The Lord is my Shepherd

The Wilderness

We may not want to face the wilderness, but the "rocks" of life are the very places where God often brings sweetness into our lives.

Rugged wilderness covers much of Israel. The two most prominent deserts are the Judea Wilderness running along the eastern edge of the Judea Mountains, and the Negev lying in southern Israel.

Israel's wilderness abounds with rocks, hills, and canyons. The climate is one of extremes; scorching hot temperatures by day turn to near-freezing temperatures at night. Though it receives little rainfall, the wilderness can sustain the flocks of nomadic shepherds.

The Israelites felt rooted in the desert: their patriarchs had been nomadic shepherds in the desert and the Israelites wandered there for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Jewish writers filled the Text with wilderness images.

The wilderness had few settled areas, and many people sought solitude or safety there. David hid from King Saul, John the Baptist lived, and Jesus faced His temptation all in Israel's wilderness.

Whether seeking solitude, safety, or pastures for their flocks, the extremes of desert life reminded the Israelites of their need for God.

The Lord is My Shepherd

As God's sheep, have we spent enough time with Him to recognize His voice?

Shepherds in Israel are quite young. Boys and girls as young as twelve can have charge of an entire flock. Grown men rarely travel with the flocks.  Instead the men watch their undershepherds from a distance while they care for matters in the camp.

Over time, the shepherd's voice becomes familiar to her sheep. When several flocks stay together for a night, the sheep always recognize their shepherd's voice in the morning. They will not follow any other voice.

Describing God as a shepherd in Psalm 23, David created a beautiful picture for the Israelites, and for us. As we undershepherd the "flocks" God has put in our care - whether they be friends, children, students, or coworkers - God is watching over us.

But the comparison also brings a challenge. As God's sheep, have we spent enough time with Him to recognize His voice? If we are truly His sheep, then we will follow Him alone, ignoring other voices that may tempt us.

Green Pastures

Our Shepherd doesn't promise a life of comfort, but He will always give what we need.

Many Westerners imagine lush, green meadows when they hear the word "pasture," but "green pastures" in Israel actually look like rocky, barren hillsides. Scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a single tuft of grass can sprout up.

Even though they eat all of one day's grass, the sheep do not worry about where tomorrow's grass will come from. They trust the shepherd to find new pastures for them.

Psalm 23's image of God providing "green pastures" challenges believers to trust God day by day. The Good Shepherd doesn't promise a life of luxury or long-term supplies, but He will always give the pasture needed for the moment.

As His sheep, we should trust God today rather than worrying about the future. You may not see it now, but a new tuft of grass will always be there in the morning.

Watch a clip about Green Pastures

Quiet Waters

God's people thirst for various "waters" - careers, lifestyles, friends. But only our Shepherd knows what waters are safe to drink.

The most frequent cause of death in the wilderness is not starvation, thirst, or heat exhaustion. Surprisingly, most wilderness deaths happen through floods.

The nearby limestone mountains cannot absorb rainwater. The water runs into the desert, creating sudden and violent floods that fill the wadis - canyons that have been carved out by past floods. Anyone standing in the wadi when a flood comes will be swept away.

Shortly after the flood, a wadi becomes dry again. Sometimes a bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the wadi floor, and these waters are attractive to the thirsty wilderness flocks.

But these are not the "quiet waters" of Psalm 23. A wise shepherd knows that walking through a wadi can be dangerous. They know where to find springs of water that are not in dangerous places: "quiet waters" that will safely quench thirst.

As God's people today, we also thirst for various "waters" - careers, lifestyles, friends, activities. Sometimes those waters are safe, but sometimes they are dangerous. Only our Shepherd knows what waters are safe for us to drink.

Paths of Righteousness

The path of righteousness for Christians today is a lifewalk that heads straight to our Shepherd. If we take our own detours, we are not truly his sheep.

Sheep always travel in a straight line, which creates problems when a shepherd calls to sheep further up the hillside: The animals will not walk around hazardous obstacles, but plummet straight down, getting hurt in the process. To avoid this problem, shepherds guide their sheep using straight trails that slowy zig-zag down the hills.

The Hebrew language uses the same word for "straight" and for "righteousness." Thus the "straight paths" of the shepherd were the "paths of righteousness" mentioned in Psalm 23. The Israelites understood that the path of righteousness is the path that leads straight to the shepherd.

The path of righteousness for Christians today is a lifewalk that heads straight to our Shepherd. If we follow other voices or take our own detours on the trail, we are not truly his sheep. Our Shepherd is good, and he will always make sure the path is safe for us to travel.

The Valley, the Rod, and the Staff

When David wrote about the "valley of the shadow of death," he found comfort in the care of his Shepherd.

Shepherds often watch their flocks from a distance. But when night comes, they walk among the sheep. They know that darkness brings greater danger to the sheep, and so they walk beside them, guarding them closely from harm.

During both night and day, shepherds need to defend their sheep from predators. Using a rod, they attack the unwelcome animal to keep it from hurting the flocks. This protective rod is never used to hurt the sheep themselves. If a sheep does wander, the shepherd's staff is used to gently nudge the animal back to safety.

When David wrote, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me," he surely envisioned the protection and care of a shepherd.

Like a shepherd, God always walks closely with his people through the dark hours of life. His rod and staff are never used to harm us. During life's most difficult moments, God draws closer, giving us comfort while also protecting and disciplining us to keep us safe.

The Table Prepared

God's amazing love can be seen in the picture of Bedouin hospitality. Even when enemies surround us, God will offer us his hospitality and protection.

Though we do not know every detail about the Israelites' everyday life, the Bedouin living in Israel today preserve a nomadic lifestyle that dates back to ancient times.

Bedouin live in tents and travel as nomadic tribes, much as the ancient Israelites would have done. Their shepherds tend flocks in the wilderness, just as King David did when he was a young boy.

In Bedouin tradition, guests are treated with great honor. Visitors, even strangers, are provided with the best they can offer. The Bedouin would fight to their own death to defend their guests from any harm.

The amazing hospitality of the Bedouin was probably common behavior to the ancient Israelites. When David wrote that the Lord "prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies, my cup overflows" he probably drew on imagery from his everyday life.

By doing so, he gave a beautiful picture of God's love. Even when enemies surround us, he offers protection and provision.

Honey From the Rock

We may not want to face the wilderness, but the "rocks" of life are the very places where God often brings sweetness into our lives.

The writer of Psalm 81 spoke of God's ability to provide "honey from the rock," pointing to the truth that God's sweetness is often found in the wilderness. We may not want to face them, but the "rocks" in our own lives are the very places where God draws closest.

Dust and rocks are a natural part of our sinful world. Some may be small, others so large that we feel crushed. But the wilderness will not destroy us. We have a good shepherd that walks by us in the darkest hours of life.

Our world glorifies leisure, so it's hard to go to the "wilderness" where life's challenges confront us. Few of us go there by choice. But most of us will walk through the wilderness at some point during our faith journey. When we do, we can count our shepherd to guide us safely through.

Do you trust God to walk with you even in the wilderness?