The Great Shepherd

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Jesus is the Shepherd of our souls and is an example to us for shepherding.

[Psa 23:1-6 ESV] 1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Abel, Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Jacob’s 12 sons, Moses, David, Amos. What do these men have in common? They were all shepherds. When God needed a leader, he always chose a shepherd. 

When Moses was 40 years old, he was dedicated to his people. At one point he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and he defended the Hebrew, killing the Egyptian. Moses was a man of action, he was willing to liberate his people, he was willing to lead them. He thought that “his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” [Acts 7:25 ESV]. But God did not use Moses to save the Hebrews from Egypt yet. 

Moses fled from Egypt to become a shepherd for forty years. Then God appears to Moses. God did not choose the 40 year old warrior, he chose the 80 year old shepherd. God was going to liberate the Hebrews from the powerful nation and from Pharaoh’s rule, but he chose the old shepherd instead of the young warrior. 

When God needs a leader, he did not look for someone that wanted a war. When God needed a leader, he looked for someone who knew how to guide, to care for, and to protect. When God needs a leader, he does not look for a warrior, he looks for a shepherd. He looks for people that can be strong in the face of opposition, but people who care for others, nurture them, and want to see them flourish. A shepherd was a person of both strength and care, with the masculine aggression and the feminine gentleness. 

Shepherds are usually looked down upon as lower status (especially in more developed civilizations), but God lifts them up as the perfect metaphor for leadership, the perfect metaphor for God’s care of his people (Isa. 40:10-11), and the perfect metaphor for Jesus’s care for his people. But for us in modern America, the role of shepherd can be difficult to understand. As we grow in our understanding of the role of shepherd, we come to understand Christ more, we come to understand our responsibility more, and we come to understand the role of elders more.

Day in the life of a shepherd

If there was only one shepherd in the family it would be the youngest boy, depending on the families source of income, as the boy ages he may switch to helping his father with sowing, plowing, and harvesting the crops, and passes on the shepherd’s task to the next younger boy. And so the job is passed from older to younger until the youngest of all becomes the family shepherd. (This was the case with David who was the youngest of eight boys.) The young boy would wake up early in the morning and would lead the flock of sheep from the fold where the sheep stay at night and lead them to a pasture to feed. The many days, weeks, and months with their shepherd have made them able to recognize their shepherd. 

The shepherd spends his long days caring for these sheep. He is not just a hired hand; he is invested in the flock. The flock is his livelihood. This is his flock, these are his sheep, and he is their shepherd. His responsibility is to provide for his flock. The shepherd spends so much time with his flock that he comes to know each one and will often name them. If the shepherd is vocal enough, the sheep learn their name. The shepherd sits and watches the sheep, knowing which one is the rambunctious one, which one is the shy one, which one tries to be the alpha. This is his flock, these are his sheep, and he is their shepherd.

It is that way with the Lord, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

The top duty of the shepherd is to see that the sheep find plenty to eat and drink. The shepherd leads the sheep to their food. The flocks are not brought food in pens or folds, but must depend upon foraging for their sustenance. Sheep eat a lot of grass, they are totally focused on eating. And when the sheep have their fill they often lie down for a nap. It is the shepherd’s responsibility to ensure their safety while they rest. 

But sheep refuse to lie down unless four conditions are met: if they have any fear of predators, they will not lie down. If they feel any pressure from other sheep, they will not lie down. If they are tormented by flies or parasites, they will not lie down. If they have any feeling of hunger, they will not lie down. So, when a sheep lies down, it is in a perfect situation, free from fear, stress, annoyance, or hunger. 

The shepherd keeps a regular count of the flock because sheep often straw away and get missing. The sheep get hungry and in search for more grass, they wander away from the group. Sheep are not like many animals who know how to get around. They get lost and have no idea how to get back unless they can see or hear the others. Once they get lost, they stay lost. The shepherd counts his flock and when he comes up one short, he will make sure the flock is fine for a moment and then go seek the lost one. Once he finds it, he will give it a smack with his rod out of discipline, throw it on his shoulders, and then take it back. 

The sheep doesn’t know but the shepherd knows that it is safer with the group, under the shepherd’s watch, and in the green pasture. The shepherd works to ensure that the flock can “lie down in green pastures.”

It is that way with the Lord. “The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures.”

