Psalm 23 is one of those texts that we think we all know. If you’re a church goer you are bound to have read or sung this particular Psalm before. Even if you’re not you’ve probably heard it before, perhaps at a wedding or a funeral. I wonder if you have stopped to give the words much thought?
When I picked up my Bible on that wet day on Reigate Hill and began reading Psalm 23 the words of David, the Shepherd King, immediately leapt off the page at me. Here was a man whose life had been utterly transformed by the love of God. He was so certain of the guiding role that God played in his life that he wanted to sing it aloud to anyone who would listen. David, as a former shepherd, knew only too well the extent to which a sheep was dependent on its shepherd for survival. He clearly believed that he was utterly dependent on God too. He had confidence that if he made himself like a sheep and trusted entirely in God for his well-being God would look after him and protect him in the same way that he had in turn once looked after his sheep.
At the point of hitting rock bottom in my life this seemed like an attractive prospect to me. My life felt directionless, pointless and irrelevant. What would it be like if I made myself like a sheep and proclaimed God as my shepherd? Sheep always seem so peaceful, relaxed and happy. Could I too know real peace, relaxation and happiness if I made God the shepherd of my life? Would God lead me from my despair to happier times?
As I pondered these thoughts I realised that I only had a vague idea of what a shepherd actually was. The imagery of a shepherd would have held great meaning for early readers of the Psalm, but to those of us living in the west in the twenty-first century, the imagery is probably less clear. Many of us may never have seen sheep, let alone a shepherd so can find the image of God being a shepherd rather meaningless. If I was going to make myself a sheep to God’s shepherd I needed to know more about what a shepherd actually did. I also needed to know what it would actually mean for God to be my shepherd.
What, then, were the attributes of a shepherd that David would have had in mind when he described God as his shepherd? What would David have understood as the main roles of a shepherd? Flicking through the Bible I discovered three key aspects of a shepherd’s role that might help us to understand what precisely David meant when he stated that the Lord is his shepherd. These three aspects are:
- Faithful provision of basic needs
- A personal relationship based on trust
- Protection at any cost.
Faithful provision of basic needs
This was one of the most fundamental functions of a shepherd. Sheep are generally unable to provide for themselves and so are reliant on their shepherd to provide them with all they need to live. Quite simply, if the sheep did not have a shepherd providing for their basic needs they would die.
There is a passage in Genesis 29 that helps us to understand how a shepherd would carry out this important task. In this passage, Jacob came across some flocks of sheep being looked after by their shepherds. He watched as the shepherds took their flocks to a well. When the sheep were all gathered round the shepherds removed the stone from the top of the well and allowed the sheep to drink. When the sheep had drunk as much as they wanted the shepherd rolled the stone back over the well to protect the vital water source for the future. This aspect of a shepherd’s work may seem fairly trivial but it is in fact very important. If a shepherd did not take care of the needs of his sheep they would die.
Whilst human shepherds might not always be completely reliable, David knew that God would be completely faithful in his provision. From our perspective there are even more reasons for us to trust in God’s faithful provision. Indeed, there are countless examples in the Bible that God will faithfully provide for all our needs. One of my favourite passages on this theme is in Matthew’s Gospel. In chapter 6, Jesus tells his followers:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25-34).
In this passage Jesus is explicit that his followers are not to worry about what they are to eat or drink or wear. Birds, he says, do not store up food for themselves but never go hungry. Flowers are dressed beautifully yet are soon discarded. Jesus says that rather than fretting about these things we should just trust in God and all the basic things that we need in life will be given to us. Jesus finished by saying explicitly, “do not worry about tomorrow.”
