A Shepherd To Individuals
“The LORD is my shepherd ….” Who can make this claim? Israel, certainly. Yes, Moses, too. David? God was surely David’s shepherd. When no one, absolutely no one, took the stripling David remotely seriously as the one who would wrest the throne from Saul, the LORD raised up Samuel to anoint him king, selecting him over his brothers who were far more likely contenders. David, himself a shepherd, traditionally thought to be the author of this psalm — surely he can make the claim, “The LORD is my shepherd.” <!–split–>
Yes, when we think of it, there are many scattered throughout what we call the Old Testament who could pray this psalm and mean it: “The LORD is my shepherd.” We have what the letter to the Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses who, when they were reduced to nothing, were led, shepherded, provided for by the LORD. Deborah and Barak, Gideon, laying out his fleece, all guided to take on the mighty Philistine charioteers — and prevail. Ruth, clinging to the skirt of her mother-in-law, like Abraham leaving her country and her kindred and her parents’ house. The prophets: Isaiah. Jeremiah, no more than a child, yet speaking the truth to power, and being imprisoned in a dry well for his trouble, brought out again by the intervention of those who had ears to hear God speaking through him.
And finally, David’s direct descendant, the one we call Lord: Jesus Christ — yes, certainly he can pray this prayer, as he prayed, on the cross, the lament contained in the psalm immediately preceding this one. The LORD delivered him out of the very jaws of death.
This psalm and its promises are surely accessible to all of these. Even in the New Testament, those first apostles could surely lay claim to this statement, “The LORD is my shepherd.” When they could do nothing but cower in a locked room, suddenly, the Lord, the risen Lord, Jesus — the Good Shepherd — was there among them, showing them his hands and his side, sending them forth to proclaim the Good News to a world hungry for it. Saul, later Paul, yanked off his horse by the Good Shepherd’s staff as he made his way to Damascus to give those first Christians reason to cry out, “The Lord is my shepherd!” — Paul, persecuted, beaten with rods, given the 40 lashes minus one, and going on to raise up churches throughout that Empire that thought it ruled the world; certainly he had as much claim to the words, “the LORD is my shepherd” as any in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Our Shepherd, Too
But what about us? What about me? Can we be so bold as to make this claim, “The LORD is my shepherd?” Can we move beyond reciting, yet barely daring to believe, these verses as words we were required to memorize as children? How, when, do these words, “The LORD is my shepherd,” become, not just words in the Bible, but our words, even my words? How do I lay claim to these words and make them mine? May I be so bold …?
Let’s look at what comes after the psalmist makes his claim, “The LORD is my shepherd.” I will, the psalmist says, lie down in green pastures. I will surely find myself beside, not troubled waters, but still waters. My soul shall be restored. I will discover right paths, and even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for the LORD, who is indeed my shepherd, will lead me.
Surely the psalmist makes a bold claim in the first verse: “The LORD is my shepherd.” But then the bold claims, by necessity, stop. Yes, I will find myself lying in green pastures — but they will not be pastures I will have sought out or constructed; it is the LORD who will lead me to them. I will rest beside still waters — yet it is the LORD who will take me there. I myself, in my own wisdom, haven’t a clue where they are or how to find them. I cannot find my way to them any more than sheep — let’s face it, notoriously stupid animals — can find their own way to adequate pastures and watering holes.
In making the bold claim, the LORD is my shepherd, the psalmist must move immediately to the understanding that if the LORD is the shepherd — then I must be the sheep. And herein lies the proverbial rub for us denizens of this postmodern world, this self-sufficient, independent culture. We would rather wander in the wilderness than admit that we even need a shepherd. We hold in contempt the very idea that any God worthy of the name — worthy of us — would stoop to be something so lowly as a shepherd. We don’t want a “shepherd,” anyway; we want a warrior king to turn us into a triumphant army of which we will be co-commanders.
Our Need For God
If we would lay claim to this claim, made by so many throughout the centuries, we need also to lay claim to our need for God. If I would pray, The LORD is my shepherd, I have to relinquish my claim that I will find my own way forward. If I would have the LORD as my shepherd, if we would call the LORD our shepherd, we have to let go of our expectation that we will find pastures for ourselves, that we with our technology and our “can-do” spirit will wrest water for ourselves from whatever rock dares stand in our way.
Would we claim the LORD as our shepherd? Then we need to let go. We need simply to rest in the presence of the LORD, seek the LORD’s guidance in prayer, both personal and collective, let go and let the LORD lead. If we would have the LORD as our shepherd — let us first off acknowledge that the LORD is our shepherd.
And then — may the LORD lead us forward, to green pastures, still waters. May the LORD take us down our right path. Even if our right path takes us into the very Valley of the Shadow of Death — we in our humility will be bold, in that we will fear no evil, for we will know our shepherd, and we will know that the shepherd — our shepherd — will be with us always.