Dwell: With the Shepherd

“The Lord is my shepherd.”
Psalm 23:1a

For twenty years we lived on nearly an acre of red dirt land in Oklahoma. No fences. No outdoor animals. Just three boys who came and went through our back door. No one in our neighborhood had horses, cows, or sheep. So I have no working knowledge of what it takes, day-in and day-out to care for livestock. As I’ve met people in the broader urban and suburban communities most of us inhabit, very few have an inkling of what it takes to run a ranch, to lead a flock. It’s just not part of our experiences.

So it’s no wonder that we read right over all the mentions of sheep and shepherds in Scripture. Maybe we grasp that the majority of the people in our collective history, dubbed the Old Testament, were shepherds. Maybe we mentally nod to what was important then–to what became a helpful metaphor as God led His people into a monotheistic relationship. But we don’t really ‘get it.’

As we seek to live the abiding life–to dwell fully with our God–it helps to know a little something about sheep and shepherds because all the biblical references to them build a picture that is not only relevant to us but adds a depth of care and compassion, of intentionality and intimacy that no other analogy can offer. God is our Shepherd. We are His sheep.

Sheep and Shepherds

Sheep don’t take care of themselves. In fact, “they require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care” (Keller, 22). Sheep, despite their fear and timidity, wander through life stubborn and, well, not-so-smart. They get lost and easily separated from the flock, becoming easy targets for predators. They can’t fight or flee when in danger, so they ‘flock,’ circling together instinctively like wagon trains of old. They eat the wrong foods and fall into crevices. They get swept away in floods and follow the crowd–sometimes right over cliffs. They’re also susceptible to parasites and diseases. They’re grazers so they need a full-time supply of grass to munch. In other words, sheep won’t make it without a shepherd.

From Abel to Abraham, Moses to David, God’s people herded sheep for a living. And they embodied the heart of good shepherds–those who desired to watch over sheep in sacrificial ways so that flocks flourished. 

Not all shepherds are good, however. Some neglect, leaving flocks on their own to forage for food and fight off wolves, to die of festering wounds or fatal foliage. But the shepherds of Scriptural lore loved their sheep. And for men like Abraham, Moses, and David, the shepherding lessons of constant watchfulness prepared them for leadership among God’s people. 

So, if the major Old Testament leaders shepherded God’s people–literally with skills they learned from herding sheep–then the people themselves were like sheep. Lost in a world full of threats to their way of life, God’s chosen people needed protection, provision, and direction. Prone to wander from the ways of God, they needed boundaries to keep them safe and in good standing with their Creator. Easily defiled by the toxins of worldly ways, these sheep needed constant care.

Photo by Judith Prins on Unsplash

David–Shepherd and King

Before he slayed Goliath, David killed lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-37). Before he became king, David shepherded his father’s flocks: 

[God] chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
    to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
    of Israel his inheritance.
 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skillful hands he led them.

Psalm 78:70-72

God sees a man’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7). And in David, he saw a shepherd ‘with integrity of heart’–a good shepherd who would care for His flock.

It’s believed this shepherd king penned Psalm 23 in his later years both as a reflection on why he consistently chose to walk closely with God and as a declaration of who God had been to him through all of life’s ups and downs (Walker, Week One). The great king of Israel returned to his childhood memories as a shepherd to describe his life with God.

He begins by acknowledging, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 1a). 

In other words, David the shepherd recognizes his truer calling is to be a faithful sheep. After a full life of successes and great joys, David knows these came to him only because he’d followed the Shepherd. He also knows that he made it through the depths of failures and grief because he’d remained with his Shepherd.

David’s life reflects to us a life of trust. Like a sheep, David trusted his Shepherd. More than not, he laid down his tendencies to listen to other voices or his own misguided pride in full faith that his Shepherd would lead him well. At the end of his life, he feels these truths deeply.

And, he bequeaths the words each of us, who wander lost in the world, need most:

The Lord is my shepherd.

God as Shepherd

But not all Israel’s kings were good shepherds. Most kings after David led God’s flock astray–toward the depravity of pagan worship and child sacrifice. These kings neglected the sheep who needed tending, taxing them into poverty and making alliances with oppressive nations. 

It’s into this context that God raises up the prophet Ezekiel to speak: 

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd.”  

Ezekiel 34:2-5, NIV

God laments how his flock has been led. The language of shepherding pulls us into a deeper understanding of just how grievous the failures of the kings of Israel have been. To see these kings as shepherds helps us grasp the completeness of their disregard and destruction of God’s people. We can picture the scattered sheep–scared, lost, and bloodied from battle–starving for what only a good shepherd can provide.

So. God steps in–to shepherd His flock Himself (Ezekiel 34:11-15). And that’s how the Old Testament ends: with the promise that a Good Shepherd is coming.

Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Jesus–the Good Shepherd

Hundreds of years later, the leaders of Israel are once again mistreating the sheep they’re charged to keep. Yet, God doesn’t neglect to keep His promise. The Word-Made-Flesh comes and walks the dusty roads of Israel, and “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Embracing His role in God’s plan to save His people, Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders and declares:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

John 10:14-15

The promise has been kept. God has come to earth to become the Good Shepherd His people need. And, with this Shepherd, the flock expands–more sheep are to be brought into the fold (John 10:16). 

