“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” (Ps. 23:4 KJV).
Undoubtedly some people associate the Bible with Psalm 23. Even if they are not familiar with Scripture, they are aware of this Psalm—and perhaps have can recite it from rote memorization.
Although when we think about the Lord as shepherd our minds tend to think of Psalm 23, other portions of Scripture also apply this metaphor to God himself or his activity (Gen. 48:15; Ps. 80:1; Ps. 31:3; Isa. 40:11, Mic. 7:14). While the imagery may bring to mind beautiful scenery with God as a grandfatherly figure walking peacefully beside the ocean, such a conception is not an accurate portrait of the life of a shepherd—and certainly not a shepherd in the ancient Near East.
Facets of the Life of a Shepherd
For the most part, the life of a shepherd consisted of constant care. In the ancient Near East shepherding required lots of walking, guidance, and attending to the needs of the flock. They had to provide care on a corporate as well as individual level.
In addition to providing constant care, shepherding involved protecting the flock. With difficult terrain and savage animals filling the land, sheep were not only easy prey, but they sometimes endangered their own lives by straying from the rest of the pack. Thus shepherds ensured the safety of their sheep by serving as a constant companion throughout their journey.
Shepherding also required leading the sheep. In ancient Israel, grazing land was not abundant, which meant that shepherds had to lead their sheep to grass. In order to do this, however, they needed to know where to go as well as how to get there.
Given that David knew all that shepherding required, is it any wonder that he used this rich metaphor to capture the imagination of his readers? I think not.
Knowing this background makes David’s words all the more heartwarming: “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” (vv. 1–3a).
David is saying, “My shepherd-King is the one who leads me through life, sovereignly providing me with everything I need. Therefore, I will rest in him.”
“Prone to Wander, Lord I Feel It”
Sheep need a shepherd because they are not the smartest animals. As I mentioned earlier, they are a danger to themselves because they tend to stray from the flock. Hence why ancient shepherds governed their flocks with a staff. However, if the sheep continued to stray, the shepherd would break the sheep’s legs. OT scholar William Mackenzie says the shepherd “would then bind up the leg and carry the lamb in his arms, eventually placing the lamb at his feet, where it would stay close to its shepherd.” Mackenzie concludes with these words: “This hard experience was done for the good of the lamb.”
Though painful and inconvenient, brokenness usually segues into seasons of blessing. And because brokenness produces an interior posture of surrender, moving forward we live with an abiding sense of peace. Thankfully, this is what God promises in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
Many Hebrew scholars note that the word “follow” can be rendered “pursue,” making plain that God’s goodness and mercy stalk his people throughout their lives. Believers, therefore, can live at peace, knowing that they not only live under the watchful eye of God but also live out their days under God’s shepherd and directional grace.
As Christ followers, we know we didn’t merit such marvelous blessings. No, God’s promise to bless his people with shepherds after his own heart (Jer. 3:15) finds its fulfillment in the One who identified himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11, 14), and who laid his life down for his friends (Jn. 15:13). This Shepherd took the place of his sheep (Isa. 53:7), was smitten for them (Zech. 13:7; Matt. 26:31), and poured out his life to death at the Place of the Skull to provide us with life eternal—and many other blessings as we make our way Home.
 William Mackenzie, “You Anoint My Head with Oil; My Cup Overflows,” Tabletalk 42:8 (August 2018): 25.