The shepherd looking after the sheep is one of the most familiar metaphors in the Bible.
For most people this is a comforting and reassuring psalm, based on God’s constant and loving care. God is the good shepherd. In the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel God’s care is contrasted with those who are hired to do the work but whose heart is not in it, and who are likely to abandon their charges if danger threatens.
Though this is an old poem its imagery is often used in Christian contexts. For example, ‘you spread a table before me’ is frequently used as a reference to Communion. This is a common feature of the Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures. But it can result in the original context being ignored and other meanings lost. In Psalm 23 where the theme is of care for sheep, the table could represent the pasture that the sheep feed on and to which the shepherd leads them. This same pasture that could be threatened by predators, from whom the shepherd defends the flock.
On a stylistic note this psalm is one of the clearest examples of parallelism. Each phrase is repeated in a slightly different form to emphasise its meaning. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is matched with ‘l shall not want’.
But what does it mean if we are the sheep? Like all metaphors this idea of sheep and shepherd has its limits. I have always been unable to escape the reality that the sheep are in the end for the benefit of humans. Their wool for clothing and their bodies for food! More worrying for me is the idea that we can leave everything to an all-powerful protector. This does not ring true to my experience. Nor would I want it to. We have capabilities and responsibilities which we should exercise, including looking after each other. Yes, there are things beyond our control, but I hope we have long passed the age when we offer sacrifices to appease the ‘gods’ so that we will be kept safe.
Singing the 23rd Psalm has been such significant a part of my life and of the spiritual journeys of millions of Jews and Christians that it is hard to get beyond the emotional impact it has had. In times of oppression, extreme hardship and mental anguish it offers hope and comfort. But it is dangerous to make it the sole expression of our faith. It is, for example, a long way from ‘take up your cross and follow me’! This is closer to the image in Isaiah of the sheep that is led to the slaughter for the sake of others. Here the message is a sacrifice that makes whole. (This metaphor too has its limits.)
What might it mean to be a shepherd? Being a carer for others has a long and strong tradition within religious movements. ‘Shepherding’ in this sense is commendable. But the danger always lies in the (absolute?) power that the shepherd has over the sheep. I much prefer the encouragement to ‘love one another’ and to be a ‘good neighbour’, which are mutual responsibilities.
Psalm 23 is no longer a song I can sing comfortably.