The symbolism in this well-known Psalm is
far more complex and fascinating than just the obvious image of
a guy walking down a lane with a big staff and a dog, or
the pretty girl of nursery rhymes with a bow on her crook as the sheep
The demands on real living shepherds are constant and endless. Sheep are peculiarly needy and helpless creatures, quite restive, timid, and even self-destructive at times. They can stand still for hours or bolt into stampede because an apple drops unexpectedly from a tree. If they are heavy with lambs, they will likely lose them in the running and panic. The shepherd must keep continuous vigil against disease, insect infestations, pecking order fights, escape artists, water and food supplies, and especially predators. Two untrained dogs can slaughter nearly 300 sheep overnight if the sheep are untended. Sheep will NOT lie down unless they are completely contented and secure. A special oil mixture that the shepherd prepares and swabs (anoints) around the sheep's head and nose keeps deadly insects from burrowing and causing panic and disease, and the sheep is calmed for a bit. Then there are shearing and lambing seasons...
Taken line by line in this Psalm we can see, feel, and almost hear Jesus, our Shepherd, here with us, reviving, caring, comforting, and anointing. Watching over us, preparing our table, restoring us. Nothing we need is withheld. A Good Shepherd's job is never done.
Most Gracious and Vigilant Shepherd,
How much of my life I have known the words of this lovely little Psalm ~ but have I paid attention to them? Have I understood what they really mean in my life? They're so familiar that when it comes time I recite them with a matter-of-fact monotone voice without even listening to myself. But for today, I will give up taking for granted that You ARE the Shepherd who restores my soul and anoints my heart when I call on You. I will take on reading this Psalm carefully and slowly at least twice. I will pray these words with conscious intention and attention, recognizing the important message that Christ Jesus IS my shepherd. I will read it one time as a prayer for myself, emphasizing the parts that do refer to me: The Lord is MY Shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes ME lie down in green pastures and leads ME beside still waters......
And then, I will read it once more (at least). Only this time I'll add the name and appropriate pronouns of someone I know as an intercessory prayer. And I will carry the image of Jesus leading us, comforting us, anointing us as we walk toward dwelling in the House of the Lord forever. I think I will call this, Psalm 23.1. amen.
Psalm 23 (format from the Book of Common Prayer)
The Lord is Margaret's shepherd;
She shall not be in want.
He makes Margaret lie down in green pastures
and leads her beside still waters.
Though Margaret walks through the valley of the shadow of death,
She shall fear no evil; for you are with her;
your rod and your staff, they comfort her.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow her all the days
of her life, and Margaret will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen.
*Sheep herding information from "A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23," by W. Phillip Keller, with a closer look at the fascinating connections between the Psalm's descriptions and real life sheep farming.
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