Some Joys of Being a Lamb and Having a Shepherd
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
– Psalm 23:1-4
How wonderful that the God who upholds the universe and whose will sustains reality, how wonderful that He would condescend to communicate with us. He speaks Himself to us in a thousand ways throughout the created world, He speaks Himself to us through the constellation of longings that He’s woven into our hearts, and He speaks to us in His written word. It is simply staggering that God Almighty has composed a book; a book that communicates Himself and His nature to us. And of the things that He reveals to us in this book, one of the most beautiful are the names He teaches us to call Him.
Comforter. Fortress. Shield. Strength. Song. Portion. Beloved. Husband. Friend. Rock. Redeemer. Father. The One Who Hears Prayer. Savior of Those Who Seek Refuge at His Right Hand. And the list could be multiplied many times over. It is a sweet and merciful thing that our transcendent Creator would stoop to give us names, characteristics, attributes, and truths about Himself by which our souls can call on and cling to Him. And of these names He gives us, one of the most precious to me personally is “Shepherd.” I want to quickly consider God-as-Shepherd by using three lenses: God as Shepherd, Us as Sheep, and The Valley of the Shadow of Death.
God as Shepherd.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
David (himself a shepherd) starts his poetic meditation on God-as-Shepherd with an all-encompassing statement that strikes to the heart of why Shepherd imagery for God is so beautiful: “I shall not want.” God-as-Shepherd implies that He is in total and merciful control of our lives as His sheep and therefore, we have no need to be anxious or “in want” of anything. The Shepherding presence of God satisfies the sheep….it sets their “wanting” heart at rest and quiets the raging “what if’s” of their minds.
As the Psalm continues, the sovereignty of the Shepherd is expounded further. He “makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness…” God is a Shepherd who acts on behalf of His sheep and does for them what they are unable to do for themselves. We don’t know where the green pastures are, we don’t know where the still waters are, we are unable to reach inside and restore our own soul, and we cannot find the path of righteousness….but our Shepherd oversees and achieves all of these things for us.
But see that there is also sweet tenderness paired with His control and sovereignty. He leads His sheep to those places and in those ways that He knows are comforting, strengthening, and soul-sustaining for them. He is not a capricious Shepherd who goes His own way and lets the sheep suffer for it, rather He gently guides them into pastures and by waters so that their souls would be restored. Praise God that He is sovereign and merciful, almighty and tender, omnipotent and compassionate….if it were not so we would be without hope….because it is so we are ever full of hope.
Us as Sheep
Oh, what a wonderful thing it is to be YHWH’s sheep! What a glorious thing to be a helpless, witless, defenseless creature whose name is graven by love into the hands of God Almighty. The world champions the powerful, the successful, the savy and self-made….but how much sweeter it is to be a powerless sheep clinging to the robes of the omnipotent Shepherd.
See how the Shepherd cares for His sheep in these few verses. We live in a world that screams at us to “be the first to find the green pastures!” or to “dig yourself a pond of still water!” or “do this, this, this and that to restore your soul!” But the cacophony of the world echoes empty in the sheep’s ears because her eyes are fixed on the Shepherd. The sheep doesn’t need to drive herself into anxiety wondering where the next pasture might be, she doesn’t need lose sleep over where the still waters are, she doesn’t need to run to someone else to restore her soul…..her eyes and heart and hopes are anchored to the One who goes sovereignly and lovingly before her.
And notice the Lord’s wisdom in making us sheep. What is the sheep’s focus? With what is her simple mind occupied? What is it that consumes the imaginations of her heart? The Shepherd. If we are to navigate life as sheep there is one thing for us to do, know the Shepherd! The sheep does not reach its pasture because she studied all the maps of the area and discerned the best path….the sheep reaches the pasture because she would not takes her eyes of the Shepherd. Life is about knowing God in the person of Jesus Christ (John 17:3), and by making us “sheep” and Himself the “Shepherd,” God has woven the centrality of knowing Him into the fabric of Christian life.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
But what about verse 4? What about the Valley of the Shadow of Death? If God is our Shepherd, if we are His beloved sheep, why do we walk through valleys of terror and sorrow and fear and torment…why do His sheep get cancer? Why do his sheep lose family? Why do his sheep contract ebola? Why do the wolves of ISIS descend on the flock?….Tough I cannot give “answers,” here are three brief considerations about our valleys of death.
You are With Me
First, notice that the Shepherd is still with His sheep in the valley. The Shepherd always leads, always goes before, always wisely guides His sheep, and if they are in a dark valley it is because the Shepherd Himself – in infinite goodness – has led them into it. Christ never loses His way and often times He leads us to the greenest pastures through the darkest valleys. The first thing to know about our valleys is that we have been led into them by our Lord and Shepherd. He is with us in the midst and has a merciful purpose for every sharp rock that cuts our feet and looming shadow that chills our blood – may we set our eyes on Him and walk through the valley knowing He is with us.
I Will Fear No Evil
Second, the dark valleys of the Lord’s faithful sheep hold no evil for them. When the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” I don’t think he is saying that nothing evil is around him (notice that he talks about his enemies in verse 5, surely these men were “evil”), but rather that nothing truly evil will befall Him. I must be careful here…..obviously the valleys that we sometimes walk through are evil….ISIS is evil, rape is evil, cancer and death are results of evil, and on the list could go. Yes, there is evil in this world and it may be very real evil that creates the shadows of our valleys…..but for the Christian, for the Lord’s sheep, no evil will finally befall us.
What I mean is this, though evil may assault the sheep of the Lord, it cannot succeed against them. Though heads may be severed, harm may be done, sickness may prevail in all these things, God is working ultimate good for His sheep so that the final result will be glory and blessing and gladness in His presence (Romans 8:28,37). Evil cannot finally succeed against the Shepherd’s sheep, therefore we do not need to fear its threatening shadow.
With Us in Death’s Shadow
And finally, consider again the implications of those few words “for you are with me.” David could never have known how true those words would be!
YHWH Himself has indeed descended into the valley of the shadow of death! Our Shepherd has entered our darkness, He has come in the flesh, and has walked through death’s valley in our place. As Jesus Himself has said, the Shepherd “goes before” (John 10:4) His sheep… this means that we will never walk in a path that He has not first walked….Jesus never leads His sheep into a place that He has not already been before….even when He leads them into death.
Because our Shepherd is also the Lamb who was Slain (Revelation 7:17), we are led by one who knows us, who has compassion for us, and who has experienced all that we experience, even in our bitterest sufferings. Not only that, we are led by the one who – by His death – has tunneled through Death’s Valley, the one who proves by His own resurrected life that every valley His sheep will walk through ultimately leads to the far green country of everlasting joy.
So, praise God that we are sheep and He is our Shepherd. May we study and know and love our shepherd while we sit in the pastures so that when we walk through the valleys, we will cling with hope-filled desperation to the Shepherd-Lamb whose death de-fangs our death and whose life secures our unending happiness