Waterfall at En-Gedi
Psalm 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
In biblical times, sheep were very important to the livelihood of their owners. They were used not only for milk and food, but their wool was used for clothing and tent covers. It was even common for sheep to be used as a form of currency. The amount and types of livestock owned by someone served as a gauge of their wealth and status.
Shepherds of biblical times were not as we might think of them. Although there may have been adult shepherds, it was far more common for young boys to be the keepers of sheep. Even very young boys, as early as 8 years old, would fill that position. We see David in that role, keeping the flocks of his father. For those in villages where each family might not have many sheep, a young boy would go and collect sheep from several homes to take them for the day to feed and water them. Early in the morning, that young boy would go from house to house, talking to the sheep even before he got to the home. As the sheep began to hear him, they would get excited and ready to follow where ever he would lead them. This young man would lead them out to the fields for the day to graze and water. As night began to draw closer, he would lead them home to their respective places, and begin all over again the next day. Shepherds were keepers of that which had been entrusted to them, seeing that their daily need for food, water, and safety were met. They were not the owners of the sheep. It was the shepherd’s job to know where the best grass and water in the area were, and to get their charges to that place.
The valley of En-Gedi is just to the west of the Dead Sea, southeast of Jerusalem. It is an oasis in the desert. This is where David ran to the caves to hide from Saul, when Saul was seeking to kill him. There is a beautiful stream flowing here, although it’s surrounded on all sides by desert. This is the place that illustrates Psalm 23:2 so beautifully. When this verse says He ‘maketh’ me to lie down, the word for ‘maketh’ here literally means ‘to force down’. When in this oasis area, a shepherd might have to force his sheep to eat and drink, knowing that food could be scarce for awhile. He would do it lovingly for the sheep’s own good. En-Gedi is also a source of calm waters. Sheep are frightened by rushing water, and will often choose not to drink it. They much prefer the easily accessible, still or slow-moving streams.
Although sheep are quite gentle and submissive, they can also be stubborn, having a tendency to butt one another, and shove the weaker ones toward the back of the group when it comes to getting their food and water. They’re also inclined to go their own way, so they need the guidance of a shepherd to help keep them on the right path. As natural followers, they will often do exactly as other sheep around them do. In Israel, goats are often mixed with sheep in the flocks. A sheep will even go so far as to follow a goat directly to its own slaughter.
It’s imperative that the shepherd have a watchful eye on his flock. If cornered, a sheep may bleat, charge, or threaten its opponent. But, once it has been caught, it will usually yield to its demise without further objection. So, it’s very important that the shepherd be constantly on the lookout for danger.
In this picture of the shepherd, we can make some comparisons. Jesus is the good shepherd. Although we deal with all of our human tendencies, He is constantly watchful over us, and helps us find our way to nourishment in His Word and communication with Him. Even when we may not feel like it, He has His ways of getting us to stop and listen when we’re overcome and frightened by the rush of the world around us. As we follow Him, He shelters us from danger and reassures us of His presence.
Not only does Psalm 23 paint a soothing picture of Jesus, our main shepherd, it also gives us God’s picture of our earthly shepherds. Pastors and the 5-fold ministry are all ordained by God as the under-shepherds of Jesus Christ. They, like the young shepherd boys, are not the owners of the flock, but the ones entrusted to care for it. As the shepherd sees to the needs of each sheep, so do these men and women of God. They keep watch for danger. They make sure the sheep are led to the place where they can feed on good, wholesome food that will nourish them, and drink slow, peaceful water that brings refreshment to weary souls. It is their part to provide pasture for the sheep to feed in, and then allow the sheep to do what they do best…birth new sheep.
Our part as sheep is to ‘eat and drink’ of spiritual pasture and water when the opportunity is given to us. In the midst of a confused, chaotic world, it’s wonderful to sit by the streams of En-Gedi, and forget that parched, dry conditions are all around. For here, the stream flows in the desert. Breathe in the air… Feed on the lush, green grass… Drink the crystal clear water…and relish in the provision of the Good Shepherd.