Psalm 23 Series, Part 1

“The LORD Is My Shepherd”

“I shall not want.” —Psalm 23:1

HOW true are the words of the Lord, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”! (Isa. 55:9) It is only because Jehovah, our Heavenly Father, in his wisdom has illustrated his thoughts for us that we are able to comprehend them. For this reason his Word abounds with pictures, symbols, illustrations, similes, and metaphors which, when we apply their meanings to the thoughts expressed, enable even our limited finite minds to comprehend to some extent the high thoughts of the Creator—his plans for the church and the world, as well as his loving watch-care over us, his people, the sheep of his pasture.

In educational circles the value of illustrations has long been recognized, especially in the instruction of children. How much more readily a child can grasp the thoughts of its teacher if they are illustrated. An adult advanced in education might give an elaborate and very scholarly definition of the word ‘round’, yet the child would not understand it. But the expression, ‘round like an orange’ instantly conveys the idea which it is desired the child should grasp.

And how like children are we all, when we compare ourselves with the God of our salvation! We are glad, therefore, that he not only has assured us of his love and care, but also has helped us to grasp the reality of his nearness and ability to provide for our every need by the use of so many simple, yet meaningful illustrations.

God is our Heavenly Father, and we are his children. What thoughts of parental solicitude and care this conjures up in our minds! He is our refuge, and our fortress, and because of this we rejoice even though we are surrounded by enemies. Under his wings we find shelter and protection. Each of these expressions is an illustration, and there are so many of them employed in God’s Word, and they are so varied in nature, that when we put together the intent of them all, we have a complete picture of his abounding love for us.

“The Lord is my Shepherd”—here is another illustration of divine care; and how wonderfully it helps us to grasp the reality of the Heavenly Father’s love! David, the one used by God to pen these words, had himself been a shepherd, and in the twenty-third psalm we find a beautiful expression of his own confidence in Jehovah, and his realization that God had been caring for him and would continue to do so all the days of his life. David, the man after God’s own heart, drew from his own background of experience as a shepherd a lesson of divine interest and care which perhaps could not have been made so understandable and practical in any other manner.

But the reassuring lesson of the shepherd set forth in this psalm is more than merely the heart expression of the sweet singer of Israel. (II Sam. 23:1) Holy men of old wrote as they were moved by God’s Spirit, and this is true of David in writing the twenty-third psalm. It is one of God’s inspired messages to his people of this age. It is one of the many assurances he has given us of his loving care, a care that is manifested in providing all our needs, of whatever nature they may be.

When David wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” he used the Hebrew word Jehovah, which applies exclusively to the Creator, our Heavenly Father. In the New Testament Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, and Peter refers to him as the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. (John 10:11; I Pet. 2:25) This does not present any conflict of thought, however, for as the apostle explains, “All things are of the Father and by the Son.” (I Cor. 8:6) Jehovah is our Shepherd, and one of the manifestations of his interest in us as his sheep is the gift of his beloved Son to be our Redeemer, advocate, and caretaker.

In the parable of the sheepfold, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, and we are told that the proof of his goodness is that he gave his life for the sheep. Jehovah’s care for us is no less than that of Jesus, for he too has manifested his love by sacrifice: “God so loved … that he gave.” (John 3:16) He loved the entire human race, but his special concern, first of all, has been in the sheep of this Gospel Age. They are very dear to him, and no good thing will he withhold from them.

Whatever of love and sympathy toward the sheep we find manifested in Jesus we are also to attribute to our Heavenly Father, for Jesus came to manifest the Father, and to speak and act for him. “He that bath seen me hath seen the Father,” the Master said. Probably we are able to grasp more fully the thought of Jehovah’s care over us as a Shepherd by considering Jesus and the many assurances he has given us of his love for the sheep. (John 14:9) One of the chief evidences of Jehovah’s care for us is the provision of Jesus as our Shepherd.

