God’s people are consistently referred to in Scripture as sheep, and not because we are cute, fluffy, and cuddly. In fact, the metaphor isn’t flattering at all.
If you think about sheep, what predominant characteristic comes to mind? Stupid. Easily misled. Defenseless.
We, like sheep, are easily led astray. Without a faithful shepherd to guide us, provide for us, and protect us, we are lost. But King David, who was at one time a shepherd himself, wrote Psalm 23 to remind us of a wonderful truth: that there is a good shepherd and he is active in every one of his sheep’s lives.
Psalm 23: A Psalm of David (KJV)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
What Makes a Good Shepherd?
A Good Shepherd Leads and Protects
Note the active verbs used in the early verses of Psalm 23—what the shepherd does. He “makes.” He “leads.” He “restores.” This is what shepherds do.
What do sheep do? Sheep follow.
The sheep don’t wake up in the morning and tell the shepherd where they want to go. They don’t say, “Hey, we want to go over to that field for pasture.” Or, “We think drinking over by those waters would be best today.”
That is the responsibility of the shepherd. He knows best.
The author of this psalm knew this all too well. As a shepherd, his task was to take his father’s sheep to good fields for grazing, provide them with water, determine the layout of the land, and decide when and where to guide them.
He was also responsible for their safety.
Now, this author is the same David from the Bible who volunteered to fight the giant Goliath as a young man. When King Saul attempted to dissuade him, arguing that he was unfit to fight such a warrior, David objected, noting that while he was the shepherd of his father’s sheep, he had protected them from attacks both of lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34).
This is what David told Saul that day he faced Goliath:
“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:34-37 NIV)
A good shepherd leads and protects. The sheep do none of these things. They go where they are told. They graze and drink where the shepherd leads them. And if the shepherd is a bad shepherd—and there are many mentioned in the Bible—the sheep are left vulnerable to attack by wolves or lions or bears or poachers.
Without the shepherd, they are completely defenseless.
A Good Shepherd Provides
Providing for his sheep is something the shepherd delights in doing.
Finding grazing land is difficult, let alone places where “still waters” exist. Yet, David’s wise shepherd leads him to green pastures to provide rest and to still waters for refreshment.
He knows that because the Lord is his shepherd, he will never be in need.
David says that the Lord “restores his soul,” then guides him in paths of righteousness. David envisions here the moral will of the Lord.
This psalm echoes Psalm 19. There, David tells us, “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (v. 1 NIV). The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous (v. 9). Following the Lord is not only good for the sheep’s belly, it is also good for the sheep’s soul.
Feeding on what God has to offer us in his Word strengthens us spiritually.
When David describes the Lord leading, protecting, and providing “for his name’s sake,” he is stating a simple, biblical truth: The physical and spiritual wellbeing of God’s people is a sign of the goodness of their faithful God. God’s provision brings honor to God’s name.
A Good Shepherd Leads His Sheep into Valleys
But the life of a sheep is not all green pastures and quiet waters. It can also involve danger.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (v.4 KJV)
We all go through the valley of the shadow of death at some point in our lives. It’s the universal plight of mankind.
David went through the valley of the shadow of death many times. David was hunted by the madness of King Saul; he stood in the shadow of the Philistine giant Goliath; he wrestled wild beasts; he battled powerful enemies; and family members betrayed him and overthrew him while king.
Each one of us can recount times when we too experienced the shadow of death—depression, unemployment, failed relationships, suicidal thoughts, the illness of a loved one, the breakdown of your body, financial hardship, emotional demoralization, or spiritual turmoil.
We face many “valleys of death.”
But remember that the dark valleys are surely just as much the “right paths” as are the green meadows.
The good shepherd escorts his sheep through the valley as much as he leads them to still waters.
David has an unwavering faith in the goodness of God. The New Testament writer Paul voices a similar resolve when he says in Romans, “In all things God works for good for those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28 NIV).
David has enough assurance in the Lord as his guide that he can walk through such valleys, for God is with him.
And David does not say he will experience no evil, but simply, that he will not fear it.
David’s assurance is not that harm will never befall him, but rather, that God will always be with him regardless of the difficulties.
A Good Shepherd Disciplines His Sheep
The job of the shepherd is to take care of his sheep, but also to discipline them.
The Jewish shepherd would often have two tools with him—a rod and a staff. The rod was a club, worn at the belt, that defended against unwanted guests. The staff was an instrument with a crook at its end, used for guiding, counting, and even disciplining the sheep.
David does not just find the protection of the Lord comforting; he even finds his discipline a comfort. For where there is discipline, there is love.
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
(Hebrews 12:5-6 NIV)
All sheep who want to be properly led, welcome the shepherd’s discipline.
Sometimes the shepherd uses his rod to whack a predator over the head. But he may also use the staff to discipline the sheep when they go astray. The good shepherd takes it upon himself to both convict and console the sheep when necessary, to protect as well as to provide for their needs.
A Good Shepherd Welcomes His Sheep Home
The last picture of the good shepherd in this psalm is rich. David has just passed through the valley of the shadow of death. He is surrounded by enemies, and the Lord prepares him a meal.
David fears no evil because he is the honored guest at the Lord’s table, in his house. He has been taken in by God.
When calamity strikes, his Lord invites him for a banquet. Talk about relaxing in the shadow of danger! The enemy is at the door, and the believer sits down and has a meal with God.
Only God can turn such tragedy into triumph.
The Lord is our shepherd. He has led us to this precise pasture, this valley of danger, and he will not fail to get us through it. And once we are through it, the feast our good shepherd prepared, awaits us.
A Good Shepherd Never Stops Pursuing His Sheep
David ends by saying, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The word for “mercy” here is translated elsewhere as “steadfast love,” and to “follow” does not have the sense of coming behind somebody, but rather pursuing them.
David is convinced that the steadfast love of the Shepherd will pursue him his whole life.
Who Is the Good Shepherd?
Of course, an Old Testament passage such as this, with its powerful shepherd imagery, propels us to the New Testament—specifically to John 10. There Jesus says,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (vv. 11-15 NIV)
Is it an accident that Psalm 22—the Psalm of the Cross—comes before this psalm?
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, showed us the way through the valley of the shadow of death. By suffering death on the cross for our sins, he has opened the way for us to come into his pasture, if we trust in him for the forgiveness of our sin.
All that David expresses about the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus has done for us as the Good Shepherd. And he will not lose one sheep of his father’s flock.
Who Is Your Shepherd?
We can either be sheep under the care of Satan, the taskmaster of sin, or we can be sheep under the care of the Good Shepherd.
Scripture calls believers in Jesus sheep, and despite all the negative connotations that image bears, it is a wonderful identity. Jesus has bought us with his own life, called us by name, made us his own, and delights in caring for us.
He is a shepherd who is always busy with the care of his sheep. His sheep are well looked after because he is infinitely wise, lavish in his grace, and abounding in love. “He who watches over you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3 NIV).
This psalm expresses confident trust in God, despite hardship. It reveals the heart of a true follower of Jesus Christ. Can anything separate us from the love of our Good Shepherd?
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)
The Lord is the only good Shepherd of our soul.
Do you know him as your shepherd?