How many species of animals do you suppose inhabit planet earth? Well, I looked it up. If we limit our search to only mammals, so birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians are excluded, there are 5,416 species of mammals. Human beings are one of these, of course. That means when likening human beings, and specifically His people to another animal, God had 5,415 choices. God could have said we are like the mighty lion, or the swift gazelle, or the sly fox. Instead, God says we are like sheep.
The Bible often pictures the people of God as sheep. Ps. 100:3 declares: "Know that the Lord is God, It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture." When God chastised the leaders of Israel for not taking proper care of the people, God said in Ezek. 34:6, "My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. There were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them." And Jesus affirmed in Jn. 10:14, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me." Throughout Scripture we are portrayed as sheep.
However, for us to be pictured as sheep is not a great compliment. Who wants to be a sheep? It's typical for countries to choose an animal to in some way represent that country. In part it's because that particular animal is found in that country, but more importantly, there are certain qualities of that animal that the country wants to have associated with it.
So the United States, early in its history, chose the bald eagle to be our national symbol. The soaring eagle represents strength, freedom, and a kind of majesty. Watching the beauty of an eagle soaring effortlessly in the sky, and then in an instant come screeching to the ground to catch its prey is such a powerful image.
Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and several other countries have the lion for their representative animal. The lion is the king of the beasts. It pretty much rules whatever domain it lives in. It is strong and fast, and almost always comes out on top. Just the roar of a lion instills fear. No wonder they want the lion to be the representative animal of their countries.
Russia is represented by the bear - another obvious choice. The bear symbolizes strength. Bears are to be feared.
Malaysia has the Malayan tiger, and both India and Bangladesh have the royal Bengal tiger. Afghanistan has the snow leopard. Spain, of course, has the bull, and Brazil has the jaguar. All these animals symbolize strength, power, freedom. These are all animals you don't want to mess with, because you won't win that battle. These are the kinds of animals countries like to be associated with.
I looked at a long list of countries and their national animals, and I didn't find one that had chosen sheep to represent them. That's not really surprising!
The same thing is true of athletic teams. In the US, we have football teams like the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Carolina Panthers. I can assure you, no team would choose "Sheep" as their mascot. Can you imagine "The San Francisco Sheep?" Such a name would not strike fear in any opponent.
A sheep represents things we don't want to be. Sheep are weak, defenseless, dependent, helpless. They wander away and get lost. Thus, they need a shepherd to watch over them, protect them, and guide them. Well, we may not like to be pictured that way, but if we are honest we have to admit that we are like sheep. Maybe not all the time or in every way. But like sheep, we need a shepherd.
In Ps. 23 David, even though he was a king and a great military ruler, was writing from the perspective of a sheep, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And we can never fully appreciate all the wonderful truth Ps. 23 conveys to us unless we recognize this about ourselves as well, that we are like sheep.
But while being portrayed as sheep may not be any great compliment, the good news is that we have a wonderful shepherd. In the first message in this series we saw the wonder and beauty and magnificence of God as our shepherd - how He, the Lord of all, cares for us, nurtures us, protects us, and loves us. What a great image.
Last week we focused on the phrase, "The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing," or, "I shall not want." As we saw last week, one of the things we shall not lack is rest - a deep sense of peace and contentment in our souls. We are not shielded from all troubles and trials, but in the midst of them we can have peace of mind because we know our Good Shepherd is watching over us and directing us. When we know God deeply, we experience His rest and peace in our souls, regardless of our outward circumstances, because we know that the God who is good is always with us and caring for us. He fills up that inner emptiness and satisfies the longings of our souls.
Related to that, one of the most encouraging and amazing things the Lord our Shepherd does for us is He restores our souls. This means God grants us life in its deepest sense. When our soul is full, when our soul is energized, we then are truly alive. We may have a lot of things. We may have an overflowing bank account, we may have power and prestige, we may have good health, but if our soul is empty, or if there is a tiredness or weariness in our soul, it's as if we are going through life crippled. But we don't have to live that way. After stating that God made him lie down in green pastures and led him to quiet waters, David said, "He restores, or refreshes my soul." It can be translated as both restores and refreshes, and the Lord does both for us.
There are times when our souls need to be refreshed, we need spiritual renewal. We need to be energized.
The cares of this world and the busyness of life can drain us. At other times we face spiritual tension and conflict. We have to deal with trials, suffering, or disappointments of some kind. Perhaps we go through a period of doubt and questioning, lacking a sense of God's presence. Or maybe it seems our life is falling apart, that everything is going wrong and we feel completely discouraged. We need renewal for our spirits, a quickening of our souls. And this we find in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who will never leave us or forsake us. He refreshes our souls and satisfies our deepest longings.
The Lord may refresh our souls in any number of ways. The Holy Spirit may simply lift our burdens and bring a sense of peace, assurance, and the joy of the Lord’s presence apart from anything we do.