As suggested, Jesus is our Shepherd, and how untiring was his devotion to the sheep of his day, many of whom were prone to stray from the fold, not appreciating his interest in them. The whole nation of Israel were the Lord’s sheep at the time of Jesus’ first advent. True, only a remnant of them recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd when he spoke to them, preferring to follow the leadership of the false shepherds of that time—the scribes and Pharisees. Nevertheless, Jesus did not spare himself in doing all he could for the people of Israel; and in this we see manifested the characteristics of a true and faithful shepherd.

Matthew 9:35 reads, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” Here is the description of a life of intense activity, a continuous service which must have sapped the strength of the Master. And he did this despite the claims of the false shepherds of his time that he was a servant of the devil.

Why was Jesus so interested in the rank and file of the Israelites? The next verse of this chapter explains that it was because he was moved with compassion for the multitude seeing that they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. (vs. 36) Ah yes, Jesus had come to be the Good Shepherd of this people, and gladly he was laying down his life for them. The expression, ‘as sheep having no Shepherd’, was first used by Moses concerning Israel when he asked God to appoint someone to take his place as leader. (Num. 27:17) Joshua was appointed to be Moses’ successor, and Jesus, the antitypical Joshua, had now come to be the true Shepherd of Israel.

But even though the Israelites did not recognize the voice of their Shepherd, he was faithful to them and continued to sacrifice his time and strength in their interests. Another notable example of this is found in connection with his feeding of the five thousand, the account of which is recorded in Mark 6:31-52. John the Baptist had just been beheaded, and as we can well imagine, there was great excitement among the people. Naturally at such a time, Jesus and his disciples would attract more attention than ever, and the account indicates that there were so many people milling about them that there was no opportunity for needed relaxation and rest. In view of the situation Jesus said to his disciples, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.”—Mark 6:31

Jesus was fully justified in seeking rest for himself and for his disciples, and they attempted to evade the throngs of people and get away but were not successful in doing so. They entered a boat and crossed to the opposite side of the lake where they hoped to be alone, but a multitude of people hurried around the shore of the lake and were waiting for the boat when it arrived. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and those whom he was training to be Shepherds of the flock later, were weary. (I Pet. 5:1-4) He probably knew that very few, if any, of this throng of people who had come out into the desert to meet him, would ever become his true disciples. For this mason he might well have sent them away; but he did not.

We read that, instead, his heart was filled with compassion and that he taught them many things because he saw that they were as “sheep not having a Shepherd.” (Mark 6:34) They needed him, and although they did not appreciate the chief blessings he had for them at that time, nevertheless he loved them. In this we see the qualities of a true shepherd beautifully manifested in the Master. These sheep of Israel were scattered. They needed guidance and care, and the Good Shepherd was ready and willing to serve them even though he was tired and in dire need of rest. He taught them many things, and before the day was over he performed a miracle to feed them with material food—the loaves and the fishes.

Judging from what he accomplished, this must have been a long and tiring day of service for the Master. Evening had come by the time the five thousand were fed, and then Jesus sent his disciples back across the lake, while he went up into a nearby mountain to pray. A storm arose on the lake, and noticing that his disciples were in peril, Jesus came down from the mountain, walked out onto the lake, and rescued them by calming the storm. (Mark 6:46-51) He loved all Israel, but these disciples were his peculiar care, and even though he still had had no rest, he was glad to use the little remaining vitality he had to save them. What a wonderful Shepherd!

Another loving arrangement of Jehovah, the Chief Shepherd, is the provision he has made for additional shepherds besides Jesus. The apostles were some of these. All true pastors and teachers and evangelists in the church have been shepherds over the Lord’s flock. This is also true of those elected elders by their local ecclesias. And just as we see in Jesus a perfect example of the Chief Shepherd’s interest in and care for the sheep, so all the shepherds should endeavor to pattern themselves after Jesus by seeking to serve the sheep as patiently, lovingly, and untiringly as he did.

