Psalm 23: The Presence of the Shepherd

The more I read about Psalm 23, and sheep in particular, the more the realities of this Psalm hit home. Not only do I begin to see the tender care and effort of our good shepherd, but I also begin to see how apt a metaphor sheep are for humans and the way we behave.

One shepherd described her flock this way:

"Like us, sheep have faults. They can be destructive, rebellious, and greedy. Their fears overwhelm them. They're helpless on their own, yet fight to get their way. They blindly follow bolder sheep, but don't foresee consequences. Every member of my flock is an individual with a name, a personality, and specific needs. Timid, trusting, or somewhere in between, each has a story. Sheep -- like people -- are what they are. Their greatest weakness -- their tendency to follow -- can be their greatest strength." (Teitjen, The Sheep of his Hand. 4) 

I almost had to make sure this person was describing sheep and not a family. You could apply this description to myself and most other people too. And yet it is these sheep, these people, that God so passionately and intently cares about, protects, provides, and guides. When one goes off, he leaves and desperately seeks to find it (Matthew 18:12 - 14).

Psalm 23:2

"He lies me down in grassy pastures, he leads me beside still waters."

This verse speaks to God's care and abundant provision for his people, but from an actual shepherds perspective there is more than meets the eye. W. Phillip Keller, in his book "A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23," notes that because of the makeup of sheep they will not lie down unless four conditions are met: 1) because of their timidity they will not lie down unless they are free of all surrounding fear, 2) due to the social behaviours inherent in flocks, sheep will not lie down unless there is no friction between other sheep, 3) sheep will not lie down if they are tormented by various insects like flies or parasites, and 4) sheep will not lie down while hungry and needing to find food (Keller, A Shepherd. 24).

These requirements, or needs or anxieties, can only be met by the care and guidance of a good shepherd. It is, in actuality, only by the work of the shepherd that sheep (that we his human flock) can find rest, can lie down, relax, be content and find quiet moments of refreshing. Keller notes that, "a flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed, never does well." (Keller, A Shepherd. 24). The same can be said about people.

The Presence of the Shepherd

Sheep are so timid and easily panicked that even the presence of rabbit can cause them to scatter. If there is even the slightest hint of potential danger from an "enemy," (dog, coyote, bear, etc.) they are ready to flee for their lives. Again, it is not hard to make comparisons between the fears and restlessness of sheep to our own fears and responses to life. Interestingly enough, when the sheep see the shepherd in the field they become quiet and reassured. In the midst of their fear, frustration, and anxiety, the presence of the shepherd calms and reassures them.

"He lies me down in grassy pastures..." and despite my fears and anxieties, and the potential attacks that may frustrate me, his presence with me calms and reassures me. This is the role of the Spirit of God, which lives inside us and is always with us, in every grassy pasture and every dark valley. Even in the times of refreshing, like sheep, we humans, can still be finicky, can still be agitated, scared, and ready to run. As the physical presence of the shepherd calmed and reassured the sheep, so the presence of the Holy Spirit should always be that calming and reassuring presence for us.

Before Israel entered the promised land Moses informed them that he would no longer lead them, but he said,

"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you" (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Before his ascension into heaven Jesus promised and reassured his sheep that,

"surely I AM with you always, even unto the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20)

John refers to this presence as a "counsellor" the "spirit of truth," that "lives in you and will be with you" (John 14:15 - 17).

This week, in the midst of forthcoming fears, anxieties and frustrations that each passing day seems to provide (thanks Covid), look up, look around, look for the presence of the Shepherd. Find rest, try to calm yourself knowing that he is there caring, guiding and protecting you, even in the dark valleys, he is with you!

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