During difficult times of life, the image of Jesus as our Shepherd can bring immense comfort and peace. In fact, I have a print of Katherine Brown’s painting “Jesus and the Lamb” hanging in our home and the image of the Shepherd with His arms wrapped around the lamb has carried me through many dark hours.
Unfortunately, many artists’ renditions of Jesus as our Shepherd can hinder our understanding of Psalm 23. More specifically, our understanding of the second part of verse 2, He leads me beside the still waters, has been skewed. Here’s what I mean. If you do an internet search for Jesus/Shepherd/Art, you’ll find an astounding number of paintings that depict incredible beauty. Lush green pastures, blue streams of water, gorgeous mountains and breathtaking skies. Seriously, much of the artwork looks like vacation destinations that I’d love to visit. I don’t mean to criticize the art because every piece evokes a sense of peace and I’m sure that is the artists’ intent. But to gain a fuller understanding of Psalm 23:2, we need to move away from art and consider the psalm from the perspective of a shepherd and his sheep.
Let’s look at following our Shepherd “beside the still waters” as we consider these realities of shepherding found in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller:
Sheep are incapable of finding good water on their own. If left alone, sheep will drink whatever water they stumble upon, even if it is stagnant, filthy and unfit to drink. Mark 6:34 says that Jesus had compassion on the people because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus was their only hope. He is our only hope. Only He is capable of meeting our needs.
Only the shepherd knows where the good water can be found. That is why he leads his flock. He doesn’t send them out to find water on their own. Instead, the shepherd leads them. Sometimes he walks ahead of his flock and sometimes he walks among the sheep, but always he leads them. And that means the sheep have a responsibility too. They must follow the shepherd if they want to find clean, refreshing water.
Sometimes getting to the best water is a difficult journey. The water may be off the beaten path. Perhaps it’s at the base of a steep mountainside. Or, as Keller describes, the best water may be in a cavern. When shepherds find pure water sources inside caverns, they lay ramps from ground level down to the water below. Then they lead their sheep down the rickety ramps and the sheep follow! The sheep walk out of the sunlight and into the dim cavern because they obediently follow their shepherd. They trust their shepherd to give them the very best he can provide.
What a perfect description of what it’s like to follow our Shepherd during times of grief. We may be emotionally battered and bruised but we follow our Shepherd because we are committed to following Him, regardless of where He leads. We know our Shepherd. He calls us by name and we recognize His voice (John 10:3). And so we follow. Moment by moment. Step by step. At times it feels as though the ground we’re walking on is nothing more than a rickety ramp. But we continue to put one foot in front of the other, wondering where in the world we’re going.
At no time is the need to stay close to the Shepherd felt more intensely than in times of darkness. There were many days and nights during my grief journey when darkness seemed to be closing in. While I trusted that my Shepherd was nearby, I could not see Him. I could not feel Him. I simply trusted that He was there. Eventually, the ground beneath my feet began to feel firm again. Eventually, we arrived at the still waters where our souls were refreshed and our thirst was quenched. But I must admit, it was a long journey.
Our Shepherd faithfully leads us beside the still waters. But it’s up to us to follow—even if it means leaving the sunlight behind for a while.