Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is highly likely that at some stage in your life, perhaps at a wedding, christening or funeral, you would have heard the famous Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
This magnificent poetic prose is often read without providing any context. However, context is what makes this Psalm ring with hope.
The authorship of this Psalm is claimed by King David, who once was a shepherd himself. Tradition holds to the idea that it was written in one of the most difficult seasons of his life. His nation and people were at war with one another. Civil war is traumatic in any form, but this civil war carried its own deep level of agony. He was at war with his son, Absalom.
The words of this Psalm came from an exhausted, humiliated, betrayed and heartbroken king and father.
In his darkest day, David remembered God as Shepherd.
A shepherd who knows and cares for his sheep.
A shepherd who would lead his sheep to good pasture and clean water.
A shepherd who would protect his sheep against their enemies.
A shepherd who would carry the young and risk his life to rescue those who have wandered into precarious spaces.
A shepherd who inspected each sheep as they entered the fold at night to ensure they had no cuts that needed tending.
A shepherd who had a horn filled with olive oil and cedar tar for scratches and pests.
As a shepherd, David knew what it was to love and care for his sheep. In his hour of peril, he reflected on God being such a shepherd.
A few thousand years later we find Jesus speaking to a crowd of tired and oppressed people. His words are not ones of zealous patriotism, neither are they warlike speeches of triumph. Rather, he looks at these people with mercy and his words are like cold water to a parched soul:
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I know my sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” John 10:11-18
In Africa, we lived for over a year on a farm that was surrounded by mountains where shepherds kept their sheep. In the evening I would race to our gate and sit there and watch as these shepherds came down the hills, often singing and carrying lambs on their shoulders. Some would stop and chat to me, I would pat their sheep, as they impatiently jostled each other to get closer to the shepherd. This picture remains with me to this day
In some of my darkest moments, I think of David, huddled around a fire, tears streaming down his face, composing his beautiful poem.
I think of my African friends who tended their sheep with such compassion.
I think of Jesus, whose life and death, whose words of mercy and non-violent subversion, forever altered my life. This Jesus who identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.
… my Good Shepherd
… your Good Shepherd
I find hope.