Well….you may be like me and wondering what in the world does this have to do with us as humans. Those were my exact sentiments. I think you will be just as amazed as I was when you see the deeper meaning here.
In order for sheep to lie down and rest, four requirements must be met. The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the sheepman (shepherd) who can provide for these requirements. The health, stability and survival of the entire flock all depends on the shepherd. It is actually he who makes it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to be content and quiet and flourishing. Let’s look at these requirements one by one.
1. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. You may not know that sheep are very timid and panicky. Just one site of the smallest unexpected creature popping out and the entire herd will stampede. When one startled sheep runs in fright a dozen others will bolt with it in blind fear, not waiting to see what frightened them. In Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, he tells of his horrifying experience as a shepherd when he awoke and went out to check on his flock and found nine of his choicest ewes, all soon to lamb, lying dead in the field where a cougar had harried the flock during the night. He says after that experience he slept with a .303 rifle and flashlight by his bed and at the least sound of the flock being disturbed he would jump out of bed calling his faithful collie and rush out to protect his sheep. One of the things that he soon learned through his experiences was that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see him in the field. WOW!! That is incredible. The presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night. In the Christian’s life there is no substitute for the keen awareness that my shepherd is nearby. There is nothing that dispels the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that makes known to us the presence of our Good Shepherd. He comes quietly to reassure us that Christ Himself is aware of our dilemma and deeply involved in it with us.
2 Timothy 1:7 “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
2. Because of the social behavior within the flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with other of their kind. Believe it or not there in the fold lies tension, rivalry, and cruel competition. Just as there is the “pecking order” among chickens and the “horning order” among cattle, there is a “butting order” among sheep. It is usually the arrogant, cunning, and domineering old ewe that will be the boss in the flock. This ewe will maintain position of prestige by butting and driving other ewe’s or lambs away from the best grazing or favorite bedgrounds. Succeeding this one in precise order the other sheep all establish and maintain their exact position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting and thrusting at those below and around them. Because of this rivalry, tension and competition for status and self-assertion, there is friction in the flock. The sheep cannot lie down and rest in contentment. Always they must stand up and defend their rights and contest the challenge of the intruder. Again, it is the presence of the Shepherd that will attract the attention of the sheep and they will forget their foolish rivalries and stop their fighting. Occasionally the shepherd must use his staff and discipline the older ewes and we will see more of that in the phrase, “His rod and staff, they comfort me.”
We are just as these sheep. The struggle for self-assertion and self-recognition goes on and on. Most of us fight to be “top sheep”. We butt and quarrel and compete to “get ahead” and in the process we hurt ourselves and others. I’m remembering what James said in chapter 4 verses 1-3
“What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Isn’t it the whole army of evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous for what others have, and you can’t possess it, so you fight and quarrel to take it away from them. And yet the reason you don’t have what you want is that you don’t ask God for it. And when you do ask, you don’t get it because your whole motive is wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure. (NLT)
We must remember that when our eyes are on our Master they are not on those around us. This is a place of peace. In the end it is he who will decide and judge what my status really is. After all, it is His estimation of me that is of consequence. Any human measurement at best is bound to be pretty unpredictable, unreliable, and far from final. So, to be close to Him, conscious of His abiding Presence, made real in my mind, emotions, and will by the indwelling gracious Spirit, is to be set free from fear of my fellow-man and whatever he might think of me. I would much rather have the affection of the Good Shepherd than occupy a place of prominence in society….especially if I had attained it by fighting, quarreling, and bitter rivalry with my fellow human beings.
“Blessed [happy, to be envied] are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. Matt. 5:7
3. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. This is essential to the contentment of sheep. As we know it is in the summertime that flies are at their worst. During this time sheep can be driven to absolute frustration by nasal flies, bot flies, warble flies and ticks. They can not rest when tormented with these pests. They are up on their feet stomping their legs, shaking their heads, ready to rush off into the bush for relief from their pests. Again, we see that it is the diligent care of the shepherd who must keep a constant look out over his flock to know when they are being harassed. A good shepherd will take swift action and use the application of insect repellents on the sheep. He will also see that they are dipped to clear their fleeces of ticks. He will also make sure that there are shelter belts of trees and bush available where they can find refuge and release from their tormentors. All of this entails extra care and expense on the part of the shepherd. The primary purpose in the shepherd’s mind is the aim of keeping his flock quiet, contented, and at peace.
Similarly in the Christian life there are bound to be many small irritations. There are the annoyances of petty frustrations and ever-recurring disagreeable experiences. What is the antidote? Can any of us come into quietness and contentment despite them?