It is not just in the Gospels that we find promises of God’s faithful provision. The Bible is packed with verses that vindicate David’s trust in God as his shepherd. For example, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “and my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 4:19). The Old Testament is similarly rich, for example Isaiah 58:11 also reassures us that God provides for his people: “the LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
Of course, living in an advanced western country we might lose sight of the promise of God’s provision. We can forget the extent to which we rely on God to provide us with our basic needs. We just amble down to our nearest supermarket and find ourselves presented with a vast quantity of food and drink that we can buy. It is easy to forget that God created all the plants and the animals that we eat, but there is no doubt that he made the sun and sends the rain that enables our plants to grow. God has also provided us with the knowledge and wisdom to cultivate food that is good to eat. If our plants stopped growing because of a lack of water, if the nutrients in the soil ceased to nourish them, if the sun did not shine on our fields then we would starve. Maybe there is truth in the idea of God providing for our needs. Perhaps we really would die if it was not for his generous provision.
Our materialistic society might also lead us to misunderstand an important proviso that I am sure David would have added at this point. David would have known that, like a good shepherd, God gives according to need, not according to greed. We can sometimes struggle with this concept. When we look at our friends with their big houses, flash cars and all the latest gadgetry we can become jealous. Why can God not also give us these things too? God distinguishes between need and greed, however, and we should do too.
This understanding can give us a fresh insight into our lives. The shepherd doesn’t buy his sheep fancy objects: sheep have no need for them. The shepherd always ensures that his flock have all that they need to get through life. He provides his sheep with food, water, rest and protection. Perhaps when we see the way that a shepherd provides for his sheep we might get a new perspective on our own lives and adjust our expectations. Maybe when we take a step back we might see that we actually do have everything we need. I might like a fancy computer, a posh house and a flash car, but do I need them? No, of course I don’t. In fact, I have more than I need. I need much the same as a sheep – food, water, and protection – and I have all of these. There’s an important lesson for us here. God has a concern for each and every one of us and gives us much, but according to our need, not according to our greed. Maybe we just need to be content with what we have.
David would have known the extent to which a sheep was dependent on its shepherd to provide for all its needs and in saying that the Lord was his shepherd was no doubt reaffirming that he knew God’s faithful provision in his own life too. If we are to join David in declaring that the Lord is our shepherd we must also constantly remind ourselves that we have a faithful God who gives us all that we need to live. We should make ourselves more like sheep and understand that we cannot meet our needs for ourselves. If it was not for the faithful provision of our Shepherd-God then we would die.
A personal relationship based on trust
A key feature of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep was that of trust. Specifically, the sheep must be able to trust their shepherd. If that trust was not there then the sheep would try to run off on their own, believing that they were able to cope better without their shepherd. It was important, therefore, that the sheep felt able to place their trust in the shepherd.
The Bible shows us that this relationship between shepherd and sheep was secure because a good shepherd had an almost paternal relationship with his flock. In chapter ten of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us just how close this bond was. In this passage, Jesus suggests that multiple flocks would be penned together at night. In the morning when the gate of the pen was opened the shepherd would call for his sheep and they would come to him. The sheep recognised the voice of their shepherd. They knew that he was the one who protected them and looked after them and so would run to him. In the same way, once the shepherd had gathered his sheep together, he would lead them out to the fields, calling behind to them, and they would follow him. The sheep wouldn’t do this for just anyone. They followed because they knew their shepherd, recognised his voice, and trusted that he would take good care of them. The sheep had to trust that their shepherd would look after them, or they would not come to him. They followed him where he led them precisely because their experience had shown them that he cared for them and could be trusted to look after them.
David would have known for himself just how intimate the relationship was between a shepherd and his sheep and surely would have had this in mind when he wrote Psalm 23. He was in no doubt that God knew him intimately.
David explored this idea more fully in Psalm 139 when he wrote:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain. (Psalm 139:1-6).
We might think that an all-powerful being having intimate knowledge of who we are and what we do is something to fear but David clearly did not think this way. David was thrilled that God knew him so well. It made perfect sense to him, therefore, to put his trust in God fully because God knew and understood him better than he could ever know and understand himself.
We get a similar picture of God’s insight into our lives elsewhere in the Bible. The prophet Jeremiah once had a vision in which God said to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5). In Matthew 10:30 Jesus tells us that even the hairs on our head are numbered.
David put his trust in God completely and made him the shepherd of his life precisely because he knew that God knew him intimately, just as David knew his sheep intimately.
