The mention of ‘shepherd’ in scripture ranges from 40-58 times depending on the translation not including the plural and other forms of the word. The mention of ‘sheep’ occurs 189 times. Given the sheep raising of the region that the biblical account is written in it should not surprise us that the imagery of shepherd and sheep is used to describe the human condition.
The best known scripture of the shepherd of course is the 23rd psalm which resonates with all because it is comforting. It provides for us a good understanding of just what the shepherd does for his sheep and by extension what the Lord Jesus does for us as our Good Shepherd.
Out in the fields the shepherd, because they are often on the move from one place to another, is provider, protector and guide. He ensures green pasture is found so that the sheep can graze and rest. He protects not only against predators but also serves as the vet. He knows each sheep intimately. He leads or guides them with his staff as sheep cannot be driven like cattle. Without the shepherd, the sheep can get into all kinds of trouble. Cattle can be left to their own devices; sheep cannot unless they are in a pen.
For those of us who live on the flat prairie there is a tendency to wonder just what kind of trouble sheep could possibly get into. However, the terrain of the biblical sheep is hilly with deep ravines and crevices that they can fall into. Sheep have been known to be found in the few trees that are there in an otherwise barren landscape. Sheep are not obedient unless the shepherd with his staff prods, pushes and comforts in times of stress. When used to describe the Israelites these are metaphors for the pitfalls that humanity is prone to and how the Israelites often lived their lives, going from one crisis to another needing provision, protection and guidance from the Lord God much as the sheep do under the care of a pastoral shepherd.
As Jesus went throughout the cities, and villages He was filled with compassion for the crowds who were harassed and helpless, “like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) He told his disciples to pray for labourers for the harvest. These were people who needed a shepherd, Jesus yes but also for other believers to lead the people to salvation. Jesus is the Good Shepherd but He couldn’t humanly get to all who needed Him so others were needed to help shepherd the people.
We also need shepherds in our lives, to provide, to protect, to guide. Parents fulfill this role when we are children but as we go out on our own we still need shepherds as we too can wander aimlessly unaware of the ravines and crevices that we can fall into, traps set by the evil one in the hopes of keeping us away from God’s blessings. Even as we are shepherded we can at the same time shepherd others. Some are content to be the sheep but Jesus looks for shepherds to serve as provider, protector and guide. However, we must not forget that first and foremost we must learn from the Good Shepherd himself.