By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice May 2007)
Ps. 80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of
, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth.
Isa. 40:11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
Mark 6:34 And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.
Mark 14:27 And Jesus saith unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.
John 10:2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.
5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.
11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
So much has been written on the subject of the Biblical shepherd, it seems almost superfluous to add anything. Nevertheless, when I went on the internet researching the matter, many of the articles seemed to be about leadership in the Church, and that is not what I want to look at. Nor am I going to try to outdo Phillip Keller by looking in detail at Psalm 23.
I want instead to consider the parallels and differences between shepherding now and then, to see if we have lost something culturally in how we look at Jesus Christ as the Great Shepherd. Of course the imagery of God as the Shepherd of Israel runs through the Old Testament, as we should expect. The people of
had been shepherds themselves for generations. They were well-known for it in
(Gen 46:34). Sheep were a massive part of their economy, a vital source of wool for clothing, meat for the table and skins for coverings.
So why am I thinking about sheep and shepherds right now? Well, in this part of the world, the lambing season is drawing to a close. I wouldn't dare call myself a shepherd, but the ewes of my own little flock are lambing right now. Most farmers force things today by putting the ram to the ewes in early autumn to ensure the lambs are born at the turn of the year, ready for the table the following autumn and winter when prices are high. However, both ewes and ram are said to be at their most fertile around the shortest day, and the five month gestation period coincides with the warmth of May for the newborn lamb coinciding with high-protein grass for the ewe.
SHEEP HAVEN'T CHANGED THAT MUCH Then, in a few weeks' time, early summer, the sheep will be brought in for shearing. Here is the first similarity in how we treat our sheep in
today and how they did it in Bible times. People haven't changed that much, and nor have sheep. Shepherds down the ages have sheared their sheep for the fleece, that dense mat of wool which Gideon put out to test if God really did want him to take on the Midianites (Judg
-40). The side-effect is that shearing protects the sheep from summer attack by flies. Blow-flies lay their eggs in the wool, and if not caught early enough, the maggots will burrow into the flesh and eventually kill the sheep. It is horrible, but shearing gives protection.
Noticing that one of the sheep is missing in late summertime when the fleece grows back is a sure sign that it is lying in a hedge somewhere, suffering from fly-strike, waiting to die, as animals do. Sheep also go missing by being caught in brambles, where they are as helpless as Abraham's divinely-provided sacrifice (Gen
). And of course they can just wander off. In that Biblical flock of a hundred, good shepherds today will still leave the 99 where they are and go in search of the one which is dying, stuck or lost (Matt 18:12-13). The good shepherd won't doze off either, and wake to find the whole flock have wandered off, as sheep are prone to do. Even the aristocratic Isaiah had noticed that, as the Lord moved him to write famously: 'All we like sheep have gone astray' (Isa 53:6).
We can be dying just the same in our sins, just as stuck in the cares of the world, and just as capable of straying out of our Lord's sight as that sheep. How good to know that the Lord is searching for us. There is an old country gospel song, with a line: 'Someone, somewhere was praying for me.' Prayer can be our way of telling the Lord that one of His sheep is missing, and asking Him to bring it back.
FEED, PASTURE AND STILL WATER Shepherds today arrange feed and pasture for the sheep, shelter and fodder for overwintering, just as they have done for centuries. I read once that hay-making was invented in the middle ages, and that before that advance people used to slaughter their animals and feast themselves stupid in the autumn. What nonsense. No-one slaughters his valuable breeding ewes or cattle in autumn. Did the ancients not know how to make hay? Of course they did! Back in Genesis 24:25-32 we read of Abraham's servant being given straw and provender (the Hebrew word is from a root meaning 'to collect') for his camels, just as we would provide bedding and fodder today.
