The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in 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 thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. – Psalm 23 (RSV)
Some scholars say that the opening words to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” are the most familiar lines in all of scripture. The twenty-third psalm has been quoted in innumerable books, movies, songs, and tv shows. Whether ever in a church or not, almost everyone has heard an allusion to Psalm 23.
Many of us know the psalm by heart and its imagery of God as shepherd is meaningful to us. And they should be. The shepherd is one of the most pervasive motifs from Genesis to Revelation, with almost 400 references to sheep and flocks and 100 more to shepherds.
The earliest reference to God as shepherd isn’t found in Psalm 23 but in Genesis. As Jacob is near the end of his life, he asks Joseph to bring his sons to him for a blessing. He opens with these words: “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.”
I don’t think Jacob chose these words casually. He was a shepherd all of his life, and if we think about his life, we remember Jacob needed a lot of shepherding himself. On his own and through the bad actions of others, he was often in situations where he turned to God for protection and care. One of the great lessons of Jacob’s life was that he was never out of sight of God, his shepherd. God was constantly protecting him from his enemies, calling him back when he strayed, and leading him to green pastures when he was in the midst of famine.
Jacob’s life illustrates the nature of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. However, the imagery in Psalm 23 focuses on the good works of our God-shepherd. Not only are we fed, watered, rested, and under protection from danger and death but we also are esteemed by and welcomed into the shepherd’s own home. What the psalm does not address is the nature and actions of the sheep. For that, we are left to our own imagination.
As I reflect on this psalm, I picture myself a white, fluffy sheep following where God leads. When I’m afraid, I look up at Jesus with my big brown sheep eyes and see that he is always with me. Maybe I acknowledge that I might have wandered into that dark valley by myself, but I quickly move to comfort as Jesus lifts me up into his arms and brings me back to the fold. Happy and welcomed at the Lord’s table with the scent of anointing oil permeating the air as God’s abundance is laid before me, I have no worries because I know a room has been prepared for me when I need it.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want — because I am a good sheep.
However, although sheep are not necessarily bad, they are entirely dependent animals, unable to care for themselves. They tend to wander. Sometimes it’s to find food, water, or shade but often it’s because they are too stupid to stay together. Sheep won’t always come back to the pen on their own, even when its within sight, but rely on the shepherd to either call or come get them. Therefore, while this psalm is a source of comfort, it is also a statement of our utter inability to care for ourselves — including our talent for jumping right back into the ravine we were just rescued from.
David knew all of this when he penned these words. He hadn’t just come across a bucolic meadow scene with shepherds and sheep, writing a poem about what he didn’t know. David was a shepherd. He knew exactly what a pain sheep could be. Yet when he wrote a song to the Lord, David chose to be a sheep. I can hear his brothers laughing at him when he recited these words. “Ah David, if the Lord is your shepherd you know that makes you, right?” (Cue the laughter and bleating sounds.)
David, the shepherd, chose to be a sheep because he knew the character of God. He had witnessed it throughout his life. When a shepherd, he had survived battles with lions and bears. As a youth, he survived a battle against a giant. For much of his early adult life, he survived being pursued by Saul — at times, living among his enemies the Philistines. He survived coup attempts, including two by his own sons. However, despite all of this, David knew the truth of the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
I also believe David chose to be a sheep because he was aware of his own sheep-like shortcomings. David may have been a man after God’s own heart, but that didn’t stop him from doing terrible things. He has a list of failures nearly as long as his list of successes. Sometimes he needed some help, but David was able to recognize his sinful ways, most well-known in Psalm 51.
Yes, David knew the Lord was his shepherd and he was the sheep.
Most of us won’t have the life experiences of Jacob and David, but we can still understand who we are in the shepherd-sheep relationship. I’ve never been a shepherd; however, becoming a parent helped me more deeply recognize God’s care, protection, and love. It became my role to provide sustenance for my children. They couldn’t strap themselves into a car seat or be left to themselves near a hot stove or a busy street. We set boundaries and made rules so they could survive in the world. Even as they got older and I couldn’t physically be with them anymore, they knew I was there for them. Regardless of what they might do or what shame they might feel, they know I will still love them. Being their parent-shepherd, helped me to see all the ways God shepherds me.
I also learned about myself, realizing how much I fall short of God’s example. As much as I love my kids, I have also become impatient and yelled at them. I’ve made selfish choices. There are times I have failed them and will do so again. Because of this, I am more overwhelmed by God’s loving patience and faithfulness with me. I’m aware that I will always be the (sometimes) prodigal child to a parent who won’t stop loving me. I also know that as much as I love my kids and our relationship changes as they become adults, we still won’t have a peer relationship. I will always be their parent, and they, my child.
God will always be the shepherd — and I will always be the sheep.
Sometimes I struggle with this. I’m an independent woman with a reasonable amount of intelligence. I’ve had to fend for myself at times. However, my strength and abilities are only found within the context of who God created me to be.
Choosing to be a sheep is an admission that I’m not perfect in any way. I am well aware that I have wandered in my life, and it’s only because God pursued me that I’m in the fold. I know that I’m often as thankless as a sheep.Choosing to be a sheep is an admission that I’m not perfect in any way. I am well aware that I have wandered in my life, and it’s only because God pursued me that I’m in the fold. #Psalm23 #TheLordIsMyShepherd Click To Tweet
I am rarely content and think about all the wants I don’t have when the truth is that my needs have been more than provided for. I take the green pasture and still waters that God bestows and either think that I found them on my own or that they are owed to me. I take God’s presence for granted.
David knew that even though the sheep weren’t perfect (and probably never apologized or thanked him for his care) they were still his sheep. However, because we’re not literally sheep but humans created in the image of God, we are able to recognize God’s loving kindness in our lives. We are able to come before God and acknowledge our failures. The Lord is our shepherd, and we are the Lord’s sheep.
At the end of a funeral service or graveside committal, there is a commendation of the deceased into God’s care. One of my favorites comes from the Book of Common Worship. While commendation is made on behalf of the deceased, I consider it a prayer for us all:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Shepherd-God, in all the days of this life and those in the life to come, we commend ourselves into your hands. We commend ourselves not on the basis of our merit — for we are well aware that we often wander away or bite your hand when you try to hold us close. Rather, we commend ourselves to you because we know who you are. We can trust you even when we can’t trust ourselves. Therefore, receive us in your arms of mercy and everlasting peace, for you are our shepherd, and we are your sheep. Amen.
 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “Sheep, Shepherd,” 782.
 Genesis 48:15 (NRSV).
 1 Samuel 17:34-36.
 1 Samuel 17:40-51.
 1 Samuel 19-31.
 1 Samuel 27.
 2 Samuel 15, 20; 1 Kings 1.