THE CARING SHEPHERD
Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18
In the sixteenth century Joseph ben Ephraim Qaro, … a persecuted Spanish Jew who migrated to Palestine, produced a monumental summary of Jewish law under the title Shulhan Aruk, which means, a “Table Prepared.” Qaro took the title from the twenty-third Psalm “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Yes the psalms were the original hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, but they were also used for religious education and spiritual guidance over the ages. The Psalms speak clearly and vividly about religious truths. Even in our day, many small Testament Bibles, handed out to college students or to military personnel by groups like the Gideons, not only contain the New Testament, they also contain the Psalms. The Psalms have served several functions since the days of King David who wrote many of them. One, they contain pictures of life in countless stages and situations. Two, they run the gamut of human emotions from anguish to praise to comfort. And Three, we find examples of prayers people have offered to God so that we, when tongue tied, might have some templates to follow. Some Psalms resound with joy and thanksgiving; others let us listen in to a hurting soul. They are a resource for Jew and for Christians to this day. When you may be struggling or broken, you can see what people before us said as they turned to God. And when words hardly form in one’s prayer life, a Psalm can shine a light in your darkness. Of all the Psalms in the book, Psalms 51, 90, 91, 100, 121, and 150 are used often, but the most beloved Psalm is the twenty-third Psalm. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus, addressing his disciples in John 10, knew Psalm 23. His knowledge of those words molded his message that he was the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is often called “the Shepherd’s Psalm,” and it is the most used passage of Scripture at funerals.
Psalm 23 is an affirmation of faith; it expresses extreme trust even as it offers personal confession. David, the writer of the Psalm, shows a child-like trust in the Lord, who he likened to a shepherd. Although the shortest Christian confession in the Bible is “Jesus is Lord,” the first line of this Psalm is also a confession of faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” There it is. Still, few in American culture get exposed to the life of a shepherd. That’s why an author and shepherd like Phillip Keller is so helpful. In his book A Shepherd Looks a Psalm 23, he unpacks the meaning of those beloved words. He grew up in East Africa and watched native herders at work. He became a lay pastor, bringing with him his wealth of “pastoral” insights. Even the term “Pastor” refers to “one that looks out for a flock.”
“I shall not want.” In other words, “I have everything I need.” The shepherd takes care of the food, the water, the grooming, the doctoring, and the protection of the sheep. Ah, to be a sheep in the flock of a good shepherd: that’s the pinnacle of care! That’s what David noticed, what he apparently practiced and what he believed about being in God’s care. It was quite a claim.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Keller wrote:
The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met:
Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free from fear.
Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they are in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. [Zondervan, 1970, p. 35]
Goodness! Humans … I mean sheep, are needy!
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Sheep, I have learned, will not drink from a running stream; they will die of thirst out of their fear of getting water in their nose (a little like humans?) But if they drink from stagnant water, bacteria can grow and infect their digestive system. So a shepherd must find water (available ideally from streams, rivers, or springs in Israel,) and either capture the water and pour it into a trough, or dam up the running water temporarily so the sheep will drink it. Just like our four little grandsons will absolutely not drink water from their brother’s or cousins assigned cups, so sheep will not drink water unless it is still. Finicky! But they need hydration for sure, and that’s the way a shepherd achieves it.
As we hear Psalm 23, it rarely occurs to us that this is shared from the point of view of sheep. These are the needs of sheep! But then we step away from the sheep metaphor and David decides to jump into his own skin, writing:
“he restoreth my soul.” A sheep might put it this way: “He gives me peace.” But David knows there’s more to God than peace; there is also justice; there is mercy; there is love; and there is righteousness. God restored David’s soul; God can restore our soul. It is a rich expression of belief.
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” When the one who owns the sheep, and even the land, is the one taking care of them, his name is on the flock. That is, when your name is on something, and it is your responsibility to have something succeed instead of fail, great care and attention may be poured into that venture. For God’s own sake, the shepherd leads sheep in the right paths. Sheep do not just wander aimlessly. Where they go and how much they eat is carefully decided by the shepherd. If they eat grass to the ground, it will not quickly grow back. If they go in the direction of a cliff or a predator, they could be hurt or killed. God’s name is on these sheep. Or as Christians, Christ claims us at our baptism and puts his name on our foreheads and in our hearts. To the public he writes: “This one’s mine!” And to the person he whispers, “You are mine!” What comfort.
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. The lands of Israel always created opportunities for danger to sheep. Valleys were important because water would collect there; but predators or bandits could get the upper hand by being at the top of a ridge, a small cliff, or hiding in a cave. The shepherd always had to watch for the human dangers of bandits that would try to steal sheep, or for predators like coyotes, wolves, cougars, stray dogs, or snakes. The rod was a stout stick used to stir brush to reveal serpents, or to smack the heads or noses of animals starting to attack. In our day, cattlemen may refer to a pistol as their “rod,” with the same purpose in mind. The rod is for protection; the staff is for gathering, collecting, and pulling sheep back from danger. The crook would go gently under the body or around a neck of the sheep.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. A good shepherd prepares the tableland. First, the shepherd searches for just the right place that is level enough and covered with enough healthy grasses. Then, he also must pluck up certain weeds and flowers that, if ingested by sheep, are poisonous. He finally decides how long to leave the sheep in one place—not too long as to remove all vegetation; because he counts on it growing back. The enemies of sheep may gather nearby while they graze: humans who want to take them, or animals that want to eat them are nearby. The shepherd knows that the rocks and the cliffs can have eyes, so he is always watching for danger while they eat.
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Especially in the summer, sheep can be tormented by biting flies. But like a flea and tick collar for dogs, shepherds concocted a natural insect repellent, made it into an ointment, and applied it to the head of the sheep and to other parts of their body. If they were tormented, as we are tormented by mosquitoes in Florida or Georgians are tormented gnats, we know what relief a good repellent is. The shepherd knows that too. It keeps sheep from getting so anxious that they will not eat or sleep. Sheep have their needs met because of their shepherd.
Finally, David the writer addressed the reader, human being to human being:
[Yes God is like a good shepherd, and because of that I declare:] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The Bible is filled with metaphors; metaphors try to describe what is hard to describe. Calling God a good shepherd, or Jesus a good shepherd, is one such metaphor. Calling us “sheep” is another. But few other words can describe what it is like to be in such good care. Be comforted by the images; and remind yourself how good it is to be in the flock of a good shepherd.
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 22, 2018