Christian Churches of God

No. 18




He Calls Them by Name:

A Study of Psalm 23


(Edition 2.0 19940423-19981130-20121202)



This is an explanation of Psalm 23.




Christian Churches of God

PO Box 369,  WODEN  ACT 2606,  AUSTRALIA




(Copyright © Christian Churches of God 1994, ed. 1998, 2012 Wade Cox)


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He Calls Them by Name: A Study of Psalm 23



The Bible was not written from the perspective of the modern urbanised civilisation. Much of its terminology and teaching is couched in rural language and deals with outdoor subjects and natural phenomena. The people to whom it was originally addressed were folks of agrarian backgrounds, familiar with nature and the countryside about them.


For most of us today, this is not the case. We live in our hustle-bustle cities far removed from the simple life of the people of Palestine 2,000-3,000 years ago. Even those who have some farming or country background understand the natural world around them from the perspective of modern agricultural practices, rather than the uncomplicated world of centuries ago.


So it is when we come to read and study the Bible, much of the significance of what we read is lost, or at least muted, for us. We can read the words and fail to really grasp the depths of the lessons involved, or even totally misapply the intention of biblical statements.


Frequently this is the case with Psalm 23. This Psalm, The Lord Is My Shepherd, is a favourite with many people, yet there is a depth to it that many do not appreciate when reading it, because they do so without a knowledge of shepherding in the ancient world. So the purpose of this paper is to explain some of the background and deep significance of this beautiful Psalm for us today. It is possible to read this Psalm from several different perspectives. The most obvious is that of our relationship with Christ. Another approach is to consider its meaning for those who function in the role of a shepherd, particularly the ministry. This paper will confine it to the first perspective, our relationship with Christ.


A Psalm of David

This Psalm was written by David who spent his formative years as a shepherd. When Samuel was sent to anoint a successor to Saul, he went to the house of Jesse and was inspired to anoint David, who was at that time shepherding his father's sheep (Ps. 16:11-12). Later, before Saul, David appealed to his training as a shepherd to support his case to be able to fight Goliath (Ps. 17:32-37,40). Sometimes David is referred to as the “shepherd king" of Israel. In the Millennium, under Messiah the Great Shepherd, David will be installed once again as the shepherd over the nation of Israel.


So it is that David was most suitably qualified to write this Psalm. He understood from first hand experience what it meant to be a shepherd, wandering as he did over the hills and plains of Palestine, with the flocks of his father in his care. Thus, it is helpful when we read this Psalm to mentally place ourselves in David's position, and in a sense see these words through the eyes of someone who has lived, worked, and slept among his sheep, sacrificed life and limb to preserve and care for them, led them and been with them in all circumstances, both good and bad.


"The LORD is my shepherd"

When David opened his Psalm with these words, it was an exclamation of confidence and joy. Here was the shepherd placing himself in the position of one of his sheep. However, no mere man was his shepherd, but rather the Lord, or YHVH.


Now as we understand, YHVH is a distributed title. YHVH Most High, or YHVH of Hosts is the one we call God the Father. But the God or Elohim of Israel, who came with the authority of YHVH of Hosts was the Angel or Messenger of YHVH of Hosts, namely Jesus the Christ. As the Messenger or Malek of YHVH of Hosts, Christ was also designated YHVH in his interactions with Israel and others that God called at that time (see the paper The Angel of YHVH (No. 24)).


The Semitic concept was that the messenger (or malek) of someone in authority was also called by the name of that one in authority. For a messenger to be called by his/her superior’s name meant that they carried the authority of that superior.


When we place together the different passages it becomes apparent that God, the Father, is the owner of the flock of human lives symbolically referred to as sheep. God gives His flock over to His shepherd who is His son, Jesus the Christ. We see this from several passages.


John 10:29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Fathers hand. (RSV)


John 17:9-10 I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them. (RSV)


Zechariah 13:7 Awake, 0 sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. (KJV)


God calls sheep into His flock and then gives them over to Christ. Christ is referred to as our shepherd in numerous places. It appears that the first reference to his shepherding role is given in Genesis 48.

Genesis 48:15-16 He [Jacob] blessed Joseph, and said, 'The God [Elohim] before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God [Elohim] who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys; ... (NRSV)


Christ is referred to here as the Elohim before whom Abraham and Isaac walked, the Angel of Redemption, and Jacob's shepherd. The last mention of Christ as our shepherd is found in Revelation 7:17.

Revelation 7:17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.' (RSV)


Given that Christ is our shepherd, we may ask: “What is he like as a shepherd? What is his character? What does it mean to come under his care and control, to be the object of his concern?” We need to consider how great our shepherd, the Messiah, really is.


