A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23: An Inspiring and Insightful Guide to One of the Best-Loved Bible Passages by W. Phillip Keller“It is no mere whim on God’s part to call us sheep. Our behavior patterns and life habits are so much like that of sheep it is well nigh embarrassing.”
In this little treasure of a book, Phillip Keller examines the best-known and most-beloved Psalm and relates it to the reader in ways he may never have thought of before. As one who grew up in East Africa among animal herders and who made his living for a period of time as a sheep owner, Keller truly understands the terminology and experiences of a shepherd as David did. He believes that many of us living in the modern, urban West misinterpret or at least do not fully understand and appreciate the metaphors and meaning David offers in the 23rd Psalm. Keller’s book adds depth to the psalm; after reading A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, you will never read it in the same way again. (If you are unfamiliar with the 23rd Psalm, please take a moment to read it now.)
Keller systematically goes through Psalm 23, breaking it down phrase by phrase and explaining its significance and relevance to those of us who call Christ our Shepherd. With the opening line, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” Keller begins by making an important point. While many people have this Psalm memorized and love to call on it and claim its truths, particularly in times of trouble, merely reciting the beautiful poetic words does not make the statements a reality.
In John 10, Jesus makes the statements, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…I know My own, and my own know Me.” Not every person is one of Christ’s sheep simply by virtue of being born. They are His creatures – yes. But His own blood-bought sheep for whom He laid down His life? Not necessarily. Keller says,
It is a tragic truth that many people who really have never come under His direction or management claim that “The Lord is my Shepherd.” They seem to hope that by merely admitting that He is their Shepherd somehow they will enjoy the benefits of His care and management without paying the price of forfeiting their own fickle and foolish way of life. One cannot have it both ways. Either we belong or we don’t.
If the Lord is my Shepherd, it means He is my Lord, my God, my Master, and my King. Before moving further with the Psalm, Keller challenges readers to consider carefully their own personal relationship to Jesus, as to whether He truly is their Shepherd.
Here are some facts about sheep that have interesting corollaries to the Christian life:
- Sheep are not capable of taking care of themselves.
- The welfare of a flock is entirely dependent on its owner.
- Because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for sheep to be made to lie down.
- When sheep are thirsty they become restless.
- Sheep can go for months without drinking.
- A “cast” sheep is one that has turned over on its back and can’t get up on its own; in this state it is helpless.
- The greatest safeguard for sheep is to keep them on the move.
- Sheep are very vulnerable to and can be adversely affected by tiny insects and parasites.
- During mating season, rams can seriously injure or even kill each other as a result of head-butting.
As Keller explains the habits and issues related to sheep and caring for them, he draws out parallels with the Christian life and how our Great Shepherd cares for us.
One of the chapters I particularly appreciated and found helpful was on the phrase, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Keller explains that the shepherd’s rod is a symbol of his strength, power, and authority, and is used to control, defend, examine, and discipline his sheep. The shepherd’s staff, on the other hand, is a symbol of his care, comfort, guidance, and gentle correction. Keller compares the rod with God’s Word and the staff with the Holy Spirit. Just as the rod is an extension of the shepherd’s arm, “the Scriptures are the extension of [God’s] mind and will and intentions to mortal man.” The authority and power of His Word instructs and controls us, and is used by God to examine and discipline us. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, functions as the staff in the life of the believer, providing guidance and comfort, and conviction when needed. The shepherd uses his staff to “draw sheep together into an intimate relationship” with himself and each other. The touch of the shepherd’s staff makes the sheep aware of his presence; he uses it to be in touch with and to communicate with the sheep, just as Christ in His physical absence sent us the Holy Spirit to make us aware of his presence and to speak to us. Keller observes,
It is [the Holy Spirit] who comes quietly but emphatically to make the life of Christ, my Shepherd, real and personal and intimate to me. Through Him I am ‘in touch’ with Christ. There steals over me the keen awareness that I am His and He is mine.
I found these metaphors to be strikingly applicable and beautiful to reflect upon.
As all analogies do, especially when trying to compare spiritual truths of God with earthly concepts, Keller’s breaks down in places. There are a few passages in which I feel he over-emphasizes man’s decision and willingness to cooperate with God. Keller believes that many Christians are not willing to obey or follow Christ. “There are many willful, wayward, indifferent, self-interested Christians who cannot really be classified as followers of Christ,” he says. Now it’s true that no Christian always obeys Christ perfectly; there are times when we resist His will and leading and choose to go our own way; in fact we do this daily in many small ways. But there really is no such thing as a Christian who is not a follower of Christ, generally-speaking. We may go against His will and willfully choose to sin at times, but this is not the habitual characteristic of a true believer. To cut Keller some slack, though, he is trying to convey the importance of the sheep following the shepherd. The difference is that Keller was an imperfect shepherd with limited ability and control over his flock.
In one troubling illustration Keller describes a ewe he owned which was a wayward sheep who had a tendency to stray and would often escape the confines of the property. This one ewe had a bad influence on her lambs and the other sheep in the flock, and some began to follow her example. Keller compares this ewe to what he calls the carnal Christian, and his analogy breaks down in a horrific manner. In Keller’s real life situation, he decided that in spite of her admirable qualities and his love for her, he just had to get rid of this one ewe, so he butchered her –Yikes! Friends, this is NOT a picture of how Christ deals with His sheep. Unlike Keller, Christ is able to change the heart, desires, and behavior of His sheep. He will NEVER cut off one of His precious ones, for they are part of Him. Christ will never be forced to say of one of His sheep, as Keller did to his wayward ewe, “I love you just as much as the other sheep, but in spite of all that I have done to give you the very best care, you continue to insist on your wayward behavior so you’ve got to go.” In his first letter, speaking of individuals who “leave the flock,” John explains it this way:
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us (I John 2:19).
A sheep like the one Keller describes makes it apparent that it never did belong to the flock; like Judas, it was, in fact, a goat and not a sheep.
While reading through this book and thinking on this issue, I was often reminded of this hymn that we sing at our church:
I was a wandering sheep, I did not love the fold;
I did not love my Shepherd’s voice, I would not be controlled.
I was a wayward child, I did not love my home;
I did not love my Father’s voice, I loved afar to roam.
The shepherd sought his sheep, the Father sought his child;
They followed me o’er vale and hill, o’er deserts waste and wild:
They found me nigh to death, famished and faint and lone;
They bound me with the bands of love, they saved the wandering one.
I was a wandering sheep, I would not be controlled;
But now I love my Shepherd’s voice, I love, I love the fold.
I was a wayward child, I once preferred to roam.
But now I love my Father’s voice, I love, I love his home.
– Horatious Bonar, 1843
Praise God that He is not only our good Shepherd and loving Father, but also our sovereign King, “who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24). With that I will leave you with one important question: Is the Lord YOUR Shepherd?