(Investigator 152, 2013
"THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD"
Psalm 23 in the Bible
teaches that God guides people tenderly as a skilful shepherd guides
And sheep do need
guidance. W. Bardorff (1950) writes:
domesticated sheep is quiet, patient, gentle, dull, submissive,
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
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.
There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to
"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:
Hunger and danger;
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
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
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
A careful shepherd
counted his sheep daily. If any were missing, possibly "cast down", he
searched for them. The 20th century shepherd writes:
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
The good shepherd
"restored" his sheep by removing whatever downgraded its health or
threatened its security.
"HE LEADS ME IN PATHS
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
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
"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;
A shepherd used his staff
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).
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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
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:
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)
Bardorff, W. 1950 Brehms
Tierleben, Safari-Verlag, Berlin, pp 319-320
Keller, P. 1976 A
Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Pickering & Inglis.