PSALM 23
Anonymous

(Investigator 152, 2013 September)



"THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD"


Psalm 23 in the Bible teaches that God guides people tenderly as a skilful shepherd guides sheep.

And sheep do need guidance. W. Bardorff (1950) writes:
The domesticated sheep is quiet, patient, gentle, dull, submissive, indecisive, timid…

Without the self-interested person taking it under his special protection, it would in a short time expire… A few years ago almost a whole flock suffocated because two hunting dogs jumped into the barn and so frightened them that they crammed together excessively. Another flock was so separated and scattered by the dog of a passer-by that many were permanently lost in the forest.
Phillip Keller, author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, grew up in East Africa among native herdsmen, followed by eight years in the 1930s as a sheep rancher. His book presents Psalm 23 as a spiritual lesson rooted in biology, animal behavior, history and economics.

A flock with shepherd missing stays in familiar terrain until the pasture is gone, the ground polluted, and the sheep reduced to "bags of bones" beset with parasites. Similarly:
The world we live in is full of such folk. Broken homes, broken hearts, derelict lives and twisted personalities remind us everywhere of men and women who have gone their own way. We have a sick society struggling to survive on beleaguered land. The greed and selfishness of mankind leaves behind a legacy of ruin and remorse. (Keller, 1976)
Psalm 23 teaches in poetry and analogy what Proverbs states literally:
•    Trust in God with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight. (3:5)

•    There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (14:12)

"I SHALL NOT WANT"

"I shall not want" refers to everything sheep need: Adequate food, clean water, medical care, protection from predators, shade, regular rest, shelter, and peace (from conflict between sheep within the flock).

All these benefits must be in balance — tons of food but no protection is as bad as no food.


"HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES"

Ewes require regular rest and succulent feed to produce ample milk for their lambs. Sheep lie down when free of:
•    Fear;
•    Hunger and danger;
•    Parasites;
•    Conflict within the flock.
Frightened or startled sheep don't rest and may even stampede and ewes suffer abortions.

Green pastures can be created by clearing, ploughing, seeding, planting (grains and legumes), and irrigating. In ancient Palestine, however, shepherds usually used common (unowned) land. They knew where green pastures were located and led the sheep there at the correct times. Sheep in "green pastures" eat their fill, lie down, chew the cud, and grow fat.

Nasal flies, bot flies, warble flies and ticks irritate sheep and make rest impossible. A "good shepherd" today would use insect repellents and sheep-dips to clear the fleeces of ticks.

Sheep also have a butting order just as hens have a pecking order. Dominant sheep may displace others by threat or butting and destroy the flock's rest. The shepherd's mere presence often prevented conflict, but if not he disciplined domineering sheep.

The shepherd kept watch to assure relief from every disturbance.


"HE LEADS ME BESIDES STILL WATERS"

Some animals can survive without drinking by eating moist foliage, but sheep need access to wells, cisterns, springs or streams. They need "still waters" not raging rivers which sheep fear because they can drown. 

In cool weather sheep can cope for weeks without drinking if the grass most mornings is wet with dew. Sheep mostly graze in the mornings or at night if the moon is bright. One source of "still waters" which is also clean is early morning dew.

About 70% of a sheep's weight is water. Dehydration leads to restlessness, weakness, eventually death. Thirsty sheep drink any water even from potholes containing manure. This will give them internal parasites, nematodes, liver flukes, and disease germs.

The shepherd's knowledge of local conditions assures his sheep safe, ample water.


"HE RESTORES MY SOUL"

In another Psalm we read: "Why are you cast down O my soul?" (42:11)

A "cast down" sheep is one lying on its back, unable to get up, its feet pointing skyward. This can happen if it rolls to one side or into a hollow and its centre of gravity shifts too far. The sheep struggles in fright and bleats. Gases build up in the rumen and cut off blood circulation to the legs. The sheep will die within hours in hot weather and sooner if spotted by predators.

A careful shepherd counted his sheep daily. If any were missing, possibly "cast down", he searched for them. The 20th century shepherd writes:
Tenderly I would roll the sheep over on its side. This would relieve the pressure of gases in the rumen. If she had been down for long I would have to lift her on her feet. Then straddling the sheep with my legs I would hold her erect, rubbing her limbs to restore circulation to her legs… Little by little the sheep would regain its equilibrium.
Fleece can grow long and become clogged with mud, manure, debris and ticks until the sheep is weighed down. This can kill the sheep which the shepherd prevented by shearing it.

The good shepherd "restored" his sheep by removing whatever downgraded its health or threatened its security.


"HE LEADS ME IN PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
FOR HIS NAME'S SAKE"

Sheep need to be led to new pasture and need guidance to stay on the move. Left to themselves they stay in favourite spots and gnaw the grass until even the roots are gone: "…they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites."

Reduced food, filthy terrain, and infestation with nematodes, worms and scab make sheep thin and sick.

Shepherds forestalled overgrazing by keeping the sheep moving from pasture to pasture along "paths of righteousness" — paths that led to their well-being.

It was "for his name's sake" because a shepherd's reputation depended on the condition of his sheep.


"EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL;
FOR THOU ART WITH ME"

In summer the shepherd led the sheep to higher ground to reach the best pasture. Bardorff writes: "The sheep likes dry high-lying areas more than low-lying wet areas. Of middle European plants it eats 237 types and rejects 141."