Around noon, the young shepherd takes the flock to water. The shepherd knows where water is but the sheep are completely unaware. When sheep are thirsty they become restless and set out in search of water to satisfy their thirst. But sheep are unable to know where the water is or if it is clean. Water was sometimes in short supply in desert lands. He must travel through the dry places to the watered valleys. And it couldn’t be just any water, if the water is running to fast in a stream or river, it would spook the sheep. They prefer still water, but it also has to be clean. Drinking from puddles would give the sheep parasites and they become ill. That is why it was not uncommon for a well to be dug. The young shepherd would lead his flock to “the still waters.” 

It is that way with the Lord, “He leads me beside still waters.”

If the shepherd comes across a sheep on its side, he knows it needs helpIf you ever see a sheep on its side, know it needs help. You might see a sheep lying on its back, with its feet up in the air, twisting side to side; perhaps the sheep is able to roll onto its feet but can only walk a few steps before falling over again; it may feces on its back side from being on the ground so long and it may be lost and alone. You might think this sheep is sick. But actually, sheep often become “cast,” which means they are stuck on their backs, unable to get up. The sheep’s center of gravity can get off – sometimes because it’s pregnant or simply because it has a full fleece. A sheep struggling to get up can quickly become dehydrated in the summer sun or become prey for wild animals. Predators are always looking for a cast sheep; the sheep would be easy prey if not for the shepherd helping the sheep stand up again. 

The shepherd would stand over the sheep, straddling it. And he would bend down, get a handful of wool (it doesn’t hurt it), and lift the sheep up straight; he might wait for the sheep to get adjusted, for it to regain its sense of balance, and for blood to circulate in its legs again. The longer it is on its back, the more trouble it has to adjust and rebalance it. But after the sheep gets adjusted, it is perfectly fine. And the sheep may fight against anyone trying to help it, even the shepherd, because it does not understand someone is trying to help. But the shepherd cares for the sheep and helps them. 

It is that way with the Lord, “He restores my soul.”

The shepherd will look at the state of his pasture and decide that the flock needs to be lead elsewhere. Sheep are notoriously creatures of habit. if left to themselves hey will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes’ pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. If allowed, sheep will overgraze and will destroy their own pastures. They will eat and eat until they strip the pasture. So they must be led to new pastureland. The shepherd must guide them to new land.  

It is that way with the Lord, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

If the shepherd notices the summer heat is about to set in, he might decide to take the flock to a cooler pasture on higher ground. The wilderness of Judea which is located along the western side of the Jordan Valley is carpeted in the spring with a certain amount of grass and this turns into standing hay as the hot weather comes, and this becomes food for the sheep during part of the summer. But to get there entails long “drives,” where the sheep move along slowly, feeding as they go, gradually working their way up the mountains. By late summer they are well up on the remote meadows. With the approach of autumn, early snow settles on the highest ridges, forcing the flock to withdraw back down to lower elevations. 

During this time the flock is entirely alone with the shepherd. They are in intimate contact with him and under his most personal attention day and night. That is why in Psalm 23, the last verses are in first-person with such intimate language. The shepherd takes the sheep where they need to go and the journey is through lands that the sheep are not familiar with. On this journey, the sheep have reason to be afraid of foreign lands, of possible predators, of not finding food; valleys on the way to the high pastureland often have the best grass, but those valleys can also be places of dark danger for sheep, but they are not afraid because their shepherd is with them. 

It is that way with the Lord, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

The young shepherd is always prepared to protect his flock from wild animals. He does not carry much: a bag with some food, a pipe to play; but he always carries with him his staff, rod, and sling. 

Each shepherd boy, from the time he first starts to tend his father’s flock, takes special pride in the selection of a rod and staff exactly suited to his own size and strength. He finds a sapling himself that fits his hands and with great patience and care, he carves it. After he completes it, the boy spends hours practicing with his club, learning how to swing it with strength and how to throw it with accuracy. After hours of practicing, it became an extension of his arm. He carried it with him everywhere, it was in his hands all day, it rested on his shoulders all night. It stood as a symbol of strength, his power, his authority in serious situations, but also discipline to correct wayward sheep. Often, a shepherd would have two, a rod and staff. The rod would have a large knob at the end for increased weight to swing. With his rod he could fight off the wild animals from a distance. His staff was longer and thinner. The staff would often have a crook at the end of it that can be used to pull a sheep away. His sling was simply leather and rope. It was swung a time or two around the head before flinging the stone. 