One of the chief characteristics of a good shepherd is his genuine interest in and concern for the sheep. Those whom the Lord can use as shepherds over his flock must have this qualification. They must be willing, like Jesus, to lay down their lives for the sheep. One of the characteristics of a false shepherd is his desire to make profit from the sheep. Frequently the exploitations of such cause the Lord’s true sheep to be scattered and fearful.

A faithful shepherd will do all he can to gather the scattered sheep. Nowhere in the Scriptures does the Lord indicate that he would ever want his sheep to be scattered. There are prophecies to show that on certain occasions they would be scattered by false shepherds, but the divine commission to true shepherds is always one of gathering—never of scattering. When Jesus, our Shepherd, was smitten, the true sheep which he had gathered were temporarily scattered. When that “faithful and wise Shepherd” (Matt. 24:45) whom the Lord raised up at the end of the age was smitten in death, the true sheep again were scattered (tech. 13:7; Matt. 26:31); and now once more the Lord would have his true shepherds gather his sheep that they may be together and rejoice together in the abundance of his love.

When we think of the Lord’s sheep being brought together, it is well to keep in mind that to which they are gathered. Every true gathering of the Lord’s sheep is around him as the Supreme Shepherd. This means that the sheep will recognize the arrangements made for them by the Shepherd. Of first importance in this arrangement is Jesus. He is the appointed Shepherd of the Lord. Jesus is the Head over his church, and each local congregation of the Lord’s people is representative of the church as a whole; therefore each such group is, in a sense, a sheepfold, and the elders of the congregation are also shepherds in these folds, and they cooperate with Jesus in caring for the best interests of the sheep.

If these have the true shepherd qualities, they will do all in their power to protect the sheep against the encroachments of false shepherds. Individuals who prey upon the local groups of the Lord’s people, seeking to interest them in new ideas, and at the same time speaking disparagingly of the shepherds the Lord has put over his sheep in the various local churches, are false shepherds. Their influence is one of scattering, not of gathering. They are often more interested in what they can get out of the sheep than they are in the welfare of the sheep. True shepherds of the Lord’s people everywhere should be on guard against those who thus stir up strife and ill-will among the sheep, and should advise the sheep to be on guard against them.

A faithful shepherd will never invite another shepherd to serve the flock unless he feels sure that the one invited will serve wholesome food, and does not have selfish designs on the sheep. This is very important now, for there are many would-be shepherds abroad in the land seeking flocks to follow them. Their voices are smooth, wistful, pleading. They offer “liberty” to the sheep. They tell the sheep that the food being provided for them—the food of present truth—is not what it ought to be, and for them to exercise their liberty to go in search of other food. Thus, in the name of liberty, the false shepherds scatter the flock of God.

Liberty is a beautiful philosophy, but its application must be with reason and moderation. Genuine shepherds have liberty only to care for the Lord’s sheep as the Chief Shepherd has directed. The sheep have liberty only to hearken to the voice of the Good Shepherd, to be led by him, and to feed upon the spiritual food which he has provided. False shepherds and wolves in sheep’s clothing should not be given liberty to devour the sheep; although in the name of liberty some may attempt to do this.

While we have been making a distinction between the shepherds in the ecclesias, and the sheep, these shepherds are also sheep, and every sheep in the Lord’s little flock has a certain measure of responsibility toward the other sheep. They should all endeavor as well as they can to care for one another. We can all do much along this line by remaining together. When we separate ourselves from the other sheep, and thus become more or less isolated, we become exposed to danger. It is the Chief Shepherd’s will that we remain together, so let us not tempt his providence by expecting him to care for us in a self-imposed separation from his flock.

The Lord’s true sheep can say from the heart, “I shall not want,” only if they heed the voice of the Good Shepherd. And when they do hearken to him, how bountifully all of their needs are supplied. No good thing will the Shepherd withhold form those who walk uprightly. “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,” he has promised. “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” is another blessed assurance of the Chief Shepherd, which gives even the weakest of sheep the comfort and encouragement they need for every difficulty of the way.

