Psalm 23 gives us a picture of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. He knows each of us by name. He keeps watch over us and protects us from dangerous predators. Our Shepherd leads his lambs to green pastures where streams of still waters await to quench and refresh thirsty souls. Jesus guides us down every path in life, even those footpaths that lead to the darkest of valleys.
In this psalm, man is compared to sheep. This is not a complimentary comparison since sheep are not known for their smarts. They are slow learners and very forgetful, willing to throw themselves off cliffs of self-destruction. There are countless stories about sheep trying to break through fences but getting caught in the barbed wire. After a Shepherd comes to the rescue, the same lamb will attempt another escape in the very same manner… over and over again. Never learning from the painful lesson, never modifying or changing their plan of action.
Additionally, sheep are stubborn and continually straying. Shepherds are constantly searching for a lost lamb; often more than one lamb since sheep are copycats. When one member of the flock decides to run away, it is most certain that others will follow the wayward lamb chop.
Sheep are needy. Some animals are independent and actually thrive without close supervision. This is not the case with sheep. They are very dependent on their Shepherd and cannot live without him.
So, through this analogy, God reveals His understanding of our character. In the words of Psalm 23, God identifies our weaknesses; pointing out our tendency to run in wrong directions, get lost, and meander into life and death situations. God indicates we lack wisdom, understanding, and intelligence. Foolishness is revealed as a major character flaw. We are slow to learn, forgetful, stubborn, willful, dirty and self-centered. Yet, He still loves us beyond all understanding!
It is worth mentioning that many biblical figures were shepherds, among them the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, Moses, King David, and the prophet Amos. Shepherds are mentioned dozens of times throughout the Bible, from the first book, Genesis, to the last, Revelation (Genesis 4:2 and Revelation 12:5).
Shepherding is an arduous and backbreaking vocation. Early in the morning, shepherds guide their flock to a spot for pasturing. All day they keep vigil, making sure none strays. But if a lamb does happen to elude his watch and wander off, he/she must diligently search for the rascal and bring it back to the fold. Sheep require a regular supply of water, so a shepherd has to lead their flock to some kind of stream or well dug out in the wilderness.
Before night falls, shepherds guide their flock home, faithfully counting each lamb as they pass under his rod at the door of the sheepfold. At sunset his duties continue, for often they must remain awake through the night to avoid attacks from wild beasts. So a shepherd’s office requires great watchfulness.
“But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it.” 1 Samuel 17:34-35 (NKJV)
The rod and staff are two of the most important tools in a shepherd’s possession. Usually three feet in length with a sharp slate embedded in the rounded end, a rod is used as a club or throwing stick to defend against predators. It assists in disciplining, examining, and counting lambs.
“Yea, 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.” Psalm 23:4 (NKJV)
A staff has many uses. The crook is used to draw sheep together into intimate relationships. During the lambing season, many births take place at the same time in a large flock. It is easy for an ewe to lose her lamb in all the confusion. The shepherd has to make sure the right lamb gets to the right mother. So, he uses his staff to hook a lamb around the neck, lift it, and move it to the proper ewe. If he were to touch the newborn, the ewe would never suckle it.
The staff provides shepherds a longer “arm” and reach. With it, they grab sheep for closer inspection. When wool coats thicken and grow, shepherds must examine their flock to identify possible injuries. And because sheep tend to wander off (They think the pasture is greener on the other side of the fence), guardians will gently jab lambs in the ribs and nudge them back in the direction of the flock.
The staff is also used to guide sheep onto new paths, through gates, or along dangerous routes. By gently laying the tip of the staff against the animal’s side and applying pressure, he guides the sheep in the way he wants it to go.
With His rod and staff in hand, we are well cared for and loved by the Good Shepherd. Should we foolishly wander off; we have the assurance that He will search until we have been found. And since we belong to Him, we know His voice and come when He calls. If injured and in need of His help, our Shepherd will pick us up and carry us back to the safety of His. In His care, we can always find rest. Blessed be the name of our Lord, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ!
“For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.” Psalm 95:7 (NKJV)
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Psalm 23:1-6 (NKJV)