“A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”

[January 2020]

This book, by W. Phillip Keller, was first published in 1970, and has been through many editions. I’ve just finished reading it for the third time—it’s that interesting. I love seeing how the verses of this psalm match up with the ways a shepherd cares for his sheep, even today. This time I read it, I made some notes about what it says, and I’ll paste them in below. You can buy the book in several different formats here.

shepherd1 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 names sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil

for thou art with me;thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
thou anointest my head with oil,

my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Keller says that this psalm recounts the sheep’s experiences during an entire year under the care of a good shepherd.

“The LORD is my shepherd.”

Being a Good Shepherd takes a lot of work. I had always pictured David relaxing on a hillside, thinking up psalms, while his contented flock grazed nearby. But I was surprised to learn, in the course of the book, how much hard work the shepherd has to do to protect the sheep from predators, flies, disease, and poisonous plants, and provide them always with grasslands good for grazing.

Shepherding is a very demanding job, when it’s done right. It’s easy to understand why there might be bad shepherds, who just don’t want to work that hard. Keller says that he once had a neighboring shepherd who didn’t care for his sheep, and let them get along as best they could. These sheep would stand at the fence between their brown, overgrazed land and Keller’s lush pastures, staring hungrily at the good grass on the other side. It was a clear image of the difference it makes to a sheep if it has a bad or good shepherd.

Keller imagines his own sheep boasting to one on the other side of the fence, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Sheep can easily be identified as belonging to a particular shepherd, because he cuts into their ear a distinctive notch—an earmark—that identifies him. We are eternally marked as belonging to the sheepfold of the Lord.

“I shall not want.”

A sheep who has a good shepherd will be content, and thrive under his care. She won’t need to search for anything else, since he gives her everything she needs. The sheep that belonged to the bad shepherd were in want of many things.

However, sometimes a well-tended sheep just has an unsatisfied personality. Keller said he once had a ewe who was like that; she was always trying to find a way into the bad pasture on the other side of the fence. In time, other sheep began to follow her, and Keller says he eventually had to butcher her to protect the rest. But we belong to the Good Shepherd, and we don’t lack any good thing for our flourishing.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.”

Sheep are cautious about lying down. They can’t spring to their feet easily. So they won’t lie down if anything is worrying them.

Four conditions must be met. The sheep must be:

1) Free from fear. If they are afraid, they will not lie down. The shepherd has to be vigilant against predators at night (“there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” Luke 2:8). Seeing the shepherd immediately put the sheep at peace.

2) Free from friction among the sheep, or social tensions. “The shepherd’s presence put an end to all rivalry.” Like other animals, sheep establish a “butting order,” with the most bossy ewes at the top. The sheep less inclined to social-climbing were by nature more content.

Ezek 34:20-22:  20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

(This whole passage in Ezekiel shows that caring for sheep hasn’t changed much over the millennia.)

3) Free from flies and parasites. If they are tormented by insects (particularly troublesome in summer) they cannot lie down and rest, but stand continually stamping their legs and shaking their heads. Preventing this torment takes a lot of time and some expensive chemicals. (Keller returns to this aspect of sheep care when he gets to “You anoint my head with oil.”)

4) Free from hunger. That is the significance of lying down “in green pastures,” since there is plenty to eat around the sheep.

Sheep flourish best in dry, semi-arid places, since there are fewer health hazards or parasites. But the shepherd has to work very hard to make such a place a “green pasture,” clearing out rocks, tearing out brush and roots, plowing and preparing the soil, seeding different plants, and irrigating the land.

In a green pasture a sheep could eat and get full quickly, then lie down to rest and ruminate. The lambs could nurse and gain weight quickly—100 lbs in 100 days.

“He leads me beside still waters.”

Sheep must drink to stay alive, and won’t lie down if they are thirsty. They can survive on dew, if there is plenty of green grass. They rise before dawn, or even by moonlight, to eat the leaves while the dew is still on them.

In a semi-arid land, the shepherd may have to create the still waters. In Africa, Keller saw a walk-in well, a cavern beside a river with the floor dug out, which sheep could go into to drink from a pool of water. He saw the shepherd standing at the end, laboriously bailing water upward for the sheep to drink, streaming with sweat in that hot climate. Being a good shepherd is very demanding.

“He restores my soul.”

Psalm 42:11, “Why are you downcast, my soul?”  A sheep is “cast” or “cast down” when it lies down and then inadvertently rolls over on its back.

