Imagine you were given this assignment: you had to describe God in just five words. You had to say as much as you could about God, about His character, His purposes, the relationship He desires with us and the kind of relationship we can have with Him in just five words. What five words would you choose? It seems almost impossible to accomplish that task - to say all we need to know about God in just five words, and the truth is, it probably is impossible.
But if you were given that task, you could approach it in two different ways. You could narrow it down to five individual words, such as loving, faithful, powerful, wise, and holy. Of course, then you’ve left out characteristics of God such as sovereign, just, merciful, righteous, and eternal.
Or you could make up a sentence that describes God, though obviously that would be a short sentence since you could only use five words. It seems like it would be impossible to say all we need to know about God in just five words, but one writer came incredibly close to doing that.
I want to turn our attention to Ps. 23. This psalm can almost stand on just one line in it. Almost every Christian knows this line. Even if they don't know the rest of the psalm, even if they have not memorized any other part of Scripture, they probably know this line by heart. It is just five words in English, but if these five words were the only words of Scripture you had ever heard, you would have a pretty accurate picture of who God is, what God is like, and what a relationship with God looks like.
These five words make up the first line of the psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd." That one line tells almost everything we need to know about God and the difference He makes in our lives. All the rest of the psalm is simply expanding on what is said here, bringing it into sharper focus. In other words, the rest of the psalm portrays what it means that the Lord is my shepherd. This is one of the most profound lines ever written, not only of the Bible but of all literature.
This is a Psalm of David, probably written toward the end of his life. He is reflecting back on God's faithfulness to him, how God has provided for him, directed him, and protected him. His mind takes him back to the days of his youth, when he was a shepherd of his father's sheep. He recalls how he cared for his sheep, protected his sheep, and led them to green pastures. And as these two memories fill his thoughts - God's goodness and faithfulness to him and his own caring role of a shepherd, the two merge as he realizes that God has been a shepherd to him.
Let's consider in detail this brief statement, word by word. The line begins with "The Lord." Even the word "the" is important because it reminds us that there is only one true Lord. David is not talking about any old god. He is not suggesting that there are a number of gods and one in particular has been like a shepherd to him. He is not reflecting on "a" god but the one, true God - the Creator of heaven and earth, the giver of life. By using the word "the" he draws our attention to the one mighty, majestic, magnificent, only true God.
Then it's important to note the name he used for this one, true God. In the Hebrew, the word "Lord" is "Yahweh." In the Hebrew language and for the people of Israel they had other names for God, but this was the main, most revered and respected name for God.
This is the name God used to describe Himself when speaking to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3, and it means "I am who I am." God doesn't look to anyone or anything for a sense of His identity or the reason for His existence. He is because of who He is - the eternal Creator, the One who causes all things to be.
He is the God who is totally self-sufficient, which means God doesn't need anything. God never needs to add to His wisdom or power or holiness or faithfulness or love for He possesses within Himself all wisdom and power and holiness and faithfulness and love in complete and perfect measure.
The name "I am who I am" also highlights the timelessness of God, which affirms not only that God has always existed and will always exist, but also that God is always the same in these eternal traits and attributes. We never have to worry that God will be less loving today than He was yesterday, or less faithful to us in the 21st century than He was to the ancient Israelites. God doesn't change. He is who He is.
And the amazing thing is that this eternal God who through His power and wisdom brought the whole universe into existence is the One David knows as his shepherd. It's incomprehensible that this almighty God of eternity and Creator of the entire universe would be so concerned about one little man on this very little planet tucked away in a tiny spot of what we call the Milky Way Galaxy which spans 100,000 light years and is but one of billions of galaxies each with billions of stars in God's universe. But God, the Lord, is concerned about this one man David, and God is equally concerned about each of us. How amazing!
Next let's consider the word shepherd. Now there's far more to say about a shepherd and what it means that the Lord is our shepherd than what I can cover today, so I'll only touch on a few things.
First, that God is our shepherd highlights God's deep care and concern for us. In other places David describes the Lord as his Rock or Deliverer, but here David used a much more intimate term - shepherd. The shepherd lives with his flock and he is everything to his flock; he is the flock's physician, guide, provider, and protector. And the flock is everything to the shepherd, so much so that he will risk his life for his flock.
In ancient Israel, a shepherd was not an esteemed position. In fact, a shepherd was pretty much at the bottom of the social ladder. The task of shepherding the sheep was typically given to the youngest - that is, the least esteemed son. Such was the case of David; he was the youngest of eight sons. Amazingly, God is not ashamed to be our shepherd, to assume this unflattering role, for while it may not have had any social prominence at that time, it was a role filled with compassion, faithfulness, wisdom, and goodness - just the way God is.
While not esteemed work, it was hard work that the shepherd undertook. The work of the shepherds required them to be outside with their sheep 24 hours a day, in all kinds of weather and conditions, sometimes battling wild animals or fending off thieves.
