Playing Psalms: Games and Goodness — Follow the Leader

While I may not have been a big fan of games like “Red Rover” in my growing up years, there was one game I loved: “Follow the Leader.” Being at the head of a line of friends who trailed behind me required no physical strength, no particular stratagem, nor any specific skill — except maybe creativity to keep those being led entertained and challenged.

It was quite the thing to have people willingly do whatever I did — spin in circles, hop on one foot, or run around a tree. Oh the power! 

As much as I loved the role of Leader in the game, I also enjoyed being led. It was fun to see where each Leader would take us and what silly antics they’d have us do. 

There is One, however, who never relegates his authority: God. He is always the Leader. It is our choice, however, to follow the Leader. Or not.

Today, we’re headed out to the hilly pastures to follow the Shepherd Leader. 

The Lord Is My Shepherd 

In its short, six verses, Psalm 23 reveals much about God’s character, but most of us today don’t know enough about shepherds and sheep to grasp the perfection of David’s metaphor:

1 The Lord is my shepherd…

Psalm 23:1a

Because David grew up as a shepherd, he would have known the role and duties of a shepherd intimately. But why compare the Creator of the universe with this lowly profession?

For starters, Shepherds are very good leaders. Well, let’s qualify that. Good shepherds are good leaders. The kind sheep will follow.

Good shepherds are consumed with their flocks’ safety and health, going to extremes to preserve and protect them — extremes like sleeping among them to keep predators at bay, inspecting each sheep everyday for injury and harmful pests, and walking with them for miles to find fresh fields for their grazing. To be blunt, shepherds do anything necessary for their flocks’ good.

Like a good shepherd, God stays close to us.  

  • He offers His Holy Spirit to protect and lead us (see 2 Thessalonians 3:3, John 6:13). 
  • He teaches us how to fight our enemy (see Ephesians 6:10-17).
  • He surrounds us with angels to fight for us (see 2 Kings 6:16-17 or Matthew 26:53). 

God as our shepherd means he cares. He’s there for us. And He will go to great lengths to protect us and provide for us, hence David’s ending of the first verse:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Psalm 23:1 NIV (emphasis mine)

At its core, “I lack nothing” is a statement of faith —  kind of like saying, “I have God. What else could I need?” But, another way of looking at it could be we are so content in God’s care that we don’t crave anything else (Keller, 29).

What it doesn’t mean — we won’t ever lack. 

We all know that some days we lack money. Other days we lack friends. And the list goes on. Jesus, our self-proclaimed Good Shepherd (John 10:11), warns us that there will be lack, or trouble (see John 16:33). But we can take heart because He’ll be with us (see Matthew 28:20) — even in our lack.

The Game: Meadows and Streams — David invites us to follow our Shepherd Leader. Let’s follow Him and see why lying down is a good thing!

2  He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

Psalm 23:2 NIV
Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. – Rick Barrett on Unsplash

A fun fact I learned reading about sheep in Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, is that things have to be just right before sheep will lie down — four specific things, in fact. For sheep to be “at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom of fear, tension, aggravations, and hunger” (42). Guess how much of that the sheep can control? None. Only the shepherd makes it possible for sheep to feel at peace and full enough to actually rest. 

It is well-known among the good shepherds of our world that once sheep are fed, the very best way to help them feel safe and content is for the shepherd to be present with them. 

I type that and my pulse accelerates. Guess what I can’t do if I’m anxious? Sleep. And if my stomach is growling endlessly or my reflux is attacking full-throttle, getting some solid shut-eye just ain’t happening. Then there’s the buzzing gnat or the argument I had with my husband replaying in my head — these, too, prevent me from getting the rest I need. Just. Like. Sheep.

And, just like sheep, I’ve learned that the only way I can let go of the angst or lay down the anger is to go to God. Even more recently, I have discovered the source of my truest rest — soul rest — only comes from entering God’s presence. 

Sleepless nights are the worst, but when I intentionally look for God — call on His name, read His Word — I find Him. Finding myself in His presence feels a lot like laying down on the cool green grasses of a beautiful meadow.

Maybe the only thing better would be sitting by a quiet stream. 

As we’ll see so many times in this little “follow the leader” exercise, it’s the shepherd, not the sheep, who finds the fresh, healthy water for his thirsty sheep. He literally leads his sheep to water. And they drink. 