A cast sheep can’t get up again by itself. Gases build up inside, and in hot weather, it will die in a matter of hours. It is also helpless before predators.

The shepherd counts the sheep to make sure all are present, and one has not wandered off and become cast. Vultures overhead may signal that a sheep is cast.

The shepherd will leave the 99 and look for the 100th. When he finds a cast sheep, he must roll it over, prop it on its feet, and rub its legs a long time until it regains its balance.

Reasons a sheep can become cast: it has found a soft spot to lie down, which gave way and rolled it over; it has too much heavy wool; it is too fat.

Revelation 3:17, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;’ and know not that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.”

We need self-discipline. The Lord disciplines those He loves.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

If left to themselves, sheep will keep going over the same ground until they ruin it. They will render the ground barren, and make it a host for parasites.

Among livestock, sheep require the most active and attentive management. The most demanding aspect of shepherding is the need to keep the sheep always moving to new pasture. Daily he has to walk over the pasture and see if the balance has tipped, and the sheep are taking more from the land than it can give and still restore itself. The shepherd must keep leading the sheep away from used-up land and into new pastures that are fruitful and healthful for them. (Sheep are visibly delighted when they are let into a new green pasture.)

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.”

Up till now, the “sheep” has been boasting to someone else about its excellent shepherd. Now it turns and speaks to the shepherd himself.

This is suitable because, during the summer months, shepherds take their flocks up into the mountains, to the fresh pastures and water he has prepared for them. But while they are there, they won’t have other people or sheep to interact with. For the summer months, the shepherd and sheep will be alone in the mountaintop pastures.

The route to the mountaintop pastures lies through the valleys, for they provide plenty of water and forage along the way. But the ground is rough and steep, and there are predators. There can be rock slides or flash floods. If a sudden storm soaks the sheep’s wool, it can die of exposure.

Despite these dangers, the shadowy valleys are the best route for the shepherd who is leading his sheep to summer pastures on the mountaintop.

Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

Rod (rhabdos) and staff (bakteria) are two different things.

Rhabdos is a walking stick. When Jesus sent out the apostles, he told them to take a rhabdos, but nothing else. God used the rhabdos of Moses to work miracles and warn Pharaoh. In the catacombs, Jesus is often shown pointing a staff toward someone to heal them, with a similar image of Moses raising his staff on the opposite wall.

(In Greek mythology, Asclepios holds a staff, but it is bakteria, which is not associated in Greek writings with working a healing.)

To make a rod, a Kenyan shepherd digs up a young sapling with its root, cuts off the branches, and makes it the right length for his use. He shapes the root base into a ball of hard wood. A shepherd can throw this rod to defend his sheep against predators, or to warn a sheep to back away from danger. He uses it when counting his sheep (Ezekiel 20:37, “And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.”) He also uses it to part the wool, when he examines the sheep for disease or infirmity.

The staff is a long stick with a circular hook on one end. The shepherd uses it when walking, or leans on it when tired. He uses the crook to lift a wandering lamb back toward its mother, and to guide a sheep along the way, and to extricate one from a thorny bush. A shepherd often has a favorite sheep, and when walking beside it he may hold his staff pressed against its side.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

The lands that shepherds head for in summer are called “tablelands” (mesa in both Spanish and Kiswahili). The shepherd goes to a great deal of trouble to prepare these tablelands, evaluating the grass, spreading salts and minerals, and choosing the grounds the sheep will bed down on. He must clear springs and water holes from decay and debris. He looks for signs of predators, which can be wily. Keller says he sometimes had sheep violently torn and killed by cougars at night, yet he never saw a cougar. The shepherd must also remove poisonous weeds, which is a very demanding chore. Sheep, like humans, will taste anything that looks good.

The Lord has already done everything to prepare the table for us, and done it in the face of our enemies. He went through Incarnation and Crucifixion, and then through death, and returned to us bringing life. He did all this at incalculable cost to himself. There is nothing we can face that he has not gone through ahead of time and “prepared,” like a table, for us.


“Thou anointest my head with oil…”

In the Bible, “anoint” means to pour aromatic oil upon the head. In summer, flies cause sheep great trouble. Keller says: “To name just a few parasites that trouble stock and make their lives a misery: warble flies, bot flies, heel flies, nose flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and others.”

The nose flies attack the sheep’s head, and try to plant eggs inside the nostrils. In a few days, these hatch and release thin, worm-like larvae that make their way upward into the sheep’s head. This creates great inflammation and irritation, and afflicted sheep beat their heads against anything available trying to find relief. Keller has known sheep actually to kill themselves this way.