The answer for the Christian is “YES”! This is one of the main functions of the Holy Spirit. In Scripture, the Holy Spirit is often symbolized by oil-by that which brings healing and comfort and relief from the harsh and abrasive aspects of life. The gracious Holy Spirit makes real in me the very presence of Christ. He brings quietness, serenity, strength, and calmness in the face of frustrations and futility. When I turn to Him and expose the problem to Him, allowing Him to see that I have a dilemma, a difficulty beyond my control, He comes to assist. Often a helpful approach is simply to voice aloud, “Master, this is beyond me-I can’t cope with it-it’s bugging me-I can’t rest-please take over!” He does in His own wonderful way. He applies the healing, soothing, effective antidote of His own person and presence to my particular problem. There immediately comes into my consciousness the awareness of His dealing with the difficulty in a way I had not anticipated. And because of the assurance that He has become active on my behalf, there steals over me a sense of quiet contentment. I am then able to lie down in peace and rest. ALL BECAUSE OF WHAT HE DOES! If you notice here….there are no “three points and a poem”. There is nothing that you do other than call out to Him and He does the rest. He is a Good Shepherd!
4. The fourth and final requirement that must be met for sheep to lie down and rest is they must be free from a feeling of hunger. In the areas of the country that are known as great sheep countries of the world there is a dry, semi-arid climate. This happens to be the very best climate for sheep to flourish. They are susceptible to fewer hazards of health or parasites where the climate is dry. But it is very interesting that these regions are not natural places to find lush, green pastures. David kept his sheep near Bethlehem which is a dry, brown, sun-burned wasteland.
These green pastures that the sheep so desperately need did not just happen by chance, Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land use. In order for green pastures to be made the shepherd must go in ahead of time and clear rough, rocky land, tear out brush and roots and stumps; he must plow deep and carefully develope the soil and make it ready for seeding and planting special grains and legumes. Then there is also the matter of irrigating with water with careful, watch of the crops of forage that would feed the flocks. To top it off he must also have several pastures prepared for his sheep.
All of this represents tremendous toil and skill and time for the careful shepherd. If his sheep were going to enjoy green pastures amid the brown, barren hills, it meant he had a tremendous job to do. But these pastures are essential to the welfare of the sheep. Even when lambs are maturing and the ewes need green, succulent feed for a heavy mild flow, there is no substitute for good pasturage. Incidently…no sight so satisfies the shepherd as to see his flock well and quietly fed to repletion on rich green forage, able to lie down to rest, ruminate, and gain.
Now, a hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and satisfy its gnawing hunger. These sheep are not contented, they do not thrive, they are of no use to themselves nor to their owners. One shepherd described it as, “…they languish and lack vigor and vitality.”
What is the application for us as Christians here? Well, focus now your attention on the “Promised Land” that God mentioned in Scripture. This is the land that God worked so hard to lead Israel to from Egypt. This land was described to the children of Israel as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” When studying the scientific technology involved in agriculture you will find that this term “a land flowing with mild and honey” is not only figurative language but also scientific terminology. In agricultural terms they speak of a “milk flow” and “honey flow”. By this they mean the peak season of spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said to be producing a corresponding “flow” of milk or honey. So a land flowing with milk and honey is a land of rich, green luxuriant pastures.
When God spoke of such a land for Israel He also foresaw such an abundant life of joy and victory and contentment for His people. For the child of God, the Old Testament account of Israel moving from Egypt into the Promised Land is a picture of us moving from sin into the life of overcoming victory. We are promised such a life. It has been provided for us and is made possible by the unrelenting effort of Christ on our behalf.
Picture this…He works to clear the life of rocks of stony unbelief. How He tries to tear out the roots of bitterness. He attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. He then sows the seed of His own precious Word, which, if given half a chance to grow, will produce rich crops of contentment and peace. He waters this with the dews and rain of His own presence by the Holy Spirit. He tends and cares and cultivates the life, longing to see it become rich and green and productive. All of this shows the unrelenting energy and industry of an owner who wishes to see his sheep satisfied and well fed. It really shows that my Shepherd’s desire is to see my best interests served. His concern for my care is beyond my comprehension, really. At best all I can do is to enjoy and revel in what He has brought into effect.
Now, this life of quiet overcoming, of happy repose, of rest in His presence, of confidence in His management is something few Christians ever fully enjoy. Why? I think it is because of our own stubbornness and perverseness we often prefer to feed on the barren ground of the world around us. We don’t want to take the time to open ourselves up to our Good Shepherd and let Him do the work in our hearts to bring this about so we go off on our own looking for spiritual forage to satisfy our deep inner longings. For those who do long for those pastures, there they will find peace and plenty.
“O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary and gazed upon your power and glory. Your unfailing love is better to me than life itself; how I praise you!
I will honor you as long as I live, lifting up my hands to you in prayer. You SATISFY me more than the richest of foods. I will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night. I think how much you have helped me; I sing for joy in the shadow of your protecting wings. I follow close behind you; your strong right hand holds me securely.”
Thank you, my Abba Father!