When David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd,” in what we know as Psalm chapter 23, he was writing as someone who knew both the heart and duty of a shepherd and the love of the heavenly, eternal shepherd. David was not the first famous shepherd, nor the last. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all had spent long years tending and caring for flocks. This career developed in each of them a deeper and more intimate understanding of God’s caring character. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, is filled with cultures who would have been very familiar with the ways of shepherding sheep and goats. Jesus would use shepherds and their flocks as main characters in His teaching on multiple occasions to help illustrate profound truths about the Kingdom of God. These stories (parables) would have been relatable to the Lord’s listeners.
While we in our modern culture understand very little of actual shepherding, with some effort we can acquaint ourselves with this ancient profession and therefore enjoy some important and precious insights into the Scripture. Maybe a silly but humorous modern-day equivalent of shepherding would be a preschool teacher. Attention spans are short, snack time is crucial, bathroom breaks are essential, nap time is life or death, messes will be made, watching for wanderers is a necessity, safety is paramount, and keeping the peace between kids (or sheep – I have lost track whether we are talking about preschoolers or sheep or adults for that matter) is a constant battle. Sounds exhausting. Sounds exactly like shepherding.
Shepherding was a 24/7 gig. Like all professions, there were good shepherds and bad shepherds, caring and careless shepherds, adoring shepherds and abusive shepherds, guarding shepherds and gorging shepherds (they would just eat the sheep).
In John chapter 10, the Apostle John records Jesus, twice, saying, “I am the good shepherd.” The audience of this important teaching includes the religious leaders who were known as “the shepherds of Israel.” (Ezekiel 34:2) These men were charged by God to shepherd His people, yet they were not good shepherds. They were (staying within the framework of the sheep and shepherd metaphor) butchering the sheep, using God’s flock for their own devious purposes and satisfaction (See Ezekiel 34:1-10 for God’s anger toward reckless shepherds). Jesus confronted them, declaring Himself as “THE good shepherd.”
The heart of the Lord on multiple occasions broke, seeing “the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Christ in contrast to these predatory and self-centered shepherds, details His care for His flock in John 10:27-28. The Lord declares, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” This is the good, kind, leading, restoring, protective, present, comforting, nourishing, calming, and soothing Shepherd of Psalm chapter 23. He is the shepherd that “lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15, 17).
What is so encouraging about what Jesus says is that all the truths contained in the title “good shepherd” are solidified with the words “I am.” He was, is, and always will be our good shepherd. That is what the present tense of “I am” means.
The Apostle Peter celebrates the work of Christ on the cross, writing that we, “Were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd…of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25). What Christ accomplished on the cross was our rescue from the mouth of a roaring lion and restoration to the flock of “the good shepherd.”