Rev. Miersma is pastor of Loveland Protestant Reformed Church in Loveland, Colorado.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
Isaiah was called to be a prophet of the Lord. In fulfilling his calling he prophesies judgment against the enemies of God in the first thirty-nine chapters of this book that bears his name. His pronouncements of judgments, however, are not limited to God’s enemies. He is also called to prophesy against Israel because of their sins. Therefore, the first thirty-nine chapters relate chiefly to events leading up to the captivity.
Beginning with chapter forty and continuing to the end there are prophecies, warnings, and promises that refer to events beyond the captivity. They point to the cross of Jesus Christ and are thus rich in Messianic references. Furthermore, these prophecies point beyond the cross into the new dispensation and to the second coming of Christ and the ushering in of the new heavens and earth.
In the immediately preceding context of our text he relates to us the work of God’s salvation for His people. In the true sense of the word we have here the gospel, or as oft called, the glad tidings or good news. Here we have comfort in time of need, distress, and seeming hopelessness. Isaiah does this in figurative and most beautiful language.
Our text continues with the use of figures by which the prophet describes the nature of this work of the Lord. God has determined to protect and guard His church. Previously God was described as armed with terrible power for the defense of His people. Here we see the tender side of the Lord in order that His people may sweetly repose under His protection. All this points to the One through whom the Lord performs His saving work, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is our good Shepherd, who leads us in the green pastures and by the still waters of His Word.
The keeping of sheep was a common vocation in Judah. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were pilgrims and strangers keeping their flocks. David, who penned the well-known twenty-third psalm, took care of his father’s flocks. We read of the shepherds who kept watch over their flocks on the night of Jesus’ birth. When Jesus preached during His earthly sojourn He used these pictures to describe Himself when He said, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
The position of the shepherd was often difficult, as can be seen from the characteristics of a good shepherd. He had to know his sheep, for often the sheep of several owners were herded into one fold for the night. In the morning he would have to know which ones were entrusted to him. He had to know the right pasture. Thus he searched for the green pastures where the sheep could eat their fill and to their hearts’ content. He had to know the enemies of the sheep and have the power and the willingness to protect them. Patience and longsuffering had to characterize the shepherd, for the sheep is a very foolish animal. It is so inclined to wander away, thus endangering itself either by exposing itself to the wild beasts or by simply getting lost. Thus the shepherd had to be on constant vigil and employ his patience in weaning wandering ones back to the safety of the flock.
This is often used as a picture of God’s relationship to His people. The familiar words ofPsalm 23 readily come to our mind, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The Lord must provide guidance and care for His sheep. The Lord knows every one of His sheep by name, every one of us, even before we were born or ever the foundations of the earth were laid. He knows what is good for you, those grassy slopes where you feed to your heart’s content, even His covenant of grace where you feed on the love of God and His friendship.
He also knows your enemies and has the inclination and the power to protect you. He knows that the world would like to swallow you up. He knows the wiles of Satan, who would take you for his spoil. And He knows the enemy of sin and guilt that would burn you in everlasting hell. Against all these the Lord protects us. And, yes, He is longsuffering.
Historically this had great significance for Judah, for they would be scattered in captivity, captives in the land of Babylon for seventy years. They are given the assurance that the Lord will lead them even when they are absent from the promised land.
This has significance for us as well. As the Lord was the Shepherd of His church in the old dispensation, so He will be our Shepherd in the new dispensation. The church is His flock. He assures her that He will lead and feed her.
This feeding implies life, all that is necessary unto eternal life. Through this feeding we will receive everything that is necessary to sustain that life. All of this feeding is provided through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God’s Son gives life to His sheep and gathers them. God also through His Son feeds us.
This brings us back to the picture of the Shepherd. Jesus knows His sheep. We read inJohn 10:14, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” God has given you to Christ already in eternity. And He has never forgotten you. He even gives His life for you. Jesus knows your pasture. He says, “I am the Bread of Life; I am the Water of Life.” He tells us to eat and drink Him spiritually unto blessed communion of life. He is the pasture of His people in that He is the Word of God. The thoughts of the heart of God are your and my food. When they come into our hearts we are satisfied.
He also knows our enemies. He protects us from the world by His Word and Spirit. He knows the wrath of God against sin and guilt. In our place He has stood, even unto death, in order that we might live.
Through all of this He is longsuffering. How often we have wandered and do wander, only to be led back again. While in the watches of the night we weep because of our sins, He comes to dry our tears and to comfort us with the words, “Thy sins be forgiven thee. Go in peace.”
This spiritual food is applied by the Spirit of God. The Spirit works Christ’s life in us and nourishes that life. He dwells in our hearts, applies the Word, and guides in truth. This is certainly an appropriate feeding.
That is beautifully presented in the text. The shepherd gathers the young in his arms and takes them to his bosom. These are the lambs, newborn and weak, who cannot possibly keep up with the flock. They include the weakest members of the flock, which cannot possibly defend themselves against attack and which are in need of the shepherd’s constant protection.
Gently he leads those with young. The ewes with their young cannot be forced along by driving. Thus he tenderly leads them. Every sheep he treats according to its capacity.
So does God feed His sheep. In their weakness He reveals His marvelous strength. The “arm” of verse ten is symbolic of might and power. It is strong to protect so that in His arms no harm can come, nor can anything separate us from Him. In our sorrow and affliction He reveals His immeasurable tenderness. In this way God preserves His entire flock.
Surely these sheep are none other than those addressed in the first verse, where they are addressed as “My people,” when He says “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” These are the same people to whom Christ refers in John 10:3, 4, 14, 27, 28. “To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice…. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine…. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”
So in our text God’s people are called “his flock.” This obviously does not apply to everyone. God is speaking of His elect, those chosen in Christ from eternity. And this flock, His people, have spiritual characteristics. They are called sheep with good reason. Sheep are animals that must be fed. Sheep remind us of meekness and humility. As sheep we also are fed, and that too by the Shepherd.
And, oh, how richly He feeds us.