As a shepherd, their purpose was not to take care of their own interests but to look after the interests of their sheep - to feed them, water them, guide them, protect them, search for them when they wandered off, and heal them when they were injured. The task of caring for the sheep was unending. So while "the Lord" highlights the greatness, power, and majesty of God, "shepherd" reveals God's humility, for He was willing to stoop so low to assume the role of a shepherd, our shepherd, to serve us.
In caring for the sheep, the shepherd had to know each individual sheep well and to recognize when something was wrong with one of the sheep. The sheep could get hurt walking on a steep, rocky path. It may get cut by sharp thorns. It may be wounded by a wild animal. So the shepherd had to keep a close eye on the sheep and recognize when one needed treatment and care. This is what God our shepherd does for us. One writer, David Roper, describes it like this:
"He sees the marks of sorrow on each face. He knows every cut and bruise, every ache and pain. He recognizes the signs of hounding, misuse and abuse - the wounds that others have given us and the residue of our own resistance....He has compassion on the afflicted and handicapped, on those wounded by their own sin. He understands sorrow, misfortune, broken homes, shattered ambition. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Ps. 147:3). He applies the balm that makes the wounded whole."
Ps. 23 is such an incredible revelation of the nature of God - that He is our shepherd, and one of the things a shepherd does is he heals the wounds of the sheep. So we can depend on God to do the same for us. We all have been wounded in life. We all carry scars with us: broken relationships, personal failures, unfair treatment at work, picked on at school, poor decisions that still haunt us, the untimely deaths of friends or loved ones, people that intentionally hurt us in some way.
God knows all about our hurts and scars, and as our shepherd He works in our lives to bring healing and restoration. Sometimes it's a process that takes time, but we can be sure that God wants us to be whole in every area of our lives, for He is our shepherd, and He cares for us.
Is. 40:11 encourages us with these words: "He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart." What a beautiful picture of God's love and care for us as our shepherd.
And the shepherd's watch care over his sheep is a 24/7 job. Not only are there no days off, there are no hours off. The shepherd is totally committed to his sheep. And so is God in His commitment to us and care for us. To quote David Roper again, as he envisions David writing this psalm:
"He (David) thought of the incessant care that sheep require - their helplessness and defenselessness. He recalled their foolish straying from safe paths, their constant need for a guide. He thought of the time and the patience it took for them to trust him before they would follow. He remembered the times when he led them through danger and they huddled close at his heels. He pondered the fact that he must think for his sheep, fight for them, guard them, and find their pasture and quiet pools. He remembered their bruises and scratches that he bound up, and he marveled at how frequently he had to rescue them from harm. Yet not one of his sheep was aware of how well it was watched. Yes, he mused, God is very much like a good shepherd."
What a keen insight that probably only a shepherd like David would have - the sheep aren't even aware of how well they are being watched. The sheep follow the shepherd as he leads them, but for much of the day they have their heads down as they nibble on grass; they are not even aware that the shepherd is there, watching over them, on the lookout for potential danger, thinking of where to take them next to find fresh pasture, ready to risk his life to keep the sheep from danger. The sheep have no idea.
God is our shepherd and functions as our shepherd even during those times we are totally unaware of His care. In fact, probably much of the time we are oblivious to God and ignorant of His care as we go about our daily lives. Even when we are not thinking about God, when our attention is riveted elsewhere, when we can't sense God, God is still our shepherd, and we are in His care. In speaking of God's watch care over us, Ps. 121:4 assures us, "He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." God watches over His people; He neither slumbers nor sleeps; His attention is never diverted elsewhere. What a wonderful and freeing truth to live by!
The key to living an authentic Christian life is realizing that it is not what we do for God but what He has already done for us and continues to do for us, in us, and through us. What a powerful and life-changing truth! When we are confident that the Lord of all creation, our Good Shepherd, is working for our welfare, at all times and in all the affairs of life, it sets us free from fear, worry, and anxiety. How fantastic that we have a Shepherd who never slumbers nor sleeps!
That brings us to the next word to consider in this first line of the psalm, and that is the word "my." "The Lord is my shepherd." Martin Luther observed that the quality of our religious faith and experience is revealed by personal pronouns. "The Lord is my shepherd." This is where we really come to see something of the close, intimate relationship David enjoys with God. It is one thing to believe that God is a shepherd or is like a shepherd; it is another thing entirely to be convinced that the Lord is my shepherd, just like it's one thing for you to know that Daniela is a wife; it completely different for me to know Daniela as my wife. That's a whole different kind of relationship.
So now we are not talking about generalities concerning God but about our own deep and personal experience with the living Lord, which is what He offers us. It is absolutely astounding to think that the God of heaven and earth, the One who rules history and oversees the destiny of human beings and angels, would give Himself to us in a deep, warm, personal relationship, and that He takes care of us as our shepherd. We can be absolutely assured of His care and guidance for He is my shepherd, your shepherd, our shepherd.
