“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” (Psa. 23).
I will confidently guess that this is one of the most well-known scriptures in the Bible. In fact, many of us who have attended funerals in our lives have probably heard this recited or preached, at least at one of them. Its words are beautiful, touching, and poignant, leaving an indelible mark on the memories of anyone who hears them. The shepherd spoken of in the first sentence is, of course, God, and us calling Him that is a profound testimony of our personal relationship with Him. Once we have read through all the words, we come to another inescapable conclusion – that we trust Him implicitly.
What most people miss is the metaphor of the shepherd. In the Psalm, however, there is a deeper reference intended than just a peasant shepherd. In the ancient Near East, it was also intended as a royal metaphor. Kings were often portrayed as shepherds, as witnessed in 1 Kin. 22:17 and Eze. 34:1-10. The ruler would provide for and protect the subjects in His kingdom and ensure justice for all, but he could not provide for the spiritual needs of the people. The only one who could do that was, and still is, the “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God…” (1 Tim. 1:17). The theme of the shepherd King carries on in the New Testament as well, where Jesus is referred to as both.
Rev. 19:16, “On his robe and thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” The words of Rev. 19 clearly present Christ with the title of the king of all kings, while John 10:11-16 speaks of Him as the shepherd of His flock, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Since Jesus is God, the great I Am, He is our shepherd as God was the shepherd for the nation of Israel.
In the past, actual shepherds were responsible for the protection of the sheep. In fact, they were so dedicated to keeping the sheep safe that they would sleep near the pen entrance to ward off predators. Moreover, if any sheep were hurt, they would carry the hurt animal on their shoulders to safety and then nurse them back to health. In the morning, the shepherd would drive the sheep to the best grazing and watch over them, ready to fight to save any of them. And, if one were lost, He would leave the flock to find the one that strayed, happy when he found and returned the lost animal (Matt. 18:12-14). When we read, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we are claiming the title of His “sheep,” and we listen to the call of His voice. And we know our Shepherd Christ indeed gave His life for us and celebrates when a lost sheep is found and saved.