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Is the Lord Your Shepherd?

By Eric Johnson

Photo by Eric Johnson near Beersheba, Israel, March 2020.

I have found that one of the biblical passages most often cited at funerals is Psalm 23, regardless of whether or not the person in the casket was a Christian believer. In the King James Version (the version I used many years ago to memorize this chapter), Psalm 23 written by David (a shepherd!) reads:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Notice the words at the beginning of this psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In essence, the promises that are made in the rest of this psalm depend on whether or not a person has a personal relationship with Jesus, the Shepherd par excellence. According to David, the true believer can be assured of the following promises:

  • Not be in want (spiritually) (1b)
  • Be able to lie down in peaceful (spiritual) pastures (2a)
  • Be led (spiritually) to calm waters–a wonderful promise when life is stressful and uncertain (2b)
  • Possess a restored soul (3a)
  • Be led in the paths of righteousness (3b)
  • Have no fear of evil (4a)
  • Understand that God is always with him/her (Matthew 28:20) (4b)
  • Have tools (rod and staff) available for comforting–I think of the tool of prayer made available to be able to successfully communicate with the Shepherd (4c)
  • Be able to sit down at a peaceful table despite being having enemies surround him/her (5a)
  • Be (spiritually) anointed (5b)
  • Possess a (spiritual) cup that overflows (5c)
  • Enjoy goodness and mercy for the rest of life (6a)
  • Have security of one’s heavenly position (6b)

Remember, all of these promises are dependent upon that first part: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

If you travel to Israel today, I guarantee that you will see shepherds–many of them–with their sheep and goats in tow grazing on the hills and valleys of grass–at least in the lush early spring. Many of these shepherds are Bedouin whose sheep and goats mean everything to them because these animals are their livelihood. They will do anything necessary to protect these animals. In March 2020 our tour group went to Beersheba (Israel) and saw sheep and goats grazing on a mountain near the entrance of the state park.  (The pictures on this page come from this same flock.)

While we were watching the sheep and goats graze and several large dogs barked viciously at us in the distance, our attention was drawn to one little kid goat (a baby goat is a “kid,” no “kid”ding) that walked around in a way that said, “Hey, I’m here and everyone pay attention to me!” He kept getting closer and closer to our group as we stood on the edge of the parking lot before he finally made a mad but wobbly dash for us. My guide Andre began to pet it and it got the attention it appeared he was looking for. Watch this:

Seeing this, one of the young boys shepherding this flock ran down the hill and scooped up the small goat, taking the bleating animal away. He surely knew we meant no harm, but the boy had been trained not to allow the flock to mingle with anyone, especially tourists! Watch this:

If you would like to get more insight on sheep, goats, and the meaning of Psalm 23, I highly recommend a DVD (Soul Shepherd) produced by my friend Joel Kramer who followed Bedouin shepherds around for several years and came up with some incredible footage. Joel explains the role of the shepherd and the connection with Jesus utilizing John chapter 10. Here is the first half of John 10:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.

But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.

And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.

And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.

This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.

Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.

All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.

I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.

10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.

13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.

14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.

16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.

18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

I believe Jesus had David’s Psalm 23 in His thoughts when he said these things. I realize many Latter-day Saints might get tripped up on verse 16 and want to dwell on the unique LDS belief that Jesus is here predicting Book of Mormon idea that “other sheep” were the descendants of Lehi. (Without dwelling on this topic, just know that it is taken out of context…see here for an article as well as a short video explaining this verse.) I encourage you not to get deterred. Instead, focus on what Jesus is saying in John 10:

