Phillip Keller - A Shepard Looks at Psalm 23

“The LORD is my shepherd.” The sheep’s wellbeing depends on what type of a shepherd he has. The Good Shepherd spares no pains for the welfare of His sheep. In memory, I still see one of the sheep ranches in our district which was operated by a tenant sheep man. He ought never to have been allowed to keep sheep. His stock were always thin, weak and riddled with disease or parasites. Again and again they would come and stand at the fence staring blankly through the woven wire at the green lush pastures which my flock enjoyed. Had they been able to speak, I am sure they would have said, “Oh, to be set free from this awful owner!” Each shepherd has his own distinctive earmark which he cuts into one of the ears of his sheep. In this way, even at a distance, it is easy to determine to whom the sheep belongs.

“I shall not want.” A contented sheep in the fold has rest and everything it needs. Some sheep are not content. I once owned an ewe whose conduct exactly typified this sort of person (discontented, half-hearted Christian). She was one of the most attractive sheep that ever belonged to me. Her body was beautifully proportioned. She had a strong constitution and an excellent coat of wool; her head was clean, alert, well-set with bright eyes; she bore sturdy lambs that matured rapidly but she had one pronounced fault – she was restless, discontent, a fence crawler. This one ewe produced more problems for me than almost all the rest of the flock combined. No matter what field or pasture the sheep were in, she would search all along the fences or shoreline looking for a loophole she could crawl through and start to feed on the other side. It was not that she lacked pasturage; there were no sheep in the district that had better grazing. It was a sufficient problem to find her and bring her back. But she taught her lambs the same tricks. They simply followed her example and soon were as skilled at escaping as their mother. Other sheep followed her example. She led them through the same holes and over the same dangerous paths by the sea. After putting up with her for a summer, I finally came to the conclusion that to save the rest of the flock from becoming unsettled, she would have to go. I could not allow one obstinate, discontented ewe to ruin the whole ranch operation. She was a sheep who, in spite of all that I had done to give her the very best care, still wanted something else. I had to butcher her.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” It is almost impossible for sheep to lie down unless four conditions are met:

1) free from all fear;

2) free from friction with other sheep in the flock;

3) free from torment from flies and pests; and

4) free from hunger.

I came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night. The butting order: often an arrogant, cunning and domineering old ewe will boss any bunch of sheep. Because of this rivalry, tension and competition for status and self-assertion, there is friction in the flock. The sheep become edgy, tense, discontented, and restless; they lose weight and become irritable. Whenever I came into view and my presence attracted their attention, the sheep quickly forgot their foolish rivalries and stopped fighting. The shepherd’s presence made all the difference in their behavior. (For 3 and 4, see later on.)

Green pastures don’t happen by chance. They are a product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land use. They were the result of clearing rough rocky land, of tearing out brush and roots and stumps, of deep plowing and careful soil preparation, of seeding and planting special grains and legume, or irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops and forage that would feed the sheep. Green pastures are essential to success with sheep. When lambs are maturing, the ewes need green, succulent feed for a heavy milk flow. Green pastures make it possible for the flock to fill up quickly and then lie down quietly to rest and ruminate. A hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and satisfy its gnawing hunger. They do not thrive. In the Scriptures, the picture portrayed of the Promised Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was that of a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Not only is this figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology. In agricultural terms we speak of a “milk flow” and “honey flow.” By this, we mean the peak season of spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” The body of a sheep is composed of 70% water. Lack of water is sensed by thirst and you need an outside source to replenish it. If thirsty, the sheep become restless and will try to drink polluted waters. They pick up parasites from this. ‘To drink’ means ‘to take in’ and spiritually, it means ‘to accept and to believe.’ Sheep get their water from three main sources: dew on the grass, deep wells, or springs and streams. Sheep, by habit, rise just before dawn and start to feed. The early hours are when the vegetation is drenched with dew, and sheep can keep fit on the amount of water taken in with their forage grazed just before and after dawn.