The drives to higher ground could be long and tiring, and valleys provided easier travel than hilltops. But a valley could be "The valley of the shadow of death". There might be flash floods, hail storms, poisonous plants, snakes, rock falls, and caves with bears, wolves or lions. Shepherding was hard, dangerous work — David literally fought lions and bears to rescue sheep. (I Samuel 17:34-37)

The sheep "fear no evil" because a good shepherd knew the terrain, was prepared for all threats, and remained close — i.e. "with me".


"THY ROD AND THY STAFF THEY COMFORT ME"

Shepherds carried only essentials including a "rod and staff". The rod was short like a club, the staff long and slender. Shepherds used their rod and staff to:
•    Drive off or kill snakes;
•    Protect against predators;
•    Discipline wayward sheep;
•    Extricate sheep trapped in thorny bushes;
•    Part the wool to examine sheep for sores or injuries;
•    Count the sheep — called "passing under the rod" (Ezekiel 20:37).
A shepherd used his staff additionally to:
•    Lean on it when weary, enhancing his endurance and vigilance;
•    Re-direct the sheep onto new paths;  
•    Pull sheep toward himself if they needed to be examined;
•    Lightly touch a sheep to give it special attention;
•    Lift separated lambs to return them to the mother — otherwise with the odour of hands on the lamb the mother might reject it.
The spiritual equivalent, Keller says, is the "word of God" which protects against "strange philosophies", gives believers a "quiet serenity", and "corrects and reproves us when we go astray."


"THOU PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES"

The "table" was the lush summer pasture in high country — the entire summer range. The shepherd checked the area beforehand for the best grass, best resting areas, and poisonous weeds (to be ready to stop sheep eating these). He cleaned out accumulated debris from water sources and perhaps stored salt at strategic locations.

The shepherd also observed for wolves, bears and lions — "my enemies" — to hunt them down or to be extra wary when returning with his sheep.

When the sheep arrived the predators would watch for strays or, given opportunity, stampede the flock. The shepherd would stand in full view to discourage predator attacks.


"THOU ANOINTEST MY HEAD WITH OIL"

Summer time meant green pastures and restored souls but was also insect time: "…warble flies, bot flies, heel flies, nose (nasal) flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitos, gnats…can readily turn the golden summer months into a time of torture for sheep."

Nose flies hovering around make sheep frantic. The sheep stop eating, stamp their feet, hide in bushes, toss their heads and race around until exhausted. Some may be blinded and others killed as they dash around. Sheep lose weight, ewes go off milk and lambs stop growing. If nasal flies deposit their eggs in a sheep's nose, they hatch into worm-like larvae. These move up the nose and burrow in, causing such inflammation and irritation that sheep beat their heads against trees and rocks.

The 20th-century shepherd used a homemade antidote of linseed oil, sulphur and tar that he smeared over the sheep's nose and head: "Gone was the aggravation; gone the frenzy; gone the irritability and the restlessness. Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again…"

Summer time was also scab time. Scab usually occurs on the head and is caused by a microscopic parasite that spreads when sheep rub their heads together. Today it's controlled with chemicals or by putting sheep through a sheep dip.

In ancient Palestine the remedy for flies and scab was, "olive oil mixed with sulphur and spices".


"MY CUP OVERFLOWS"

In autumn the nights got cooler, insects died off, foliage changed color but was still plentiful, rain and dew supplied fresh water, the sheep were fat, and the rams fought battles to possess the ewes.

From the sheep's viewpoint benefits "overflowed".

Sometimes, however, early blizzards chilled the lambs. The 20th-century shepherd carried a bottle of brandy and water and poured a few spoonfuls down the throats of chilled lambs: "In a matter of minutes the chilled creature would be on its feet and full of renewed energy…wriggle their tails with joyous excitement as the warmth from the brandy spread through their bodies."

Ancient Palestinian shepherds may have used wine to similar effect.


"SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE"

All sheep suffer stresses and dangers. But sympathetic, skilful management by a caring shepherd generally meant "goodness and mercy". His presence ensured the sheep lacked nothing throughout the year.


"AND I SHALL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOR EVER"

As winter neared the shepherd led his sheep home. In Palestine flocks were kept under shelter from the November rains until Passover and fed on barley and chaff. Small flocks stayed in their owner's house. Sheltered from rain, storm and cold, and adequately fed, winter was a time of composure.


CONCLUSIONS:

Psalm 23 has comforted or healed millions of people, the weak, sick, broken-hearted and disappointed. Its purported author, David, had himself experienced danger, hardship, loneliness, anguish, betrayal, pain, sin and forgiveness.

In the New Testament Jesus is the "good shepherd" who "lays down his life for his sheep." (John 10:11) Similarly Christian elders are to:
"tend the flock of god … as God would have you do it, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge but be examples to the flock…clothe yourselves with humility in all your dealings with one another…" (I Peter 5:1-5)
Psalm 23 is grounded in biology and history. Also in economic reality since properly managed sheep supply meat, fat, wool, milk and skins of superior quality.

The main lesson, however, is spiritual and teaches: "Cast all your anxieties on God, for he cares about you." (1 Peter 5:7)


REFERENCES:

Bardorff, W. 1950 Brehms Tierleben, Safari-Verlag, Berlin, pp 319-320

Keller, P. 1976 A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Pickering & Inglis.

http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

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