Most of us have no clear picture of the God we long to worship. Our image of Him is clouded by the memory of cold cathedrals and bitter religions, by pastors or priests who put the fear of God into us, or by all that we suffered as children from fathers who were absent, emotionally detached, brutal, or weak. All of us have inexact notions of God.
So the question is God Himself: Who is He? This is the question to which all others lead—the question that God Himself put into our hearts. And if He put it into our hearts, there must be an answer in His heart waiting to be revealed.
David gave us a comforting and compelling answer: “The Lord is my shepherd” (psalm 23:1).
Shepherd is a modest metaphor, yet one that is loaded with meaning. Part of the comparison is the portrayal of a shepherd and his sheep; the other is David’s experience and ours. David painted a picture and put us into it. The genius of the psalm is that it belongs to us. We can use David’s words as our own.
David the Shepherd
David himself was a shepherd. He spent much of his youth tending his “few sheep in the desert” (1 samuel 17:28). The desert is one of the best places in the world to learn. There are few distractions and there is little that can be used. In such a place we’re more inclined to think about the meaning of things than about what those things provide.
One day as David was watching his sheep, the idea came to him that God was like a shepherd. He thought of the incessant care that sheep require—their helplessness and defenselessness. He recalled their foolish straying from safe paths and their constant need for a guide. He thought of the time and patience it took for them to trust him before they would follow. He remembered the times when he led them through danger and they huddled close at his heels. He pondered the fact that he must think for his sheep, fight for them, guard them, and find their pasture and quiet pools. He remembered their bruises and scratches that he bound up, and he marveled at how frequently he had to rescue them from harm. Yet not one of his sheep was aware of how well it was watched. Yes, he mused, God is very much like a good shepherd.
Ancient shepherds knew their sheep by name. They were acquainted with all their ways—their peculiarities, their characteristic marks, their tendencies, their idiosyncrasies.
Back then, shepherds didn’t drive their sheep; they led them. At the shepherd’s morning call—a distinctive guttural sound—each flock would rise and follow its master to the feeding grounds. Even if two shepherds called their flocks at the same time and the sheep were intermingled, they never followed the wrong shepherd. All day long the sheep followed their own shepherd as he searched the wilderness looking for grassy meadows and sheltered pools where his flock could feed and drink in peace.
At certain times of the year it became necessary to move the flocks deeper into the wilderness, a desolate wasteland where predators lurked. But the sheep were always well-guarded. Shepherds carried a “rod” (a heavy club) on their belts and a shepherd’s staff in their hands. The staff had a crook that was used to extricate the sheep from perilous places or to restrain them from wandering away. The club was a weapon to ward off beasts. David said: “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” (1 samuel 17:34–35).
Throughout the day each shepherd stayed close to his sheep, watching them carefully and protecting them from the slightest harm. When one sheep strayed, the shepherd searched for it until it was found. Then he laid it across his shoulders and brought it back home. At the end of the day, each shepherd led his flock to the safety of the fold and slept across the gateway to protect them.
A good shepherd never left his sheep alone. They would have been lost without him. His presence was their assurance. It’s this good shepherd that David envisioned as he composed each line of Psalm 23.
The Great Shepherd of the sheep
Hundreds of years after David composed his Shepherd Song, Jesus said with quiet assurance:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 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 (john 10:11–15).
This is our Lord Jesus, “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (hebrews 13:20).
He was one with the Father. He too saw us as “sheep without a shepherd.” He “came to seek and to save what was lost” (luke 19:10). He’s the one who left the “ninety-nine on the hills” and went “to look for the one that wandered off,” forever establishing the value of one person and the Father’s desire that not one of them should perish (matthew 18:12–14).
F. B. Meyer wrote:
He has a shepherd’s heart, beating with pure and generous love that counted not His own lifeblood too dear a price to pay down as our ransom. He has a shepherd’s eye, that takes in the whole flock and misses not even the poor sheep wandering away on the mountains cold. He has a shepherd’s faithfulness, which will never fail or forsake, leave us comfortless, nor flee when He sees the wolf coming. He has a shepherd’s strength, so that He is well able to deliver us from the jaw of the lion or the paw of the bear. He has a shepherd’s tenderness; no lamb so tiny that He will not carry it; no saint so weak that He will not gently lead; no soul so faint that He will not give it rest.
But there’s more: The Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep.
Since the beginning of time, religions have decreed that a lamb should give up its life for the shepherd. The shepherd would bring his lamb to the sanctuary, lean with all his weight on the lamb’s head, and confess his sin. The lamb would be slain and its blood would flow out—a life for a life.
What irony! Now the Shepherd gives up His life for His lamb. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (isaiah 53:5–6).
The story is about the death of the Shepherd: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 peter 2:24).
He died for all sin—the obvious sins of murder, adultery, and theft as well as for the secret sins of selfishness and pride. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross. This was sin’s final cure.
The normal way of looking at the cross is to say that man was so bad and God was so mad that someone had to pay. But it was not anger that led Christ to be crucified; it was love. The crucifixion is the point of the story. God loves us so much that He Himself took on our guilt. He internalized all our sin and healed it. When it was over He said, “It is finished!” There is nothing left for us to do but to enter into forgiving acceptance—and for those of us who have already entered it, to enter into more of it.
The Shepherd calls to us and listens for the slightest sounds of life. He hears the faintest cry. If He hears nothing at all, He will not give up or go away. He lets us wander away, hoping that weariness and despair will turn us around.
Our discomfort is God’s doing. He hounds us. He hems us in. He thwarts our dreams. He foils our best-laid plans. He frustrates our hopes. He waits until we know that nothing will ease our pain, nothing will make life worth living except His presence. And when we turn to Him, He is there to greet us. He has been there all along. “The Lord is near to all who call on him” (psalm 145:1).
“But,” you say, “why would He want me? He knows my sin, my wandering, my long habits of yielding. I’m not good enough. I’m not sorry enough for my sin. I’m unable not to sin.”
Our waywardness doesn’t have to be explained to God. He’s never surprised by anything we do. He sees everything at a single glance—what is, what could have been, what would have been apart from our sinful choices. He sees into the dark corners and crannies of our hearts and knows everything about us there is to know. But what He sees only draws out His love. There is no deeper motivation in God than love. It is His nature to love; He can do no other, for “God is love” (1 john 4:8).
Do you have some nameless grief? Some vague, sad pain? Some inexplicable ache in your heart? Come to Him who made your heart. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (matthew 11:28–30).
There is no more profound lesson than this: He is the one thing that we need. The word shepherd carries with it thoughts of tenderness, security, and provision, yet it means nothing if I cannot say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
What a difference that one syllable makes. It means that I can have all of God’s attention, all of the time, just as though I’m the only one. I may be part of a flock, but I’m one of a kind.
It’s one thing to say, “The Lord is a shepherd.” It’s another to say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”