universe. The name implies that God doesn't need us. He is completely whole within Himself. He has existed and always will exist. However, the word Yahweh is used when the writer wants to show the reader about God's desire for a personal relationship with His people.
The fact that God introduces Himself as Yahweh shows us that He is an intense and personal God. And the fact that He doesn't need us makes it all the more wonderful that He still wants us.
The same Shepherd who is above and beyond His sheep and greater than anything or anyone who exists, also chooses to be with us, interacting in our lives and protecting us.
Further, unlike the changing world around us, as well as the changing people and circumstances, the Lord our Shepherd never changes. You can always count on Him. He keeps His covenants with those He loves and with whom He makes promises.
He is a God of great mystery but, at the same time, closer than our very breath.
Jesus relates Himself over and over again as that same "I Am." In one case He tells His disciples:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." (John 10:11-16).
It is because of Yahweh that His people: "Shall not want." This doesn't mean that there are no problems and that nothing bad will ever happen to us. That isn't true in the shepherd and sheep world and it isn't true in this world of sin. There might even be a time when we will wonder if we can make ends meet financially or wonder if our circumstances will overwhelm us.
However, not wanting is a realization that God can take care of both my physical needs but also He can fulfill me and satisfy my heart as well. The believer can be satisfied that whatever happens, our Shepherd is in control and is working for our good. Also, in the end we will reach the ultimate pastureland in Heaven. The original word for want here means to lack, decrease, empty or to run dry. These things will never happen to us with our Good Shepherd near.
David can express total satisfaction with following the Lord. For. by His grace and care, he will lack nothing necessary for his life to be complete and fulfill his purpose for existence. .
II. He Makes Us Lie Down in Green Pastures/ Leads Us Beside Still Waters/ Restores Our Soul (2-3a)
And just how does Yahweh, our Shepherd, show Himself to be my good Shepherd? For one thing: "He makes me lie down in green pastures." Literally it says: "in grassy homesteads": These are the richer, oasis-like spots, where a homestead would be fixed in a barren tract of land.
Only a sheep in complete peace with his circumstances will lie down. A sheep who is afraid of an enemy or other problems, one who is hungry or is bothered by fellow sheep, or are even tormented by flies or different bugs will not lie down peacefully. He will constantly be restless. However, the good shepherd looks out for all of these needs and will cause the sheep to be content.
In the same way, God protects us by looking out for all of our needs and does this for us so that we will know that He is in control of everything that may bug us and steal our peace.
The passage further tells us that: "He leads me beside the still waters." The point of still waters is, again, protection. A sheep will drink from running water, but like goats, they hate water, hate rain, and if a sheep is drinking from a running river and falls in, their wool will drag them under quickly. So still waters are considerably safer for them, and a wise shepherd protects them in all ways possible.
This idea of restoring the soul can be seen in a different way as well. A sheep will occasionally wander away from the other sheep and get lost. The good shepherd cares for each individual sheep and will go after it, restoring his soul to the fold and saving his life. Jesus does this for us. He will leave the 99 and find the 100th sheep that has gone astray (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:3-7).
The good shepherd restores the soul of his sheep in still another way. Life takes a toll on these animals and on people alike. However. through rest and replenishment, they are restored.
And the person who has God as his Shepherd can reflect on all of this and see that the Lord is doing these great things on his behalf. Thus he will be given more and more confidence in the Shepherd to go on in life because he feels protected, safe and secure.
IV. He is With Us in Our Darkest Times (4)
The perfect shepherd not only leads in the good times but also in the bad. He doesn't abandon the sheep. The King James Bible reads this way:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
This phrase implies a situation where death looms over you but it may or may not result in your actual death. It is a situation of grave danger such as being in a war zone, or a car crash, or possibly having a diagnosis of cancer.
For the Christian, when we actually do die, and we all one day will, it won't be a fearful thing. We will be absent from the body and present with the Lord who loves us and has prepared a place for us. But the Valley of the shadow of death, can be a time of great concern and worry, if we allow our focus to be on ourselves and not on the good Shepherd who loves and cares for His sheep. He is with us through it all.
The Scripture speaks of the Shepherd's rod and staff being a comfort. According to the website GotQuestions.org: The rod is a symbol of the Lord’s strength and protection. It was a sturdy wooden stick used as a weapon to fight off wild animals who might have hoped to make an easy meal out of an otherwise defenseless flock of sheep. The shepherd also used the rod to help him keep count of the sheep within the flock.
The staff is symbol of the Lord’s guidance and lovingkindness. The staff was a long, slender stick, often hooked at the tip, used primarily to direct the flock. Sheep are notorious wanderers, and once away from the shepherd’s watchful eye, they get into all sorts of trouble. The shepherd used his staff to keep his sheep out of danger and close to himself. If a sheep became trapped in a dangerous position, the shepherd would loop the curved end of the staff around the neck of the sheep and retrieve it back to safety.
We sometimes go through times when it appears that the Lord has abandoned us. That is never the case with our Good Shepherd. He is always near, keeping us by Him with His rod and His staff.
V. He Prepares a Table Before Us in Our Enemy's Presence/Anoints Our Head With Oil/Causes Our Cup to Overflow (5)
Many Theologians see this next idea in the Psalm of preparing a table before us in the presence of our enemies as David changing the picture from Shepherd to host at a meal in which God lays out a sumptuous feast and thus provides for us while our enemies look on.
But I like the idea that Philip Keller has about this in his book: 'A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.' In it he talks about when the sheep approach the high mountain ranges where the shepherd leads them in the summer, they arrive at what are known as aplands, or tablelands. Keller said this:
In some of the finest sheep country of the world, especially in the Western United States and Southern Europe, the high plateaus of the sheep ranges were always referred to as "mesas" -- the Spanish word for "tables." Oddly enough, the African word for a table is also "mesa." The use of this word is not uncommon in referring to the high, flat-topped plateau of the continent.
Further, early in the season, the shepherd would go and make a preliminary look at the land, and prepare it for the sheep. As we said earlier, part of his job was to pluck the poisonous weeds which could harm the sheep and also look out for any signs of predators, such as a wolf or a cayote, which are the natural enemies of the sheep.
Another task is to clean the waterholes, springs and drinking holes for his stock. Also, he may need to repair some of the small earth dams that he's made for the sheep. This could be what David is referring to in talking about his cup running over. It is a phrase that indicates that the Lord has provided more than enough for his needs.
Going back to the earlier phrase that says 'He anoints my head with oil':
A very common reason a shepherd would be anointing the head of the animal, according to Keller, was to protect them from the flies and other insects that sometimes get in their face, lay eggs in their noses, and become a general nuisance. This could be yet another reference to the natural enemies of the sheep from which they must be protected. The poor sheep would sometimes become so frustrated with the flies that he would beat his head against a rock to get relief.
These things talked about by Keller all seem to be plausible as they continue the theme of the shepherd throughout the entire Psalm.
And finally, as we come to the end of this great Psalm of David, we see what some have called God's two great sheepdogs of His goodness and mercy following us all of our days , watching over us, keeping us from going astray, all the while, chasing off predators and helping us move down the right path.
Our Good Shepherd will look after us all of our lives. And that won't end with the death of the believer. For he or she will: "dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And thus the intimate relationship between the sheep and Shepherd continues into eternity.
My question to you is, "Do you know this Great Shepherd of the sheep?" If you don't, then I pray that you will join his flock today by faith in Jesus Christ. If you do know Him then, with King David, you can proudly say: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Let us all praise Him by staying close to His side and allowing our Master to lead us. What a mighty God we serve! And what an awesome and glorious Shepherd!
© 2020 Jeff Shirley