We are told that he was the beginning of the creation of God (Rev. 3:14); he was made an image of the invisible God and was the prototokos or firstborn of every creature; all things were created by him and for him that are in heaven, and in earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers (Col. 1:15-16 KJV). This means that Christ was the maker of the organisational structure of thrones, dominions, principalities and powers. These are administrations, not spiritual beings. He did not make the elohim but structured their dominions and order. Christ was appointed heir of all things (Heb. 1:2). He is the Prince of life (Acts 3:15) meaning he stands at the head of a rank.


See also the papers The Purpose of the Creation and the Sacrifice of Christ (No. 160) and The Pre-Existence of Jesus Christ (No. 243).


Compared to the vast universe, we are but mere specks of dust, and the brief interval of our lives like smoke (Isa. 40:15; Jas. 4:14), yet the Messiah of God chooses to regard us as the object of his tender care and affection. He asks us to consider ourselves as his sheep, and him as our shepherd.


No one else is more qualified or better equipped to understand us than Christ. We belong to him because God chose us and gave us to him, and also because he and His Father together deliberately chose to make us the objects of their affections.


It is ironic that so many people deny Christ's ownership of their lives. We also belong to him in another sense. At his Father's direction he came and laid down his life for us – buying us back, or redeeming us, from Satan and sin (1Cor. 6:20; Rev. 14:4). Since he did this, he is fully entitled to say:

John 10:11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (RSV)


Sheep of course do not simply “take care of themselves", as it might be supposed. They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care (Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Harper Paperbacks, 1990, p. 7). Sheep and human beings are similar in many ways. We share the less desirable trait of having a mass mind or mob instinct. We have fears and timidity. We have stubbornness and stupidity. Yet despite these undesirable characteristics, Christ receives us, buys us, makes us his own and delights in caring for us. This fact that he delights in caring for us gives us a third powerful reason why we ought to acknowledge, like David, that we are under his ownership. He is the Good Shepherd – he is continually laying himself out for us, ever interceding on our behalf, ever working to ensure that we will benefit from his care.


Psalm 23 is really a Psalm about the diligent shepherd, and that is what Christ truly is. Christ will spare no pains in his concern for the welfare and betterment of us. There is something very special in belonging to this shepherd – will never neglect us or let us wander off on our own.


Anciently, a shepherd would place a distinctive mark on one or the other of the ears of his sheep; hence we get the term earmarked. So it is with Christ as our shepherd – we have the mark of God upon us, both in the Sabbath and Passover – but also we are marked in the way we are to conduct our lives on a daily basis.


Luke 9:23 And he said to all, "if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (RSV)

The mark that identifies us as Christ's sheep is to deny ourselves and follow him. It is interesting that there are many who say that Christ is their shepherd but deny him in reality because they do not do the will of his Father in heaven (Mat. 7:21). They do not deny themselves to follow Christ.


So we need to ask ourselves:

·         Do I really acknowledge that Christ is my shepherd?

·         Do I recognise his ownership rights to me?

·         Do I truly bear his shepherd's mark in my life?

·         Do I sense a purpose and deep contentment because I am under his direction?

·         Do I find complete fulfilment in this arrangement?


If we do so, then with genuine thankfulness and exaltation we can proudly exclaim, just as David did, The Lord is my shepherd!


"I shall not want"

This is a bold, positive, and proud statement to make. However, we need to ask what it was that David was referring to. Did he mean that because Christ was his shepherd he would never want for material things or blessings? David experienced considerable hardships in his life at various times. For example, he was persecuted and hounded by Saul, in fear of his life for a good number of years. Once he was made king, he faced problems within his own family and had to flee at one point. Undoubtably at times there were things that David did want, things that eluded him, such as peace and rest and stability.


Even today, many Christians make the mistake of confusing material wealth with God's blessings. It is common to speak of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. If God is really blessing us then we will experience good health, material blessings and prosperity. Now certainly, all things being equal, the following of God's Laws and the principles of the Bible will generally contribute to a happy life with minimum amounts of sicknesses and a relatively stable material situation. However, God does not guarantee these things at all time and in all circumstances.


We are promised tribulation (Acts 14:22) and opposition at times. Many Christians have been vilely persecuted through the ages for their faithfulness to God. Many have gone without and endured enormous hardship. Political circumstances and economic fortunes can change for the better or the worse over years and decades, yet these things do not indicate God alternately blessing and then removing His blessing for faithful Christians. These things are just “par for the course" through living in this world governed by Satan.


Rather, what David was referring to was Christ's management and husbandry. Christ is the expert shepherd over our lives. The statement “I shall not want” means I am completely satisfied with his management of my life. Paul understood this principle.

Philippians 4:11-13 Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (RSV)


For the Good Shepherd, no trouble is too great to go to in the care of us, his sheep. He loves us for our own sakes, as well as for his personal pleasure in us. He is on the job 24 hours a day seeing that we are properly provided for in every detail. For him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than to see us contented, well fed, safe, and flourishing under his care. Always, his objective is to see us in the first resurrection, occupying the office or responsibility that God the Father has in mind for us.

