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Connections 03.22.2020: The Church of the Shepherd

Psalm 23

There are local churches called The Church of the Shepherd or The Church of the Good Shepherd. Those are good names. After all, as Psalm 23 affirms, the Lord is our shepherd. And as John 10 affirms, Jesus is the good shepherd.

Whether it’s in our name or not, every congregation is a church of the shepherd. God our shepherd leads, guides, protects, and provides for us.

We are the sheep. God is the shepherd.

These are metaphors. We aren’t really sheep, and God isn’t really a shepherd. But we need someone to take care of us as sheep do, and God takes care of us as a shepherd would. It’s beautiful imagery. I suspect that most of us get it, even if we never see actual shepherds and sheep.

Literal sheep can’t become literal shepherds. They can’t watch and learn from the shepherd so that they become able to take care of other sheep.

But metaphorical sheep can become shepherds. Christian sheep can become Christian shepherds. We can become shepherds.

And we should.

We will always need the Lord to be our shepherd. We will always be sheep. But the Lord needs us to become shepherds too. We can grow in the grace and love of the Lord to the point where the Lord can use us to help some of the sheep ourselves. We can grow into the kind of sheep who can shepherd other sheep. We can become shepherds to each other.

When Jesus described himself as the good shepherd, he defined what that means: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11b). Jesus did that in a way that no one can. But we can and should learn from him how we are to lay down our lives for our fellow sheep.

Psalm 23 tells us that God cares for us. In Jesus, God gave up God’s self for us.

How can we care for and give ourselves up for each other? How can we become shepherds to each other?

How can we truly be churches of the shepherd?

Discussion

  • What other metaphors could we use for God that would make the same points as the shepherd image?
  • How does God as shepherd meet our needs? What kinds of human needs might the imagery of the psalm symbolize?
  • Does the psalm teach that God takes us away from life’s struggles, or does it teach that God helps us live through them? Why do you think so? What difference does it make?
  • Psalm 23 comforts us. Does it also challenge us? If so, how?

Reference Shelf

All theological language is rooted in analogy, applying familiar terms from everyday life to the spiritual relation with God. No term had richer possibilities for this use than did the term “shepherd.” Everyone know the role of the shepherd and many had been shepherds. All the aspects of leadership, authority, protection, nurture, and rescue of the flock applied to the divine shepherd and his flock.

Wayne E. Ward, “Shepherd,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 819.

The relationship between sheep and shepherd served as an analogy for biblical writers of the relation between people and their leaders (Num 27:17; 1 Kgs 22:17; Jer 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 50:6; Ezek 34:2-10; Zech 10:2-3; Mark 6:34) or, more significantly, of the relation between the people and God (Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34). Ps 23 uses this imagery in a masterful way to affirm the care and safety which God provides for the psalmist. Jesus’ parable of the shepherd who searches for the one lost sheep graphically portrays the depth of God’s love (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7).

Mitchell G. Reddish, “Sheep,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 817.

This best-known psalm is a declaration of trust, and implies an audience for the speaker, who directly addresses God (v. 5). The speaker testifies to a close relationship with Yahweh (my shepherd is possessive). The psalm uses three images: shepherd (v. 1), guide-protector (vv. 3-4), and host (v. 5). The metaphors of the psalm are held together by three elements: (1) they are associated with kingship; (2) they are used elsewhere for Yahweh; and (3) the name Yahweh (Lord) in vv. 1 and 6 forms an inclusio that binds the parts together.

The psalm is very personal, but may have been de-signed as a confessional prayer for worship, perhaps for a thanksgiving-praise service. The first three verses contain a concentration of verbs and figures of speech that evoke images of security and well-being. Shepherd is a universal figure, associated with both the care of sheep and the function of kings.

The shepherd is also the guide-protector who directs the sheep to a secure camp near water (the emphasis is not on the stillness of the water but the security and comfort of the site) and protects those whom he leads with rod and staff symbols of kingship even when they pass through “the valley of death.” Verse 4 is sometimes read as “the valley of deep darkness” or as through the darkest valley, carrying the idea of great danger and the nearness of death.

Thus the speaker can declare that there is no “lack” in Yahweh’s providing for his people (v. 1), and no fear as he guides them through the times of terrible distress (v. 4). The divine presence (you are with me) guarantees safety. Yahweh leads his people in “paths of righteousness” (v. 3 kjv, rsv, niv), that is, in those ways that go where they are supposed to go (one does not get lost on such paths) and those that are beneficial. He restores and fortifies the vigor and vitality of his flock (v. 3, restores my soul; cf. Ps 19:7; Lam 1:11; 16; 19).

The restoring of the soul in v. 3 is matched by the metaphor of the host (v. 5) who prepares a safe and abundant table, and extends hospitality despite the presence of enemies (cf. Ps 78:19). Yahweh as host provides a place of life and comfort for his guests. The background of this image includes the protection that is required for the host to extend to a guest. The guest is well cared for by the host in v. 5: the table is prepared, the guest’s head is anointed with oil, and a cup filled to the brim is provided. The presence of my enemies (v. 5) indicates that enemies watch impotent to do any harm, while the speaker is blessed by the protective hospitality of Yahweh.

The change of metaphor from shepherd and guide to that of host is not surprising when it is remembered that shepherd is kingship language. Kings have great houses and entertain favored guests with lavish hospitality. Further, the shepherd in this case is Yahweh; and it is customary for reigning deities to have “houses” (temples) in which they dwell. The setting of vv. 5-6 is that of the Temple, a place where the worshiper feels safe and well supplied with food and drink (as those who attend the festivals). The idea of defeated enemies looking on while a victorious deity prepares tables for its soldiers is found in the Canaanite accounts of the goddess Anat at Ugarit (cf. Ps 27:6).

Follow me (v. 6) is too weak for the verb that means “to pursue” or “to chase.” Goodness and “enduring-love” (a better translation than mercy or “kindness” [nrsv mg.]) will pursue the speaker all the days of my life (cf. the pursuit of the wicked by tempest and hurricane in Ps 83:15). The pursuit by enemies is terminated and replaced by being chased by Yahweh’s fidelity and love.

The last part of v. 6 expresses confidence that the longing of pilgrims participating in the festivals at the Temple for permanent residence there will be fulfilled (cf. Pss 15:1; 27:4-6; 36:7-9; 52:8-9; 61:4; 65:4; 84; 92:12-13). The literal “I shall return to the house of Yahweh” probably means “I will be a regular guest in the house of Yahweh,” that is, it will always be “home” for me. Verse 6 expresses a close and enduring contact with the divine presence. Indeed, the house of the Lord here may include the idea of “the household of Yahweh” in a broader sense even to the land of Israel and the company of Yahweh’s people.

Marvin E. Tate, “Psalms,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 454-55.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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