With this arsenal, a shepherd was prepared for wild animals. Lions, bears, wolves, hyenas, and leopards were all interested in a sheep dinner. Sheep won’t fight back, run, or hide. Instead, when a predator appeared, they gather together, giving the predator a big choice on which sheep to pick for his dinner. The shepherd boys became surprising resourceful and able when it came to fighting off animals. David said he had protected the flock from lions and bears, single-handedly fighting off both at different times (1 Sam 17:34-37). 

It was wolves that were the worst enemy of the flock. They were more numerous than lions or bears. They were canny, constant, and fierce. They rarely left off trying to invade the fold and make off with a lamb or young sheep.

The shepherd boy hears the sheep cry and rustle; he looks up to see the wolves from afar eyeing the flock. With great speed, he sticks a rock in his sling, swings it around his head twice and hurls the rock at the wolves. The rock zooms toward the wolves and into a wolf’s head. A bark of pain is let out by the wolf. All of them run off except for one. The shepherd stands between the sheep and the wolf. With one hand he has his staff to push the sheep back and with the other hand he has his rod ready to swing at the wolf. The shepherd is the first and only defence, the prime protection. The shepherd uses his staff to push back his sheep and uses his rod against the predator. For the sheep, both are a source of comfort. 

It is that way with the Lord, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Jesus As Shepherd

Hopefully, you already see some of the connections with Jesus already. Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. He uses this metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep to describe himself and his disciples. You see a shepherd and a sheep, that is Jesus and you. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Jesus knows you like a shepherd knows his sheep. Jesus cares for you, loves you, wants to provide for you, like a shepherd provides for his sheep. 

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” The Lord will give you peace to rest. He will bring you to where you need to be. He will make sure you are provided for. 

“He restores my soul.” If you stray away, the Lord will bring you back. If the Lord finds you cast down, he will pick you up again. 

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The Lord will guide you, lead you, take you where you need to go. 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The Lord may guide you in scary ways; the way the Lord leads you may be frightening, but because the Lord is with us, we have no reason to fear. 

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The Lord is our protector. His power and authority to protect us comforts us. His power and authority to discipline us comforts us. 

Psalm 23 uses that metaphor to describe our relationship to the Lord because there is no better metaphor. Psalm 23:5-6 break from that metaphor, [Psa 23:5-6 ESV] “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The Lord is our shepherd. That means he protects us, regardless of the enemies around us; that means he provides for us, our cup overflows, our head is anointed; that means we can have peace, we will dwell in the Lord’s house forever. We serve the good shepherd, Jesus Christ, who said, [Jhn 10:14-15] “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” 

Our king, the Lord, is unique. He is not just a king that sits on his throne above and apart from the people he rules; our king’s home is not a palace rather he lives among his flock, he knows his sheep by name, his voice is recognizable, he risks his life to protect us. His kingly scepter is a shepherd’s staff. The shepherd and sheep have this intimate relationship. The shepherd cares for the sheep, is involved in their lives, knows their weaknesses and strengths, protects them, feeds them, helps them feel safe. That is Jesus to you and me. 

When you read of Jesus to people, he treats them with this firm gentleness. He is compassionate to the hurting, he wept with Mary and Martha when their brother died; he is firm in disciplining, he rebuked Peter when Peter told Jesus he would not die; he fed and watered them, he taught people the Word of God, which is spiritual nourishment; he protected against predators, he exposed the Pharisees for the wolves they were. It may not be visible, but Jesus is actively involved in your life. In God’s Word he teaches us and feeds us; in guiding our life, he disciplines us, he protects us, he provides for us. 

Christians as sheep

And one of the important lessons from the shepherd and sheep metaphor is the helplessness of sheep. The more you learn about sheep, the more you realize how helpless they are. So when Jesus calls you sheep, he is saying he loves you and cares for you, but he is also saying that you can’t care for yourself. 

A commonly held, but serious misconception about sheep is that they can just “get along anywhere.” The truth is the reverse. No other class of livestock requires more careful handling, more detailed direction, than do sheep. If the sheep were to flourish, the sheep had to be constantly under his meticulous control and guidance. Caring for sheep requires diligence and one of the surest death-sentences for a sheep is indifference; just leaving sheep alone is a death sentence for them. Sheep don’t realize they will strip a pasture bare when they over eat. Sheep don’t understand that they should stay with the flock. Sheep don’t get that they should run away from predators. Sheep can’t get back up by themselves when they fall over. Sheep can’t shear their own wool. Sheep can’t find water to drink, new grass to eat. Sheep can’t find their way home when they are lost. Sheep are just helpless. 

