Psalm 23:1-4 – The Lord as Shepherd

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POSTED 03 NOVEMBER, 2017

“A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume I

Psalm 23 is one of the most significant chapters of Holy Scripture, often because of the great comfort and solace which it has been responsible for providing many people. It is easy to recognize how Bible readers often take for granted the word, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1a), YHWH ro’i lo ech’sar.[1] In the Tanach or Old Testament, the LORD or YHWH is often referred to as the shepherd of His people. Might this communicate anything later in the Apostolic Writings or New Testament, regarding Yeshua the Messiah as shepherd?

As far as it concerns God proper as shepherd, in the Tanach, Tremper Longman III astutely summarizes,

“The metaphor of God as shepherd is by no means unique to this psalm (e.g. Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Pss 28:9; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:15; Mic. 7:14). God as shepherd is primarily a pastoral metaphor, but it should be borne in mind that, throughout the Ancient Near East, kings and other leaders were styled as shepherds of their people. In the Old Testament as well, the king was the shepherd of his people. Most often, this metaphor was used in a negative sense of Israel’s leaders. They were shepherds who led their sheep astray (e.g. Ezek. 34), but David responded well, though not perfectly, to God’s command that he shepherd God’s people (2 Sam. 5:2). The extensive use of the shepherd metaphor for leaders reveals that Psalm 23 is a royal psalm. The psalmist expresses confidence in the Lord (Yahweh) as the shepherd-king.”[2]

How might the LORD or YHWH being shepherd, carry over into how Yeshua the Messiah both functions as shepherd, and what could be deduced regarding His nature? In a general resource like The Apologetics Study Bible, more Messianic significance is stressed from Yeshua being the Good Shepherd or Great Shepherd, as a leader of His people and Kingdom:

“The metaphor of the shepherd was a common figure for religious and political leaders of antiquity (2:9). It therefore became a powerful image for the coming Messiah (74:1-4; 80:1; Is 40:11; Ezk 34; Mic 7:14). The NT confirms that passages like this point to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the good Shepherd who lays down His life (Jn 10:14), the great Shepherd who equips the saints (Heb 13:20), and the chief Shepherd who comes in glory (1 Pt 5:4). The descriptions of the shepherd here portray how the Lord teaches, heals, guides, and protects.”[3]

Those who hold to a high Christology, of Yeshua the Messiah being God, might immediately conclude that while there are political and leadership overtones with Yeshua being shepherd—with the LORD or YHWH as shepherd, that clearly Yeshua is integrated into the Divine Identity by being shepherd as well. A bit more restraint is actually necessary, because various agents of God—human agents, in fact—are described by God to have a shepherding function in leading and guiding His people. In his resource The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, Richard N. Longenecker sets forth some of the Tanach background behind Yeshua of Nazareth being a shepherd:

“In the Old Testament, the relation between both (1) God and his people, and (2) a human leader and his subjects, is repeatedly portrayed in terms of a shepherd and his flock. The imagery of Ps. 23.1-6 and the title ‘Shepherd of Israel’ in Ps. 80.1 immediately come to mind with reference to God; while with reference to God’s appointed agents, Ps. 77.20, for example…and Isa. 63.11, [recall] the…exodus experience…[B]oth psalmists and prophets spoke of God, to whom the flock belongs, and his viceregents, to whom was entrusted the care of the flock, as shepherds over their sheep; the one the supreme Shepherd and the others undershepherds. And such representations of leadership, whether human or divine, seem to have been common in the ancient world, and were continued in the intertestimental period among the Jews.

“Of greater significance for our purpose here, are the Old Testament passages which describe the promised Messiah in terms of a Shepherd over God’s people. Micah 5.4…Ezekiel 34.23…And Zech. 13.7….

“The use of the title in regard to Jesus seems to have stemmed from Jesus himself, for it appears as a self-designation in all the Gospel strata. Matthew and Mark report that Jesus applied the words of Zech. 13.7….directly to himself….Luke, in his special Perean material, presents Jesus as alluding to the language and sentiment of Zech. 13.7-9…And John, of course, incorporates into his portrayal the parable of the Good Shepherd and his sheep. In the light of such a background with Judaism and the precedent set by Jesus himself, Jewish Christians continued to speak of Jesus as ‘the Shepherd’ ([ho poimēn] [1 Peter 2:25]), ‘the Chief Shepherd’ ([ho archipoimēn] [1 Peter 5:4]), and ‘the Great Shepherd of the sheep’ ([ho poimēn tōn probatōn ho megas] [Hebrews 13:20])…”[4]

It is too simple to claim that since the LORD or YHWH is shepherd in Psalm 23:1, that Yeshua the Messiah also being shepherd, automatically proves He is God. At the same time, with God proper being shepherd, we may be required to consider those later scenes in the Apostolic Writings where Yeshua as shepherd is being depicted, and evaluate what function Yeshua is performing—and from there consider whether or not a created supernatural agent would be seen to honestly perform such activity.


NOTES

[1] “Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (New Jerusalem Bible).

[2] Tremper Longman III, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), pp 134-135.

[3] Ted Cabal, gen. ed., The Apologetics Study Bible, HCSB (Nashville: Holman, 2007), 810.

[4] Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), pp 48, 49.