He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)
As a little girl, I really did have a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow. I can remember the day my mother showed me the lamb and explained that she did not have a bottle with which to feed the stray lamb. I did. I agreed to let the lamb have my bottle if I could have the lamb. I have been fascinated by the unique relationship between sheep and their shepherd ever since.
Shepherds live with their sheep, finding places for them to eat and drink, providing shelter from the storms and protection from the heat. Sheep must eat the right amount of the right kinds of grass at the right times…or they will die. If the sheep eat too little one day and too much the next day, some of the bacteria that live in the stomach of the sheep will reproduce abnormal levels, creating toxins that cause sudden death. This problem was even more complicated for the shepherds of the Bible.
The type of shepherding referred to in the Bible is not the farming of fenced pasturelands, but nomadic grazing. The shepherd must carefully plan the path and lead the way so that the sheep have neither too little nor too much grazing and are able to get to the water hole on time. Pastures are often lost to extreme heat that means the shepherd has to scour the countryside in search of green grass. Several flocks of sheep are gathered together at night in a sheltered place so that shepherds can share the watches of the night, protecting the sheep from wild animals and thieves. Good shepherds are always willing to risk their lives to save their flocks from any harm, any enemy and even from themselves.
Sheep are dumb, can never be left alone and often stray, requiring the shepherd to find and rescue them. A shepherd never pushes his sheep but rather leads his sheep, going before them, making sure they are not walking into danger. The needs of sheep, compared to the needs of other animals, are greater because of their instinct to be afraid and when faced with a fearful situation, to run. Without a shepherd to care for the sheep, they will not last long.
Personally, I definitely fit the profile of a sheep. I can’t count the number of times I have stubbornly stuck to my plan, foolishly thinking that it was better than His plan, only to end up in some pit somewhere, calling for help. Psalm 40:1-3 has become my life maxim – with one exception. I rarely wait patiently! Remember, I am a sheep!
Psalm 40:1-3 “I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD” (NIV).
I sometimes allow fear to drive me to a place where I am trapped by doubts and darkness…until He rescues me. I try to satisfy my hunger by eating the wrong things found in the wrong places at the wrong times. The result is always the same; my soul remains ravenous for what is good while stuffing my heart and mind with what is bad.
Like every sheep, I don’t like to be pushed. Good shepherds do not push, no matter how great the temptation. A good shepherd stands in front of his sheep, gently calling their names, leading them to a place where he has already been, positioning himself between danger and his sheep. When I am tired and ready to give up, I tend to withdraw from the other sheep and even from my Shepherd. Many of us have somehow bought into the lie that they can make it on their own or that the rules, the commandments of God, do not necessarily apply to them…just those other sheep. The longer I serve God, the more I realize just how much we need each other and how much we need Him. When will I learn that I cannot do life on my own – as a sheep or as a shepherd?
A good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his sheep, just as Jesus Christ laid down His life for you and for me. I am so glad He was willing to lay down His life for every single sheep – the cute, fluffy ones as well as the dirty, broken lambs like me. Maybe it is time for us all to stop, listen for His voice, seek His plan and remember that we are indeed needy sheep who are called to love and lead other needy sheep to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.