  • Verse 2: The Shepherd enters by the pen’s door and does not come in an illegitimate manner. Even today in Israel, there are open-air sheep pens with stone walls and an open entrance that the shepherd can seal off by leaning on the wall and laying his legs across it. Thus, sheep can’t escape and predators can’t come into the pen without the shepherd knowing about the escape/intrusion. Jesus says in verses 7 and 9 that He is, proverbially, this door.
  • Verse 3: The sheep (believers) are called by the Shepherd who knows them by name. They won’t follow a stranger (verse 5) because it is not safe.
  • Verse 4: The sheep follow because they trust the shepherd. Today’s Middle Eastern shepherds have unique clicking sounds or guttural whistles made in their throats to let their sheep know which way to go. And they do follow! In the same way, believers know the voice of their Shepherd and follow Him. As verse Psalm 23:3b says, “he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
  • Verse 10b: Jesus came to give His Sheep an abundant life, just as Psalm 23:6 says that “goodness and mercy shall follow” the believers for the rest of their lives. 
  • Verses 11 and 15: The Good Shepherd gives up his life for the sheep. Romans 5:8 says that while the sheep “were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” That is ultimate love.
  • Verse 14: The Shepherd knows those who are His and He won’t lose any.
  • Verse 16: As the Book of Romans makes very clear, the gift of eternal life was made available to both Jew and Gentile. (For example, Rom. 2:10, 3:29, 4:16, 5:19, and 8:17.)

The Jewish leaders did not like what Jesus had to say and complained. Here is what John reports in the second half of John 10:

24 Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.

25 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.

26 But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

30 I and my Father are one.

Jesus says that a person is either one of His sheep or is not one of His sheep. There is no middle ground. In verse 26, he tells the Jewish rulers that they did not belong to God because they did not believe and were therefore not His sheep. Instead, in the next verse, Jesus said that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Just having a head knowledge about God is not enough. As James 2:19 puts it, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” Rather, what is required is a full heart belief/trust in God. It is an understanding that it was the Shepherd who did the picking, not the sheep. There was nothing the sheep did to qualify to be picked. And no amount of effort on the sheep’s part would qualify that sheep to be a part of the Shepherd’s fold.

If that is the case, consider  verses 28 and 29:

28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

This is reminiscent of what David was talking about in Psalm 23. Verse 6 in David’s psalm says,

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

No more assuring verses can be found in the entire Bible!

Take-home Message

Psalm 23 was never meant to be read at a funeral service of someone who did not put full trust in Jesus. It was not meant to refer to someone who knew about Jesus but never followed Him or who somehow thought that His good works and efforts were necessary to be added to the work already done by the Savior. As comforting as it might seem, this is a passage that a nonbeliever cannot claim. In fact, if someone who did not know Jesus as the Great Shepherd wants to have this chapter read at their service, then it ought to be made clear that the proper way to read Psalm 23 should go like this:

The Lord is NOT my shepherd; I shall want.

He maketh me NOT to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me NOT beside the still waters.

He restoreth NOT my soul: he leadeth me NOT in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear evil: for thou art NOT with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me NOT.

Thou preparest NOT a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest NOT my head with oil; my cup DOES NOT runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall NOT follow me all the days of my life: and I will NOT dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Perhaps reading the chapter like this would help deliver the message that only a believer can claim the promises made in Psalm 23! And then, to understand that the only way to “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” is through faith in Jesus alone and following Him as the Good Shepherd.

If you are not a Christian believer who has fully trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, there is hope! I think one of the most encouraging things about John 10 comes in the last verse (42): “And many believed on him there.” The Gospel was given by Jesus, the message was heard by the crowd, and those who were called believed in Him. The message go through! And the angels rejoiced (Luke 15:10).

Is the Lord your Shepherd? Would you like to know that. as John 10:28 puts it, you “shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” The hands of the Shepherd are wide open. Is He calling your voice now? Would you like to be assured that your soul is eternally secure in Him? Will you receive Him today?

If you would like to talk to someone about receiving Jesus and what it means to come into a relationship with Him, please email me today and let’s chat.

Eric Johnson can be reached at eric at mrm dot org


Check out 10 Reasons Why a Person Ought to Consider Becoming a Christian

 

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