With God as shepherd, it's comforting to be a sheep
By Clay Perkins
Friday, April 5, 2019
“The Lord is my shepherd … and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” — Psalm 23:1a & 6b (The Bible, New International Version)
If there is a more beloved passage of scripture than the 23rd Psalm, I do not know what it is. Most of us will have to think deeply to truly understand this passage, since most of us have only seen sheep in a petting zoo. Many who hear this passage for the first time scratch their heads wondering why we, the people of God, are referred to as sheep. Sheep are stubborn, they are lazy, they tend to follow the crowd, they have a habit of not knowing when they are in danger. I learned these things about sheep first hand on a trip to New Zealand while hanging out with shepherds. Being called a sheep is not the greatest of compliments. Nevertheless, this beloved passage from Psalm 23 can give us comfort.
Psalm 23 is an exposition on proper dependency on a living Lord who wants to care for us the way a shepherd cares for his sheep. And whether we appreciate the analogy or not, we are indeed like sheep.
God knows our needs, and He wants to provide for us (verses 1-3). Throughout the Bible God is called the Good Shepherd (Psalm 80:1). God is our shepherd and gives us rest. Rest is defined as “fresh shoot,” as a new shoot of a plant growing. God desires for us to find renewal in green fields and still water, avoiding mental or physical exhaustion. God desires to interrupt our goal-driven compulsive world with quiet times of just being in his presence. Too many of us are like those sheep that run off and get caught in the thickets. When this psalm was written, a good shepherd might break one of the legs of a young sheep that continued to run away to keep it from wandering off into danger. We should be willing to pray that if God needs to, he would similarly care for us — go to drastic measures — to prevent us from plunging into danger so that we can remain in the rest God wants to provide (John 6:35, 7:37-38).
God knows our needs and wants to protect us and bring us home (verses 4-6). As a good shepherd, God desires to protect us from harm even when we are in the presence of our enemies; he wants to protect us by bringing us home. We do not have to live in fear, even in the darkest of days, because his rod and his staff comfort us. His rod is a symbol of power, more like an oak club that a skillful shepherd might use to strike any animal seeking to harm his sheep. The staff is a sort of hook to pull any sheep out of danger, perhaps from the edge of a cliff or out of a thicket. The rod and staff are symbols of power and strength. God can defend us in all types of dangers. Shepherds used oil to protect and heal. It helped loosen the sheep out of thick briar patches. It kept snakes at bay. The Lord still does this. Adversaries are all around, but God is smarter, stronger, wiser, and able to protect us even with our enemies right beside us. God wants us to make it home to be with our Shepherd.
The weeks I spent in New Zealand helped me understand this passage. In the decades I have served people, I have learned that we are indeed like sheep. We have a very stubborn nature. We can be lazy with a tendency to follow the crowd mindlessly and, in the process, to wander off into danger. Perhaps, as my New Zealand friends told me, being called sheep is not the greatest of compliments. But to have God as my Shepherd is of great comfort to me.
Clay Perkins is an adjunct professor at Mid-Atlantic Christian University. The opinions expressed in this column belong to the author and may not be those of the university.