Psalm 23:1: The Lord is My Shepherd

Most of us understand little about the ways of shepherding and sheep.  The few places where sheep wander in the fields are like an alien world to the rest of us.  Included in this life are rugged men, who provide for flocks atop the hills and mountains of the American West, hailing from shepherds in northern Spain.  Several generations ago, they emigrated from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains to the United States.

A Reader’s Digest article from years back wrote about a Nevada ranch, which employed an old man who lived in the US for decades.  Descended from at least 20 generations of Spanish shepherds, many considered him to be the best sheep keeper in the state.  More than a typical shepherd, this man became a patriarch, passing down the traditions and secrets handed down from generations past.  To meet this man, now long dead, is to live in the legends, mysteries, and religious fervor of his native hills.

One night under a clear, starry sky, sheep rest beside a pool of sparkling water.  Tired from the day’s work and ready to wrap himself in his blanket, Fernando began to speak in his heart language from his younger days, reciting Psalm 23.

Of course, we can savor this shepherd’s insights because another joined him in conversation.  “Oh, how David and his ancestors understood sheep and their ways.  In his Psalm, David translated a sheep’s musings into simple words.  The daily repetition of this Psalm fills the guardian of sheep with reverence for his calling.  Many of its lines are the simple requirements and duties of a Holy Land shepherd, whether he lives today or followed the same calling some 4,000 years ago.  Phrase by phrase, we understand well the meaning of his words.”

These sturdy men, first from the hilly reaches of Spain, keep guard over other people’s flocks, not their own.  With a fierce love for those under their charge, official ownership doesn’t change their disposition.  These loyal guardians attend to another’s sheep as their own—as befits their heritage of shepherding for centuries.

Unlike the keepers of the flocks in Nevada, Israel’s shepherds most often protected animals belonging to them or their families.  A sense of pride and responsibility filled them because those sheep turned into an extension of their family.  How healthy and vigorous their sheep are, reflect on those who keep them.

So, when David begins the Psalm, he is reflecting the shepherding world of his day.  With God as his shepherd, David declares himself as a sheep in Yahweh’s flock, identifying he isn’t his own man.  No, he recognizes Yahweh’s claim over him and all he is and owns.  Now, this isn’t a heartless servitude but an understanding and trust in the Lord’s provision for him.

In later years, David governed from a royal throne.  From a humble shepherd to God’s appointed ruler of the nation!  A real “rags to riches” story for the people.  With David as king, the expressions in Hebrew also start to change.  The Israelites now begin to refer to their leaders as their shepherds.

For they accept their kings, priests, and others in authority as Yahweh’s blessing to them.  These men are to represent God, through whom He shepherds His chosen flock.  Is much different for us?  Not so much, for we too are supposed to fathom God working behind our leaders, who are to serve the people, rewarding the right and reprimanding the wrong.

In Israelite history, however, theory and reality often didn’t match.  So also with us.  For when David’s dynastic monarchy secured itself, many of the kings soon twisted into tyrants, abusing position and power for their benefit, as did David.

In Israel’s religious life, the priests also leaped into the fray.  For they stepped outside their given vocations, playing politics to gain favor with others.  Tempted by worldly prestige, they often told the people what they wanted instead of preaching God’s Word.

By both word and deed, God’s chosen priests often went awry, deforming into deceptive shepherds, misleading the people to bow down before false gods.  Of course, they performed God’s commanded rituals, which to them is still sacred and right because the holy Lord established them.

In time, God’s patience ran its course.  The unfaithful shepherds, but also the straying flock fell under His discipline, for He is their real Shepherd.  First, Assyria attacked and defeated the Northern Kingdom.  A foreign Empire deported the people from their land and settled them among other conquered peoples.  A century later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah experienced a similar fate at the hand of Babylon.  An enemy army burned down the Temple and its city, Jerusalem, exiling most of its population.

The Lord recognized where the problem resided, telling His prophet, Ezekiel:

Such sorrow to you shepherds of Israel who only engorge yourselves!  Shouldn’t the shepherds tend to their flock?

