Ask someone spontaneously if they know what the Psalms are. Then ask them to quote one. I would guess that the most popular response would be Psalm 23, the beloved Shepherd Psalm attributed to David. Many have memorized the psalm in the poetic language of the King James Version:
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.
Shepherd imagery would have had special significance to David and others of his time and culture; much of it, I’m afraid, is lost on a modern city boy like myself. My only experience of sheep is in a petting zoo. (And while we’re at it, I’m not sure how I’d feel about having my head anointed with oil.)
In the Psalms, sheep are a metaphor for vulnerability (44:11, 22), lostness (119:176), and cluelessness about our mortality (49:12-14). Similarly, Isaiah, in a messianic prophecy, declares that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NIV). We are guilty before God for our sin, but we should also remember the poignancy of the prophet’s image: from God’s perspective, we are lost and wandering.
But vulnerability also means dependence on one who is trustworthy. We are the sheep of God’s pasture; we belong to him, and that is cause for joy and worshipful praise (Ps 100), even as we pray desperately for deliverance (Ps 79).
Thus the Shepherd Psalm. The image is of being led to a place which I desire but cannot find on my own. The pasture is green and plentiful; the water is untroubled, so I can drink freely without fear of being swept away by the current. For those of us who are less inclined to identify with sheep, the psalmist also gives us the image of a rich banquet table and an overflowing cup.
But perhaps to say that these are things that I “desire” puts the matter too mildly; good pasture and clear water are things I need to survive. “He restoreth my soul” sounds vaguely like some form of spiritual refreshment, because we don’t readily identify with the word “soul.” But the Hebrew suggests something more like the very essence of our life–hence the CEB translation, “He keeps me alive.” God keeps me alive, knowing my needs and my anxiety (Luke 12:22-31), and does so with grace, generosity, and his constant, reassuring presence.
In my own imagination, I have to substitute the dark alley for the dark valley as the place of dread, the place where I most need to know that God is truly with me. I claustrophobically focus on the walls that hem me in, shrinking from the evil that surely lies around every corner and in every darkened doorway. I want to run, but there is nowhere to run to.
And it is precisely at this point that the psalmist turns from speaking about God to speaking directly to him. You are with me. You comfort and protect me. You lead me out of dark and confined places into open spaces of restoration and delight.
So why do I walk through dark alleys with my head down?
Jesus is our Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18); the good news is that he has compassion for our lostness, for those who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36, NIV).
May we continually rediscover what it means to be sheep with a shepherd, with one who goes with us even in the places of deepest shadow.