We provide water for the sheep as well. There is an interesting point about water in Psalm 23, the ultimate shepherd psalm, in verse 2. 'He leadeth me beside the still waters' - in Hebrew 'the waters of quietness'. Sheep don't like drinking from rushing water. They prefer their water quiet. Although 'living water', which is springing or running, is a Biblical symbol of life-giving blessing, and contrasted to water in a cistern (Jer 2:13), it remains that still, not stagnant but still, waters are what sheep prefer, and that is what the Biblical shepherd provides.
We also help the sheep with delivering their lambs as and when necessary, and then defend them when they are turned out in the fields, just as shepherds have done for generations. Lowland farmers do not have their sheep roaming miles, but sheep still need looking after in a field.
LAYING DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP David was even prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. He would defend them from wolves, bears and even lions. In fact, in 1 Samuel 17:34-35 David tells Saul how he killed at different times both a bear and a lion to save a lamb.
It is always good to have a ewe who bears twins, and a good number of twinning ewes means a beneficial ratio of lambs to ewes. The downside is that although a ewe will defend her lambs to the death, if she is out in the field with new-born twins, she cannot defend both at once. We may not have to contend with what David did, but a fox is bad enough. He will circle the ewe and try to separate her from just one of her young. He is happy for her to keep one. He will simply take the other. Without the shepherd, the sheep are scattered. Hunting that fox, or drawing him in at night with a lamp to be shot, is our way of protecting the sheep today.
And of course what David was prepared to do, the Lord Jesus actually did as He promised in John 10:11. He gave His life in His sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary, to protect us from Satan and to save us from sin, just as He prophesied.
A CONTRAST But there is one big contrast between the way in which the Biblical shepherd dealt with his sheep and the way most farmers do it today. Sheep in
are herded, usually by a border collie sheepdog. We have sheepdog trials to see which dog has been trained the best to run around the sheep from behind and round them up into a pen. Farmers usually move sheep on the road from one field to another by walking behind them, or riding an all-terrain farm bike. Someone down the road stands by the gate, deterring the sheep from going around it, ensuring they all go into the field.
In that, we have lost some understanding of how the Biblical shepherd does it. He does not herd the sheep from behind, he actually leads them from the front. In Psalm 23 he leads me both ‘beside the still waters’ (v2) and ‘in the paths of righteousness’ (v3). We do not want sheep falling off a path, for the path of righteousness is narrow. In Psalm 80 the Lord leads Joseph 'like a flock'. In Isaiah 40:11 He gently leads those that are with young. In John 10:2 He leads them out. In Mark 6:34, we read that the Lord was so moved with compassion for people who did not know that leadership, who were not being guided and were in danger of slipping off the path into destruction, that He taught them.
FEED IN THE BUCKET However, it is possible to lead sheep today. If sheep get accustomed to coming to a feeder for a tasty pelleted winter feed supplement, they will come as soon as see the feed bag, or the bucket. If the feed is taken down often enough by the same person, they will come to him as soon as they see him. If he speaks to them often enough, they will come as soon as he calls them. 'For they know his voice' (John 10:2). It takes patience, but it can be done. In fact someone said of sheep, 'Sheep aren't stupid. They just need time!' I wonder if that applies to us, or if we really are stupid a lot of the time.
There's a photograph on a website of a shepherd near
leading his sheep. There is nothing odd in that, except that these sheep are following in single file. I don't know how someone trained them to do that. Welsh sheep follow the shepherd in a bunch, crowding around him for the feed in the bucket or bag he is carrying, getting in the way, trying to trip him up.
For me, still not claiming to be a shepherd, leading the sheep as I carry some feed in a bucket is a most satisfying experience. It is better than herding, although I admire the skill of working a dog. Although the sheep only want their feed, having them come to me in expectation gives me something of an insight into how I can approach the Lord, trusting in His care for me. In the same way as being a real father shows a man something of the fatherhood of God, so leading a flock of sheep gives a small indication of how the Lord Jesus Christ gently leads us, if we only know his voice. And even though the road may be rocky, or we may have to follow Him for quite a time up a field, we can trust Him to provide all we need and have some food for our spirit in His bucket!