John 14:1-3 Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Fathers house are many rooms [offices, positions of responsibility]; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (RSV)


He is always the selfless shepherd, ever alert to the needs and welfare of his flock. Yet, ironically, despite this positive assurance of Christ's never-failing care, there are some Christians who are still not satisfied with his control. Phillip Keller, in his book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, describes one such sheep he once had in a certain flock he owned (ibid., pp. 20-22).


Like David, we can say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and accept his loving management over our lives however he and the Father see fit?


"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures"

An interesting thing about sheep is that in order for them to lie down in a pasture they need to have several requirements met first:

·         They need to be free of fear.

·         They need to be free of friction with other sheep.

·         They need to be free of parasites.

·         They need to be free of hunger.


The significance of these requirements is that they are needs which can only be met by the shepherd. It is only the owner or shepherd of the sheep who can provide the environment where the sheep are free from fear, hunger, aggravation, and are able to relax, be content and, thus, lie down.


Sheep are very timid animals. At the sight or sound of a dog or other animal they will all bolt in a certain direction, because basically the only form of defence they have is to run. However, the sight of their master among them, and this is particularly so for shepherds and their flocks in the Middle East, leads to reassurance and contentment. For us as Christians, we can have that same kind of contentment by coming to God our Father and laying our cares and burdens before Him and then allowing Him to let our shepherd, Christ, guide our lives.

1Peter 5:6-7 So, humble yourselves under God's strong hand, and in his own good time he will lift you up. You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern. (Phillips)


Philippians 4:7 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (RSV)


It is the fear of the unknown that tends to create the greatest sense of panic in us. We feel “foes" are enclosing upon us and threaten our tranquillity. While some people are of the mentality to get up and fight, for many of us our first impulse is to get up and run from these “foes". We use the expression I just want to get away from it all. Well, it is in times like this we need to take our concerns to God and learn to sense the presence of our shepherd. To quote what someone once said: “It is pretty hard for your knees to shake if you're down on the ground kneeling on them.” We need to remember who it is that God has set over our lives, and the kind of power and authority this shepherd can wield.

Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.' (RSV)


He even has the power to resurrect us from death.

John 5:26-29 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (RSV)


As mentioned before, sheep will not lie down if there is tension in the flock because of rivalry and competition among the sheep. Every animal society has its “pecking order” or order of dominance. Among sheep this is referred to as the “butting order”. Generally, an arrogant old ewe will gain control of any particular group of ewes and lambs. She will assert her dominance by pushing other sheep away from a patch of grass they might have been grazing upon. This process will continue with the other sheep in the group down to the smallest and youngest lambs until all have their place in the hierarchy. Interestingly, Ezekiel describes this process among the flock of God.

Ezekiel 34:20-22 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, 1, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (RSV)


This process is common in society where people push and shove to get to the top. There is the scramble for status and power and recognition and control; trying to get ahead. Sadly, this can happen even within the Church and it is something all Christians must be on the lookout for in their own lives. Christianity is not a matter of prestige or position or even recognition. It is a matter of service.

Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (RSV)


In the Psalm, the shepherd makes the sheep to lie down in peace. This means for us that the more we become aware of the presence of our shepherd, Christ, in our lives, and the more we let him rule in our lives, the greater will be our peace, both internally and between us and our fellow Christians. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our lives.

Colossians 3:15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (RSV)


Another factor in promoting contentment among the sheep that permits them to lie down is the control of parasites by the shepherd. Sheep can be driven to absolute distraction by various kinds of flies, especially nasal flies, and ticks. Rather than lie down they will be up, stamping their legs, running about sometimes, and shaking their heads in an effort to find relief. The modern shepherd diligently watches his flocks for signs of such pests and dips his sheep and/or applies insect repellents to the sheep. He will also make sure they can find shelter in bushes and belts of trees to experience refuge and release from these tormentors.


Now with humans, it’s interesting how often we will say in exasperation “This is really bugging me.” In our lives there are bound to be small annoyances and recurring frustrations. For example:

·         Particular recurring sicknesses.

·         Difficulties with someone or some people at the place where we work.

·         Car problems.

·         Difficulties with in-laws or other family members.

·         Spouses who dig at or gripe at us.

·         Long-term unemployment.

·         Lack of income or ever increasing bills, etc.


Perhaps some of these things are really big annoyances and frustrations, but regardless they are part of the on-going irritations we can experience in life. Is there an antidote for these? Can we come to a place of contentment despite them? The answer for someone who has Christ as his/her shepherd is a resounding “Yes!” God the Father is the source of the Holy Spirit, but He sends it to us, or administers it to us, through Christ.

