When have you traveled through a dangerous area where you felt unsafe?
A recent viral video on social media showed a field filled with sheep. Visitors approached the fence and were invited to call the sheep with the exact same phrases as the shepherd used. But when strangers called, the sheep never even looked up from their meal of grass. When the shepherd approached the fence and cried out the same call, the sheep lifted their heads, then ran down to the fence to meet him. The sheep knew the shepherd’s voice.
Our study this week explores the 23rd Psalm and the role of the shepherd. But as our lesson focuses on the crucible, we must deal with the fact that the shepherd in Psalm 23 appears to us through the valley of death, and the presence of enemies. How should we best understand a “good shepherd” who takes us through difficult places, challenging times, and even experiences that leave us broken and wounded, and maybe dead?
Shepherd Language in Scripture
One of the earliest mentions of a specific animal in scripture is Genesis 4:2-4, where Abel tends sheep and offers one as a sacrifice. There is a possibility of understanding Genesis 3:21 as God offering lambs as a sacrifice for Adam and Eve’s sin and clothing the human pair with their skins.
Throughout the Old Testament, shepherding plays a significant role in the lives of God’s people. This makes sense in several ways: sheep and goats convert grass and water into wool (for clothing, blankets, tents, etc.) and food, and satisfy the religious role of sin offerings. The shepherd’s relationship with the less-than-intelligent animals seems an apt description of God’s relationship with His oft-erring people. The Andrews Bible Commentary notes the breadth of this imagery:
The image of the king as a shepherd was known throughout the ANE [Ancient Near East] and served as a paradigm for just kingship. Egyptian kings held a flail and a shepherd’s crook to demonstrate their might and protective responsibilities. The Babylonian King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) called himself “the shepherd of the oppressed and of the slaves.”
It can be hard for us today to make the leap to shepherd imagery. Our associations today, especially in urban and suburban areas are usually household pets, not animals used functionally for fur or food.
How can we better understand the shepherd imagery since many of us in America and the West don’t have any contact with those who own and tend sheep?
This is a well-known and loved psalm, whose lyrics have brought comfort to many people going through difficult situations. But what makes this psalm especially noteworthy for our lesson is the implication that the shepherd’s path leads us through places of difficulty.
Read through Psalm 23 and answer the following questions:
Does God lead us “into,” or just “through” the valley of the shadow of death? Or do we take ourselves there, and God promises to be with us, guiding? Are they a detour or a purposely planned path?
Why does God lead us to feast in the presence of our enemies? Consider 2 Kings 6:8-23 as a parallel to this idea.
Can we trust a God who expects us to face trial and difficulty?
According to Psalm 23, what provisions, resources and blessings has God promised to provide that make our journey through the valley of death possible, and even victorious?
Psalm 23 pledges God’s presence, direction, and blessings as we traverse a world with moral, physical, and spiritual enemies, and the ultimate enemy, death! The psalmist concludes his song by showing the hospitality of God as a gracious, divine host. He spreads out a table, gives his people all they need. What a God!