A Psalm of David.Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’John 10:22-30
The twenty-third psalm is among the most beloved passages of Scripture. However, the more familiar a passage is, the greater the risk that we will miss its message. Familiar passages take on a life of their own in our imaginations. We are less alert to how they would have landed in their original context. Psalm 23 is no exception.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm. 23:1)
Shepherding is not only practically unfamiliar to most of us; we also don’t make the same kind of metaphorical associations as those in ancient times. Thinking metaphorically, we associate church ministers with shepherds, even calling them “pastors.” For ancient Israelites, the image of a shepherd was thoroughly political. Digging deeper into the ways this metaphor resonated for ancient people will yield new insights into Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd.
This favorite psalm is associated with David, the shepherd, the one who stayed back to watch the sheep while his brothers feasted with dignitaries and lined up for battle. The young man whose vocation was literally pastoral saw Yahweh, the God of Israel, as his shepherd. David is not alone in using this metaphor. Other ancient Near Eastern texts regularly refer to deities as shepherds. And while we might separate between church and state, or religion and politics, the ancients did not. The gods were chief administrators of the earth with ultimate authority over human society. King Assurbanipal of Neo-Assyria calls the god Shamash the “shepherd of the celestial and earthly regions.”1 The Babylonian Theodicy, dating about 500 years earlier, asserts, “The shepherd Shamash will past[ure] people as a god should.”2 The conceptualization of gods as shepherds persisted for a long time.
One can easily imagine how a shepherd might think of Yahweh as his own shepherd. However, if we think of David as leaving behind his role as shepherd when he becomes king, we’d be mistaken.
Since gods were described as shepherds, it makes sense that kings who served under divine authority were also called “shepherds.” For example, the Babylonian king Sargon is called the “shepherd of Assyria.”3 King Assurbanipal’s Coronation Hymn reads, “May Shamash, king of heaven and earth, raise you to shepherdship over the four regions!”4 In Egyptian iconography, the pharaoh is often pictured holding a shepherd’s crook.
So, David the shepherd boy becomes the shepherd king, yet he recognizes that he is still a sheep in need of shepherding by Yahweh. This beautiful image elevates Yahweh to a position as the ultimate King. However, in spite of the similarities between David’s metaphors and those of ancient Near Eastern peoples, the portrait David offers of Yahweh as shepherd contrasts sharply with theirs. In the Babylonian Epic of Creation (the Enūma Elish), the gods created humans to do their work so that the gods may rest; they set a banquet table for themselves, and they appointed Marduk as the highest god and “shepherd” of humankind.5 In contrast to this, Psalm 23 presents Yahweh the shepherd as one who provides sustenance and refreshment, guidance and protection, honor and security for the psalmist (Psalm 23:2-6).
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Psalm 23:2-6 NRSV)
The political resonance of this text is striking. This is a different sort of divine kingship, one oriented toward the needs of humankind, rather than the needs of the gods. Humans flourish by following the divine shepherd. David gets this. He is a different sort of human king, one who recognizes his absolute dependence on the divine shepherd, and as a result, one whose earthly reign ought to mimic the benevolent hospitality of the divine king.
Awareness of this background prepares us to appreciate Jesus’ own use of shepherd imagery in the New Testament. Jesus’ announcement that he is “the good shepherd” in John 10:11 is at the very least a claim of divinely ordained kingship, and more likely an implicit claim to divinity. In addition to Psalm 23, his claim draws on Ezekiel 34, where Yahweh condemns the selfishness of Israel’s shepherds (i.e. their religious leaders) and says he will remove them from their role (Ezekiel 34:10). They have failed to care for the needs of the sheep and protect them from harm, instead using their position to exploit the resources of the flock for their own gain. As commentator Daniel Block explains, “Since the shepherds, who had been appointed by Yahweh to care for his sheep, have not only neglected their duty but turned into ravenous wolves themselves, Yahweh is compelled to intervene and rescue (hiṣṣîl) his sheep from their jaws. For the rulers this is an announcement of judgment, but for the flock it is a message of hope.”6
Yahweh will replace these leaders with himself: “’I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,’ says the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 34:15). Keep in mind that in Ezekiel’s day, the Jewish religious leaders wielded enormous political power. Israel was, after all, supposed to be a theocracy. The temple was the economic, social, and political center of the kingdom. By the first century, various Jewish sects vied for control based on their understanding of Torah. Each in their own way questioned Jesus’ authority.
It’s no wonder that the Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus (see John 9:22, 41 and 10:1). To call himself “the good shepherd” casts them in the role of self-serving leaders whose fate is sealed. They may have seen themselves as a beleaguered minority in need of rescue from Roman oppression, but Jesus critiques their leadership rather than the Romans He boldly calls them “thieves and bandits” (John 10:8).
Before we rush in to condemn the Pharisees, we might consider whether our own forms of religious leadership mimic theirs. Are we so desperate to protect our power that we fail to recognize God’s work through someone else? Are we tempted to cast others in a negative light when it would cost us accolades to do otherwise? Christian ministers (often known as “pastor” to their congregations) are in the headlines far too often for abusing their power.
Jesus models a different kind of pastoral leadership. He echoes Psalm 23 when he explains: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who will benefit from the benevolent rule of this shepherd must listen to his voice and follow his lead. We flourish by following. Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd is much more than a comforting metaphor. It is a claim to kingship and a clarion call to surrender our wills and follow him to green pastures. His kingship subverts hierarchies. He models followership for us and ushers us into wide-open spaces where we can flourish in his upside-down kingdom.7
- “An Assurbanipal Hymn for Shamash (1.143),” translated by Alasdair Livingstone, in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 1:474, line 2.
- “The Babylonian Theodicy (1.154),” translated by Benjamin R. Foster, in Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 1:495, XXVII line 11.
- “A Hymn to Nanaya with a Blessing for Sargon II (1.141),” translated by Alasdair Livingstone, in Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 1:472, II line 19.
- “Assurbanipal’s Coronation Hymn (1.142),” translated by Alasdair Livingstone, in Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 1:473 line 1.
- “Epic of Creation (1.111),” translated by Benjamin R. Foster, in Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 1:402, VI lines 8, 70–76, 107. See also “The Weidner Chronicle (1.138),” translated by Alan Millard, in Hallo and Younger, The Context of Scripture, 1:469.
- Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25–48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 286.
- Thanks to my colleagues, Joanne Jung and Rick Langer, for the word “followership.”