In the parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus explained that there were other sheep which also were to be gathered into the fold of God’s favor. The sheep of this particular parable are evidently the Israelites who were in line for joint-heirship with Jesus in the spiritual phase of his kingdom. Some have thought that the other sheep were the Gentiles, but actually the Gentiles who are called into the fold during the Gospel Age merely take the place of the natural descendants of Abraham. They are the “wild” branches grafted into the olive tree of promise, to take the place of the natural branches which were broken off because of unbelief.—Rom 11:17

The “other sheep,” then, are those of the restitution class who will receive blessings of life on the earth during the thousand-year reign of Christ. These are depicted in the parable of the sheep and the goats, and here the sheep are bidden to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. (Matt. 25:34) While the sheep of this parable represent the restored world of mankind rather than the little flock class of this age, the parable indicates that they possess characteristics pleasing to the Good Shepherd which we should emulate; namely, their interest in the welfare of one another. All the true sheep of the Lord, whether in this age or the next, must possess this quality of mutual interest and helpfulness.

The parable of the lost sheep illustrates still further the loving interest of the Good Shepherd. In this parable there are a hundred sheep, ninety-nine of which remain in the fold. These ninety-nine represent all the various orders of God’s creatures which were created in his image, and over which he maintains a Shepherdly care. Seraphim, cherubim, and all the holy angels are among these; and there may be still others. The human race is represented by the one sheep which strayed from the fold and was in danger of death.

Here again the Good Shepherd is shown in a role of self-sacrifice on behalf of the one sheep which needs his help. The Shepherd which leaves the ninety and nine is Jesus. He left the heavenly courts and came to earth as a man to seek and “to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10) When the lost sheep is found and restored to the fold of divine favor and protection there is great rejoicing in heaven; and surely all of God’s creatures will indeed rejoice when the work of ransom and restitution is complete, and the human race is back in the fold of the Chief Shepherd.

The lesson of this parable should also bring home to us the great love of the Good Shepherd, and the self-sacrificing qualities all shepherds should possess. It is not enough that a shepherd be content to serve sheep which already are in the fold. Often there is a task for him to perform outside the fold, where conditions are far from favorable. The true shepherd will not wait for wayward sheep to come to him, but will seek them out and do all in his power to restore them to the fold.

Such should be the attitude of every true child of God, for as we have seen, all the sheep should possess mutual interest in one another, cooperating with the Good Shepherd in caring for the flock. In this role, each one, to a limited degree, is a shepherd as well as a sheep. No true sheep of God will be indifferent to the needs of other sheep, especially those of his own flock. Paul expressed this thought when he wrote, “As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”—Gal. 6:10

Yes, “the Lord [Jehovah] is my Shepherd.” He is the Chief Shepherd of all who will become his people and who will listen to his voice to guide them in the paths of righteousness. He has appointed Jesus to be the Good Shepherd under him, and this Good Shepherd has already manifested his love for all the sheep by laying down his life for them. The sheep of this Gospel Age are still dependent upon the Good Shepherd’s care, for false shepherds, and wolves in sheep’s clothing are ever seeking to scatter and destroy the flock. We have the assurance, however, that no harm can come to them if they follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.

The sheep of the next age are as yet outside the fold. Jesus came to seek and find them also, and they are still to be brought back into the fold. This task awaits the establishment of the kingdom, when the sheep of this age, having demonstrated their shepherd-like qualities of self-sacrifice for others, even unto death, will be with the Good Shepherd in glory, sharing with him in the blessed work of restoring the lost race.

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
         In the shelter of the fold,
But one was out on the hills away
         Far off from the gates of gold—
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
         Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine:
         Are they not enough for thee?”
But the Shepherd made answer: This of mine
         Has wandered away from me,
And although the road be rough and steep,
         I go to the desert to find my sheep.”

But none of the ransomed ever knew
         How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
         Ere he found his sheep that was lost.
Out in the desert he heard its cry—
         Sick and helpless, and ready to die.

But all through the mountains, thunder-riven,
         And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gates of heaven,
         “Rejoice! I have found my sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
         “Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own!”

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Dawn Bible Students Association
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