God's Tender Loving Care

All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way.—Isaiah 53:6

Richard Suraci

The 23rd Psalm tells of the rescue, guidance and reward of the little flock of sheep God is leading. Who is the shepherd? All things are of the Father and by the Son (1 Corinthians 8:6). As the Logos the Son was God’s mouthpiece and agent of creation. All God’s messages were conveyed through him. Thus we may view both the Father as the great Master Shepherd and the Son as our Good Shepherd.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

A better rendering is, "I shall not be in want." The Lord supplies just what we need. "My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches of glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). We will never lack the proper care and management from our shepherd.

Since David knew the meaning of personal poverty, hardship, and anguish of spirit, he could not mean that God’s sheep will never experience any lack or need. All God’s "holy men of old"—even our Good Shepherd—experienced personal privation and adversity.

An implied meaning of this text is, "I shall not want any other shepherd." If the Lord is "Our Shepherd," it is his voice we follow. We desire no other shepherd, nor will we hearken to other voices. As Jesus explains, "When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him; for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers." (John 10:4,5)

Once we identify our shepherd as the guardian of the flock, we follow him because his voice is one of love and authority without equal.

"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures."

A new convert who finds himself on the mountain top because of his newly acquired relationship with God feels he can easily conquer the world. God in his wisdom knows the long, hard, steady pull that is ahead and "makes him lie down in green pastures." He does not suggest nor lead; he makes it happen.

This finds fulfillment throughout a sheep’s lifetime. In our modern work-packed lives we seem to lose the ability to relax, so God may at times compel us to rest. But rest is not an end in itself. The purpose of rest is to revive us as we meditate and feed on God’s word, to rekindle our energy so we can continue in the narrow way of sacrifice.

It is difficult for sheep to lie down unless they are free from fear, free from friction with other sheep, free from flies and insects, and free from hunger. The shepherd provides release from these problems. His diligent care makes it possible for them to lie down in peace.

Sheep are timid and easily panicked. When one startled sheep runs in fright, a dozen more may follow in blind fear. Life produces many uncertainties. The unknown or unexpected can produce the greatest panic. Fear makes us "freeze" on the spot; then we attempt to run away. In the midst of our anxieties our Good Shepherd quietly informs us that he knows our dilemma and is involved with us. "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear [or timidity]; but of power, and of love, and of a sound [disciplined] mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Another source of unrest is that of tension, rivalry, and competition within the flock itself. Rivalry produces friction within a flock, making rest and contentment difficult. When the shepherd appears, the sheep forget their rivalries and stop their fighting. The shepherd’s presence makes a big difference in their behavior. Competition among the Lord’s people should be non-existent. Seeking headship in an ecclesia is detrimental to the peace and rest of the group. One is the Lord and head, we are all servants of him and each other. "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Philippians 2:3).

Sheep will not rest if bothered by parasites and insects. They will constantly shake their heads or stamp their feet trying to rid themselves of these pests. The diligent care of the shepherd keeps these insects at a minimum. By using repellents and various dips, he controls the problem, allowing his sheep to rest peacefully. Trials and disagreeable experiences are like these pests. We should tell the shepherd about our vexations through prayer. Of course the Lord knows about our trials before we tell him. Yet he wants us to tell him so we may realize our need of him and our inability to cope with our trials alone.

Freedom from hunger is the fourth requirement for a sheep’s restful peace as it lays down in green pastures. Pastures in Palestine differ from what we see today. David had to search for green pastures amid boundless wilderness. Except for these scattered pastures, the land was mostly barren. Yet sheep thrive in a semi-arid climate because there are fewer insects and hazards to health.

As we learn to appreciate how barren earthly hopes are, we will be drawn closer to our shepherd. Our closeness to him will guarantee the richest experiences and refreshment as we enjoy his constant care in our daily lives. But sheep that wander away from the flock, looking for their own pastures or who follow the voice of false shepherds, are most likely to eat poisonous plants or be devoured by wild animals.

"He leadeth me beside still waters."