Whilst the shepherd cared for the flock as a whole his love and compassion also extended to the welfare of his individual sheep. To a shepherd each and every one of his flock was special and important. Jesus demonstrates this in a parable he told in Luke 15. Here he said that if a man had a hundred sheep but lost one he would leave the ninety-nine and go and look for the hundredth. If he found it he would celebrate doing so with his friends and neighbours. A shepherd like David would have known and loved his sheep as individual living creatures and was concerned about their fate. If one of them got in trouble and went missing he made sure that he tracked it down. He was not willing to leave a single one to die in the wilderness or be killed by wolves and would go to great lengths to find a lost sheep and return it to safety.
Just as the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is based on trust, specifically the trust the sheep had in the shepherd, we too should place our trust in our Shepherd-God. Having established that he will provide all that we need to live we should not hesitate to put our trust in him. The Shepherd-God wants to have a personal relationship with us and calls us by name. When he calls us do we listen for his call? Do we recognise his voice and spring to follow him, just as a flock of sheep would follow their shepherd anywhere he led them?
Protection at any cost
The third feature of the relationship between a shepherd and his flock is that of protection. A shepherd would go to great lengths to protect his flock. In John chapter ten, Jesus told his followers just how far a shepherd would go to ensure the safety of his sheep. In this passage he made the distinction between a hired hand and a true shepherd. A hired hand, paid by the day, would have no real commitment to the sheep he was looking after. A shepherd who owned the sheep, by contrast, would go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of his flock. Jesus said that if a hired hand saw a wolf approaching the flock he would abandon the sheep and run away. A shepherd on the other hand would stand up to the wolf to ensure the safety of his flock no matter what the personal cost. At times this personal cost could be very great indeed.
David himself knew only too well of the risks that a shepherd faced whilst protecting his sheep. In 1 Samuel 17, when David is trying to persuade King Saul to let him face Goliath, he tells his king that he was no stranger to danger, saying:
“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear.” (1 Samuel 17: 34-36)
Those are quite some lengths to go to protect a flock of sheep! I think that if I was confronted by a lion or a bear trying to steal my father’s sheep, I’d run the other way and tell my father that there was nothing that I could have done in the circumstances.
Just as a shepherd protected his sheep from death, so too the Shepherd-God protects his people. He does this in one particular and significant way. Christians believe that all people face the prospect of eternal death since we are all sinners. They believe that all people have turned away from God and regularly do things that he would not want us to do. Since we have done wrong and God is just we deserve to be punished for our wrongdoing. The Bible makes it clear that the penalty for turning away from God is death. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans when he states categorically that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a).
God did not want to condemn all humans to eternal death, though, so sent his son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for us. Even though he was the one person who had not turned away from God, he was killed by being nailed to a cross in Jerusalem. Christians believe that three days after he died Jesus came back to life. This resurrection represents a real triumph over death. Since Jesus took on the punishment that we deserved, we can know God and be reassured that we will live on with him after we die. Paul continues his statement in Romans 6:23 by stating that, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It’s interesting that Jesus himself spoke of his death in terms of a shepherd protecting his sheep. In chapter ten of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers:
“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 also 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. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:14-18).
With the benefit of hindsight we know as we read this that Jesus was crucified. At the point of crucifixion we see Jesus pay the ultimate price that a shepherd can pay for his sheep. He died so that his flock – you and I – can go on living after we die. Jesus laid down his life for all who accept him as Lord, just as a shepherd lays down his life to protect his flock. All we have to do is place our trust in him and follow him as sheep follow their shepherd.
Just as David intervened to save his father’s sheep from death, Jesus has intervened to save his father’s people – that is, you and I – from death. If it was not for the Shepherd-God sending his son to die for us, we would die, just like the sheep would die without their human shepherd. As it is, since Jesus has died for us, we are protected against death and have the gift of eternal life. Jesus has rescued us not from the mouth of a lion or bear, but from the mouth of death itself.
