I have an old Reader's Digest book called Great People of the Bible and How They Lived. I don't much care for the text but the photos and illustrations are fabulous. One of these, by artist Paul Calle (back in 1974 -- he's come a long way) involves a lion making off with a sheep, in the midst of four bare-chested shepherds armed with spears and slings. If you've ever seen the video of the lion attacking some hunters, you know how fast those things can move. How efficient and powerful of killers they are. To come up against one, armed only with spears, clubs and slings would be daunting to say the least. (If you haven't seen it, you can see it here, but be warned -- it's kind of hard to watch and the lion dies.).
Shepherds of David's day and before were not wimps. When Joseph's brothers sold him to the slavers, they concocted a story about having found his tunic torn and bloodied, and their father Jacob naturally concluded that he'd been eaten by a wild beast. It was a good story because that was a common end to shepherds in the field. When you went out with your sheep (your flock of brainless mutton on the move, the world's first mobile cafeteria) you knew that there would be predators that would come to seek what you were guarding and guiding. David recounts his own story of having killed both lion and bear to get his sheep back. David, the shepherd who slew the giant Goliath with a sling and a sword. .
Shepherds were tough and fierce. David, writing of the Twenty-Third Psalm knew that as well as anyone, and was a demonstration of it.
In last week's conference Pastor John Farley quoted from Josias Leslie Porter's book, Five Years In Damascus: With Travels And Researches In Palmyra, Lebanon, The Giant Cities Of Bashan And The Hauran. Porter was an 18th century missionary who visited the middle east in order to get a better idea of the reality behind many of the images used in the Bible. He said that shepherds even of that day had none of the peace and placidness we see in the stereotypes of devotional renderings. They were more like warriors. Grim-faced and fierce eyes, armed with dagger, pistols, battleaxe, and club they went out prepared to do battle for their sheep.
"Don't confuse the Lamb with the Shepherd," said Pastor Farley. "If a shepherd is up to the task of guarding and keeping his sheep, he will be more like a lion."
I think that's wonderful imagery to help us see yet another facet of our Lord's person and character. In fact, that's what this psalm is about: who is our God? David could have cited the ten characteristics of His essence, but instead, he went a step further. The Lord is my Shepherd. My big, bad shepherd who is absolutely up to the task of handling all my needs, of bringing me to the place of choice grass and quiet, soul restoring waters, who will heal all my wounds, guard me from ravening beasts, and whack me over the head with his rod or haul me out of thickets with his staff when needed. With this guy leading me, taking care of me, providing for me, how can I possibly ever lack for anything?
Well... the fact is, I can't. And every time I worry about anything, no matter how small, I'm being exactly like the stupid sheep who freaks out at the sudden appearance of a rabbit and starts a stampede of the other stupid sheep in his periphery. And the best thing is, my shepherd knows that. He knows my weakness, and He knows how to take care of me in spite of it.
The Lord is my shepherd, I CANNOT lack.