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David said, in perhaps his most well known Psalm: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet [still] waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:1-4).

David, even in the midst of his troubles, even while bring pursued by Saul, sees the Lord as His shepherd and comforter. A shepherd is one who pastures or tends a flock of sheep and/or goats. Since these were the most important domestic animals in Palestine, there are many references, and symbolic references, to sheep and shepherds. David himself was a shepherd of sheep before receiving his call to be King of Israel.

Saul, the first King of Israel, had displeased the Lord and the Lord sent the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse to anoint a new King from Jesse’s family. Jesse called forth seven of his sons to pass before Samuel all fine young men but Samuel rejected all seven. The Lord told Samuel: “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his [their] appearance or at the height of his [their] stature, because I have rejected him; [them]for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7). Then: “And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are these all the children?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here” (1 Samuel 16:11). David, the youngest, a lowly shepherd, was the one chosen by God to be King.

David said “the Lord is my shepherd” (see above). Just as a shepherd of real sheep pastors, tends to and protects the flock so the word “shepherd” has been symbolically applied to represent the relation of rulers to their subjects and of God to his people (Ps. 23:1; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; 44:28; Jer. 25:34, 35). The similarities between the two are striking.

In the natural realm the position of the shepherd is a lowly one. Nonetheless the duties of a shepherd are both important and onerous. In early morning he led forth the flock from the fold to where they were to be pastured or fed. Here he watched them all day. If a sheep strayed he would seek diligently till he found it and brought it back to the fold the shepherd would guide the sheep to water and at the end of the day would bring them back to fold counting them to make sure none was lost. During the night he had to guard the fold from the attack of wild beasts, or a prowling thief (see 1 Sam. 17:34). Sheep are notoriously unaggressive and tend to wander away into dangers known only to the shepherd. The shepherd had to exercise constant diligence 24 hours a day in order to preserve and protect the flock. This unaggressive behavior of sheep is emphasized in Matt. 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Perhaps most famous are the sheep’s submissiveness (Isa. 53:7; Jer. 11:19) and its trust in the shepherd (John 10:3-5).

The rod and the staff of the shepherd also have literal and symbolic meaning in the duties of a shepherd. The rod refers to a type of club with which to defend the flock, and the staff is a longer rod or pole upon which the shepherd could lean or with which he could guide the flock. The rod or staff is symbolic of authority which the shepherd exercises over the flock ((Judg. 5:14; Gen. 49:10). Moses (or Aaron) used the rod to perform miracles in Egypt and to bring water from rocks in the wilderness. Aaron’s rod budded and produced almonds, signifying the authority vested in his line by God. The rod was also used to measure the spiritual temple by Ezekiel and John the Revelator ((Ezek. 40:3; Revelation 21:15). Because of the authority vested in the rod and staff David, the shepherd, was comforted, even though he might travel the valley of the shadow of death (see above).

The Lord Himself will rule from His Kingdom with a rod, a rod if iron. “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, [the Word] so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule [shepherd] them with a rod of iron;” (Revelation 10:15). Here rule is equated with shepherd. God has always wanted His rulers to be shepherds, to care for the people, bring them along in the knowledge of the Lord. On the other hand the rod used here by the Lord is rod of iron. Iron is known as metal whose hardness and malleability made it ideal for implements of war as well as of more peaceful pursuits such as farm implements. However the meaning here seems to be that the Lord will be a shepherd but that the authority of His Kingdom will be exercised with uncompromising authority.

So we draw the inference from the shepherd faithfully guarding the sheep and the leader faithfully shepherding his people. David as King became a shepherd of men. “He [God] also chose David His servant And took him from the sheepfolds; From the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him To shepherd Jacob His people, And Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, And guided them with his skillful hands” (Psalm 78:70-72). It is God who is the real shepherd, the Perfect Father, and the Savior: “Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who are enthroned above the cherubim, shine forth! Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up Your power And come to save us! O God, restore us And cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved” (Psalm 80:1-3).

When shepherds, men of authority, went astray God became extremely angry. “For the shepherds have become stupid And have not sought the LORD; Therefore they have not prospered, And all their flock is scattered. The sound of a report! Behold, it comes—A great commotion out of the land of the north—To make the cities of Judah A desolation, a haunt of jackals” (Jeremiah 10:21-22). In Hosea the Lord likened the perversity of the shepherds to harlotry. “Since Israel is stubborn Like a stubborn heifer, Can the LORD now pasture them Like a lamb in a large field? Ephraim is joined to idols; Let him alone. Their liquor gone, They play the harlot continually” (Hosea 4:176-28). Jeremiah 23:2: “Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord” And in: Jeremiah 50:6: “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place”. Ezekiel 34:2 says: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock”. And in the New Testament John 10:12: “But he that is a hireling and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not see the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees and the wolf catches him and scatters the sheep”. This is important for you to grasp. This is the difference between the true and the false: the true stands there and fights through, even at the price of self-sacrifice. It stays there because it knows it has a responsibility before God.

Jesus is the true shepherd of the flock. He says of Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. “But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. “A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them. But to clarify He went on:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. “He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:1-18).

It cannot be said any clearer than that. He is the true shepherd and those that are from His flock follow Him. Paul said: “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). His Sons know His voice and follow Him. In Revelation the 144,000 are described as follows: “Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads…These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:1, 4).

Shepherds not only follow the Lord, they are men after God’s own heart. David was such a man (1 Samuel 13:14). The Lord promises: “Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15). This is to be contrasted with the leaders we have today. Too many are after their own interests rather than the Lord’s interests. This is as true in the clergy as it is in the secular political. Man instinctively understands this and does not feel cared for or covered. A true shepherd gently guides those under him to peaceful waters and green pastures. He doesn’t promise this-he delivers.

In the Kingdom Age, rapidly approaching, God will dwell among His people. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle [presence] of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost” (Revelation 21:4-6). God will be their shepherd just as he was with David.

In the resurrected Christ’s last words He said to Simon Peter: “So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep” (John 21:15-17).

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

©Kenneth B. Alexander

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