A SHEPHERD-LESS SHEEP
For five years, a single sheep survived alone in an Australian forest. He had almost 80 pounds of dirty, overgrown fleece hanging on his slight frame and covering his eyes. He resembled a giant boulder. No one knew how he survived on his own, but his unbearable burden lifted as rescuers sheared his fleece. He was a living example of a shepherd-less sheep, directionless, alone, malnourished, vulnerable, and unprotected.
Before Us, Beside Us, and Behind Us
Psalm 23 is a treasured, timeless meditation on life with God. My brother-in-law, Dan, first drew my attention to the location of the Good Shepherd throughout the psalm. The Shepherd goes before his sheep (not just any sheep). He leads them to calm waters and righteous paths (v. 2–3). He is beside them in the valley of deep darkness, comforting them with his rod and staff (v. 4). Their final destination is the Lord’s dwelling place, where goodness and mercy follow after them forever (v. 6).
David, the author of Psalm 23, knew the Scriptures. He remembered how the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, led the Israelites through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21), dwelling with them in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–38), freeing them from bondage and death into his promised land. David knew God’s tender care and anointing over him. He saw how God protected his own life from the hands of his enemies. The Good Shepherd goes before, beside, and behind his sheep.
The Good Shepherd
The first time the Bible calls God a shepherd is in Genesis 48:15. Israel (also called Jacob), a shepherd himself, calls God his life-long Shepherd. It’s a beautiful theme we see throughout the Bible, culminating in Jesus' big reveal, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11). Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to shepherd his people because Jesus is God (Jer. 23:3–6).
Those of us in Christ know the unfading joy of being in his flock. Yet our lives in this fallen world are still fraught with difficulties, persecutions, and many unknowns. Our true spiritual inclinations are revealed when we encounter treacherous paths, tough seasons, and even enemies. Who do we run to when we face danger and trials? How do we cope?
Meditating on Psalm 23 offers us the strength to face this treacherous life by reminding us of God’s steadfast love throughout every season of life. Use the three questions below to meditate on Psalm 23 when you’re tempted to doubt God’s presence or wisdom.
Three Important Questions
First, ask yourself, How has God gone before me or led me? The first thing I think of is how God led me to Christ. God’s spotless Lamb freed me from the grip of sin and death, reconciling me back to himself. I also remember how God has always provided what I need. Despite my mule-like resistance, he’s taken me to unexpected places, always resulting in growth. As we look up at the Good Shepherd’s leading, our souls are rightly restored for his name’s sake.
Secondly, ask yourself, Is God beside or with me? God will never leave us or forsake us. The Holy Spirit is with us as the down payment or assurance that we’ll be with God forever. And we see his miraculous presence in our lives as we repent, trust, walk by faith, conquer sin, obey, and love him—things we couldn’t do when we were ignorant of Jesus. The Spirit used Psalm 23 to comfort me through dark times of infertility, transitions, crippling anxiety, health issues, and my own sin. We fear no evil because he’s with us. He alone is our safety and security. Do we have the eyes to see it?
Lastly, ask yourself, How is God behind me? How is he ensuring your safe arrival home? Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27–28). Those who follow Jesus can have confidence in the fact that he calls us, knows us, gives us eternal life, and ensures our protection. If it were up to us, we’d be prone to wander. We can’t save ourselves, but we have a great High Priest who’s able to sympathize with our weaknesses and save us (Heb. 4:15). We may still feel tempted to run away, but our Savior holds us fast. Not the other way around. His boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places for our protection. Truly, our cup runs over.
Stay with the Flock
Another way God ensures our safety is by placing us in a flock. We aren’t lone sheep anymore, out on a ledge with wool over our eyes. We are the gathered ones, able to remind each other that we’re on our way to the home Jesus is preparing, where goodness and mercy follow forever. In the church, we have under-shepherds (pastors) and fellow sheep who encourage us to keep following Jesus in every circumstance. God’s sheep are never alone.
Remember the Shepherd
Meditation is how we digest God’s Word for all its nutrients. We can practice taking God at his word by meditating on how the Good Shepherd goes before, beside, and behind us. Meditating on the Good Shepherd's unmerited love, protection, and care is a God-given way to be comforted and helped on the arduous trek to eternal rest and glory. Protected on every side, our burden is light because our Shepherd has lifted and carried it. Like Jacob, we should be able to say every day until the end of our lives that he's "the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day” (Gen. 48:15).
Meet the Author
Beverly Chao Berrus lives in Southern California with her husband Jason, the planting pastor of Immanuel Church of Orange County. They have three wonderful children. Bev loves encouraging women in their love for God and his Word. She’s written for various sites, including TGC, Risen Motherhood, 9Marks, and ERLC. She contributed to His Testimonies, My Heritage, a devotional through Psalm 119.