Thinking like sheep

I wrote last week about the lectionary readings for Pastor’s Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Easter, but I’m feeling called to dive a little deeper into these texts this week. especially Psalm 23.

This is such a recognizable text that sometimes it’s difficult to come to it with fresh eyes and ears. But I’ve been trying to approach this Psalm from a new angle, to really let its message sink into my soul. I love this passage from J. Clinton McMann Jr.’s 2003 sermon “Like a Child at Home:”

To appreciate the dept and breadth of this profession [ that “the Lord is my shepherd”], we really have to try to hear Psalm 23 like a sheep. For a sheep, to “lie down in green pastures” means to have food; to be “led beside still waters” means to have water to drink; to be led in “right paths” means not getting fatally lost or attacked by a predator. In short, says the Psalmist, what a good shepherd does for his or her sheep, so God does for me: God “restores my soul,” or better translated, God “keeps me alive”! Life is God’s good gift to us; or we might say, God is the truly basic necessity of life. (found in Performing the Psalms, 125)

So let’s walk through the old Psalm again, this time thinking like sheep.

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Shepherd imagery was common in the Ancient Near East. Not only was shepherding a common occupation, but the word came to denote leadership. It was even used to describe kings (especially when David was king of Israel)! In Genesis 48:15, Jacob refers “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (How beautiful is that phrase?). The 23rd Psalm opens here by picking up on that theme of God as shepherd.

The Hebrew verb (translated “to want”) used here is haser, which means to lack something or to be missing. The beautiful double meaning of the phrase “I shall not want” is not only to be lacking nothing, but to be found and accounted for. The shepherd will not lose even one sheep (remember the 99 sheep from Luke 15:3-7?) from his or her flock. The Psalmist is declaring here that the shepherd will provide the sheep with enough and will also keep track of each and every sheep, so none will go missing.

God — shepherd of my life to this very day — thank you for protecting me, for keeping track of me, even when I feel helpless and lost. Thank you for providing sufficiently for me, for keeping me from want. But also for knowing me, and promising to never lose me. Help me to foster a heart of contentment that does not covet the treasures of the world but rests in you.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.

We often hear these words on a spiritual level: God provides peace for our souls. But if we come to this passage thinking like sheep, we might notice these words have a physical level as well. This declaration is about provision, of not just spiritual peace but of physical safety and necessity. This shepherd is ensuring the very survival of these sheep. As we read in John 10, he is offering them full, abundant life.

The word “makes” seems a strange translation here. The phrase is more like “he allows me to lie down in green pastures.” The shepherd has brought the sheep to a good, safe place, that they may be able to lie down and rest. There is grass to eat and water to drink. Perhaps the sheep have had to travel a long way to get to this place of abundance, as Israel traveled through the wilderness to reach their promised place of safety.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. (Deut. 8:2-4)

The journey was tough, but the Israelites made it; they had enough to survive. But the text goes on to describe the pasture of goodness that lies on the other side of the wilderness:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land his has given you. (Deut. 8:7-10)

They had to trust the Lord to lead them through a time of hunger before they could reach the land of plenty. They had to follow the Lord through a desert wilderness before they could make their home by green pastures and still waters. In this good place, they eat and drink their fill, then lie down to rest. As Psalm 4:8 says, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

Shepherd of my life, thank you for allowing me a time and place to rest safely. Thank you for ensuring my very survival by providing what I need to live, for leading me through deserts of difficulty. May I continue to trust your lead and rejoice in the calm waters and green meadows of my life when I reach them.

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He restores my soul.

This may be my favorite part of this Psalm. Is there any sweeter declaration than this: my Shepherd restores my very soul. The expression used here implies satisfaction of hunger, the kind of statement you’d make after finishing your 30-hour famine and getting to eat that first PBJ. “I am revived by this sandwich!” We see the same expression in Lamentations 1. After the destruction of the Israelite nation by the Babylonians, a survivor laments:

All her people groan as they search for bread;
They barter their treasures for food to keep themselves alive.
Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become…
For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for no one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. (1:11, 16a)

What a dark time in the life of Israel these words describe. The phrase “keep themselves alive” (sometimes translated “to revive their strength”) literally reads “to return the soul.” In Hebrew, the word for soul (ruach) is like “breath.” When I hear this phrase of having the soul restored, I think of having life breathed back into a dying body.

