I’m not a sheep so why do I need a Shepherd?

Posted: 15/06/2011 in God
Tags: , , , , ,

The 23rd Psalm is perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of scripture in the Old Testament.

“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”.

This is such a beautiful and tender description of the caring nature of God. Lord and Shepherd come from the Hebrew name given to God – Jehovah-Rohi. Jehovah means eternal or self-existent and is found over 6000 times in the Old Testament. Attached to Jehovah are often other words revealing the nature and character of God. One such word is Rohi, meaning “my shepherd”. These words show us that God is not a distant deity but caring and interested in our well-being.

The Sheep and the Shepherd

Sheep have outlasted many civilisations and apart from dogs, they are one of the earliest known domesticated animals. They’ve been written about in Greek mythology, used in Egyptian symbolism, herded, breed as a source of food and used for their wool for thousands of years. What do we know about the characteristics of sheep?

  • They are not animals known to be on their own and a key characteristic in their behaviour is flocking. They will graze in groups and stay together unless threatened by a predator.
  • When threatened by a predator a sheep’s instinct is to flee not fight. In this case it is easy for one sheep to become separated and lost from the flock, therefore vulnerable to attack. 
  • Their only means of self-defence is to run. 
  • What has often been called stupidity is simply a case of “follow the leader”. Ingrained in them is the natural instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. That’s why you see them jumping a fence one after another or jumping into the slaughter-house. If one were to jump off a cliff the rest would follow.
  • They recognise their handler very easily. Research into sheep psychology (I know, really?) has shown that they can recognise familiar human faces and that of 50+ other sheep for more than two years. How they actually test this I have no idea!
  • They have the ability to learn and remember, again found in research by using mazes!
  • They will starve to death if they accidentally flip onto their back (casting). In this case the only way they can become upright again is with the help of their handler.
  • They are very dependant on their handler for most things.
  • They are timid and easily frightened.

Shepherds in the day of King David who wrote the 23rd Psalm and lived in Palestine around 1040BC, tended to their sheep in much the same way as they do today?

  • They lead their sheep to where there is good grazing.
  • They find and lead them to water.
  • They watch out for predators and fight them off if they attack the sheep even at the risk of their own life (1 Sam 17:34-35).
  • They take turns watching over the sheep at night to protect them from both predators and thieves (Luke 2:8).
  • In times of heat or storm they find the sheep shelter.
  • They lead the sheep into a fold through one gate for protection overnight. It has been said that the shepherd would set up his bedding in that gated area to stop the sheep leaving and prevent predators entering.
  • Sheep become very familiar with the shepherds voice and respond only to his call.

Why am I explaining the characteristics of sheep and of shepherds? Throughout scripture we see the Lord referring to Himself as a shepherd and His people as sheep.

  • God spoke through the prophet Isaiah of how He will care for His people. “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:10-11).
  • God promises to look after His people as a shepherd looks after and rescues his sheep, searching for strays, caring for the injured and strengthen those who are weak (Ez 34:12).
  • Jesus ministered to people with all sorts of problems and “…when he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd” (Matt 9:36) 
  • To illustrate the joy that heaven has when one person comes into a relationship with God, Jesus tells a parable of a man who goes after one sheep that was lost and when he finds it, takes it home and rejoices with his friends (Luke 15:3-7). 
  • Jesus is called our good shepherd because just as a good shepherd will go to any lengths to save his sheep, so Jesus went to the greatest length and laid down his life for us. (John 10:11).
  • As sheep know their shepherd we will know God, we will be able to recognise him (John 10:14)

How do we compare to sheep? I would say we are vulnerable, easy prey to all kinds of spiritual and earthly predators, easily led and quick to run. We so often need help in many areas of our lives. And the shepherd, aware of all our needs, provides for us and goes to any length to protect us from danger. We can hear that “God loves us” but not really hear it and sometimes we need an analogy as beautiful as the 23rd Psalm to really understand the Father’s heart.


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