The Bible gives some rich images of God to help our understanding of His nature. Several figures of speech are given in the Scriptures as “lenses” through which we are better able to see God, who in reality is an invisible spirit (Luke 24:39; John 4:24; Hebrews 11:27). God is described as a king, a warrior, a rock, a father, a shield, a bird, a farmer, a vinedresser, etc.; however, one persistent figure of God in the Bible is that of a shepherd.
It seems that the shepherd is a retired figure in contemporary times since so few in the world practice shepherding the way it was conducted in the ancient Near East. The primary roles of a shepherd were providing food and water to the sheep, delivering them from dangerous predators, and gathering those who were lost. Sheep are not highly intelligent animals, lacking the capacity to find food and water for themselves in many environments; thus, they need an intelligent and caring leader that will guide them to places where the essentials of life can be found. Sheep also tend to wander and are susceptible to predators because they lack natural defenses that would enable them to escape from their attackers or at least ward them off.
To have an inept shepherd would be a terrifying condition, but to have a good shepherd would bring a sense of peace. When the nation of Judah had poor shepherds (leaders) that led them into danger, God promised that He would raise up good shepherds so that they would no longer be terrified or go missing (Jeremiah 23:4). Indeed, when Christ the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14), the branch of David would come, “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely” (Jeremiah 23:6). As a shepherd and a king Jesus would bring peace (Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-5).
Let us make sure the figure of a shepherd, with his tender relationship and emotional involvement to the sheep, is not lost on us today. We must go back and consider this figure and revive it in our day to those who are unfamiliar with shepherding. No other passage in the Bible portrays this figure more tenderly than Psalm 23. David, who was a shepherd, wrote of how God is a competent shepherd who is able to meet all of our needs. Because the Lord God was his shepherd, he would not lack (v. 1). Even when he found himself in the valley of the shadow of death, he would fear no harm (v. 4a). The Lord’s rod and staff (with which he implements protection and discipline) brought him comfort (v. 4b).
Certainly God is the great shepherd. To God we owe our very existence. Every breath we breathe is a gift from Him (Acts 17:25). The food we eat ultimately comes from His hand (Acts 14:17). Even pompous rulers, who often deny Him, are sustained by the crops that grow in the field He sustains with nutrients, sunshine, and water (Ecclesiastes 5:9). More importantly, the Lord gives us spiritual protection and rest from our adversary the devil, who, as a roaring lion, preys on us (Matthew 11:28; 1 Peter 5:8). If we follow the Lord, He will lead us, His sheep, into the green pastures of eternal life. Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand (John 10:27-28). In the great judgment scene of Matthew 25, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, and gives His sheep eternal life (Matthew 25:32-33, 46). What a joy it will be for us to see the Chief Shepherd appear to lead us home (1 Peter 5:4).