When sheep are thirsty, they become restless and search for water. If not led to clean drinking water, they will drink from polluted holes where they pick up all sorts of diseases. Water is an indispensable part of a Christian’s life. We need it, we crave it, we cannot survive without it. "Still water" implies both the quenching of thirst and that of peace and quiet. Water is a symbol of truth. "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst" (John 4:14).

We know what refreshment comes from water. This helps us understand our Lord’s words about the water of life which he gives to his people: "If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink" (John 7:37). To drink means to take in, to accept, to believe. It is an assimilation of God’s word into our hearts, to the point where it becomes an active part of our lives.

"He leadeth me beside still waters" means that he knows where the still, clean waters are and can satisfy his sheep and keep them fit and strong. Water for sheep comes from four main sources: dew on the grass, deep wells, springs, and streams. Sheep in cooler climates can go for long periods of time without drinking if there is heavy dew on the grass each morning. This too, is a form of "still waters."

Sheep rise before dawn and start to feed. The early hours are when the grass is drenched with dew and they can keep fit on the amount of water taken in from the grass as they graze. But when the sun rises, its rays evaporate the dew. What a blessing it is for the Lord’s sheep to feed upon God’s word "early in the morning." "O God thou art my God, early will I seek thee, my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is" (Psalm 63:1). The still waters at the opening of each day fortify us as we drink from God’s precious word.

Early morning meditation and study are profitable to the Lord’s sheep because the mind and body are rested, relaxed and sharper than at any other time of the day. The early morning hours are unique for prayer and study because it is quiet.

The world also has thirsts. It tries to quench that thirst with worldly waters: knowledge, science, music, arts, traveling, sports, hobbies. But the thirst remains largely unsatisfied. Unless we are led by "still waters" each day of our lives, we might be tempted by other pursuits that will impede our growth.

"He restoreth my soul."

"He saveth my life" is a better translation. A bear and a lion tried to devour David’s sheep. He went to their rescue and saved their lives. Many times God saved David’s life and revived him when he was cast down, dejected, and fell under temptation.

How many times has God saved our lives both as human beings and as new creatures in Christ Jesus? Which of us could combat the "roaring lion" of 1 Peter 5:8 single-handedly? What may we accomplish without the strength and "power of his might"? It will only be from the vantage point of heaven that we will see how often our shepherd kept us from falling into the jaws of the Adversary.

David asked, "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?" (Psalm 42:11) There is a special meaning for "cast" as it applies to sheep. A "cast" or "cast down" sheep is an old English term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up by itself. It is pathetic to see a sheep lying on its back, feet in the air, struggling in vain to get up. If the shepherd doesn’t rescue it, it will die. The shepherd watches for this serious condition. Wild animals know a cast sheep is easy prey. When the shepherd sees a "cast sheep," he tenderly lifts it up to a standing position. As it regains its strength, it starts to walk again and rejoins the flock. It has been given another chance to live.

The whole world is in the position of "cast sheep," lying helplessly on their backs. Our Good Shepherd saved our lives initially with his own precious blood; his saving and reviving power continues to the very end. "For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt thou not deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?" (Psalm 56:13)

We fall in our daily lives. "The steps of a good man are established by the Lord .;.;. though he fall he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand" (Psalm 37:23,24). If a sheep has an excessive amount of wool weighing it down which could cause it to be "cast down," the shepherd will shear it. If this happens to us, may our reaction be as commendable as the Hebrew brethren who Paul said "took joyfully the spoiling of their goods" (Hebrews 10:34).

"He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake."

The word rendered "righteousness" means "right." "He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake." If sheep are left to themselves, they will graze the same paths until they become wastelands; they will pollute the land until it is corrupt with disease. They chew out the roots which destroys vegetation. David knew that if his flock were to prosper, they must be shifted from pasture to pasture periodically. There must be a pre-determined plan of action, co-mingled with principles of sound management. This is what David had in mind when he said, "He leadeth me in right paths."

"Right paths" are straight paths. The word path means "track," a fixed definite way of life. This straight path leading to heaven was started by our Lord Jesus and has been well-trodden by all God’s faithful people.