John 15:26 But when the Comforter is come, whom [which] I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he [it] shall testify of me. (KJV)


John 16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him [it] unto you. (KJV)


Figuratively, we could liken the Spirit to oil, something that is used to soothe and comfort, and that which brings healing from abrasions and harshness. It is as though God gives a flask of this “oil” to his shepherd for him to administer comfort in our lives. God’s Spirit does this by giving us the understanding of God's truth – which involves the knowledge that God and Christ do understand what we are experiencing. Christ, as our shepherd, has also lived among us as one of the sheep and knows our frailties and shortcomings and the frustrations we experience; he knows intimately what it is like to be human (Heb. 2:14-18).


We can have contentment from life's irritations when we truly recognise that our shepherd is there and understand, and he will pour out his contentment into our minds if we ask God to have him do so (Jn. 14:27). If we will trust and relax and let Christ manage our lives, he will deal with the irritations by either removing them or giving us the capacity to live with them, thereby making them into non-irritations.


The final thing a good shepherd does is to make certain his flock is free from hunger, and this is what is implied in the statement he makes me to lie down in green pastures. In Palestine, near Bethlehem, where David lived and wrote this Psalm, much of the land is dry and brown. Green pastures did not simply happen. They were actually the result of much diligent effort on the part of the shepherd in proper land management practices.


The shepherd was responsible for the clearing of rough, rocky land, the removal of deep roots and stumps, the ploughing of the fields, the planting of special grains and legumes, and the irrigation and husbandry of these fields that would ensure green crops for his sheep to forage upon. Being a shepherd involved much more than simply “leading the sheep" out in the morning and home again in the evening.


These specially prepared pastures were also vital for the flocks at lambing time. When the ewes are feeding their lambs they need plenty of green, succulent feed to ensure sufficient milk, and as the lambs grow, it is the rich green pastures which ensure they are able to put on growth quickly.


So we see the same parallels with Christ as our shepherd. He works diligently to prepare the pastures of our lives so that we might find plenty of crops to feed upon. He works to dislodge the rocks of stony unbelief. He provides the means whereby the deep roots of bitterness can be pulled out and cast away. He works to break up the sun-dried clay of our proud hearts and lives and plant the seeds of the good crop of God's word. He then waters this crop with the rain and dew of God's Spirit. He tends and cares for each of our lives to ensure they become abundant and productive in God's service. In all things, Christ desires to see our best interests served.


The sad thing is that Christians reject this management of Christ of their lives and wander off trying to feed on the barren ground of the world around them. There is no lasting satisfaction in the things this society has to offer – its media, entertainment and consumerism. The good, green, lush pasture of the application of God's Word to our lives is there for the taking. Christ, our shepherd, has prepared it with each of us individually in mind. All we need to do is go to it and eat. As time goes on, we should be devouring more of God's Word, not less. As the next few years pass we are going to see the pressures on Christians to let go of their faith intensify many, many fold. The vortex of consumerism and experiencing the pleasures and things the world has to offer is going to increase in speed, not diminish. We will have to guard against getting caught up in it and neglecting that which leads to internal peace and, ultimately, eternal life.


"He leadeth me beside the still waters"

The imagery conveyed here appears at first to be of quietly flowing streams, and of sheep and lambs resting quietly beside them. However, this misses what was intended. Palestine, as we noted before is dry and dusty. As a shepherd leads his flock from pasture to pasture and to and from their home, all that day long he keeps one thing in mind: he must lead his flock to a drinking-place. The refreshment of good waters marks the most desired hour of the day. The spot where it is found amid the rough, waterless hills and plains is the crowning token of the shepherd's unfailing thoughtfulness. After the heat and dust of the sheep-walks, a place to drink is so refreshing to the sheep.


In the Bible, the various rivers and brooks of the Holy Land are mentioned frequently by name. However, these rivers are generally far from each other and through rough country. Many of the brooks are called wadies by the locals because they are really only ravines that run dry when the rainy season ends.

Job 6:15 My brethren have dealt deceitfully as a brook and as the stream of brooks they pass away; (KJV)


In the region where David was a shepherd, living streams were scarce. Judea borders on the south country called Negeb, which means the dry. Even in other parts where the lasting streams were, often the shepherd would find them in gullies between broken hills with banks too dangerous for the sheep to descend, or flows too rough. Sheep are timid and fear a current of water, and for good reason, since a strong current could carry them downstream because of their wool.


What the shepherd would do is to find wells and fountains here and there through the region, and occasionally cisterns. He would make a certain sound and all the sheep would lie down and be quiet. Then he would fill drinking-troughs. The bubbling of the fountain, or the current, if was by a stream, would no longer be there to trouble the sheep and they could drink undisturbed. That is what the significance of the Hebrew term for still waters means. If there were no drinking troughs, he would dam a small nook or turn along a stream so that it filled with water to form a quiet pool, and there the sheep would drink from water which the shepherd's own hand had stilled.


