Although I spent most of my formative years in cookie cutter suburbia, I like to think that my seven-year stint in the country makes me a true Texan. No, my family didn’t own a ranch on the wide open spaces, I wasn’t a card-carrying member of FFA with my own pony (unless we count the time I had my picture taken on one in pre-school) and the closest thing to ranch life for me was watching my dad chase the loose emus out of our front yard with a rake. I guess I’ve never been much of a country gal.
As I sat down to ponder Psalm 23, and the whole “The Lord is my Shepherd” bit, my frame of reference was a little limited. Like any good journalist who doesn’t have a clue, I Googled sheep, naturally.
Sheep were domesticated around 10,000 BC. They are gregarious creatures, flocking together and are quite defenseless against predators such as coyotes. Sheep have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of hearing, and when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, he had sheep graze the lawn. Now we’re all experts.
Back to Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 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 goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
As with the rest of the Psalms, David wrote it. Before David was anointed King and ruled over the nation of Israel for 40 years, he worked for his father watching the flocks. With seven older brothers, David drew the short straw and spent most of his time out in the field. Even when Samuel came to anoint David as King, he wasn’t even home; he was watching the sheep. What’s more, before David struck out to face Goliath, he reminds King Saul that can finish the job after years of rescuing many a sheep from a lion or bear. David had the shepherding gig down, which makes Psalm 23 all the more beautiful.
OK, “the Lord is my shepherd.” What does that look like?
“He makes me lie down…He leads me…He restores…He leads me in paths”
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, the shepherd led his flock from the fold each morning by going before them and calling to them. It was customary for shepherds to name their sheep, so when they were called, the sheep responded to their name. (Check out John 10) Once the flock arrived to the selected pasture, the shepherd watched the flock for predators and should any sheep stray, he had to search for it until he found it. He also supplied the flock with water, and in the evening, he brought them back, counting each as it entered the fold.
I would guess, that if I were a shepherd, I would lead the flock out each morning with a plan. I wouldn’t say, “Hey ewe guys (pardon my pun), it’s a free day, do whatever want, any field is game, go for it.” Try that with a classroom full of teenagers. It’s a recipe for disaster. Sheep can’t be much better. How appropriate if God is my shepherd, that he leads me. He has a plan, and his plan is ultimately for my good. Remember the green pastures and still waters and restoration of my soul? Now check out verse three. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” For his name, his reputation, his glory. Not mine, his.
We have established that God is leading me, I am following, and while the paths he leads me on are for my good, it is for his ultimate glory that everything happens and exists. As a follower of God, does that mean every day I am bounding across lush, emerald fields with streams flowing from the mountaintop? Absolutely not. And David agrees in verse four. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Life is not pretty, it is not easy, and while there are utterly sweet moments, there are just as many hurts. But remember our Shepherd has a plan, he is leading and while his plan may not look like mine, walking in His presence (which sometimes looks like kicking and screaming) in the valley of the shadow of death is better than aimlessly wandering off on my own.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a favorite read, Hinds Feet on High Places. It’s an allegory, detailing the journey of Much-Afraid under the Shepherd’s leading from the Valley of Humiliation to the High Places.
In all that great desert, there was not a single green thing growing, neither tree nor flower nor plant save here and there a patch of straggly gray cacti.
On the last morning Much Afraid was walking near the tents and huts of the desert dwellers, when in a lonely corner behind a wall she came upon a little golden-yellow flower, growing all alone. An old pipe was connected with a water tank. In the pipe was one tiny hole through which came an occasional drop of water. Where the drops fell one by one, there grew the little golden flower, though where the seed had come from, Much-Afraid could not imagine, for there were no birds anywhere and no other growing things.
She stopped over the lonely, lovely little golden face, lifted up so hopefully and so bravely to the feeble drip, and cried out softly, “What is your name, little flower, for I never saw one like you before.”
The tiny plant answered at once in a tone as golden as itself, “Behold me! My name is Acceptance-with-Joy!”
Much-Afraid thought of the things which she had seen… Somehow the answer of the little golden flower which grew all alone in the waste of the desert stole into her heart and echoed there faintly and sweetly, filling her with comfort. She said to herself, “The Shepherd has brought me here when I did not want to come, for His own purpose. I, too, will look up into His face and say, ‘Behold me! I am your little handmaiden, Acceptance-with-Joy.’”