It is believed that sheep are the most frequently mentioned animals in the Bible (with nearly three hundred references including references to “flocks” and “herds”). Also prominently featured is the figure of the shepherd which is alluded to in more than 40 verses.
What are the reasons behind this prominence? Sheep had been an important part of life in Israel from ancient days. A natural part of the nomadic and agricultural life of the Jews, these animals provided milk, meat and wool. They were often used as sacrificial offerings at the temple and tabernacle.
Shepherding was one of the oldest occupations in the Bible. Abel was a shepherd – “a keeper of sheep” (Gen 4: 2). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Amos had all been shepherds (Gen 12: 16; 26: 14; 47: 3; Ex 3: 1; II Sam 7: 8; Amos 1: 1).
A shepherd’s job was one of the most difficult. Shepherds lived out in the mountains in the biting cold and scorching heat. They were often kept awake throughout the night. They trekked for miles with heavy packs. They defended the flock against wolves and other wild beasts.
Even today, sheep are known to be harmless and helpless creatures. They depend wholly on their shepherd to lead them to green pastures, to protect them from predators and to nurse their injuries. A good shepherd never leaves his sheep alone. He knows that they need his constant care. His eyes are always upon his sheep. He monitors their movements and is sensitive to their every cry.
One young lad who understood fully what it meant to care for his sheep was David. Before he became king, David was a simple shepherd boy tending his father’s sheep in the wilderness – “ … behold, he keepeth the sheep” (I Sam 16: 11). As a shepherd, David was well-acquainted with the heavy demands of watching over the sheep. He knew full well, the sheep’s utter helplessness, their tendency to stray; their foolishness and their need for a guide. As a shepherd, he had to defend the helpless flock from wild animals time and again: “And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock. 35 And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him” (I Sam 17: 34).
One day while watching his flock, David realised that God was like a shepherd, and we, His people, were like sheep. With these blessed thoughts of God’s tender, loving care for His own, he penned Psalm 23, one of the most read and beloved of the psalms:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 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. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
Just as David faithfully kept and provided for his sheep, he knew that the Lord, his Shepherd, would watch over him all his life.
“What condescension is this, that the infinite Lord assumes towards his people the office and character of a Shepherd! It should be the subject of grateful admiration that the great God allows himself to be compared to anything which will set forth his great love and care for his own people. David had himself been a keeper of sheep, and understood both the needs of the sheep and the many cares of a shepherd. He compares himself to a creature weak, defenceless, and foolish, and he takes God to be his Provider, Preserver, Director, and, indeed, his everything” (Treasury of David).
How true it is that when we have the Lord as our Shepherd, we have no need of anything else. He is our constant Guide and Protector. Surely He will keep us safe. His grace is ever sufficient. May we love and appreciate our Good Shepherd for His loving care of us each day. (… to be continued)