So it is with Christians. Christ, our shepherd, provides the good, clean, clear, and cool waters of the things of the Spirit for us to quench our thirst upon.

John 7:37-39 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, 'if any one thirst, let him come to me and drink- He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.' Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (RSV)


However, it is up to us to drink from these waters, and not to attempt to quench our thirst in the muddy, diseased, unhealthy waters of the spirit of this world. The waters of the world can never truly satisfy our thirst and desires for happiness.


"He restoreth my soul"

One might wonder why, with Christ as our shepherd, it would be necessary for the shepherd to restore our life or soul. Well, the concept here is of a sheep that has wandered off and gone astray or otherwise got itself into trouble and which is in need of rescuing by the shepherd. In the Middle East there are perils for sheep on all sides. It seems that sheep never seem to learn to avoid them. The shepherd must be ever on the watch. Sometimes, there can be private fields, and on occasion gardens and vineyards, in sheep country. If a sheep strays into them and is caught there, it is forfeited to the owner of the land.


So the phrase He restoreth my soul has one meaning in that Christ will bring us back and rescue us from fatal and forbidden places. As one hymn puts it, he "restores me when wandering."


However, sometimes a sheep can become cast or cast down. This is an old English shepherd's term for a sheep which has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself. It usually lies there on its back, its legs flailing wildly in the air as it struggles to right itself and stand up. Often this happens to the fat or well-fleeced sheep. It might find a hollow or depression to lie in and stretch out. However, because of its weight or fleece, the centre of gravity suddenly shifts and the sheep rolls a bit on its back until its feet no longer touch the ground. At this, it may panic and begin to frantically paw at the air, which often only makes matters worse. It rolls even further and it becomes impossible for it to regain its feet. As the sheep lies there struggling, gases begin to build up in its rumen and this expands and ends up cutting off circulation to other parts of the body, especially the legs. In hot, sunny weather a cast sheep can die in hours. In cool rainy weather, it might last several days. As such, a cast sheep becomes easy prey for various predators.


What is interesting is that this process can also typify the Christian. In another Psalm, David wrote:

Psalm 42:11 Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God ­for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God. (KJV)


How might we become cast down? Well, like a sheep, we might look for a soft and easy spot in which to lie – a place of comfort where there is no hardship, no need for endurance or self-discipline – a place where we can think, “I've made it." Then we do not see the imperative of further change and growth and overcoming. Paul warned us against this and was alert to this mentality in his own life.

1Corinthians 10:11 Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. (RSV)


Philippians 3:11-12 That if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (RSV)


He restoreth my soul points out a vital aspect of the nature of Christ, our Good Shepherd. He goes in search of us if we have strayed or gotten ourselves into trouble or somehow become cast down. Many people have the idea that when a son or daughter of God falls or wanders off, when he or she is helpless, and frustrated and in a spiritual dilemma, God becomes disgusted and fed up with him or her. This is simply not so.


Shepherds of Palestine were careful to check over their flocks every day. If one went missing, then the shepherd would realise this and go to search for them. This behaviour typifies Christ's reactions as our shepherd.

Luke 15:2-7 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. 'Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (RSV)


It is interesting that Christ refers to this process of the shepherd finding the one lost sheep and carrying it home as a process of repentance. Often it is. When we stray it requires Christ not only to seek us out, but also to lead us to repentance and thus bring us home. If a shepherd found that a sheep had been cast down because of its long fleece (which typifies an attitude of self-sufficiency) upon bringing it home the fleece would be shorn away quick smart. Again this typifies the repentance process which is often needed to bring us back into the fold.


However, the good news is that Christ cares so much about each one of us individually, that he is willing to seek us out and restore us to himself and God. For this we can greatly rejoice.


"He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake"

In Middle Eastern culture sheep were not driven along or herded up like cattle. They were led by the shepherd who would walk along in front and the sheep would follow him. When walking through sheep country, a shepherd must be very careful. Some paths lead to precipices, while others lead to places where the sheep cannot find the way back. A shepherd must go ahead, leading his sheep in the “right paths".


Furthermore the sheep had to be led from one spot to another for grazing. Sheep are creatures of habit. If left to themselves, they would follow the same trails until they became ruts, graze on the same hills until they turned to desert wastes, and pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with pests and parasites. In fact, some of the world's finest sheep ranges have been ruined beyond repair by over-grazing, poor management and indifferent or ignorant sheep owners. A wise shepherd is responsible for ensuring that his sheep do not over-graze a pasture but are moved on, from area to area.


In all this there are lessons for us as Christians. Firstly, humans have the propensity to want to follow their own paths, and thus dig themselves their own ruts, which eventually lead to a barren wasteland.