Spiritually, we people are a thirsty flock. The only problem is that if we don’t look to our Shepherd, we’ll try to satisfy our thirst with any dirty pool of water that presents itself (Keller, 59). 

Like sheep, it’s our nature to think we can slake our thirst on our own. Too often, though, we settle for the tempting offers around us — those stagnant, infested puddles. The better option — look for the Shepherd and follow Him to water that truly quenches. 

Lest we doubt, Matthew 5:6 captures Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus goes so far as to invite all who thirst to come to Him for living water (John 7:37-38). Thirsty?

The Game: Souls and Paths — Sometimes we lose our way, but following our Leader can help! 

3  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3 NIV

Words matter. The word “refresh” here makes me think of a spa or a cool drink of lemonade on a hot day. And, I suppose those aren’t bad comparisons. They just fall short. The New King James Version uses the word “restores,” and that packs a little more punch — to restore something is to make it new.

The Hebrew meaning actually hints at the idea of bringing back. God, our Shepherd, brings back our souls.

From doubt.
From despair.
From discouragement.
From death.

I don’t know if you know this, but sheep get lost. A lot. Like the kind of lost that just makes you scratch your head and wonder… 

Any time I’ve gotten lost, great relief washed over me when someone came looking for me, to offer direction. Our Shepherd knows we can get spiritually lost, and He wants us to know that He came as our Deliverer — to save us from all threats, even from ourselves. Whatever causes us to lose our way, however far off the path we go, God can find us, and He’ll always come for us. 

Just as our Shepherd will bring us back, He’ll also lead us well. He’ll keep us on the right, or good, paths.

So, sheep. Not only do they get lost, but they also have a deeply-rooted tendency to be creatures of habit — to the point that their paths become ruts and pastures become wastelands  (Keller, 83). Sheep need to be led on all the right paths if they’re to flourish.

We might say that sheep are stubborn. And, sometimes, not very smart.

What do we say of ourselves, then, when we see a startlingly similar pattern in our own behaviors? How often do we want to go our own direction or do it our way, stubbornly refusing any direction or leading from our Shepherd? How often are we like Paul who laments that he wants to do what is right but then doesn’t do it (Romans 7:15)?

The good news is that, like sheep, we have a Shepherd willing and waiting to lead us. On the right paths. The paths that are for our good. All we have to do is follow.

The Game: Valleys, Rods, and Staffs — We’ve chosen to follow our Leader, but then doubt creeps in when the path gets rough. Will we continue to trust and follow?

4 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.

Psalm 3:4 NIV

In Israel, the best fields are up on the high, lush plateaus of the mountainous wilderness, which works out great in the summers, but the snow makes it less than ideal in the winters. That means the flock is always on the move — from home to mountain then back home. 

To get to those mountaintops, the shepherd has to lead his flock on paths through valleys. Valleys following streambeds that keep the sheep watered but can flood in sudden storms. Valleys that offer shelter — and rockslides. Valleys that provide nourishment — and predators. 

Photo by Thomas Jarrand on Unsplash

These valleys can be dark. Difficult. Dangerous. But the shepherd never leaves the sheep. He always, always goes with them. In fact, he will never lead the sheep where he hasn’t already scouted ahead to know the best paths.

So, when we read about “fearing no evil” in our dark valleys of life, it’s not written flippantly or even figuratively. Our Good Shepherd goes with us. Through every single thing we face, we are never alone. Not ever.

The sheep follow their shepherd, trusting his plan and his provision.

We have the choice as we walk through life: take our own paths or trust our Leader. David wants us to see that even when the passages are dark and dangerous and filled with death, we can put faith in our Shepherd — He sees the big picture, knows what lies ahead, and is always with us. We can trust Him. 

To emphasize the point, David praises God that His rod and staff comfort us.

Rod. Staff. Not the most iconic of American culture. But knowing what they are and how they’re used will help us understand how they can bring us comfort.

A shepherd’s rod best compares to a wooden club that he has learned how to use with deft and skill for defense and discipline. Descriptions of shepherds heaving rods at prowling wolves sound humanly impossible; they’re so quick, accurate, and deadly. The rod also gets thrown at wayward sheep — not to harm them but to prevent them from eating poisonous plants or from going off the path. The rod sends them scurrying to safety (Keller, 115).

