The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
~ Psalm 23:1
There are no two ways about it: I’m an urbanite. I grew up in the city (mostly), went to college in the city, and have lived all my adult life in the city. I like the country, but it’s not where I live. I’m completely unfamiliar with the professions that cultivate life from this beautiful earth – farmers, ranchers, shepherds.
Despite my unfamiliarity with country life, this one little phrase has been a great comfort to me all my life. I think the comfort has to do with the fact that a) I’ve learned a tiny bit about shepherding from how Jesus talks about it, and b) it seems self-evident that a shepherd’s job is to take care of the sheep.
Therefore, I am taken care of, not running around willy-nilly on my own in a vast wilderness. I’m a bit of a free spirit, but it’s still lovely to know that I’m under someone’s attentive care.
The theme of God as our Shepherd is all throughout the Bible. It’s built into the foundational identity of the people of Israel as shepherds. It’s modeled (imperfectly) in the “man after God’s own heart,” David the Shepherd-King (the author of Psalm 23), the prophets rebuke the unfaithful shepherd-leaders of Israel, and Jesus himself fulfills the imperfect Shepherd-King type with perfection.
In fact, Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd is one of his claims to divinity that we miss in our own culture when we don’t have an understanding of Jesus’ culture (the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures).
Recently, a sweet friend brought me a book she had found in our RTS book collection and urged me to read it. It was kind of old, and I wasn’t that excited about it, but since she had so thoughtfully brought it to me, I opened it up.
The book was called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, and it was oh! So lovely! I found myself reading it slowly, devotionally, soaking in all that it means that the Lord is my Shepherd. The author, Phillip Keller, is someone who has already helped me understand some of the other agrarian illustrations in the Bible.
In this little book, he increased my understanding ten-fold of Psalm 23 and of God’s character as our Shepherd. In doing so, he also increased my trust in this God, my love for Him, and my ability to rest in His goodness “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
If you clicked the link to the Genesis passage where Moses describes Israel’s origins of shepherding, you might have noticed that it notes “all shepherds are detestable to Egyptians.” Shepherding is hard, dirty work; Keller’s book illustrated just how hard and dirty. Who knows, maybe Mike Rowe might even one day do an episode on the dirty job of shepherding. It’s the work of a laborer, not a person of elite status. It requires a lot of personal sacrifice for little (or no!) recognition. It can be painful, perilous, and costly.
In my urban world of lawyers, doctors, and commercial real estate developers, shepherding is not “respectable” – unless you’re a nearby hipster farmer providing “locally sourced” meat to a trendy foodie restaurant. But … it’s not the same as being a full-on shepherd (sorry to disappoint you, hipsters – your work is still valuable). 🙂
In keeping with the Apostle Paul’s assessment, God chooses what is lowly and despised to show His glory. Just like the criminal’s cross, God as Shepherd is one of the ways He models the beauty of humility for us. Since He is willing to take on the Shepherd role, I’ll gladly be His sheep.