Shepherd King -1
Context is everything. Well, maybe not everything. But it’s definitely a major key to understanding. If we tried to glean our understanding of Yahweh the Shepherd-King by looking at today’s sheep station managers, we’d be as stuck as if we tried to look at King Charles to understand how Yahweh is the Great King enthroned in Heaven. Nothing against King Charles, or sheep station managers. It’s just that our context here in the 21C Australia is worlds away from the context in which Scripture was written, and more significantly for this series on the Psalms, that in which David lived.
Humanity has been using metaphor and allegory since there was language. Because the the best way to communicate a reality or teach a new perspective is through shared experience. Previously, when we began this series on Psalms, we saw how David’s use of the term “the Great King” was a spiritual reality reflected in the physical world – not just for Israel, but all people in that part of the world in that era in history.
Another metaphor commonly used throughout the ancient Mediterranean world to describe gods and kings was as a Shepherd. And this is where context comes in. In Australia today, if we use the biblical term shepherd, I suspect not many of us would consider the managers or farm hands that run vast sheep stations where thousands of head of sheep are produced on tens of thousands of hectares. We may picture an image of a middle eastern man sitting in a field surrounded by sheep. But what does that teach us?
Now and Then
Even if we were to try to match the picture of an ancient Middle Eastern shepherd with a hobby farmer who has a much smaller herd with a much more hands-on approach, we still wouldn’t grasp the true context of this role and the responsibilities the ancient world hung on the meaning of Shepherd.
For us to get the full image and the greatest impact of Yahweh the Shepherd-King, we need to look back in time and study the practices of the ancient Near East shepherd. Thankfully, the practice has not changed much over the centuries in that part of the world so that’s a good start and a great help. Let’s look at ME shepherding, past and present, laid over the 23rd Psalm.
Not our kind of Sheep Farming
The Lord is my shepherd:
Historically, shepherds fed their sheep through the wet season when there was ample fertile pick in public pasture, and in the dry season on weeds and harvest stubble. Sheep are a bit like camels in that they can survive long periods without water. But unlike goats—who are independent—sheep need a shepherd for pretty much all their needs: to locate feed and water, provide shelter, medication and help in birthing.
I lack nothing:
In short, the Eastern shepherd took care of ALL the needs of his sheep.
He makes me lie down:
When the sheep are in the fold for the night they won’t lie down if they were distressed in any way. The shepherd checks…
1. Throats: if they are hungry, he feeds them some grain from his pouch.
2. Noses: if it was dry and hot, he gives it some water
3. Still standing: he talks gently to and encourage them to lie down and go to sleep.
He leads me beside quiet waters:
Sheep are terrified of running water and will run away from the sound of it. They know if they lean over to drink from it, it will soak into the woolly flap under their neck and drag them under where they would drown. The shepherd carries water to a trough or a pool so they can drink from it without fear.
He refreshes my soul:
If the sheep is injured or sick, the shepherd binds their wounds and if necessary, carries the sick animal.
He guides me along the right paths:
There are no fences in Israel; the tracks wind in and out of the barley or wheat fields in the hills. It is tempting for the sheep to stray into seeded farmland. So, the shepherd makes sure that his sheep stay on the beaten track on the way to pasture.
For His name’s sake:
If the shepherd were to allow his sheep to stray into and feed off someone’s crop, he would be known, ostracised and get a bad reputation.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil:
During the years of clearing the fields for planning crops, a lot of rocks have accumulated at the bottom of the hills. This is a haven for snakes and scorpions, and added to this, there is always the potential for a sheep to break a leg. If the sheep have to pass through these places the shepherd takes great care in guiding them and watching over them.
For you are with me:
The eastern shepherd lives with the flock, he is with them 24 hours a day.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me:
Traditionally, the rod was a club worn at the belt, while the staff was a long walking stick that doubled as a weapon in time of need (1Sa 17:35) and was used to guide and control the sheep.
Here the word comfort refers to correction. A straying animal would be directed back to the path with the staff or by a stone from the shepherd’s sling, aimed to land right in front of the animal’s nose. Failure to obey would result in a blow from the rod. At night, the shepherd used the rod to count the sheep back into the fold and as they passed under it, he inspected them for injuries and saw to them that evening.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies:
The shepherd takes care of every need of the sheep. He sees to it that no wild animal harms them. The early stories of David fighting a lion is a good example of this unquestioning devotion of a shepherd to his sheep.
You anoint my head with oil:
When the sheep have settled down for the night, the shepherd takes a flask of olive oil from his pouch and rubs a little in the forehead of each one. Perhaps this is to counteract the effects of sun burn. But this action, together with the shepherd’s soft, reassuring words, helps the sheep settle down for the night in total confidence that they are safe.
