I remember a painting I saw in a church, a depiction of the Shepherd Psalm – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want” Psalm 23:1. The scene was a rocky mountain-side and a little lamb was precariously tangled in a bush growing out of the side of the cliff. A shepherd stood over him, reaching out to bring him back to safety. What has stayed with me ever since I saw it was the expression on the face of the lamb – it was a look of utter trust and confidence in the shepherd with not a trace of fear. It was a look that said, “I’m glad you’re here. I know you will save me.” This is the image of God that I love the most: Yahweh Rohi – The Lord my Shepherd.
In describing the Lord as a Shepherd, David wrote out of his own experience because he had spent his early years caring for sheep. Sheep are completely dependent on the shepherd for guidance, protection, and provision. The welfare of the sheep depends solely on the care they get from their shepherd. The better the shepherd, the healthier and happier the sheep. When you see weak, sickly, or pest-infested sheep, you can be sure that their shepherd does not really care for or about them.
The shepherd guides the sheep by leading them to the good pasture. The 23rd Psalm reveals God as our guiding Shepherd, and us as sheep who follow Him. How does He guide us? By His Word as we study the Bible every day, by His Spirit as we listen to Him speak to our hearts, and most importantly, by His example in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life on earth is our example of trust and obedience, the two most important attributes for a sheep. He always obeyed His Father in everything and because He trusted Him, Jesus’ life was marked by peace even in the face of the cross. When we allow God to guide us, we have peace and contentment. Our Shepherd knows where to find the green pastures that nourish us and the quiet waters that restore us.
The shepherd is also the protector of his flock. Sheep are easy prey for predators. They have no natural defensive abilities and are easily panicked. The put their head to the ground and graze, never bothering to look up to see where they are or what is around them. Sheep have been known to graze right off the edge of a cliff. A sheep who strays from the protection of the shepherd is completely vulnerable. The good shepherd knows where the sheep are at all times, calling them back to safety, and searching diligently for them when they stray too far. The shepherd fights for his sheep – a hungry wolf is bold enough to attack the flock even with the shepherd nearby. The shepherd must defend his sheep from these attacks even at the risk of his own life. Jesus said “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). And He did – He gave His life for you and me, to save us from the enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The shepherd is always on duty, even at night. In the evenings sheep were brought into a simple enclosure for the night, it might be stone or mud-packed walls if they were close to home, or just branches twisted and bound together in the open. In order to keep them safe, the shepherd would sleep with his body across the opening of the sheep pen to keep his flock in and predators out. This is what Jesus was describing when He said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). He protects His sheep day and night.
The good shepherd also made sure his sheep were well-fed. Sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd to provide good pastures in which to graze. The shepherd constantly scouted out the best pastures and would lead his sheep to good land. Because sheep eat continually, the shepherd always had to be prepared with the next pasture in mind. Sheep couldn’t wander long looking for food – it needed to be available to them every day. As the Good Shepherd Jesus meets the needs of His flock, both for physical food and for spiritual nourishment. He fed multitudes of people in his earthly ministry, surely we can trust Him to provide for us as well. He provides Himself as nourishment for our souls through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. As we partake of His Blood and Body, our souls are being fed and nurtured. Jesus is our provider for body, soul and spirit.
The good shepherd has a special, tender relationship with his sheep. He knows them by name and he talks with them so that they know his voice. He laughs at their antics and comforts them when they are hurt. Many a shepherd sings his sheep to sleep at night. Theirs is an intimate relationship, like a father caring for his children. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name and He talks with us so we can learn to recognize His voice – if we’ll listen. He draws us close just to be with us; He comforts us when we are hurting, binds up our wounds and applies His healing grace. Not only that but He “will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Imagine that – drawn up in His embrace as His voice floats down on you with songs of delight.
No wonder the image of the shepherd is one of God’s favorite ways of expressing His care and love for us. It captures the beautiful relationship of God and His people. The Lord our Shepherd – Yahweh Rohi – will guide us to the green pastures and still waters, He will protect us and care for us with tenderness and love. He will cover us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives; and when this life is done we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).
Good Shepherd, how blessed I am to say “The Lord is my Shepherd – I am His little lamb.” Amen.
 Alternately: Yahweh/Jehovah Roi