There are many images and metaphors used for God throughout the Bible. One of my favorite is the image of a shepherd. I am grateful for this image because of what it brings to mind: gentleness, care, attentiveness, protection, rescue, leading. It's amazing that God would reveal Himself in such terms. God has all power, wisdom, and joy. He doesn't need us in order to be happy or full. God is self-sufficient, self-existing, and self-sustaining. But God has chosen, from His abundant and overflowing love, to enter into relationship with us. In a real sense, God has "bound" Himself to us through covenant promises. He is able and willing to give to us, despite our frailty and weakness. God is good. His love endures forever.
The shepherd image is rooted in the ancient near eastern context of the Bible, where it makes good sense. We see this image applied by the patriarch, Jacob, in Genesis 48:15 where he declares to his son, Joseph, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day".
The image is thoroughly established in the famous 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want..." This whole Psalm is powerful and striking in it's relational portrayal of God.
God's people cry out to God to care them using this language in Psalm 28:9, "Oh, save your people and bless your heritage! Be their shepherd and carry them forever."
Isaiah 40:11 Looks forward to a time when God would act to rescue and redeem His people and states, "He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."
Ezekiel 34 also looks forward to a time when God will rescue and care for His people in a special, redemptive way. The passage also prepares us for the "shepherd" God will send to embody His own shepherding heart. "As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness (v12)...I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God (v15)... And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd (v23).
Jesus interprets the OT references to a shepherd as applying to himself (see Matthew 2:6; 26:31). This is made explicit in John 10, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (v11)... I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me (v14)."
And finally, we see in Revelation 7:17 that the crucified and risen lamb (Jesus Christ) intends to "shepherd" His people forever: "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This time (the COVID19 pandemic) is so hard for so many. Some are sick. Some are over-worked and exhausted. Some are scared and alone. Some are disappointed because of things lost. Some are overwhelmed at the demands on their life. Many were already enduring difficult trials before the Coronavirus hit! This has only made their hardship even more painful. God knows. Christ knows. Our good shepherd knows. He knows what we think and feel. He knows what we need. He knows our pain, our cries, our longings, our fears, our tears. And Jesus is able to lead us, as the Good Shepherd, through the dark valleys of life. He never leaves or abandons us. He gently leads us to Himself, to the truth, to life in the Spirit. Even when it seems impossible, he is able to give us a "peace that passes understanding" (Phil 4:7). Take note again of that last passage in Revelation. How might Jesus be leading you to "springs of living water" today?
I know it can be really hard to feel the truth of these things, especially when we're in really difficult places. I certainly don't have answers for all circumstances. I don't know what it's like to face some of the hard realities that some of you are facing. So, I'm not preaching. Only pointing, reminding, and hoping alongside you. We can look to the shepherd. He has said that all who hope in him, who look to him, will not be ignored (Ps 34:5; 147:11). God is responsive to us. In His perfection, He has freely chosen to be responsive to us, present with us, and to care for us.
Let's lean on the shepherd together today.
Chalk art by Aly Slade