"It is not in man who walketh to direct his steps. O Lord correct me, but with judgment" (Jeremiah 10:23,24). This is exactly what David meant when he wrote, "He leadeth me." David knew he could not lead himself aright! He could see his sheep were dependent upon him for guidance. He saw in himself the same wayward qualities of his sheep.

"Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I have kept thy word. I have gone astray like a lost sheep, seek thy servant for I do not forget thy commandments" (Psalm 119:67, 176). If we find ourselves straying from the right paths, we should go straight to the Lord, baring our soul in his presence. This is the only way to "make straight paths for our feet" (Hebrews 12:13).

Sometimes, like sheep, we seek our own way. We may want to assert ourselves, want to carry out our own ideas, do "our own thing." In contrast we have the Good Shepherd’s words: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). This is not just in consecration; it is a daily, lifetime endeavor. To follow implies self-denial. As sheep gone astray, we went "each his own way." After being gathered to his fold, a new guidance system has been established in our lives: "Show me thy ways O LORD; teach me thy paths" (Psalm 25:4).

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."

South of the Jericho Road leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea there is a narrow passage through a mountain range. Climate and grazing conditions make it essential for sheep to be moved through this passage for seasonal feeding each year. The side walls are over 1500 feet high in places and only 10 to 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through it is dangerous because its floor has been eroded by cloudbursts and there are channels seven or eight feet deep. Footing is so narrow that in places sheep cannot turn around. An unwritten rule is that flocks go up in the morning hours and down toward the evening, lest two flocks meet head-on in the middle.

Halfway through the passage the path crosses from one side to the other at a place where it is cut in two by an eight-foot channel. One section of the path is 18 inches higher than the other and the sheep must jump across it. If a sheep falls into the channel, the shepherd’s staff is encircled around its neck or chest and it is lifted out. The sheep fear no evil as they walk through this kind of "Valley of the Shadow of Death," for their shepherd is there to assist and protect them.

Our first parents entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death through disobedience and everyone has been in it for over 6,000 years. The Shadow of Death hangs over the human family and it is accompanied by sickness and pain. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together waiting "for the manifestation of the Sons of God" (Romans 8:19). This manifestation or revealment begins with the work of restitution when the human race will be led like sheep out from the death condition.

"In quietness and confidence shall be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15; Job 34:29). Quietness and strength come from the Lord’s presence with us—"Thou art with me"—in every situation, in every trial, in every disappointment. Each "valley" experience draws us closer to our shepherd as we learn to lean heavily upon him.

"Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

The shepherd’s rod was in the shape of a heavy club. With it the shepherd defended his flock. The staff was lighter and longer with a crook at one end and a point on the other. It was used by the shepherd to prod a careless sheep or help one that had stumbled into a ditch. Both rod and staff provided protection and correction of the sheep.

The rod was a comfort for David’s sheep because it was used for their protection; it was an extension of his right hand. God’s word provides the same comfort to us. It is extremely comforting to have a "thus saith the Lord" for what we believe to be true. God’s word is clear-cut, authoritative, and the most powerful weapon in dealing with error, "foolish babblings and science falsely so-called" (1 Timothy 6:20). God’s word dispels confusion from our lives! It brings peace and confidence: "Thy rod comforts me."

The shepherd also used the rod to examine the sheep. As sheep pass through the sheep gate, the shepherd’s rod is extended across it. If he lets it fall on a sheep’s back, that sheep steps out of line for a careful examination. Because of the wool, it is difficult to detect an injury in sheep. The shepherd uses the thin side of his rod to part the wool so he can examine the sheep’s body. Such a diligent shepherd is a joy to the sheep for their problems are laid bare in his hands.

This is the type of confidence we should have in our shepherd. "Search me O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23,24). If we submit to God, he will by his word search us out. He will get below the surface and expose character flaws that need healing.

This isn’t something we need to avoid! Spiritual maturity and confidence in God’s integrity invite him to cleanse us from pride, self-assertion, self-will; for we know he has our eternal welfare in mind. Truly, "thy rod comforts me."

