Rev. DeVries is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1
What pathetic creatures sheep are in so many respects. Sheep are weak: they are very susceptible to sickness, disease, parasites, and injury. Sheep are helpless: they are unable to care for themselves. Sheep are defenseless: they are easy prey for the lion or the bear, the wolf or the coyote, even stray dogs. Sheep are stubborn: it is almost impossible to make them go where they do not want to go; far better to lead sheep than to try to drive them. Sheep are foolish: they will gorge themselves on rich hay or grain, and do not hesitate to endanger themselves in various ways.
Sheep are wayward: they will repeatedly get themselves into a predicament. What pathetic creatures, indeed! That is the picture the Scriptures draw of sheep. And the picture is accurate, as I can testify from having raised sheep for several years of my youth on my father’s farm.
“All we like sheep….” Yes, it is true, these pathetic creatures are pictures of us as God’s people. God created the sheep to be a picture of His people. It is very humbling, is it not? Who of us would choose to be compared to a sheep? A lion, perhaps, or maybe a bear or an eagle. But a sheep? Never! But, an accurate picture it is. For by nature we are such pathetic creatures. From this point of view, what unspeakable comfort Psalm 23 affords us. How simple it is, yet so very profound.
What a proper and beautiful figure is that of the shepherd and his sheep. The inspired psalmist David is given to speak God’s word here as it flows from his own pastoral experience as a shepherd. And the opening verse says it all. The following verses are but the development of what is really implied in the statement: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
What characterizes a shepherd, one who cares properly for sheep? In the first place, a good shepherd knows his sheep. The shepherd does not have an indefinite number of sheep. He is able to identify his sheep. Here in the West, where many flocks graze in the lush mountain foothills during the summer, each shepherd has his own distinctive ear-mark, which he cuts into the ears of his sheep. Or, sometimes, a particular brand is placed upon the back of the sheep by means of a colored dye.
A good shepherd knows his sheep.
In the second place, a good shepherd knows the proper pasture for his sheep. He chooses that pasture with great care. A barren, over-grazed pasture will not do, for the sheep will go hungry. Sheep which have been grazing on the dry mountain grass will not be permitted to graze in a cornfield or even a field of rich alfalfa, for they would surely gorge themselves. Many would overeat and die. The good shepherd leads his sheep with care to green pastures where the sheep can safely eat to their hearts’ content. If the sheep are fed grain, the shepherd will carefully mix and measure their ration so that they might safely eat their fill.
Thirdly, a shepherd knows the enemies of the sheep, and he has the power and willingness to defend his sheep. His rod and staff will be in hand to protect them. Often a sheep dog is employed to protect the sheep and to keep them together. A good shepherd will be on guard against predators.
Finally, let it be emphasized, a shepherd must be very patient, longsuffering with his sheep. From this viewpoint, not just anyone can be a good shepherd. Many farmers and ranchers will have nothing to do with sheep. Sheep are very labor intensive. They require almost constant attention and faithful, loving care. If that kind of care is not provided, the sheep wander away; they are devoured by their enemies; they get sick and die. Patience and longsuffering are necessary virtues of a good shepherd.
Jehovah, our Shepherd
All these characteristics of a shepherd we find in the highest degree in Jehovah! Jehovah is the name of our God par excellence. This is the name by which our God is distinguished forever from the idols of the heathen. He is Jehovah, the I AM THAT I AM, the perfectly independent and self-sufficient God, who has no need of any creature outside of Himself. Jehovah is the sovereign Creator and Lord of all. Jehovah is the eternal, omnipotent, unchangeable God.But the name Jehovah emphasizes especially the fact that our God is a covenant God. It emphasizes His perfect faithfulness. Jehovah’s word is: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). Do we understand the implications of this word of God in Psalm 23:1?
As the all-knowing Jehovah, He knows all His sheep by name. Not one escapes His omniscient sight. He knows His sheep in sovereign love from before the foundation of the world. He speaks to Jeremiah: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee” (Jer. 1:5). The all-knowing Jehovah is revealed to us in the highest degree in Jesus, Jehovah Salvation. Jesus speaks in John 10:14: ” I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep….” He has known us from eternity, when the Father gave unto Him our names. Jesus Christ knows His sheep by name, and all the love of Jehovah for His sheep is manifested in Him who laid down His life for His sheep!