God is known in His individual relationships with people. Yes, in Scripture God is the God of the nation of Israel, but God is also the God of individual believers. In Scripture God is referred to as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," and He desires to be your God, the One you look to for hope, encouragement, direction, purpose, relationship, and of course, eternal life.
That is what God desires for us and makes available to us, but it is up to us to open our hearts to God so we can experience the fullness of life in Him. For God is not remote and inaccessible; He is "my shepherd" tending to my needs. We all should have the goal of being able to truthfully say, "The Lord is my shepherd," to say that with full conviction because we have come to know the Lord in such a personal way and are completely confident in His care for us.
Another person we read of in Scripture who knew God as his shepherd, and actually the first one in Scripture to refer to God as his shepherd was Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. As Jacob approached his death, he looked back over his life and he concluded, "God...has been my shepherd all my life" (Gen. 48:15).
Here again we see the amazing grace of God. For much of his life, Jacob was not a pleasant person. He was selfish and deceitful. He cheated his brother Esau and deceived his own father Isaac. He would grasp and grab, wheel and deal to take advantage of others. Jacob's main concern was himself - how he could get ahead, and he had no problem cheating, lying, or deceiving others to advance his own cause. Why would God even be interested in a guy like Jacob, we wonder? Yet God was not ashamed or unwilling to be Jacob's shepherd - to guide him, protect him, heal him, and over time transform him.
The grace of God is almost incomprehensible. We don't earn the right to be numbered among His sheep. It is not something we qualify for because of our good works or religious observances or pleasant personality. Of course, God will work within us to transform us, but we should never think that God would not be interested in us because of our poor track record.
True, we are not what He wants us to be, but we are not unwanted. Like the Andre Crouch song says, "He looked beyond my faults and saw my need." God invites us to Himself because He knows we need Him and His forgiving, transforming grace. God's pursuit of us is not a reward for our goodness but the result of His decision to love us. God's grace and acceptance and love are available to all, and it always comes as a gift. To quote David Roper one more time as he writes of the shepherd:
"He's aware of each personality and peculiarity. There are the little ones that have to be carried, the cripples that can't keep up, the nursing ewes that won't be hurried, the old sheep that can barely get along. There are the bellwethers that always want to be out front, the bullies that butt and push to get their way, the timid ones that are afraid to follow, the black sheep that are always the exception. There are those that graze their way into lostness and there are others more deliberately on the lam. The Good Shepherd knows us all."
Yes, God knows all of us intimately well, including all the reasons He shouldn't even bother with us. And yet God is deeply concerned for all of us, as a shepherd is for his sheep. And He gives Himself to us as our shepherd, just as He did for David in spite of his sin, and just as He did for Jacob despite his glaring character flaws.
Finally, let's look at the fifth word in this statement by David, and that is the verb "Is." It's important to see that this is in the present tense. Our relationship with God is not about the past. Some people think of the Christian faith as being ancient history. That's not the case. True, God has graciously given us the Bible which records some of what God did in ancient times, and knowing that helps shape and strengthen our faith, but the Christian faith is not simply about things that happened long ago to a certain group of people.
Nor is the Christian faith only about a far-off future. True, we have wonderful promises from God about the future, about the time when Christ will return and abolish all that is evil, about living forever in the loving presence of God our Creator. Being rooted in these promises for our future gives us a sure sense of hope and encouragement.
But while understanding God's actions in the past will inform our faith, and being sure of what God will do in the future will inspire our faith, our relationship with God is lived out and experienced in the present moment. At this moment the Lord is my Shepherd. Whatever our life circumstances are right now, the Lord is with us and doing all for us that a shepherd does - guiding us, feeding us, protecting us, nourishing us.
Jn. 10:3-4 reminds us that at the start of each day the Shepherd "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out..." Every morning the Lord our Shepherd calls us by name and invites us to live the day in Him, under His watchful care, according to His guidance, with full assurance of His love and concern.
When we really understand and grasp this truth, it should fill our hearts with abounding joy and courageous confidence for each day. Knowing that the eternal God and Creator of the universe desires to relate to me as my Shepherd, with all that entails on God's part, gives a dignity and worth and confidence to my life that can be found nowhere else. Knowing God as our Shepherd reveals how great God's concern is for each of us.
Do you know the Lord as your shepherd, the One who directs your life down the good and wholesome path leading to joy and goodness and meaning and freedom? You can today. Just open your heart and surrender to Him. He is the Good Shepherd who came to seek and save the lost.
Or maybe you've been a Christian for many years, but have never really understood what it means that in Jesus, God is our Shepherd, and so your relationship with God has been missing that wonderful and encouraging truth. If that is true for you, then I encourage you to spend time studying and reflecting on the Scripture passages I have referred to today, and let the truth of these passages enlighten your understanding and encourage your faith. God is the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd; that is His character, His nature, and that is His gift to us.