To protect the sheep from flies, the shepherd smears the sheep’s nose and head with a mixture of linseed oil, sulfur, and tar. Once “anointed,” the sheeps’ behavior immediately changes. They quiet down, feed peacefully in the pasture, and lie down content.

Sheep can also be infected with “scab,” a disease caused by tiny parasites. In this case, the whole sheep must be submerged in a “dip” of linseed oil, sulphur, and other chemicals. The head requires special care to make sure all the skin is treated.

Another reason for anointing the head: during breeding season the males compete for females by head-butting each other. This is noisy, but also dangerous, for the rams can injure or even kill each other. So the shepherd smears the rams’ heads with axle grease. They would “glance right off each other in such a ludicrous way that they stood there feeling rather stupid.”

“My cup runneth over.”

Since there is an abundance of forage, fresh waters, protection from flies, storms, and predators, the sheep’s “cup runneth over.” But there is another “cup” the shepherd has in reserve, to use when necessary. When sudden storms arose, the lambs and sheep might become soaked and chilled, and some of them could risk freezing to death.

So the shepherd carries a bottle of brandy and water. When a lamb is chilled, he pours a few spoonfuls down its throat. “It was especially cute the way the lambs would wiggle their tails with joyous excitement as the warmth from the brandy spread through their bodies.”

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).

I always thought of this line meaning that God’s goodness and mercy will accompany me wherever I go. (I had a friend who said that, as a child, she thought it was saying, “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me…”)

But Keller interprets it as: what kind of results appear, where I have been? What do I leave behind me? Do those who know me receive goodness and mercy from my presence?

Keller says bluntly that mismanaged sheep can be the most destructive of all livestock. With their aggressive grazing, they can ruin a pasture nearly past restoration. But when well-managed they are the most beneficial of all livestock. Their manure is the richest, and a sheep’s inclination to seek a higher point for resting means that the benefits of this manure are carried upward from the lush lower pastures to the more-barren heights.

Also, sheep eat the widest variety of plants, including weeds that would otherwise spread and damage a healthy pasture. Keller says, “In a few years, a flock of well-managed sheep will clean up and restore a piece of ravaged land as no other creature can do.”

Where well-managed sheep go, “goodness and mercy” follow. They restore and fertilize the land, leaving behind them a healthy pasture for other creatures. Keller calls us to ask ourselves whether we leave behind us something that is healthful and good.

“And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

Keller says we should think of “house” not as a structure, but as a network of relationships, a family and household (“the house of Judah”). We belong to the flock of the Lord, and our life there is so satisfying that we can firmly state that we will never leave it.

Keller says that this line always calls to mind a “vivid memory” of the unfortunate sheep next door, who did not want to belong to their owner. Their shepherd did nothing to care for them; they were hungry, on their overgrazed land, and afflicted with flies and scab. They longed to sneak into Keller’s pasture, and sometimes could do so around Christmastime, when the sea retreated far from land and the end of the pasture fence, which ran down into the water, was exposed. The neighbor’s sheep could then sneak around the end of the fence to gorge themselves on good grass; but such a sudden change in diet was devastating, and the sheep would collapse in pain, and possibly die.

Keller says he once found three of them, rain-soaked and chilled, lying in agony under a tree. He put them in a wheelbarrow and carried them back to their owner. But instead starting the necessary care for their recovery, the owner took out a knife and slit their throats. How like Satan, Keller says, who holds ownership over so many miserable and stricken sheep.

Keller reminds us that Jesus called himself the “door” and “gate” of the sheep. The neighbor’s starving sheep did not enter the healthy pasture by Keller’s gate, but snuck in by another way. They had not come under Keller’s ownership; if they had, he would have gradually fed them richer food as their systems could bear it. But their self-directed gorging brought them suffering and death.

Keller says: “The old world is a pretty wretched ranch, and Satan is a heartless owner. He cares not a whit for men’s souls or welfare. Under his tyranny there are hundreds of hungry, discontented hearts who long to enter into the household of God—who ache for his care and concern.

“Yet there is only one way into the fold. That way is through the owner, Christ himself—the Good Shepherd. He boldly declared, ‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture’” (John 10:9).

Keller says this doesn’t mean just inhabiting a good pasture, but living in the continuous presence of the Lord and hearing him speak within. It means always asking for his direction, even in minor things, and sensing his presence surrounding the entire sphere of our life. Keller takes it to mean, “I will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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