Behold, I am against such shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from them and stop their shepherding of my flock.  No more will these shepherds feed themselves, for I will rescue them from their greedy mouths, and they will no longer become their food.  [Ezekiel 34:2, 10]

Still, Yahweh preferred to restore and renew His people, not punish them.  Through Ezekiel He continued:

For My sheep, I will search, seeking them out.  For I will shepherd them and make them lie down, declares God, the Lord.  The lost, I will seek; the strayed, I will bring back.  The injured, I will bind up; the weak, I will strengthen.  [Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16]

Through Isaiah, God pointed to a future time.  In centuries to come, His Servant will wear our human flesh and frame, all to nourish His all-too-forgetful flock.

The Lord God comes with power and rules with a mighty arm.  Behold, He brings his reward, his gifts coming with him.  Like a shepherd, he will tend His flock and gather the lambs in His arms.  Close to his heart he will carry them, leading the youngest with care.  [Isaiah 40:10-11]

The failings of these self-serving shepherds, false worship, and a wayward flock will remain a problem until God graces us as the divine Shepherd.  The 23rd Psalm and the messages of the prophets remind us of our God, for He does what they proclaim!  In His Son, He comes to His people, born of a woman from David’s family line to be the prophesied Son of King David.  The promised Shepherd enters our world, establishing and fulfilling David’s throne in righteousness and justice forever.

Walk with Jesus through the pages of the Gospels.  Shadow Him as He travels among the people.  With a fervent passion, He reaches out to them, who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  So, He becomes their compassionate shepherd, proclaiming the never-ending life one receives in His Kingdom.  From the Father’s love for them, unveiled in His incarnation, He supplies their needs, heals their sick, and raises their dead, all pointing to the life He bestows.

In many ways, Jesus reveals Himself so we can believe—including when He calls Himself “I AM.”  The personal name of God is Yahweh, which is a form of “HE IS.”  So, when Jesus refers to himself as “I AM,” He is declaring to all He is the God of heaven coming to save them as the foretold Messiah.

So, as God, Jesus says I am light, bread, resurrection, and life.  So brash are these proclamations, many who don’t realize Jesus fulfills the Scripture, want to charge Him with blasphemy.  In anger, they burn with fury.  “[This Jesus] is calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God” (John 5:18).

In one of His “I AM” statements, Jesus announces He came to shepherd His Father’s flock.  Why?  In a twist of irony, so He, the perfect Shepherd, can also be the offering of God’s Lamb to take away the sin of the world.  For He says as much, straight out.  “The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The sheepherder Fernando D’Alfonso waxed lyrical.  “By instinct, sheep realize before they are folded in for the night—their shepherd will make sure of their grazing needs for the morrow.  So, they do not fret or become anxious since his guidance served them well in the past.  A robust faith fills them because they learned he is looking out for their welfare.”

Though sheep may sense this, we don’t, not without faith.  For we are by nature sinful.  Only by grace can we come to understand and enjoy our Shepherd’s watchfulness as sheep of His pasture.  Despite being born outside the bloodline of David, in His mercy, our Father adopts us into His family, bringing us into His sheepfold.

The heaven-sent Spirit calls us through the Gospel, which comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  Enlightened with what He gives, the life-breathing Breath from God sanctifies and keeps us in true faith.  Every day, as we live trusting in our Shepherd, we learn to rely on and follow Him, no matter the terrain and crevasses along our path.  “For all things work together for the well-being of those who love God, those He called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Through such assurances, our faithful Shepherd beckons us to walk beside Him, day by day.  “My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, and they follow me.  Never will they perish, for I give them eternal life.  No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

So, when our Lord speaks, we listen in faith-filled joy, following Him by the words He voices.  Safe in His hand, we need not fear.  For when the day ends, He is nearby to welcome our prayers.  In the morning, He will call us again to go where He leads, bless us with His attentiveness, and direct us on the path to everlasting life.  Amen.