My cup overflows:
Not one of the sheep lies outside the shepherd’s complete care.
Surely your goodness:
The shepherd’s watchful and dedicated eye was always on his flock day and night.
If a sheep persistently fails to obey directions given with the rod, staff and sling, the shepherd resorts to drastic measures to bring it into line. First, he deliberately breaks the leg of the sheep. While the animal cries out in pain, he rubs oil into the limb and binds it up. Then, because it is unable to walk, he places it across his shoulders and carries it while he leads the rest of the flock. Every bite of food, every drop of water has to come from the shepherd’s hand. Eventually, once the leg is healed, he sets it on its feet, knowing that sheep will never leave his side again, it has grown to depend on him. How is this severe discipline love? The shepherd knows, outside his care and influence, the sheep cannot survive: it will suffer and die.
Will follow me all the days of my life:
The shepherd cares for the sheep throughout its whole life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever:
The eastern shepherd sleeps with the flock out in the open in an enclosure without a door. He himself lies across the opening effectively becoming the door. If anyone/anything were to enter, they, or it, have to walk over him. To get access to the safety of the fold and the sheep within, they have to go through the Shepherd.
Personal and Cultural
This is not our understanding of shepherding, but it is the practice David was referring to in the 23rd Psalm and the cultural context behind the title, Shepherd-King. This is another key theme throughout the Psalms which David understood, not only his personal experience of being a shepherd, but also from the term other nations used to describe the care and attention of a god to his followers and the responsibilities of a King to his people.
Shepherd-King Through and Through
The image of the Shepherd-King is not only found in Psalms, it is an image printed on every page of the OT. We find it in the history of Abraham and his family from Genesis through Exodus. It is woven through the law; demonstrated in Judges, Kings and Chronicles; we find it illustrated in the wisdom literature; and concreted in the prophets. As you read your Bible lay over it this understanding of “Shepherd” and it becomes blatantly obvious how the Israelites understood Yahweh to be their Shepherd-King. It was how He demonstrated his love to his people.
But of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Whilst context, practices and traditions change over time God does not. He is still our Shepherd-King, and we have confirmation of this in the words of Christ who called himself the Good Shepherd. John 10:1-15
10 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own 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. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.John 10:1-15
Changes and the Unchanging
The world would have us believe angels are little cubby babies with wings, Satan a horned, red skinned, tailed caricature and Jesus is a blond, blue eyed, pink skinned, bloke who carried lambs whilst walking through flowers: lovely, gentle Jesus, who doesn’t get angry, or upset, because He loves us all no matter what. But, as children of God and followers of Christ is it is critical we do not let ourselves be influenced by the images the world portrays of Jesus as the Good shepherd. Let us be informed by God himself and our personal experience.
Yes, God does Love us. He is Love. But again, love is defined by God himself, and not the culture we live in.
How does God define love? By his actions. Jesus said,
14 “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
Jesus’ humility in leaving glory to walk among us whilst we were a sinful enemy; His faithful service in tending the flock, finding the lost, healing the broken, making a safe path, leading the way and being the door; His obedience in fulfilling the Father’s requirement to lay down his life on our behalf is God’s love defined.
We are going to pause here and listen to this song. As we do so I invite you to allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of any sin—that is action or inaction, thought or attitude—that is holding Him at a distance. I invite you repent and confess this wrong, and to receive God’s guaranteed and blessed forgiveness.
Yes, God does Love us. He is Love. But love is defined by God himself, and not the culture we live in. According to Scripture—the Word of God—angels are not ineffectual babies with wings, they’re fearsome warriors; Satan is not a cartoon caricature, he is the enemy who comes to us disguised as an angel of Light and Jesus is the Victorious Son of God.
We read in Revelation 1:13-16
13 … among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.Revelation 1:13-16
This is not just an image of Christ as He will be. It is an impression of Christ in glory with power and authority as He was before He was made man, whilst He dwelt among us, and when He returned to the Father victorious. This is the Christ who invites us to be His sheep, who wants to provide and care for us, who wants to wipe away the tears from our eyes.
“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 centre of the throne will be their shepherd, he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away any tear.Revelation 7:16-17
This is our Jesus; this is our Shepherd-King.
The question is not, “can he do it”, “will he do it… nor even will he do that for me”? Because he can, he has and He is. Rather, the question is, “Will I?”
- Will I humble myself to be one of His dependent sheep not an independent, head-strong goat?
- Will I walk on His path—for my safety and His reputation—His glory?
- Will I accept His discipline which stems from His defining, demonstrated, unconditional love?
- Will I trust as unquestioningly as a young child, and as totally as the sheep?
- Will I allow The Great Shepherd-King to shepherd me?
Because we know, he has, he can and he will. Will we?