When we consider these three key aspects of the job of shepherd the statement that David makes, “The Lord is My Shepherd” seems even more extraordinary. David knew intimately what the role of shepherd involved and deliberately picked this image to describe how he saw his relationship with God. There is no doubt that David saw God taking on these roles in his life. David placed his complete trust in God to sustain all of his basic needs. He trusted that God would do so and therefore he could have a personal relationship with his Father. And he knew that God would go to any lengths to protect him, whatever the cost.
My Shepherd is the Lord
As I read through just this first verse of the Psalm, I was immediately struck by the significance of David’s words. David does not say that the Lord is a shepherd. He is convinced that the Lord is his shepherd. It felt as if he was offering me a challenge. It was almost as if he was saying, “my shepherd is the Lord. Who is your shepherd?”
At the point of despair on the North Downs I felt as if I had turned my back on my shepherd and set off on my own, unaided. It seemed to me that I had ignored the voice of Jesus calling my name and decided that I would do better on my own, without a shepherd to guide me. Looking back on my life I began to worry that I had not dedicated myself to following the good shepherd but had focused on following my own agenda: prestige, power, money, affluence and comfort.
Reading Psalm 23 showed me that in Jesus I had a shepherd who would sustain me in my basic needs, who knew me intimately, had a concern for me personally, who was faithful to meet my needs, needs which I cannot meet for myself, and who ultimately laid down his life for me. Yet I had turned my back on him. Was this why I now found myself alone in such a dark place in my life, I wondered?
There and then I identified myself as one of God’s sheep. I was determined to respond to David’s challenge by saying, “yes, my shepherd is the Lord too!” I wanted to be that hundredth sheep that Jesus returned to the fold. I wanted to put my trust completely in Jesus and to make him the Lord of my life. I understood that if I was going to make the Lord my shepherd I needed to return to the fold. I needed to concede that whilst I might have thought I was strong I was actually weak and admit that I needed Jesus in my life.
Once I had made this decision all my worries and stresses seemed insignificant. I didn’t care about how difficult my life at work was. I didn’t care about how things seemed so bad, because I began to see them in an eternal perspective. One day I would be with my heavenly Father, because I had a shepherd who was willing to do anything to provide for me, to keep me safe, a shepherd who was even willing to die for me.
When I had read that opening verse of the Psalm before, “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing,” I had just glazed over what those eight words mean. I’d read them hundreds of times, and sung them on countless occasions, yet not once did I grasp the full significance of those words for me. I’m sure that I’m not the only one for whom that is true. It wasn’t until I reached rock bottom in my life, fell into a spiral of depression, anxiety and despair, and re-read this tremendous Psalm that I looked with fresh eyes at that verse. For the first time I grasped the significance of that line. As I read it, and as I reflected on it suddenly I grasped what it meant to have a shepherd to look after me, provide for me, take care of me, keep me safe and ultimately die for me. I no longer saw a shepherd as an antiquated concept but as a figure who is relevant to us in the twenty-first century, who is still with us, who still cares for us.
As I walked across the North Downs, my tears began to transform from tears of despair to tears of joy, tinged with regret that I had not fully realised the implication of those words before, and sadness that I had let down my shepherd by not living a life that honoured and glorified him.
I had begun the journey from despair to peace.
For reflection and discussion:
- What do you think David meant when he proclaimed, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’?
- Is Jesus the shepherd of your life? What does this mean to you?
- Why might you want to make Jesus the shepherd of your life?
- What do you think David meant when he said, ‘I lack nothing?’
- Is there anything that you feel is lacking in your life?
Heavenly father, we thank you that you are the shepherd of our lives. Thank you for your generous provision that supplies all our needs. Thank you that you sent your son Jesus and that he knows us and calls us by name. Thank you that Jesus is the good shepherd and that he laid down his life to save us from death. Father, we’re sorry that we have not always listened for your voice, that we stray away from you believing that we are able to look after ourselves. Please forgive us and help us to follow you more closely in the future. Help us to place our lives entirely in your hands and to trust you as our shepherd. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the good shepherd. Amen.
Text copyright © Simon Lucas, 2014. All rights reserved.