by Chris Sherrod Posted Feb 20, 2018
“The Lord is my shepherd… We all like sheep have gone astray… I am the Good Shepherd… He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms…You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
These are just a few examples from Scripture where God chooses to use a very particular analogy to represent who He is and who we are: Shepherd and sheep.
When you picture a shepherd with his sheep you may imagine him just standing there, mindlessly staring out over his flock. The truth is, being a shepherd takes constant work and care and alertness. Without a shepherd, sheep will stray, eat poisonous plants, drink dirty water, get stuck on their backs, and be devoured by wild animals. Basically, sheep are dumb and will die on their own.
David was confident, however, because he knew his Shepherd was powerful, wise and good, on the job 24 hours a day. In another psalm, David declares, “The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever” (28:8-9).
David also says, “The LORD is my shepherd,” because he knows he’s not anonymous, lost in the flock. God knows him individually and intimately. What an awesome gift and privilege to be known personally and lovingly!
David goes on to talk about the green pastures and still waters (literally “waters of rest”) and righteous paths his Shepherd provides. The peace and plenty is what allows him to rest and find his soul restored. It’s honestly difficult to get sheep to lie down and rest unless they are free from fear, hunger, and other irritations, and only the shepherd can provide relief from these anxieties so they can be content. The presence and provision of their master and protector puts them at ease like nothing else.
Having our souls restored when we feel downcast (Psalm 42:5) actually has a parallel in the world of shepherding. When a sheep gets stuck on its back it’s called a “cast” or “cast down” sheep. A cast sheep is a sorry sight – lying on its back, feet in the air, flailing frantically and unsuccessfully to stand up. Sometimes it bleats a little for help, but usually just lies there floundering and frightened. If a shepherd doesn’t get there soon, the sheep may even die.
When he finds a cast sheep, a shepherd gently turns it over and patiently restores it to its feet to walk again. Maybe David was picturing this when he said, “He restores my soul.” In Psalm 56:13 he wrote, “You have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.” Our compassionate Shepherd constantly looks to restore the downcast for their good and His glory (Ps 79:9).
David knew from firsthand experience about all the difficulties and dangers that sheep face – raging rivers, rock slides, poisonous plants, predators raiding the flock, and powerful storms – and this Psalm is all taking place within that picture of wild mountains, rushing rivers, deep valleys, and high tablelands. But to get to the lush tablelands of pasture it was often necessary to go through the valley (notice David didn’t say, “ I stop in the valley” or “I die there,” but rather “I walk through”). He was confident through this valley of deep darkness because his Shepherd’s presence threw a different light on the whole scene (“I will fear no evil, for you are with me”).
In every situation, every dark trial, every dismal disappointment, every distressing dilemma, Christ, our Good Shepherd, has Himself already gone before us into every situation that we might encounter. He was tempted in all points as we are. He entered fully and completely into life and knows the suffering, sorrows, and struggles we face firsthand. Therefore, we need the common sense to stay near the Shepherd where He can protect us, by reading His Word each day and spending time talking to Him.
David includes a shepherd’s rod and staff being a source of comfort. The rod was a shepherd’s main weapon of defense and essentially an extension of his arm and a symbol of his strength and authority in any serious situation. Its protection is a continuous comfort to the sheep. And more than anything, a staff identifies a shepherd as a shepherd (no other profession carries a staff). It was used to draw sheep together, to lift a newborn lamb, to reach out and catch individual sheep and draw them in, and to guide the sheep.
David was picturing how God’s ferocious protection and loving guidance worked together to bring him comfort. In short, David felt – in the midst of his enemies – God’s presence, protection, peace, and provision, to which he could respond in confident amazement: “My cup overflows” (full to overflowing)! Seeing and trusting all the blessings and love and provision of our Good Shepherd brings us to a place of great contentment in His care.
As God’s children, we should be known as the most contented people on earth. A quiet, restful serenity should be the mark of those who call Christ their Master, which leads to a crucial question: Do others see the “cup of contentment” in your life? Could your children say you have a restful, restored soul? Can you say with David, “ In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8)? Are you confident and even able to brag on your Good Shepherd because of the peace and plenty He provides?
David ends with a confident, reassuring affirmation of the treatment he receives from his Master’s expert care: “Surely [or Only] goodness and mercy [or steadfast love] shall follow me all the days of my life.” Exclaiming that only goodness and mercy will follow him is not a promise to never face hard times, but a declaration of the reality that God is so committed to making us like Jesus that He allows and works all things for our good and His glory (Rm 8:28-29).
But how many Christians actually feel this way? How many of us are truly confident that, no matter what occurs in our lives, we are being followed by God’s goodness and steadfast love? When your world seems to be falling apart and your hopes and ambitions are crumbling, can you honestly declare, “Surely – yes surely! – goodness and mercy are always following me”?
We should be proud to belong to Christ and free to boast to others of how good our Shepherd is. How quick we should be to look back and recall all the amazing ways in which He provides for our welfare and brings us through trials. And we should be eager to state fearlessly of our confidence in Christ and that we are so glad we are His.
The contentment of our lives should show what a distinct blessing it is to be a member of His “household.” The greatest joy we will experience for all of eternity will be dwelling in the presence of our Savior forever.
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. [lit. waters of rest]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness [or in right paths] for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [or the valley of deep darkness]
I will fear no evil,
for [because] you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely [or Only] goodness and mercy [or steadfast love] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell [or shall return to dwell] in the house of the LORD
forever. [lit. for length of days]
Want to study Psalm 23 further? Download the 2018 Family Devotional, “Never Alone,” here.