If the rod protects and directs, we could look at God’s Word as His rod (Keller, 114). Like the shepherd’s wooden club, Scripture is an extension of God’s very being used for our benefit. 

Think back to a Christmas play with shepherds, and more than likely at least one shepherd held a staff — the long pole with the crook at the end. A shepherd’s staff — the very symbol of a shepherd — is an object of compassion used to gently lift a newborn lamb to return it to its mother, to direct sheep with a firm but gentle pressure, and to rescue sheep stuck in briars and brambles (Keller, 120-124).

In much the same way, our Good Shepherd uses His Holy Spirit to draw us closer to Himself, to whisper words of direction and wisdom in our ears, and to come after us when we’ve gotten ourselves all tangled up in sin. His staff, like that of the shepherd, is Comfort. 

When we find ourselves in the dark valleys of life, we can rely on the Word of God to give direction and the Spirit of God to offer comfort. And, we don’t have to fear because our Shepherd is near.

The Game: A Table and Some Oil — the paths we take as we follow our Leader eventually take us to the mountaintop, but even in that beautiful place we’ll encounter issues.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

Psalm 23:5 NIV

I mentioned that I find great peace and comfort reciting Psalm 23 when I can’t sleep or feel anxious, but I have the hardest time remembering this particular verse. After much thought, I think it’s because I just haven’t understood it. I feel like we’ve gone from herding sheep to dining at the palace. 

Some say that the word “table” refers to those plateau mountains! In many cultures they’re called mesas, meaning table, and these sought after “tablelands” are exactly where shepherds take their sheep to pasture each summer (Keller 125). I can imagine, as a hungry sheep, stepping up onto a plateau after all the valley walking to see the “table before me.” What a gift! What gratitude!

Photo by Sebin Thomas on Unsplash

A good shepherd will go ahead of the flock to prepare this table by pulling the weeds that would kill, always keeping a protective eye out for any beasts out to get his precious flock. The enemies lurk. The shepherd protects.

As we follow our Good Shepherd, we’ll see that He goes before us to prepare all we need. He’ll also be faithful to point out the enemy and the pitfalls our enemy sets for us. We can delight in coming to the table of the Lord, and He will delight in seeing us follow His paths and flourish in His fields. 

But even at the full table, among the enemies, are the pests. 

Buzzing bugs and itchy infections can be the death of sheep, so the shepherd takes extra care to cover his sheep’s heads with oil — a natural healing balm for diseases and deterrent for annoying flies. Just as the flies can literally drive sheep mad, causing them to harm themselves, our minds can be taken captive by all sorts of worldly ideas and deceptions. And the only deliverance comes as an anointing of our minds. 

God’s anointing of our minds, our bodies, our lives holds promise and hope. As His oil flows over us and through us, gratitude and reverence overflow, splashing on all who are near. 

The Game: Dwelling Forever — following our Leader has proven to be rich and blessed, and our praises flood the heavens.

6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Psalm 23:6 NIV

That overflow carries us to the final verse of this Psalm, to a place of resting in the truth that no matter what life brings, our Shepherd’s goodness and love will always be with us — today and even as we look forward to eternity with Him. 

In case we’re tempted to think that’s the last of it, we need to remember as followers of the Good Shepherd that it’s not just about us — it’s about us taking what we’ve been given and sharing it freely among the other sheep of the world. All that comfort and protection, goodness and love — we can lay them out as an invitation to follow the Leader. 

God’s love always presents us with choices — will we choose to believe Him? Will we choose to trust Him? Will we choose to praise Him? Will we choose to follow Him? Love never forces itself on others, so much like the game Follow the Leader, we have the option to be led or to keep trying to forge our own paths in life. The imagery of the Good Shepherd helps us grasp the depth of God’s love and the good, good hands we’re in when we do, at last, follow the Leader.

What will you choose?

Ready to be led, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. If you’d like to read more about this amazing metaphor of God as shepherd, I recommend the book I cited in this post, W. Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
  2. We’ll do a wrap-up of our Playing Psalms series next week, then we’ll be off on a journey — of joy!
  3. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  4. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. Music is a gift that keeps on giving, so come back to the playlist anytime for the peace and direction the songs offer. You can “follow” the playlist so that it shows up in your library.

Published by Shelley Johnson

Follower of Christ, wife, mother of three, daughter, sister, friend. Seeker of ways to share the love I've found in Jesus with others.

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