But the Lamentations 1:16 uses the same expression, “to restore my spirit” or “revive my courage,” in a different sense. This time it seems to speak of emotional or spiritual comfort. We can read this phrase verse in Psalm 23, “He restores my soul,” as both a physical revival of the body and an emotional up-lifting of the spirit.

This phrase also reminds me of Psalm 131 (which I carry with me always, written on an index card) in which the Psalmist declares: “My soul is like a weaned child with its mother.” I hear the same echoes in that Psalm of the theme of deep satisfaction and provision from God.

Thank you, Shepherd God, for breathing life into this tired body, when first I was born and again each day I live. You provide for the restoration of my soul, but you also care about my physical being. When I feel worthless, you comfort me. You wean my spirit from ill-suited desires, freeing me to crave only you.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Sheep are struggling creatures. They can’t see very well; they get easily disoriented. Their wool can get so heavy that they have trouble getting back up on their own when they fall over. They really can’t fend for themselves. The declaration that the shepherd leads the sheep in right paths echoes again the message that the sheep won’t “want” or go missing. The shepherd will lead all of them to good, safe destinations.

The Psalmist tells us that the shepherd will do this “for his name’s sake.” This is his job, after all,and he is not just a shepherd but a good shepherd, as we hear in John 10. “For his name’s sake” is kind of like saying “on his honor.” The shepherd will lead his sheep on a safe path to a good destination, on his honor, cross his heart.

Look again at that story from Deuteronomy 8 about the Isrealites in the desert. Those decades in the wilderness must have felt like an unsafe path to them, but they was the right path — the path the people needed to take (geographically, communally, and spiritually) in order to get to their good destination. When we truly trust God with our whole hearts, and lean not on our own understanding, he will truly make straight paths for us (Prov. 3:5), even through the most crooked and disorienting of wildernesses. How lucky we are that we can follow our shepherd and trust that we’ll get there eventually, and none of us will be forgotten, lost, or left behind.

Shepherd, I can never be lost if I follow you and listen for your voice. I can rest assured that you will lead me through the desert to a good place, that you are an honorable and trustworthy leader and keeper.  Thank you for keeping track of me, for coming back for me when I fall behind, for picking me up and re-orienting me when I fall over under my own weight. I cannot find my way without you.

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Thinking like sheep

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I’d like to return to the last three verses of the Psalm later. I think there’s a lot here to soak up. So what do you think?

Does it change the way you read Psalm 23 to think like a sheep? What is your favorite line of this Psalm? Where are the deserts and wildernesses in your life — how do you survive in those places? Where are the pastures and still waters of your life — do you feel safe enough to find true rest in those places? How is the Shepherd God providing for your body or soul in this time of your life?

Want to dig deeper? Here are some resources I found really helpful in thinking about this text:

Bob Deffinbaugh “Psalm 23: A Psalm That Calms the Soul” @ Bible.org

Jay Wilcoxen “The Fourth Sunday of Easter” @ Protestants for the Common Good

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2 Comments

Filed under Lectionary Reflections, Theology and Faith

2 responses to “Thinking like sheep

  1. pathoftreasure

    I love the vantage point of a sheep and the personal reflections after each verse. It is a comforting passage… and I’ve heard it said that this one is often used at funerals… but to me, Psalm 23 is so full of a message we need to know for our daily living, and no matter how familiar, God’s word is fresh and active. As I read your reflections today, I feel a great sense of peace and rest, recounting how well God has nourished me through times of wilderness… keeping me safe, restoring my soul. I love that the Hebrew word for soul is like “breath”– indeed, the two are intertwined.

    Also, want to say: Congratulations on your Masters Degree! Wonderful!
    And thanks for commenting on my blog, and the book suggestion– I didn’t know about the book you mentioned, I will look into it– thank you!

    • I also read a lot about its use at funerals, and I agree with you– this passage carries a lot of LIFE in it! Thanks so much for the congratulations and for stopping by the blog. And you’re welcome for the book recommendation (pass any my way that you think are worth checking out)… it’s a really great book for Advent!

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