And Jehovah, our shepherd, knows the proper pasture we need. He feeds us in the green pastures by means of the preaching of His inspired, infallible Word and by the use of the sacraments. Though at times our flesh would rebel against the pasture He provides, though by nature we would gorge ourselves upon the lusts and pleasures of this sinful world, Jehovah knows our needs and has provided us with the perfect pasture. We are given to partake of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life and the Water of Life. Jesus exhorts His undershepherds: “Feed the flock of God which is among you…” (I Pet. 5:2). In Him we live; in Him we are satisfied; in Him we are most blessed forever!
To be sure, Jehovah knows our enemies. He protects us from them, “for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father” (Heid. Cat., Lord’s Day 9). He knows the wicked world would like to swallow us up. He knows that “the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Pet. 5:8). He knows He must protect us from our own foolish, wayward, rebellious natures which would certainly lead us into destruction. Jehovah has given His own only-begotten Son even to the death of the cross that we might be delivered from every foe! And our exalted Lord Jesus Christ protects His sheep by His indwelling Word and Spirit. He delivers us from the grievous wolves who would enter in among us, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). He leads us safely through every danger, sheltering us in His perfect fold. The good Shepherd says: “And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Finally, Jehovah God is filled with patience and longsuffering with respect to the sheep of His pasture. We confess with the prophet Jeremiah: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22, 23). Listen to the inspired testimony of Isaiah: “He shall lead 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” (Is. 40:11). “And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Can you not testify of the patience and longsuffering of our Shepherd within your own life? Have you perhaps strayed from the flock? Have you ever wandered into forbidden, dangerous paths? Have you not known and wept about your sins and miseries? But, without fail, our faithful Shepherd leads us back to the flock, delivers us from danger, comforts with the word, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.”
What more could we ask? He makes abundant provision for us! “I shall not want.” I will not suffer any lack. Oh, want or lack is dreadful! It is misery. Look at a flock without abundant provision. They are ignored, neglected, unknown by their shepherd. They are impoverished—forced to gnaw away at bare, brown fields. They fall prey to predators. They have scant shelter to protect them from the storms. They have only polluted water to drink. They are weak and diseased. Many wander and are lost upon the hills. They suffer want! Their needs are ignored. No one makes proper provision for them. The sheep suffer grievously; they die!
But Jehovah is our Shepherd; we shall not want! For our greatest want is fellowship with our God. Remove our God, separate us from our God, and we die a miserable, eternal death! But, thanks be to God, Jehovah is our Shepherd! As such, He established His covenant of friendship and fellowship with us. He feeds and nourishes us by His grace and Spirit through His Word. He rules us by His grace so that we willingly submit to His guidance and serve Him in love. He protects us from all our enemies, preserves and sustains us through every trial, every suffering, and through all of our sorrows. Hear His voice: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9). He is our faithful Shepherd, providing for our every need, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.We may not possess all that we wish for, but we shall not want. The psalmist testified of that in Psalm 34:10: “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Whatever may come—famine, affliction, poverty, persecution, death—I shall not want. Though we cannot always comprehend the Lord’s ways, though we may be inclined to ask, “Hath God forgotten to be gracious?” we are given to confess, “Thou leadest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Ps. 77:20).
But understand the implications. If Jehovah is your shepherd, if you have no want, then you are, indeed, His sheep. Then you know Jesus. He says, “… and am known of mine” (John 10:14). It is the spiritual knowledge of the heart, the knowledge of faith. Then you hear the Shepherd. Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). From Sabbath to Sabbath we hear His Word and recognize our Shepherd’s voice in the preaching of the gospel. Then we follow Him. Jesus says, “… and they follow me” (John 10:27). We will not be deceived by wolves in sheep’s clothing. We will know that the voice of the hireling is false. We love our Shepherd, trust Him, and follow Him.
We are pathetic creatures no more. For even now we are, in principle, new creatures in Christ! And presently in glory we shall be manifest as perfected, victorious, glorious sheep. May our hearts sing:
The Lord my shepherd holds me, within His tender care,
And with His flock He folds me, no want shall find me there.Psalter #55.