We, the Sheep

Friends, we are sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd. Collectively, we get to follow the One who will only ever love and care for us. He’ll lead us to good places and through the hard ones. He’s not neglectful or cruel. He’s good. And, like David, we can trust Him enough to follow Him all the days of our lives.

We’re sheep. We wander. We follow crowds. We get sick and hurt and lost. We need a Shepherd.

I’ve felt this need for a Shepherd acutely over the past week. Over and over I’ve jumped into places where I didn’t belong–’helping’ a son who needed to help himself, ‘speaking truth in love’ to someone I wasn’t called to do anything more than just love, ‘planning’ for all the possibilities instead of following the One who already knows. I recognize I’ve been on my own path, out from under the watchful hand of the Shepherd because anxiety tenses my shoulders and keeps me awake at night. My thoughts and emotions spiral. I’m not dwelling in Christ. 

Our summer series about abiding wholly–with all our minds, hearts, and spirits–has equipped me to recognize these non-abiding tendencies of mine. I am more aware of frenzied feelings and frantic thoughts. I am more attuned to my propensity for planning as a means of self-preservation. I’ve not yet given over my full trust to my Good Shepherd.

But I want to. 

So, I’ve been leaning into those rhythms of prayer and presence more intentionally and consistently the last few days. I’ve sat in silence, focusing on Jesus, so my mind can get still. I’ve prayed aloud the Believer’s Warfare Prayer and put on the Armor of God (Ephesians 6). I’ve dug into the Word to remind myself who the Good Shepherd is and what He’s capable of. 

I don’t know what you face today, this week, this season. But I do know you’re not alone in it. I also know it’s a very good week to say to yourself again and again, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And, as you do, visualize how a good shepherd looks and acts, then receive all the care and guidance and goodness He offers–and trustingly follow. Like a sheep. 

Father God, You are my shepherd! I stand in awe of everything that means. I admit I need to more fully embrace all its nuances. You provide all I need. You protect me from those who want to harm me. You lay your healing hand on me. You fight off my enemies. You lead me into green pastures where I can eat and rest. You offer me living water so I’ll never thirst again. You help me through dark valleys and across flooding streams. You take me to the highest heights and along paths that are good and right. Lord Jesus, You are my Good Shepherd! Never again do I have to wander alone–for You are always with me, never to leave or forsake me. And I never have to doubt your goodness because, as You promised, You did lay down your life for me. You. Died. For. Me. There’s nothing more to ask of a person than to give up His life for someone else. And You did that. For me. Willingly. And for my good. So, Holy Spirit, help me to live like a devoted sheep. Help me to follow after my Good Shepherd with love and trust. Help me to dwell in God. In Jesus’ name, amen. 
(inspired by Psalm 23, Isaiah 41:10, John 10:11-15)

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  • Rhythms: I was in such a good rhythm with the Lord a few weeks ago, then the disruptions and distractions happened. My own small choices, like not getting up earlier, and bigger stresses, like a son’s decisions, added up. Totally out of sync with God, I felt the panic rising and the lament of what was. But, instead of stuffing feelings or giving in to fear, I told a friend. Then my husband. The tears flowed, and I began stepping back into practices to restore peace and purpose and arming myself against the attack I felt. At first, I wanted to berate myself for failing, but as I sat with Jesus in the quiet, He began speaking the truth I needed to hear. I am His, and He is mine. Always. Forever.
    • Having been in Psalm 23 recently, the words were fresh and quickly became my sword of the Spirit as I fought off lies spinning in my mind this week. Sometimes I couldn’t get past the first few words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” But, it was enough. I hope you are picking up this rhythm of memorizing Psalm 23. Let it begin with this first line, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • Music full of God’s truths pours over me like an oil of anointing–especially on those days when I feel so out of sorts. So, I love having our playlists handy. I’m not yet very familiar with our Dwell: Psalm 23 playlist, but its newer melodies, paired with the familiar lyrics of Psalm 23, have moved me into a posture of worship and release often this week. I hope they bless you, as well.
    • I only briefly mentioned Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 in this post, but I reread his first chapter on sheep and shepherds–and loved it all over again. It certainly is the inspiration for this post.
    • I referenced Aimee Walker’s The Good Shepherd: A Devoted Collective Mini Study, as well. But I don’t have a way to link to it. 😦 I will say, though, that Devoted Collective is an amazing place to connect with other women who desire to go deeper in God’s Word and ways. Twice a year we do a deep dive into a book of the Bible, and the rest of the year we soak in smaller studies–like the one on Psalm 23. I’m blessed to be a contributor at Devoted, but bigger blessings have come in being part of the community.
  • If you’re like me, it’s a little hard to settle into the role of SHEEP. We kinda want to be the shepherd–even if it’s without a flock to lead, we desire to lead ourselves. But, maybe it helps a little knowing that sheep live in flocks. That means, together, we are sheep in community. We’re not alone. We walk these paths together.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo by Jessica Anderson on Unsplash

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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