Proverbs 14:12 There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (RSV)


Isaiah 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (RSV)


Christ as our Good Shepherd wishes to lead (not drive) us from all this. Under the instructions and directions of his Father he knows of good and varied pasture for us to feast upon. Christ will never drive us along, rather he will “speak" ­figuratively through the work of the Holy Spirit opening and directing our minds to understand the Bible and what God's will is for us – and we as his sheep are to follow the “sound" of his voice.

John 10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (RSV)


However, as Christ pointed out elsewhere using a different analogy, to follow him involves laying down our lives daily (Mk. 8:34). The trouble is that humanly we do not want to be led; we do not want to follow. We want to be free to make our own decisions. Though we might deny not wanting to be led, it is nevertheless a fundamental drive in human nature. Unfortunately, it is this drive that gets us into the worst of our problems.


In order to truly follow Christ our Shepherd to new pastures, several attitudes must be cultivated and lived by:

·      Instead of loving myself the most I am willing to love God first, then Christ and then others more than myself.

·      Instead of wanting to be one of the crowd I am willing to be separated out and stand apart.

·      Instead of insisting on my rights I am willing to forego them for the benefit of others.

·      Instead of wanting to be “top ram” (i.e. the first or boss), I am willing to be the "tail ender" (i.e. the last or servant).

·      Instead of finding fault with life and always asking “Why?” I am willing to take whatever comes with an attitude of gratitude.

·      Instead of exercising and asserting my will, I learn to cooperate with Christ's wishes and comply with his will.

·      Instead of choosing my own way I am willing to choose to follow in Christ's way: simply to do what he asks me to do.

(Enumerated in Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Harper Paperbacks, 1990, pp. 68-71.)


"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"

Some paths that are right paths still lead through places that have deadly perils. The way this valley is named – calling it the valley of the shadow of death is common in Palestine. Two other valleys there are known as the valley of robbers and the valley of the raven. In Psalm 84:6 the valley of Baca (KJV), or valley of weeping (RSV) is also mentioned.


So what is the valley of the shadow of death? Valleys are formed from the deep ravines, gulches and draws etched into the sides of mountain ranges. Typically, as shepherds led their flocks to higher grounds for feeding on better pasture during the summer months, they would take them along through the valleys of the mountain ranges, gradually winding ever higher. The slope or gradient within the valleys was gentler and better able to be followed by the sheep than any direct ascent to the mountain top. Also, the valleys were the best-watered spots with streams, springs or wells here and there and tended to provide the best forage for the flock. In addition to these things, they were often in shadow from the mountain, thus providing protection from the direct heat of the sun.


However, valleys could also be home to many natural predators – for example, bears, wolves, and cougars. It may well have been in this kind of environment, a valley in shadow, that David fought the lion and bears away from his flock (1Sam. 17:34); hence, these thoughts would have been in his mind when he composed Psalm 23. There could also be thunderstorms, flash floods, freezing sleet or snow, rock slides and avalanches – all problems the diligent shepherd would need to pay very special attention to in order to protect his flock.


For us, the valley of the shadow of death typifies those tough and difficult times in our lives – those valleys we need to walk through in order to move up to higher ground in the Christian experience. The fact that David wrote I walk through signifies that a valley of the shadow of death does not have to mean death. It is something we walk on through. This is nothing other than the Christian experience promised to us in Acts.

Acts 14:22 Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (RSV)


At times like this we need to stay especially close to our shepherd, with fasting and additional prayer and Bible study (all typified by the good forage and fresh streams of water in the mountain valleys) so that we will be safe from predators and other perils. Though Satan will seek to attack us at any time, he recognises we are especially vulnerable during those times when we are in the valleys of life. It is then that he will launch volley after volley of attacks in order to devour and destroy us. Of course our Good Shepherd will not let him succeed, but that will not stop Satan from trying, and neither does it mean we can be complacent. If anything, it is times like these that we need to hear the voice of our shepherd more clearly than before and so be able to follow his lead.


"I will fear no evil: for thou art with me"

When sheep are being threatened with perils and hardships, or are in difficult surroundings, it is the presence of the shepherd that brings them contentment. In the book The Song of our Syrian Guest (William Knight, The Pilgrim Press, 1911, p. 29), a shepherd from the general area of Palestine is quoted recounting an interesting experience he had witnessed more than once.


Sometimes, in spite of all the care of the shepherd and his dogs, a wolf will get into the very midst of the flock. The sheep are wild with fright. They run and leap and make it impossible to get at the foe in their midst, who at that very moment may be fastening his fangs in the throat of a helpless member of the flock. But the shepherd is with them. He knows what to do even at such a time. He leaps to a rock or hillock that he may be seen and heard. Then he lifts his voice in a long call, something like a wolf's cry: 'Ooh! Ooh!'