Wells: These are not always pleasant experiences. I recall so clearly standing under the blazing equatorial sun of Africa and watching the native herds being led to their owner’s water wells. Some of these were enormous, hand-hewn caverns cut from the sandstone formation along the sandy rivers. They were like great rooms chiseled out of the rocks with ramps running down to the water trough at the bottom. The flocks were led down into these deep cisterns where cool, clear, clean water awaited them. But down in the well, stripped naked, was the owner, bailing water to satisfy the flock. It was hard, heavy, hot work. Only through the owner’s energy, efforts, sweat and strength could his sheep have their thirst satisfied.

Streams: Sometimes sheep don’t wait for the stream; they want to drink from polluted pools along the trail. These pools are polluted with urine and manure from previous flocks. They pick up diseases and parasites that may not become manifested until later in the future. People often try this or that with the casual comment “So what?! I can’t see that it’s going to do any harm!” Little do they appreciate that often there is a delayed reaction and that considerable time may elapse before the full impact of their misjudgment strikes home.

“He restoreth my soul.” Psalm 42:11, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God.” A cast sheep is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself. It will die if it doesn’t get help. A cast sheep is helpless and very vulnerable to predators.

Reasons for sheep becoming cast:

1) Resting in a too comfortable place. A heavy, fat or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in some little hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out or relax. Suddenly the center of gravity in the body shifts so that it turns on its back far enough that the feet no longer touch the ground. It may feel a sense of panic and start to paw frantically. This makes it all the worse. In the struggle, gasses build in the stomach and expand and cut off the circulation in the legs. In hot, sunny weather, the sheep will die in a few hours. Predators are ever close by, watching for a cast sheep. The shepherd must be there to gently pick up the sheep and rub its legs. The sheep is restored to be on its own feet again. Lesson: Don’t pick the comfortable places where we can lose our balance.

2) Too much wool. Often when the fleece becomes very long and heavily matted with mud, manure, burrs and other debris, it is much easier for a sheep to become cast…literally weighted down with its own wool. Wool, in Scripture, depicts the old self-life. It is the outward expression of an inner attitude, the assertion of my own desire and hopes and aspirations. It is the area of my life where I am in continual contact with the world around me. It is significant that no high priest was ever allowed to wear wool when he entered the Holy of Holies. This spoke of self, of pride, of personal preference…and God could not tolerate it. The remedy for a cast sheep, because of its fleece, is to shear it.

3) Too fat. Sheep need to be put on a diet and given more exercise. If people become too affluent in business and things go too well in life, they are in danger of losing their footing in Christ. Revelation 3:17, “Because thou sayest, 'I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;' and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” We do best with the exercise of self-discipline. The Lord disciplines those He loves.

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” If left to themselves, sheep will follow the same trails until they become ruts, graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes, pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. Many of the world’s finest sheep ranges have been ruined beyond repair by over-grazing, poor management, and indifferent or ignorant sheep owners. No other class of livestock requires more careful handling and more detailed direction than do sheep. A good shepherd knows that if the flock is to flourish and the owner’s reputation is to be held in high esteem as a good manager, the sheep must be constantly under his meticulous control and guidance. Sheep, left to themselves, gnaw the grass to the very ground until even the roots are damaged. This leaves the land barren. Their preference for certain favorite spots means that the ground becomes quickly worn and also infested with parasites of all kinds. The result: the owner and land are ruined and the sheep are thin and sick. The greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling a flock is to keep them on the move. They must be shifted from pasture to pasture periodically. This avoids over grazing, land erosion and avoids rutting of the trails. Whenever the shepherd opens a gate into a fresh pasture, the sheep are filled with excitement. They enjoy new ground (i.e. new series of Gospel meetings beginning!). Being led into new experiences of life is new pasture for us.

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.” Most of the efficient sheep men endeavor to take their flocks onto distant ranges, up in the mountains, during the summer months. The sheep are totally alone with their shepherd these months. There are lots more dangers to the sheep, but their shepherd is with them and leads them. It is a rough, steep trail up the mountain. The shepherd takes it at a pace for the slowest sheep to keep up. The shepherd takes the flock up through the valleys of the mountains because there is fresh water and forage available, and it is the easiest route. But there are more predators.

Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” The rod is made from a young sapling tree which is dug from the ground with its root. This is carved and whittled down with great care and patience. The enlarged base of the sapling tree, where its trunk joins the roots, is shaped into a smooth, rounded head of hard wood. The sapling itself is shaped to exactly fit the owner’s hand. The shepherd boy learns how to throw it with amazing accuracy and speed. The rod becomes his main weapon of defense for both himself and his sheep. The effectiveness of these crude clubs in the hands of skilled shepherd was a thrill to watch. The rod was, in fact, an extension of the owner’s right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. It was the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep. It was always through Moses’ rod that miracles were made manifest, not only to convince Pharaoh of Moses’ divine commission, but also to reassure the people of Israel. The rod would be like the Word of God for us. There is great assurance in our hearts as we contemplate the power and authority vested in God’s Word.

The rod is also used for discipline. The shepherd throws it to the side of a wayward sheep to direct it back into the fold, to keep it away from poisonous weeds or other close danger. The rod was also used to examine and count the sheep. Ezekiel 20:37, “And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” Because of their long wool, it is not always easy to detect disease, wounds or defects in sheep. For example, at a sheep show, an inferior animal can be clipped and shaped and shown so as to appear a perfect specimen, but the skilled judge will take his rod and part the sheep’s wool to determine the condition of the skin, the cleanliness of the fleece and the conformation of the body. A good shepherd will periodically closely examine his sheep individually. Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me…” “Search me, O God…” God’s Word searches us. Wool, in Scripture, speaks of the self-life, self-will, etc. God has to get below this and do a deep work in our wills to right the wrongs which are often bothering us beneath the surface. So often we put on a fine front and brave, bold exterior, when really deep down below there needs to be some remedy applied.

The staff is uniquely an instrument used for the care and management of sheep, and only sheep; it will not do for horses, cattle, or pigs; it is designed, shaped and adapted especially to the needs of sheep. It is used only to their benefit. It identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. The staff is a symbol of the concern and compassion the shepherd has for the sheep. It gives sheep comfort. The staff is a long, slender stick, often with a crook or hook on one end, selected with care by the shepherd to suit him personally. The staff is a comfort to the shepherd, too; he leans on it for support and strength. The staff can be thought of as the Spirit of God.

Three areas of use for the staff in sheep management:

1) Drawing the sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they get separated. This way his own scent won’t be on the lamb.

2) The staff is also used to guide the sheep. He guides the sheep by gently touching the animal’s side and applying pressure so it turns. Sometimes the touch of the staff is a communication between sheep and shepherd as they walk along the trail together.

3) The third use is to untangle sheep from brush. The staff pushes back the thorny brambles and frees the sheep from their hold on its fleece.

“Thou preparest a table before me.” Table is a word for a geological formation, a mesa, a tableland, a large flat area with steep sides to the lower ground level. The shepherd must “prepare” it before sheep can graze it. Poisonous weeds must be plucked out; salt and minerals are spread in strategic spots for the benefit of the sheep. Sheep will try tasting anything growing. Human nature is like that, too. The LORD wants to remove things from us that destroy us and make us sick spiritually. Predators are scouted out and taken care of. The shepherd cleans out the water holes and assures the presence of clean water.

The cost of Jesus in preparing a table for us:

1) Garden of Gethsemane,

2) Pilate’s Hall,

3) Calvary.