The Lord may refresh our souls as we study His word and are encouraged by both all He has done for us that demonstrates His love for us, and by His promises of what He will yet do. As we soak in His word our souls are refreshed.
It could be as we come to worship, joining with our brothers and sisters in singing the Lord’s praises, being reminded of His greatness and care, that our souls are refreshed.
Or our souls may be refreshed as we behold the power, wisdom, and beauty of God through the world He has made. As Christians we do not worship nature, but we believe God reveals something of Himself through nature. As Ps. 19:1 proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The world God has made testifies to the greatness of God.
I remember once a number of years ago I was going through a very difficult time. I was dealing with several major disappointments and was very discouraged. One weekend I went camping with some friends. As the sun was rising I set off by myself on a trail leading up the mountainside. I came to a place where I had to stop for a few moments because it was so beautiful. There was a wide a deep valley before me, and a ridge of majestic mountains on the other side. I had no agenda and I wasn’t even praying. But as I beheld the beauty and wonder of the world God had made, God’s Spirit reminded me that He was still with me and He was more than big enough to take care of my disappointments, and He would direct my life in a good way. And in a way words cannot describe, my soul was refreshed, and I went down the mountain a different person, filled with hope, gratitude, and the joy of the Lord’s presence and faithfulness.
We regularly need to have the Holy Spirit blow into our lives afresh, assuring us of God's continuing presence with us, love for us, and commitment to us. And He does that. The Lord is our shepherd, who refreshes our souls.
Then there are times when our soul needs to be restored, for we have wandered far from God. I'm sure most of us are familiar with the Mother Goose nursery rhyme Little Bo Peep. We at least know the first stanza, which goes:
Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,
And can't tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they'll come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.
As Haddon Robinson points out, Little Bo Peep was getting some bad advice. "Leave them alone, and they'll come home," are not the words of someone who understands the nature of sheep. For some animals that would be true. Every once-in-awhile we read in the news about someone's dog or cat that maybe got lost while with the family on vacation, and some weeks or months or even a few years later they find their way back home, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles.
But that is not the way of sheep. Sheep lack that built-in navigational system. When they are lost, they stay lost, and it would only be by accident if they should wander back to where they belong with the shepherd and the flock. And so the shepherd must look for the lost sheep, calling out the name of the sheep. As we've seen, the shepherd knows the sheep by name, and the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. And so when the lost sheep hears the voice of the shepherd calling its name, it will start bleating, and the shepherd can follow the sound to the sheep.
Remember, this is David writing - David, the man after God's own heart, but also David, the man who sinned outrageously by committing adultery with Bathsheba and then arranging for her husband to be killed in battle. That is where we see the shepherd David wandering away from the Lord his Shepherd like a disengaged sheep. And it wasn't through his own efforts that he eventually found his way back to a deep and captivating relationship with the Lord his Shepherd. He was eventually restored, but it was only because his Shepherd came looking for him.
Sheep get lost when they lose sight of the shepherd. The sheep has its head down as it is grazing, and then it sees a little patch of grass over here so it meanders there, and then another patch a bit further so it goes there, and soon it is separated from the shepherd.
That's what happened to David; he knew all about getting lost. For a while he took his eyes off the Lord and focused on this beautiful young woman, Bathsheba, who was not his for the taking. Then he drifted a bit more as he sent a messenger to find out about her. Then he drifted further as he sent some men to bring her to him. Before he knew it, he was lost; he had wandered completely away from the Lord his Shepherd and sin overtook his heart. In those few moments he was like a sheep that kept seeing something that looked good and so kept seeking after it without stopping to look up to the shepherd, without taking a moment to consider, "Wait, where am I going? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Where will this ultimately take me?"
That's how we often get lost, isn't it? We take our eyes off the Lord our Shepherd and we start to wander - not far at first; just a bit. We start entertaining sin in our mind, then the opportunity presents it itself, and soon we're engulfed in it. We are lost, relationally distant from the Lord our Shepherd.
Or maybe it is not a particular sin that breaks our contact with the Lord our Shepherd, but a deterioration in our relationship with God in a more general sense. At one time we were dedicated in nurturing our spiritual life. We regularly cultivated our relationship with God. We regularly sought God's guidance and tried to live a Christ-like life. But then things got busy and we weren't quite so dedicated. Before long there were other things distracting us.
There was a season when we would spend time with God in His word and pray first thing in the morning, but now as soon as we get up we have to first check for sms messages, and then skim through a few news articles on the internet, and then scroll through Facebook where we might see some pictures of what our friends had for dinner last night – we wouldn’t want to miss that - and well by then, it's time to rush off for work. We used to attend worship services regularly; now just sporadically as other things consume our time. This pattern continues. Before long, we're lost - not in terms of our salvation - but relationally we are separated from the Shepherd, no longer aware of His faithful watch care, cut off from His guidance, devoid of a sense of His presence with us, and oblivious to His purpose for us.
