The following is a contemplation on a psalm we all know very well and if you allow me, you may see it from a different perspective and learn something not obvious from before. The imagery in this psalm has been painted onto the walls of the catacombs in Rome and is repeated several times in the New Testament. It is the psalm memorized most by Christians worldwide and is very often the last words of a dying Christian. Most importantly Jesus Christ uses the imagery in this psalm to describe Himself. The psalm is The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23).
So why a Shepherd? The job of a shepherd is not a pretty one. Sheep stink. They are filthy and they are relatively stupid. The job is given to the lowest person so they can contend with the smell and the role of keeping them from falling into various ditches! Often the job of a shepherd involves walking for many kilometres to find suitable area for grazing and water. It involves spending all day either in the hot sun or in the cold wind. We know that David the psalmist was given this job as he was the youngest boy of a family of 8 boys and his parents did not even consider him worthy of being blessed by Samuel the Prophet.
Despite this, God is not ashamed to call Himself a shepherd. The Lord humbles Himself to guide us. He does not guide from afar, He does not ride a horse while we sheep walk on the dirt. He walks through what we walk through and steps in what we step in. He is willing to walk with us for many kilometres to lead us directly to food, water and shelter. He is the good shepherd, He is willing to die for His sheep! He will never flee, not even for a wolf. He will lay His life down for us sheep and all He wants from us in return is to follow Him (See John 10).
The analogy of the shepherd shows to what extent our trivialities are chief concerns to our Lord. The psalm says “You make me lie down in green pastures”. Not only does our Lord, the shepherd know the best places to lead us sheep to but Philip Keller (in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23) writes that sheep do not lie down easily, and will not unless four conditions are met. Because they are timid they will not lie down if they are afraid. Because they are social animals they will not lie down if there is friction among the sheep. If flies or parasites trouble them they will not lie down. Finally, if sheep are anxious about food or hungry they will not lie down. Rest comes because the shepherd has dealt with fear, friction, flies, and famine.
So what should we do to have God as our shepherd? Sheep are regarded as property and objects of value. In the same way a man could own a sheep is the same way we are owned by the Lord. Before a man can truly say “the Lord is my shepherd” he must feel himself to be a sheep by nature, for he cannot know that God is his Shepherd unless he feels in himself that he has the nature of a sheep.” He must relate to a sheep in its foolishness, its dependency and helplessness.
To further highlight sheep’s helplessness, “A sheep”, says Aristotle, “is a foolish and sluggish creature…great tendency to wander, though it feel no want, and unable to return…a sheep can make no shift to save itself from tempests or inundation; there it stands and will perish, if not driven away by the shepherd.” Hence we must rely totally on the shepherd and not think for a moment we can lead ourselves to green pastures alone.