Have you ever said something brilliant and insightful, only to have everyone stop and stare at you as if you were suddenly demon-possessed? It’s happened to me repeatedly, but most recently in a ladies’ Bible Study. As we discussed King David and Psalm 23 particularly, a wise woman reflected aloud, “Thank God that Christ really is the Good Shepherd. What a beautiful picture of all He does for us!” This attracted nods and sincere looks of gratitude. In total agreement my cup “ranneth” over.
“He even cares about the flies in our nose!” The woman next to me gawked at me wide-eyed, seemingly convinced I was speaking in tongues. This is one of many examples of why I have not been asked to do a Biblical commentary. However, this is my blog and the time has come. People need to know why Jesus cares about the flies in our noses. With that, I give you an abridged commentary on the lyrics recorded in David’s 23rd Psalm that deviates from the usual important points.
First, David is a wonderful writer who follows the basic rules: Write about what you know and write from the heart. In the first 4 verses, David paints an analogy he knows.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Sheep are vulnerable creatures. To my knowledge, they are the only animal that does not have some way to navigate or tell direction. Left to their own devices they naturally wander off. Bees dance their way to the hive and eventually the cows come home, but the natural state of sheep is to be lost. Furthermore, they have no discernible means of defense. They can’t fly, outrun a predator, burrow, or use their bodies as a defense. They have no quills, natural body armor; even the skunk has better resources. Poor sheep. Even their wool is defenseless against rain and humidity.
Without anything going for these poor wee lambs, a shepherd must step in to lead and protect them. Interestingly, sheep follow the voice of the shepherd, even when they can’t see him. If another called, the sheep would not follow the strange voice; they would wander instead. This is one of the reasons Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep hear me and know my voice.” Shepherds had individual calls for each sheep that would come only for their shepherds. The shepherd knew each sheep from birth.
It is up to the shepherd to defend the flock not only from their natural wanderings, but from prey. He did both with the rod and staff; it was used not only to hook around a sheep and bring them back into the fold, but as a weapon against predators. The tool that disciplined the lamb and brought it back into the fold also fought off predators that would attack and devour the sheep. A careless shepherd would maintain distance and leave the sheep to their own devices. A shepherd who used the rod on the sheep instilled them with a confidence that the rod would not be spared against if they came under attack.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Okay, there is where the flies come in. Here we seem to make a transition to humans as sheep don’t have tables prepared before their enemies, but the second verse has applications for humans and sheep.
David’s beginnings were somewhat humble; he was a shepherd and youngest of 7 brothers. When the prophet showed up and announced to David’s father, Jesse that the king would come from one of his sons, he didn’t even consider David. He had to be called in after every other brother had been considered and God had said, “Not it!” It seems Jesse was not the dad videotaping at the second grade spelling bee. Still, David’s head was anointed with oil, ceremonially declaring he was an heir to the throne. Anointing was extremely symbolic for a king, and it is often mentioned. However, I’d like to return to the sheep.
Sheep are dirty and have very little means to swat away insects. Their ears and stubby tails are no match for flies and (gag alert) sometimes flies would even lay eggs in their moist nostrils of the sheep. To keep the flies from pestering his poor sheep, a shepherd would sometimes put oil across the heads of the sheep, which acted as a bug repellent. Without much of an immune system (another lack of defense) a minor disease would quickly spread and kill the sheep. While flies were a minor inconvenience compared to attacking wolves, wandering sheep, dangerous terrain, and thieves, a good shepherd still anointed his sheep because he cares about the little inconveniences.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Again, this seems like humanity, but like Mary’s little lamb, a devoted sheep would be at the heels of its shepherd. In the times of ancient Israel, sheep were used for sacrifices. This began with the Passover, when a lamb was brought into Israelite homes, slaughtered and eaten, and its blood covered the door posts as a protection. Each year when the time came to sacrifice a perfect lamb, a family had to bring it into the house. Imagine a home with small children who played with a small sheep for several days. (Don’t name it! Then you’ll get attached to it!) After an attachment was formed and time was spent caring for the lamb, it was indeed a sacrifice to kill the lamb. The household saw firsthand the cost of sin; something blameless had to die as the cost of reconciliation. This is why Christians call Jesus the “Lamb of God”, the ultimate sacrifice that paid the debt.
Sacrifices were also made in the temple, where God came and physically dwelt with his people. I’ve often read over the verse about the temple without letting in register that there was no temple in the time of David. When he wanted to build a temple, God actually commanded him not to, ordaining his son to build the temple. In his later years David helped Solomon prepare and plan for the temple, sparing no expense. As a result, the glory of Solomon’s temple is still a standard of beauty and honor for the Lord. Despite all the skills, beautiful materials, and devoted worship, the temple would have remained a man-made marvel except for one important factor: the presence of GOD. It was the presence of the Lord that allowed David to be fearless. A bold sheep may bravely set out alone, but when darkness and danger come the sheep will bleat for help. Likewise, I can be happily going along when suddenly I encounter some form of terror (death, poisonous snakes, large rodent intruders, humidity) and I am quick to call for help.
As David penned many of his psalms, he was literally running for his life from the blood-thirsty King Saul. A gang of outcasts and misfits traveled and fought with him for years, moving from place to place. David was a growing man without a home. I am sure he longed to return to his father’s house or even to the palace where he played the harp for Saul and found a best friend in Jonathan, who willingly abdicated the throne for the Lord’s anointed. As he hid homeless, he was followed by assassins, soldiers, and most likely, a keen sense of fear that never allowed him to put his guard down. No wonder David longed to have goodness and mercy follow him and to dwell in the Lord’s house.
Despite his years of suffering and hardships, God-ordained discipline, consequences for poor parenting, and the losses of many he dearly loved, we are hard-pressed to find anyone who loved the Lord and worshiped as “the man after God’s own heart”. This man was a shepherd, a king, a soldier, a skilled musician, and a worshiper of the Most High God. Although it would be many generations before the birth of David’s descendant, The Good Shepherd, David clung to the promises that one day he would be king and one day a Messiah would come. Only a trust in the Most High God allows a terrorized and hiding shepherd boy to pause from running from his life to say, “I shall not want,” “I will fear no evil” and “he restores my soul”.
Whether you are dealing with the shadow of the valley of death, facing wolves in sheep’s clothing, or just longing to lie down in green pastures and have your soul restored, come to the Good Shepherd. Jesus will not only save you and lead you; he will anoint you as royalty and keep the flies out of your nose.