The staff is a symbol of the concern and compassion a shepherd has for his sheep. It is not only gentle in appearance but also in performance. The shepherd uses his staff to draw sheep together or to catch individual sheep and draw them close for careful inspection. The staff is used to guide sheep. Its tip is laid gently along the sheep’s side and the applied pressure indicates the way the sheep are to go.

Through comfort of God’s word we "keep in touch" with our shepherd. A keen awareness of this closeness and our oneness with him should fill our hearts. The child of God should have this intimate experience of sensing the comforter by his side each step of the way.

Because they are stubborn creatures, sheep get into dangerous predicaments. Greedy for a few stray strands of grass they may wander into a thorny bush or too close to a hillside, causing them to slip off and fall into thorns and thistles. Because of self-assertion we may push ourselves into places where we cannot escape. It is then that we feel the comfort from the Good Shepherd as he tenderly lifts us up and draws us close to himself.

"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."

Poisonous plants are fatal to grazing animals, so the shepherd must be on the alert. In preparing the pasture for his sheep he goes ahead of the flock weeding out the poisonous plants and lays them on a little stone table. By the next day they are dry enough to burn. The sheep are led into the newly prepared pasture, and in the presence of their deadly enemies, they graze in peace.

Predators are deadly enemies of the sheep that wait in dark shadows for an opportunity to stampede the flock. The wayward sheep are the ones most likely to be attacked. When attacked they become dumb with fright, unable to cry for help. We must stay close to our shepherd at all times. When attacked by the Adversary, it is most essential not to panic nor become mute. Rather we should "come boldly to the throne that we may find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

"Thou anointest my head with oil."

At the sheepfold there is a large bowl of olive oil mingled with spices, and a large jar of water. As the sheep pass through the gate, the shepherd examines each head and body for wounds. These are carefully cleaned as the shepherd dips his hand into the oil to anoint the injury. A cup is dipped into the water and comes out overflowing and the sheep drinks until refreshed.

The shepherd pays particular attention to the head. Sheep are especially troubled by flies which deposit eggs on the moist membrane of the nose. The eggs hatch producing slender worm-like creatures that go up the nasal passage into the head where they tunnel into the flesh causing intense irritation. Advanced stages of infection may lead to blindness.

Once again it is the "Tender Loving Care" of the shepherd that knows the problem and helps overcome it. At the first sign of flies among the flock he anoints each head. Some shepherds today use a combination of linseed oil, sulfur and tar for the sheep’s head and nose. They say an incredible change takes place in sheep when this is done. This oil affects their behavior, freeing them of their problems, allowing them to graze in peace.

The holy spirit is doing the same work in God’s people today. We are admonished "Be ye filled with the spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). It is one thing to have an initial begetting and quite another to be filled with the spirit. Our Good Shepherd tells us of the Father’s delight in giving the holy spirit to them who ask him (Luke 11:13).

"My cup runneth over."

This overflowing cup comes as a result of God’s indwelling spirit. Our Master’s cup was one of suffering, shame and death. He invited us to drink of his cup and be baptized with his baptism (Matthew 20:22). It becomes our cup also; but he promises us a new cup of joy which he will share with us in his kingdom. Our joys in the eternal future will be beyond what we could have asked or thought. "Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard neither hath entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1Corinthians 2:9).

"Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."

The word surely means "certainly, truly." There is no doubt that the Lord will be with us. We know of our shepherd’s "Tender Loving Care" because he laid down his life for us and is managing our lives. No matter what trial or calamity comes our way, our heart knows that "surely" God’s goodness and mercy will be a part of the experience.

"Surely, goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life," is a better translation. Instead of being pursued by fears the "little flock" follows the Good Shepherd and listens to his voice. God’s goodness and mercy pursue them, watch over them, care for them.

"I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

This beautiful psalm opens with the happy affirmation: "The Lord is my shepherd." It closes with the most positive, unbreakable, eternal affirmation of a heart that is loved and nurtured by God’s love and mercy. The house of the Lord is his dwelling place. We must "dwell" with God to know and understand him. It will take an eternity of dwelling with him to accomplish this. As we do, we will remember the way in which "God’s Tender Loving Care" led us to life eternal.