Chances are, as much as we might love the 23rd Psalm, we don’t typically think of ourselves as sheep. The more we prize our independence, the less inclined we’ll be to think of ourselves as just mindlessly following our desires or going along with the crowd. (Sorry, sheep. You get such a bad rap. Maybe you have your own negative stereotypes about humans?) We like to believe in our own ability to make good and right decisions, to find our way.
Until we get lost.
Our prayers can be like that too, only crying out to God when circumstances feel out of control, when our own self-leadership fails. That’s when we draw comfort from texts like the Shepherd Psalm, trusting God to lead us through the dark valleys to lush pasture.
A few weeks ago, I asked you to reflect on a curious passage near the end of Psalm 77, in which the psalmist refers to the invisible footsteps of God. The earlier verses are full of deep lament and anguished questioning; the psalmist wonders if God has turned his back on his people forever. But the psalmist doggedly persists in dwelling on the miracles of the past and the mightiness of God:
The waters saw you, God—
the waters saw you and reeled!
Even the deep depths shook!
The clouds poured water,
the skies cracked thunder;
your arrows were flying all around!
The crash of your thunder was in the swirling storm;
lightning lit up the whole world;
the earth shook and quaked. (Ps 77:16-18, CEB)
There are possible echoes here of the stories of creation, the Flood, even the revelation on Mount Sinai. Despite his doubts, the psalmist knows he serves an incomparably powerful God, who speaks in thunder and makes the ground shake. And at the end of the psalm, the psalmist’s thoughts seem to turn to the exodus from Egypt:
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters,
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Ps 77:19-20, CEB)
Here, Psalm 77 seems to meet Psalms 1 and 23. Psalm 1 gives us the basic worldview of two paths in life, righteousness or wickedness; in Psalm 77:19, the word “way” is the same one used in Psalm 1:1, the first verse of the entire Psalter. Psalm 23 reminds us that we are guided in the way by a shepherd who cares for us; the word “led” in Psalm 77:20 is also used in Psalm 23:3.
I imagine the psalmist meditating on the exodus, putting himself in the place of the terrified masses. The Egyptian army had caught up to them from behind; their only way of escape was forward, into the sea. All night, the people fled through darkness across the muddy seabed, with walls of water towering on either side of them.
Put yourself in their…well, sandals. Even with the clear evidence of the miraculous might of God, I would have been terrified.
Throughout their flight from Egypt, the people had been led by a pillar of cloud or fire (or “lightning” as the CEB would have it); Exodus 13:22 makes a point of saying that the pillar remained in front of the people 24/7. But as the people hurried through the sea, the pillar stood behind them, between them and the Egyptian army (Exod 14:19). Even if Moses and Aaron led the way through the gloom, their destination was unfamiliar and shrouded from view.
“Your footprints were unseen.” God may stand between us and danger, but we may still have to flee into darkness. Can we believe that we are still led, like lost and vulnerable sheep, by a shepherd whose tracks can’t be seen?