Years ago, Robin’s dad raised some cows in his pasture. He would drive up the highway in his truck or on the tractor to feed them. He would “call them” and they would come walking toward him or sometimes they would start walking as he was driving up the road. I tried to call them once and they just looked at me. Odist also knew what was going on with the cows; he knew if one had pink-eye or some other disease requiring treatment and he knew which ones were carrying calves and approximately when they would deliver them. Odist knew his cows and his cows knew him. This is about as close as I have ever come to actually seeing a shepherd with a flock of sheep. But the relationship between sheep and shepherd is worth discussing because
- The Bible uses this analogy so many times to describe our relationship with the Lord
- Jesus actually refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd; we need to know and understand what that means.
Sheep are one of the most important animals that have been tamed because they provide both food and clothing. They yield wool, meat, and leather as well as furnish raw materials for many by-products such as glue, soap, fertilizer, cosmetics, and catgut used for stringing tennis rackets. They can bite off grass much closer to the ground than cattle, and in fact where too many sheep are allowed to graze, plant life may be damaged.
Throughout history sheep have been raised in places far from cities and other populated areas. Two reasons for this are
- Wool is very valuable in proportion to its bulk. It doesn’t spoil so it can be stored and shipped over long distances.
- Sheep tend to herd together and can be handled in large bands in open country with little labor.
Sheep like to eat shrubs and woods and can live without water for long periods of time, so they can be raised on dry plains.
Shepherding is one of the oldest professions beginning around 6000 years ago in Asia Minor. In many societies shepherds were an important part of the economy. Unlike farmers, they were often wage earners, being paid to watch the sheep of others. They lived apart from society, being largely nomadic. It was mainly a job of solitary males without children and new shepherds needed to be recruited externally. They were often the younger sons of farming peasants who did not inherit any land. In other societies each family would have a family member to shepherd its flock often a youth or child. Here’s where David comes in. 1 Sam 16:11-13 describes Samuel anointing David as the next king of Israel. David’s father, Jesse says he’s the youngest and is in the field tending the sheep. Most believe David was about sixteen when he was anointed and he took the throne at age thirty. So for fourteen years, David continued to tend sheep, and serve the current king Saul and learn how to be a king. The training for leading is serving. David was an experienced shepherd, he was intimately familiar with the job description and he included the job on his resume.
So when he wrote “The Lord is my Shepherd”… he knew what he was talking about . Using the 23rd Psalm as a guide we can see how a shepherd cares for his sheep. First David says “I shall not want”. The shepherd insures the sheep have everything they need so the sheep never have to worry about that. All the sheep have to do is keep their eyes on the shepherd and stay close to him.
Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know Me… and I lay down My life for the sheep.” John 10: 14-15
Next David says “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The shepherd provides both rest and a food source for the flock, just like we need. “He leads me beside still waters.” Sheep are not terribly smart. They wander into running creeks for water, their wool grows heavy and they drown. A good shepherd leads them to calm waters. “I will fear no evil for You are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.” Shepherds used their staff to guide sheep away from danger and in a safe direction. The rod could be used to fend off predators for protection. “You anoint my head with oil”; oil was used for three purposes. To repel insects, to prevent injury and to heal wounds.
I think we can conclude that our “Good Shepherd”
- Leads and guides us
- Provides for our needs: rest, nourishment, and soul restoration
- Protects us from dangers we don’t even know about
- Looks for us when we wander away. See the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15: 3-7. The predators of sheep (wolves, coyotes, dogs) try to isolate one who isn’t paying attention. This too is the tactic of our adversary and is most likely to lead us into seasons of “ungodliness”.
The old hymn says is quite well:
“Savior like a shepherd lead us
Much we need Thy tender care
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us
For our use Thy folds prepare
We are Thine do Thou befriend us
Be the guardian of our way
Keep Thy flock from sin defend us
Seek us when we go astray.”
Finally, for an interesting twist on this relationship see Rev 7: 16-17:
“Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Emphasis added)
The Lamb, the most innocent and helpless of the flock, becomes the Shepherd.