The 23rd Psalm
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul;
He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
As a metaphor, the message of this psalm is presented as a relationship between sheep and shepherd. Sheep tend to survive and thrive far better with a shepherd than without. They require constant and vigilant care. And while human beings are a bit more creative and resourceful than sheep, the Bible points out that we, too need a shepherd. Psalm 23 is not so much about theology as it is a poetic testimony about the intimate care that God, as shepherd gives his sheep. The writer is saying that with God watching out for him, he has everything he needs and there’s nothing to worry about.
But he isn’t just writing about his basic needs. The shepherd provides the refreshing calmness of still waters; he restores not just the body, but the soul; he gives guidance and comfort; he offers freedom from fear and safety from threat; his gifts are goodness and mercy. And finally, perhaps unexpectedly, the shepherd somehow lets his sheep dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
Concepts such as eternal life, or the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep are challenging to doubters and completely foreign to non-believers. That is because concepts are based on specific assumptions. Different assumptions produce different points of view. Most folks go about their lives without consciously examining their assumptions. Arguments about opinions and beliefs always boil down to basic assumptions. Even the way individuals examine facts is influenced by their basic assumptions. So, in order to search the Scriptures and find substantive insights into the idea of God as shepherd, let me spell out the basic assumptions I have made.
- God is real.
- He has absolute, universal authority.
- The Bible is God’s truth revealed to us.
- Truth is absolute (not relative).
A Prophecy From Ezekiel
Chapter 34 of Ezekiel contains a prophecy against the ‘shepherds’ of Israel, meaning the leaders, i.e. kings and priests. In it, God specifies the abuses of their power and authority, and ways they neglected the care of their ‘sheep’ (Israel).
vs. 4 “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
This prophecy goes on to say that because of the failure of these shepherds to care for the flock, God himself will be their shepherd.
vs. 11 “…I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.”
vs. 12 “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so I will look after my sheep.”
vs. 14 “I will tend them in good pasture … There they will lie down in good grazing land …”
vs. 15 “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the sovereign LORD.”
vs. 16 “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak …”
vs. 17 “I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.”
Everything the bad shepherds did wrong, God promises to do right. Not only that, but he promises to do it all himself! The phrase, “I myself” is emphatic, stressing that he personally will do all these things. And the repetition of this phrase underscores its significance. But notice how his promise will be delivered:
vs. 22 “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.”
vs. 23 “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”
vs. 24 “I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.”
vs. 25 “I will make a covenant of peace with them …” (See also, Ezekiel 37:24-26.)
Since King David had been long dead at the time of this prophecy, the reference to “my servant David” is considered symbolic. Who is this “servant”? The Bible often uses a man’s name to represent his family, descendants, tribe, nation or the land associated with him. God promised David his kingdom would not end. We read in 2 Samuel 7:16, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” So some see “my servant David” as representing the throne of David, the King of Israel, or Israel itself.
But others see “my servant David” as referring to the Messiah because the LORD is personally tending his sheep while his “servant David” is doing the same thing. Since there is only one shepherd, we must conclude God is tending his flock through his “servant David”. But there seems to be something more to this than a servant simply acting as God’s agent, particularly since the name “David” is used. If he is the king, how can he be a servant? The Christian answer is that Jesus, called Son of David, is the Messiah.
Because I believe that there is more involved in identifying “my servant David” than simply the agency of God, I will discuss that later, using New Testament references. But for now, without examining the New Testament, the Old Testament presents some difficulty in saying God = Shepherd = Messiah. Passages such as Zechariah 13:7 (“Awake O sword against my shepherd…”) and Isaiah 53:3 (“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”) can be conflicting and evasive to understanding God as Shepherd, unless the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy is understood.
A New Covenant
Understanding God as Shepherd is also connected to the idea of a “new covenant” (Ezekiel 34:25, above). Other prophets also spoke of a new covenant associated with a messianic age, filled with promises of abundant blessings.
Ezekiel 16:59-60: “… you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.”
The use of language in this passage is curious. One covenant is “remembered” while another will be “established” in the future. It is important to note that both God’s “old” covenant with Israel and the “new” one in this prophecy are described as “everlasting”. The new covenant is remembering the old, rather than simply supplanting it. More on this later.
Jeremiah 31:31-34: “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the LORD. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the lord.”
“That time” refers to 31: 27 (“The days are coming”), 31:29 (“In those days”) and 31:31 (“The time is coming”), all of which are references to the messianic age, a period of time during which the Messiah is in control of the earth’s affairs. To my mind, this fits in nicely with Ezekiel’s one shepherd prophecy.
continuing with verse 33b: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The idea of the new covenant being placed in the heart and mind, as opposed to being etched in stone, is consistent with the personal care of God as shepherd. It seems to focus more on changing us on the inside than simply regulating behavior with “religion”. The statement that “all will know me” without the need of teachers, anticipates a God who directly and personally reveals himself to every believer.