On hearing this the sheep remember the shepherd; they heed his voice; and, strange to tell, the poor timid creatures, which were helpless with terror before, instantly rush with all their strength into a solid mass. The pressure is irresistible; the wolf is overcome; frequently he is crushed to death, while the shepherd stands there on a rock crying "Ooh! Ooh!'


This is an interesting illustration of how we can defeat the enemy. Satan launches attack after attack on us, seeking to discredit everything we do and everything we stand for. We must draw together far more unitedly than ever before. We need to put behind us any feelings of pride, feelings of self-justification, and promotion of the human will. Only if we draw together will we be able to withstand these attacks and those yet to come. We should make sure he cannot find any chink in our armour. We need to look to our shepherd and put on the attitudes he talked about and lived in his human existence on earth.


"Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me"

A Middle Eastern shepherd typically carries two implements with him. One is the rod. This is usually a long, stout stick with a knob at one end. Sometimes the knob is studded with nails. It is used as a kind of club against predators of the sheep. The rod was regarded as an extension of a shepherd's right arm and in biblical symbolism pictured a shepherd's strength, his power, and his authority in any given situation. The rod was what the shepherd relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock from danger.


So it was that the sheep could feel comfort when they knew the rod of defence was in the hands of their shepherd. For Christians the “rod" of Christ is God's Word. When he battled Satan in the desert, Christ used the authority of the Word of God as his defence. For us the Bible is a clear-cut, authoritative and powerful “rod" under which to conduct our lives, and if we look to the principles within it, we will be spared many of the perils of this world.


A shepherd would also use his rod in another way known as the rodding of the sheep. In this case the rod was used to count and examine the sheep in the shepherd's care. Ezekiel 20:37 refers to this practise.

Ezekiel 20:37 I will make you pass under the rod, and I will let you go in by number. (RSV)


Coming "under the rod" not only meant coming under the shepherd's authority, but also under his close examination and care. Typically, the sheep would be let from one pen to another, and as every sheep went past the shepherd he would stop it with his rod. Then he would use his rod to part the fleece in various places and finally run his hands over the sheep's body so as to check for wounds, skin diseases and defects. Each sheep that passed through was counted and to say that a sheep had been under the rod meant that it had passed under the shepherd's close examination and had been looked over with great care.


This teaches us that we are known to Christ individually and that he is deeply concerned about our spiritual health and wellbeing. Again the “rod” and “hands” of Christ could be understood to be the Bible since it is the standard by which we are examined to see if we have any diseases, wounds, or defects. One cannot “pull the wool over” Christ's eyes as he sees all, our inner attitudes, intents and motives.

Psalm 139:23-24 Search me, 0 God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (RSV)


Revelation 2:23 ... And all the churches shall know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. (RSV)


The other instrument of the shepherd is his staff. This was generally a straight stick with a crook at one end as commonly portrayed in artwork. Whereas the rod represented the shepherd's protection and authority, the staff represented his guidance and tender compassion for the sheep. A shepherd would use his staff in a variety of ways.


·      It would be used to lift newborn lambs and guide them to their mother. Rather than touch the lambs with his hands and so taint them with human odours that might cause the ewe to reject them, he would use the crook of the staff to lift and guide.


·      The staff was also used by the shepherd to gently catch and draw a sheep to him so that he could give it close and intimate examination. The staff was particularly useful for those shy and timid sheep which kept their distance from the shepherd.


·      The staff was also used to guide the sheep, not by beating but rather by pressing it against the side of the sheep, to direct it along a given path. Sometimes a shepherd would walk along with a sheep with his staff gently touching it so that they “are in touch.”


All these things picture the operation of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit of God. Through the Spirit, Christ draws us close to him and is with us.

John 16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send [it] unto you. (KJV)


The Spirit of God, extended from God through Christ to us, is the means by which God and Christ are with us and in us. It is the means by which we enter into an intimate relationship with Christ and God. It will give understanding to our minds so that we can know what Christ's will and therefore be guided by him.

Isaiah 40:11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young. (KJV)


"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies"

It is at this point in the Psalm many have felt the scene of the shepherd and his flock suddenly gives way to a festive gathering or banquet meal. This is not correct. In fact, the concept of a shepherd and his flock is continued. The term table is from the Hebrew shulchan {shool-khawn'} and means spread out. It is used in a variety of ways in the Old Testament.

Psalm 78:19 They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" (RSV)


Psalm 69:22 Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap. (KJV)


Though shulchan can refer to a literal table, it can also refer a piece of cloth or a mat or a cloth spread on the ground upon which food might be laid out. In the Psalm 69:22 reference the idea is of David's enemies being caught off guard and unaware while they dined at a “table” spread upon the ground in the open country. He was hoping they would become entangled among the things spread before them. This same kind of “table” is the one that would be thought of in shepherd life.


