I don't know about you, but I very rarely (if ever!) think of myself as being a sheep. There are too many negative connotations; don't sheep just simply follow the crowd? And yet in Psalm 23, David refers to himself as a sheep and doesn't seem to have any problem in doing so.
Our church is spending 'Summer in the Psalms' and during a recent sermon my husband unpacked Psalm 23. It is such a well-known psalm, and yet there was much I was really struck by. God talked to me clearly about learning to rest and follow Him – my Shepherd.
Sheep are always totally dependent on their shepherd
Ever heard of a self-sufficient sheep?! No, they look to their shepherd to lead them to food and water and to protect them at all times. In David's day, sheep were often herded into a pen that didn't have a gate overnight. The shepherd became the gate for his sheep by literally lying in the gap so that they were protected from predators as they slept. In John 10, Jesus said "I am the gate for the sheep".
The problem is, our human nature tends to make us drift towards independence and self-sufficiency. The idea of being totally dependent on God often doesn't sit that well with us. We can say we believe it is the right way to live – and then we go right ahead and live differently. When we are desperate for God to do something, either in our own lives or those of friends or family, that desperation causes us to draw close to Him. But often when He does step in and provide that healing, salvation or new job, then we settle back down and gradually, without even realising it, end up allowing our dependence on Him to fade.
We can also end up following other sheep rather than the shepherd. In doing so, we can become consumed by what we view as 'needs' but they aren't actually needs at all. One of the hallmarks of our culture is the demand for more and more possessions. Incredibly, we now have more self storage units being built than coffee shops – and the UK has more than all the EU countries put together! It can be so easy to get caught in this cycle of 'need'...
Psychologist Oliver James wrote a book a few years ago called Affluenza, in which he described how our desire for more has resulted in huge increases in depression and anxiety. Just think: the life of a sheep with its shepherd is a simple one – are we in danger of overcomplicating our lives, running after possessions, position, success, recognition and approval when all that does is lead us away from dependence on the Shepherd?
Sheep respond to their shepherd's leading
Psalm 23:2 talks about us being made to lie down in green pastures and being led beside still waters. We may have a picture in our mind of a herd of sheep being forced into a pen by dogs yapping at their heels, cutting them off from the way they want to go and forcing them to go where the shepherd has indicated. But Middle Eastern shepherding is not like that. Historically, Middle Eastern sheep were never driven but were always led, with the shepherd at the front or alongside, ensuring the pace was right for the sheep under his care.
Verse 2 is about rest; we need to listen to our shepherd's prompting when He is indicating that it is time for us to take some rest. I don't know about you, but I'm not good at taking time out. Sometimes He literally needs to do as this verse says and "make" me lie down in the grass...
When we make a conscious decision to rest, we are actually making a big statement that God is God and I am not. Jesus said that the Sabbath – our day of rest – was made for man (Mark 2:27).
Sheep cannot drink from fast-flowing water; they need still water
Getting sheep to drinking water is a vital part of every day life for a shepherd. Sheep are scared of drinking from water that is flowing, so shepherds know that they must find still water in order for their sheep to drink. If there isn't still water nearby, shepherds will go to great lengths to provide a way to make the water still. This could be by digging little channels that allow the water to flow away from the main stream and slow down, or by constructing a trough that can be filled with water. Our Shepherd makes it a priority to provide us with still water to drink too. As we saw in the previous point, He beckons us to slow down, to drink slowly and deeply.
Often we can be too busy to drink from the waters of life that Jesus has provided for us. But just think: while we may assume Psalm 23 was written when David was a young shepherd boy, most commentators suggest it was actually written in his later life, once he was a king and had faced numerous problems (some believe it is likely to have been written when he was being pursued by his own son Absalom!). David knew what it was to be under tremendous pressure and yet he still could say with confidence that his Shepherd provided still water for him to drink. Even in the midst of turmoil, God will give you the water you need.
Sheep trust that their shepherd knows the way
Psalm 23 also talks about being in the valley of the shadow of death but fearing no evil, because the Shepherd is there and his rod and staff bring comfort.
We aren't given any guarantees that our lives are going to be free of difficulties. Think about the physical circumstances Middle Eastern sheep and their shepherds had to contend with: sun-scorched lands surrounded with mountains and valleys. There was little water and vegetation which meant that the shepherds had to know where to look to find provision. They had to know the territory well and at times it was necessary to lead their sheep down into valleys through dangerous ravines.
In those moments of intense difficulty and pain, do we still trust our Shepherd? Do we allow Him to navigate us through our lives, or do we allow distance between us when we aren't sure where He is leading?
How did the shepherd's rod bring comfort? Well it was like a club and was used as a weapon to beat off predators. Sheep could trust that their shepherd would protect them. The cross was a decisive lethal blow to every power and principality that sets itself up against God. That is why we can walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear because death has ultimately been defeated and God's perfect love drives out fear.
It is important to remind ourselves that we worship a God who knows what it means to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We worship a God who knows what it's like to walk through the wilderness with hunger, thirst and temptation. How did Jesus navigate the wilderness? By relying on the Word of God and the Spirit of God – we're told Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Sprit and defeated temptation by the Word of God (see Matthew 4).
That is still how we are led in the "paths of righteousness" David sings about in verse 3 – by keeping close to the Shepherd through the Word and the Spirit of God. That is also why we can confidently trust Jesus our Shepherd. He's gone before us, so He knows the terrain.
If you've read all this and you are still feeling a little indignant about being called a sheep, remember this: Jesus was willing to become the sacrificial lamb for you. He isn't asking us to do anything He hasn't already done, so allow Him to lead you today.