This sentiment is echoed elsewhere. In Ezekiel 11:19 God says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” In Ezekiel 18:31 he says, “… get a new heart and a new spirit.” In Ezekiel 36:26-27 he says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in you …”
These Scriptures make it clear that a new covenant is associated both with God personally assuming the role of Shepherd, and with believers assuming a more direct and personal role in their relationship to him. But the new covenant doesn’t mean everything is changed. God isn’t making new commands. The new covenant is new because his people receive new hearts and new spirits — and God himself is their Shepherd by way of the Messiah.
A Prophecy From Isaiah
With a new covenant, which involves the changing of our hearts and minds, it is time to address two issues previously mentioned: the problems of “my servant David” as messiah; and the sense that there is more to the shepherd than simply the agency of God. These concerns relate to the identity and nature of the Messiah.
In the book of Isaiah we find restated at several points some of the ways that God’s people are blessed (changed) by the Messiah. We can consider these as signs of the new covenant. And we see that it is the Messiah who is doing these things. In Isaiah 61:1 (below) we read that the speaker has been anointed by God (Messiah means God’s anointed one.) and in Isaiah 42:1, preceding another citation below, we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” Notice something else “new”: The Messiah brings justice not only to Israel, but to the nations (Gentiles).
Isaiah 32:3-4: “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The mind of the rash will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.”
Isaiah 35:5-7: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing …”
Isaiah 42:6b-7: ” … I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
Isaiah 61:1-3: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and to provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown …”
Consider two events recorded in the gospels, and compare them to the above quotes from Isaiah:
1. Luke 4:16-21 tells of Jesus standing up to read Isaiah in a synagogue. The scripture he read quoted the chapter 61 passage, above. After rolling up the scroll, returning it to the attendant and sitting back down, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
2. Matthew 11:2-6 tells of John the baptist, full of doubts because of his imprisonment, sending his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Beginning in verse 4, “Jesus replied, Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
Let’s look at the David question. Jews reject the notion that Jesus is the Messiah, while Christians are convinced that he is. In addition to the genealogies of both of his earthly parents, which establish Jesus as a legal descendant of David, Jesus fulfilled at least 61 major prophesies and was called “Son of David” in the gospels. One such prophesy is found in Micah 5:1-5: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth and he will be their peace.”
Christians interpret Micah’s prophecy as pointing to Jesus as the Shepherd, a point of faith made clear in the New Testament. In John 10:14-18 we read, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” The “other sheep” Jesus refers to are Gentiles (He was speaking to Jews at the time.)
God, Shepherd, Messiah — Who’s Who?
Using different legalistic or intellectual arguments, there are those who do not agree that the Messiah is God’s Shepherd, or that Jesus is the Messiah, or that Jesus is God. Some take the view that the Servant-Shepherd-Messiah is the agent of God and therefore less than God. The Christian explanation of the doctrine of the trinity poses a challenge to human understanding which has given rise to charges of polytheism. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit sound like three gods to the skeptic. Three persons comprising a triune Godhead is simply too mystical for some to grasp. What is seen as a fluid unity to believers is seen as a multiplicity by unbelievers. But Scripture provides us with some fascinating examples of this difficult-to-grasp concept:
Genesis 18 begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham”. “Abraham looked up and saw three men … When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” Was Abraham speaking with God or three men? Verse 22 tells us, “The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.” What is the connection between the men and the LORD? As the story continues in Chapter 19, the first verse reads, “The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, …” We are left with the conclusion that the “three men” of Genesis 18:2 are two angels and God in the form of a man. For many, there is a temptation to relegate the mystical aspects of this Scripture to the “primitive” nature of ancient culture. To believers, however, this account demonstrates dimensions of God’s personification as he expresses himself to us in different ways.
From a prophetic vision (Daniel 7:13), Daniel describes “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” Continuing in verse 14, “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Verse 18 states that, “the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever …” Then in verse 27 we read, “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints of the Most High. His Kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” These verses clearly describe one and the same eternal kingdom of God. But notice “one like a son of man” (a messianic reference) is universally worshipped in verse 14, while the LORD is universally worshipped in verse 27. (Both “the Ancient of Days” and “the Most High are Aramaic terms for God.) Since Daniel was a Jew, he would never have engaged in polytheism.
The prayer of Jesus in the garden, recorded in John 17 gives us another glimpse into the relationship of God the Father and the Messiah. In verse 21, Jesus says, “… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” In John 10:30 he says, “I and the Father are one.” and in 10:38 adds, “… even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” Isaiah testifies to a similar kind of reciprocal union in chapter 48:17b when he says, “And now the Sovereign LORD has sent me, with (or “and”) his Spirit.” In Ezekiel 37:14 we find a similar example of this “indwelling” concept: “I will put my Spirit in you …”.
It may seem as if I have strayed from the topic of God as shepherd, but my point here is that if God is our shepherd, then our shepherd is God. And his identity isn’t changed by what names we give him or how we choose to think about him.
I will conclude with an exchange recorded in three of the gospels: While the Pharisees (experts in the Law) were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ?” (the Messiah, the Shepherd, the Lord) “Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, (quoting Psalm 110:1) “The LORD (YHWH) said to my Lord (Adonay): Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet. If then David calls him ‘Lord’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.