Just as a shepherd is thrilled beyond words to see his flock thriving on the high, rich summer range, so is our Shepherd pleased when we flourish on the tablelands He has prepared for us. “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

“Thou anointest my head with oil…” Summertime is fly time for the sheep. To name just a few parasites that trouble stock and make their lives a misery: warble flies, bot flies, heel flies, nose flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and others. Their attacks on sheep turn the golden summer months into a time of torture for the sheep. The nose flies buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp, mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose. The eggs will hatch in a few days and the larvae will work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head. They burrow into the flesh and set up intense irritation, causing severe inflammation. For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts or brush. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself in trying to gain respite from the aggravation. Often, advanced stages of infection lead to blindness. With flies around, they become restless and have trouble grazing. Ewes will go off milking and lambs will lose weight. The shepherd, with the very first sign of flies, will apply the antidote: a mixture of linseed oil, sulphur, and tar which is smeared on the sheep’s nose and head. The sheep becomes calm again and feeds. We, too, have small irritations which the Oil of the Holy Spirit soothes.

Summertime is also “scab time” for sheep. Scab is an irritating and highly contagious disease common to sheep, caused by a minute, microscopic parasite that proliferates in warm weather. Scab spreads throughout a flock by direct contact between infected and non-infected animals. Sheep love to rub heads in an affectionate and friendly manner. Scab is most commonly found around the head. In the Old Testament, when it was declared that a sacrificial lamb should be without blemish, the thought uppermost in the writer’s mind was that the animal should be free of scab. In a very real and direct sense, scab is significant of contamination and sin. The only effective antidote is to apply linseed oil, sulphur, and other chemicals. In many countries, dips are built and the entire flock is put through the dip. Each animal is completely submerged in the solution until its entire body is soaked. The most difficult part to do is the head. The head has to be plunged under repeatedly to insure that scab there will be controlled. Some sheep men take great care to treat the head by hand. In the Christian life, most of our contamination by the world, by sin, by that which would defile and disease us spiritually, comes through our minds. Often, it is when we “get our heads together” with someone else who may not necessarily have the mind of Christ, that we get ‘scab.’

Another use of oil is during rutting season. The rams will crash into each other, causing injury to themselves or the other one. The shepherd catches his rams and smears their heads with axle grease. They glide off one another with little harm done. We need the oil of the Holy Spirit for our personality clashes.

“My cup runneth over.” There is an abundance of forage, fresh still waters, reprieve from flies, protection from storms and predators, therefore, my cup runneth over. But it also meant that in a time of need, the shepherd had what was needed. With sudden storms, the lambs and sheep would be chilled and some in danger of freezing to death. The shepherd carried a bottle of brandy and water. A few spoonfuls were poured down the chilled lamb’s throat. Soon it would start to revive and give them energy to seek shelter.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us.” (1 John 3:16) With all this in view, it is then proper to ask myself, “Is this outflow of goodness and mercy for me to stop and stagnate in my life? Is there no way in which it can pass on through me to benefit others?” There is a positive, practical aspect in which my life in turn should be one whereby goodness and mercy follow in my footsteps for the well-being of others.

It is worth reiterating at this point that sheep can, under mismanagement, be the most destructive livestock. In short order they can ruin and ravage land almost beyond remedy. But in bold contrast, they can, on the other hand, be the most beneficial of all livestock if properly managed. Their manure is the best balanced of any produced by domestic stock. When scattered efficiently over the pastures, it proves of enormous benefit to the soil. The sheep’s habit of seeking the highest rise of ground on which to rest insures that the fertility from the rich low land is re-deposited on the less productive higher ground. No other livestock will consume as wide a variety of herbage. Sheep eat all sorts of weeds and other undesirable plants which might otherwise invade a field. For example, they love the buds and tender tips of Canada thistle which, if not controlled, can quickly become a most noxious weed. In a few years, a flock of well-managed sheep will clean up and restore a piece of ravaged land as no other creature can do. Goodness and mercy had followed the flocks. They left behind them something worthwhile, productive, beautiful, and beneficial, both to themselves and to others and the owner. Do I leave a blessing and a benediction behind me? Sir Alfred Tennyson wrote: “The good men do lives after them.” Sometimes it is profitable to ask ourselves: Do I leave behind peace in lives, or turmoil? Do I leave behind forgiveness, or bitterness? Do I leave behind contentment or conflict? Do I leave behind flowers of joy, or frustration? Do I leave behind love, or rancor?

“I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” A contented sheep will never seek to leave his Shepherd.