Each day a shepherd must search out good and safe feeding places for his sheep, particularly when trekking through the wilderness. In this sense he "prepares a table before them," and in fact it is a “table" in his eyes because it is a spreading slope of grassy ground. During the time the sheep are grazing, the shepherd must exercise his skill and bravery as this feeding often takes place in the “presence” of the sheep’s enemies. These might be poisonous plants in the grass, or snakes, which lurk in holes and would bite the sheep’s noses. Of course, there are the other predators of jackals, wolves, hyenas and even panthers.


Once again, the imagery carries over into the Christian experience. As Christians we have to be wary of “eating" anything that comes our way in doctrine or attitudes or experiences. Many sadly are eating the poisonous weeds of false doctrine – they are not letting the Good Shepherd guide them to the table he has prepared for them. The shepherd is calling, but many are not listening. Similarly, there are many who act like wolves among the flock. They are not interested in the spiritual welfare of the sheep, they want only to “fleece them" and live off their substance. The only answer to this is to stay close to our Shepherd, with prayer and study, and fasting as necessary and so dine at his “table" and allow him to defend us from the predators around.


"Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over"

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life"

Now we come to the last few scenes of the day for the sheep and the shepherd. They have been out grazing with the shepherd and he has led them home to the sheepfold. Typically in the Middle East the sheepfolds were pens – perhaps constructed from stone walls – with narrow entrance ways or gates. One by one the shepherd would let them into the pen using his body as the door of the pen. This is the meaning of Christ's comments about being the door of the sheepfold.

John 10:7-9 So Jesus again said to them, 'truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. (RSV)


As the sheep went towards the pen, the shepherd would block them with his body and use his rod to lift their fleece and check them over with his hands – the rodding of the sheep as discussed before. If he did find any wounds or sores he would apply olive oil to the bruise or injury and, if it was open, also a covering of cedar-tar. Sometimes a sheep would come forward that was not bruised but simply worn and exhausted. For these he would take its face and head and bathe them in olive oil and then take a large two-handled cup brimming with water to its mouth for the weary sheep to drink.


As a result of the shepherd's expert care and management, the fields and pastures where the sheep did graze became, over time, very productive and profitable land. Various weeds would be cleared away, and the land would become fertile, weed free, and capable of sustaining rich pastures.


The imagery of these two points, being anointed with oil, and goodness and mercy following the sheep point us to Christ's loving compassion and care for us, and what ought to be the results of this care in our lives. Christ will anoint us when we are discouraged and down and bring us the refreshing waters of God's Spirit to drink; in return, good things should follow in our lives. Do we, as the sheep of God, leave blessings and mercy behind us? Here are some points to ponder as those who have been made the sheep of Christ.


·      Do I deposit a blessing behind me or am I a bane to others?

·      Do I leave behind peace in lives - or turmoil?

·      Do I leave behind forgiveness - or bitterness?

·      Do I leave behind contentment - or conflict?

·      Do I leave behind "flowers of joy" - or frustration?

·      Do I leave behind love - or rancour?


The only real, practical measure of our appreciation of the goodness and mercy of God to each one of us is the extent to which we, in turn, are prepared to show goodness and mercy to others.


"And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever"

Lastly, we come to the close of the Psalm. The sheep are safely within the sheepfold and contentedly asleep. This phrase points to the sheep contentedly in the “house" or family of the shepherd. The sheep never want to wander or belong to another shepherd. They are at home with their shepherd and the fellow sheep of the flock.


This should point us to ask: “Are we at ‘home’ with Christ and God? Are we happy and contented that we are a part of God's flock and that Christ is our shepherd? Are we happy in the Church?” It is sad, but some Christians never seem content within the flock of God's people. They are always critical, judging, complaining and wanting things done their way. Sadly there are also the loners, those who do not want to be with the rest of the sheep in Christ's care.


God called us to be one flock with one shepherd. He did not call us to be scattered sheep, each going our own way. We need each other. We need to support one another and unitedly follow our shepherd, Christ, and pray that he will give us all a common sense of purpose and understanding of God's will.


One final sense of this phrase is that the term house can be understood as presence. That is, we will dwell in the presence of the Lord, forever. This takes us to the beginning of the Psalm once again and a theme which occurs over and over. Not only is the shepherd ever on the scene, but also the sheep ever want to be in full view of their owner. In the Middle East, shepherds call their sheep by name [example in The Song of Our Syrian Guest, pp. 48-49]. So too does Christ our Good Shepherd:

John 10:3 To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (RSV)


John 10:14 I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, (RSV)


So it should be with us too. We should not only rejoice that Christ is ever present with us, but also we should desire to ever be seen of him and be close to him. We need to ask God continually to make us increasingly aware of His presence in our lives and learn to hear the voice of Christ in our actions, our thoughts and attitudes. When we do, then we will have the peace and contentment that only God and Christ who is his Good Shepherd can give.