The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)
Most of us are pretty far removed from the nitty gritty of agricultural pursuits like raising sheep. That means we’ve lost some perspective on certain Bible passages that assume a familiarity with such animals. One thing that we don’t encounter on a daily basis, for example, is the fact that sheep are not very smart. They really, really need a shepherd. And even having a skilled shepherd is no guarantee that they wont wander off and do something really stupid, as an event in Turkey last month illustrates. The AP report on the incident begins, “First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the Aksam newspaper said. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned, Aksam reported.”
No, sheep are not very smart. They don’t even have the sense, will, or ability to save themselves when they see others perishing by leaping over a cliff – they can’t help it; they go over into the abyss as well. Is it starting to make sense why the Bible compares us so often to sheep? It’s not flattering, but it’s a very necessary reminder that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Is. 53:6).
Psalm 23 is a much-loved description of our God as a loving shepherd, but Ezekiel also speaks at length of God shepherding his people – the Old Testament Israel, and ultimately the new Israel as well: “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of
Israel will be their grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice….Then they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Sovereign LORD. You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 30-31).
Notice how passive the sheep are in these descriptions. We can’t save ourselves, and so we certainly cant expect to save others. While we should be the sheep who follow the Shepherd rather than those that refuse His mercy and leap headlong into the abyss, our good example isn’t enough to persuade others to join the flock. We can learn from the Shepherd’s example to know that there is a time to speak tenderly, as Jesus did when the prostitute anointed his feet with perfume (Luke 7:36-50), and a time to admonish, as Jesus did when he drove out the money-changers from the temple (John 2:13-16). But ultimately, it is our Good Shepherd who gathers His flock to Himself, going after us when we are lost, calling to us each by name, rescuing us, healing our wounds, and then holding us safely in the palm of His hand for all eternity.