That’s you and me. We cannot take care of ourselves, spiritually speaking. Feeding your souls? You need Jesus. Protecting you from predators? You need Jesus. Teaching us how to behave? You need Jesus. Bringing you back or picking you up? You need Jesus. Giving you peace? You need Jesus. Jesus gives us what we cannot give ourselves.

The shepherd faced the ongoing challenge of teaching the sheep to obey his commands. The shepherd had to teach them to obey, teach them not to wander off, teach them to follow the shepherd. It was not uncommon for the shepherd to use his staff to push the sheep in a direction or even give them a healthy smack with his staff. Sheep had to be taught over and over again.  

If you and I are sheep, then we need to listen to our shepherd. Do what he says. Go where he says to go. Cling to him in danger. Let him lift us up when we fall. Eat what he feeds us. Drink what he says to drink. 

If Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep, then he has the hard job of dealing with us. We can be stubborn. He loves us and just wants what is best for us. But sometimes we refuse to listen and fight back. The job of the sheep is simply, obey the shepherd and trust him. Let the shepherd do his job and you simply follow him. 

Do you see why God used this metaphor so often? It is just perfect to describe God, who loves, provides, and protects us, and perfect to describe us, who need help, often make mistakes, and just need to follow him.

Christians As Shepherds

We are simply sheep, but God also hopes that we become better as sheep as we follow him. He wants us to learn to follow him and to obey him. But he also hopes that we get to a point in our lives where we not only follow him but encourage others to follow him. 

Sometimes we think that being a shepherd is either Jesus’ job or the elders’ job, but that is wrong thinking. Every Christian has a responsibility to help their fellow brothers and sisters in their faith. We Christians are sheep, but we also much mature and strive to do some shepherding of our own, where we encourage others to follow Christ, where we teach others what Christ teaches, where we help others when they fall. Christ has set an example for us to follow, if Christ shepherds you, you should shepherd others. 

When it comes to parenting, shepherding is perfect metaphor. When it comes to having a fellow Christian who is like a little brother or sister, shepherd them. When it comes to grandparents or parents and fellow Christians that are younger, shepherd them. When it comes to someone who is new to being a Christian, shepherd them. You can become a mentor to someone, or you can simply encourage them as a friend. But all of us sheep should strive to take care of each other. Us sheep need to help other sheep stick with the shepherd. 

If you see a sheep wandered off from the flock, go and bring them back, [Jas 5:19-20 ESV] “19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

If you see a sheep that caught in some bushes, help free them, but make sure you don’t get caught too, [Gal 6:1 ESV] “1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

If you see a sheep that has fallen onto its side, go and lift them up, [1Th 5:11] “… encourage one another and build one another up…”

If you see a wolf, speak up! Wolves are a danger to you and to others. Wolves will be dressed like sheep. Jesus said, [Mat 7:15 ESV] 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

And sometimes the best thing for you to do is to be an example to the rest of the flock. Be the sheep that follows the shepherd, be an example to other sheep. We should say to others, [1Co 11:1 ESV] “1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Or like Paul said, [Phl 3:17] “…keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

 

This is the shepherd-sheep relationship that God has always used. Because there is such a cultural divide here, we have to get to know that relationship to understand our relationship with God. Not everyone here knows a shepherd or the day-to-day workings of a shepherd. But that does not change the fact that we have a shepherd over us and we are sheep. So, we have to understand what is a shepherd, what are his duties? A shepherd had the job of watching over the sheep and caring for them. The shepherd loved his flock, protected them, and provided for them. And the sheep, what was their role? Their role was to stick to the flock, to follow their shepherd, and obey his commands. 

When you understand what a shepherd is and what a shepherd does, you come to understand Psalm 23 better. When you read of all the things the Lord does if he is your shepherd, then why wouldn’t you want the Lord to be your shepherd? When you can say what verse 1 says, “The LORD is my shepherd.” The rest of the psalm tells you all the amazing blessings you receive when the Lord is your shepherd. 

[Psa 23:1-6 ESV] 1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Make the Lord your shepherd. Do you want to be free of want? Do you want to lie down in green pastures? to be beside still waters? When the Lord is your shepherd, you will walk through danger but fear no evil. When the Lord is your shepherd, goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Make the Lord your shepherd.

One thought on “The Great Shepherd

  1. What a beautiful message. I found this so inspirational that I shared it with all of my Facebook friends.
    God Bless.

    Like

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