And if it were strictly up to us, that would be our state - separated, cut off in our lostness. Having wandered away, we would never find our way back. But it is not simply up to us! We see this in the account of David's sin. David had wandered far from God when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. He had abandoned God's guidance for living. But God had not abandoned David. God is not the kind of shepherd who would write off a lost sheep as not worth finding. God did not conclude, "Well, I guess if that is how David wants to live, I'll just move on and try to find someone else to rule over my people."
Nor was God taking advice from whoever it was that was giving counsel to Little Bo Peep - "Leave them alone, and they'll come home." No, God knows that lost sheep don't come home on their own, nor do lost people. So God went out searching for David. It wasn't that God didn't know where David was; God knew exactly where David was - both physically and spiritually. So God didn't have to look for David in that sense.
But after David had spent sufficient time in his lost estate; when, that is, David was ready to face himself so he could then face God, God came to David. God came by means of Nathan His prophet. God sent Nathan to David - first to confront David with his sin so he could repent. But more importantly, God sent Nathan so that David could be brought once again into relationship with God his shepherd. Through Nathan God led David out of his lostness and back to the presence of the Lord. And so God restored David's soul.
David wrote of this in Ps. 32. In reflecting on his sin, David states in vs. 3-5:
"When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me, my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord - and you forgave the guilt of my sin."
David's sin, his willful disobedience sapped David of all his vitality. He felt empty and far from God. But after Nathan confronted David regarding his sin, David confessed his sin to the Lord, who then forgave him. By the end of the Psalm, we see how the Lord restored David's soul, for he wrote in vs. 15, "Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!" Those are the words of a man whose soul had been restored.
When we wander from God, whether that is due to a particular sin or simply a pattern of neglecting our relationship with God, our soul starts to shrivel. Like a sheep that is lost and so will soon be hungry because it can't find grass, and will soon thirst for it cannot find water, that is what happens to us when we wander from God and end up lost. We lack spiritual nourishment and refreshment. Our soul shrivels, our faith dries up, we feel lost and disconnected.
But God does not abandon us. He searches for us so our souls can be restored, so our relationship with God can be renewed. As God did by sending Nathan to David, God may search for us by sending a brother or sister in Christ our way, someone who will lovingly yet firmly confront us to help us see what we have been unwilling to see on our own, to see something in our life that is separating us from God so we can deal with it.
Another way God searches for us is by convicting us. In Jn. 16:8, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of guilt in regard to sin. That isn't because God just wants us to feel miserable and be laden down with guilt. No, it's just the opposite. When we sin, and especially if we have fallen into a pattern of sin, we create distance between ourselves and God. We soon become lost as our relationship with God fades. Whether we admit it or not, there is an emptiness in our soul. So the Holy Spirit convicts us.
Notice, Jesus didn't say that the Holy Spirit condemns us, but rather convicts us. There is a debilitating kind of guilt that is brought on by condemnation, but the sense of guilt that accompanies the conviction of the Holy Spirit is a good thing because it awakens us to our true spiritual state. When we are responsive to that, we then repent, which means we turn away from our sin and we turn back to the Lord so we can experience afresh the depth and wonder and joy of our relationship to the Lord our Shepherd, as happened to David.
Or God may search for us by simply letting us reap what we sow. In other words, we experience the inevitable consequences of the path we have chosen. If we are overcome with pursuing the values of this world, or if we simply go through a season of neglecting our relationship with God, at some point a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness overwhelms us. It may be a struggle for a while, but God is searching for us by letting us reap what we sow, which helps us to see how empty and futile life is when we live apart from Him which then motivates us to return to Him.
God can search for us in lots of ways, so He can restore our souls. He forgives our sin so our burden of guilt and shame is removed. He woos us with His love so we are brought back into a life-giving relationship with Him. We sense His presence again. He fills us with hope and joy and purpose. It's like seeing the bright sun in a brilliant blue sky after a whole month of gray clouds, or like taking a deep breath of clean, fresh air after several months of choking haze here in Kuala Lumpur. Our soul is restored.
It may not be much of a compliment to say that we are sheep, that we are weak, defenseless, and we have the habit of getting lost from our Shepherd. But the good news is that we have a Shepherd who loves us more than we will ever know. As many times as we get lost, He doesn't give up on us, but He perseveres in searching for us. And when we have that experience of being found again, when we encounter the depth of our Shepherd's persevering love for us, it renews our souls. It fills us with a sense of worth and gratitude and peace and purpose. We are ready to tend to our relationship with God once again, and we're eager to follow His leading as we live under His lordship. We are fully alive, from the inside out.
God searches for us to restore our soul. But we have our part to do as well, just as God searched for David by confronting him through the prophet Nathan, but David still had to confess his sin. If today, for whatever reason, your soul is empty, if you are weary and there is no passion in your relationship with God, open your heart to God once again. If there is sin you need to confess and repent of, then confess and repent. It there are some patterns you've developed that have pushed God to the background of your life, then get rid of them and set some new ones. As you do, you'll discover that God has been there all along, ready to restore your soul.