One of the most beautiful images of God’s love and care for us is that of the shepherd, a motif that runs through Old and New Testaments.
At a time when ever more of us are stressed and worried, awaiting our emergence from lockdown but anxious about what the future holds, the idea of God’s nurture is both comforting and helps offer a larger perspective.
Perhaps the shepherd image doesn’t have the same directness for today’s urban citizens, who may see a sheep only when it’s on their plate. And it doesn’t work everywhere – in one Bible translation to a dialect in the Philippines, “shepherd” had to be translated “swineherd” to convey the idea.
But what it describes, with its rich associations, is the deeply personal and attentive nature of God’s love, the way he knows his people, guides them, tends them, keeps them safe and provides for them. Consider a couple of texts:
Many people are familiar with Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
Then there is the tender promise in the book of Isaiah that God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.
Jesus tells us: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
According to the prophet Ezekiel, God says he himself will search for his sheep and look after them, rescuing them from all the places they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
And in the New Testament, Jesus tells us: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Describing rulers as shepherds is found also among the ancient Babylonians and Greeks, including Homer, while the king’s sceptre, a symbol of authority, apparently stems from the shepherd’s crook.
Commentators have observed that the metaphor is apt also because people are so often like sheep: vulnerable, foolish, following a herd mentality, prone to wandering astray. That’s why the Bible particularly condemns bad shepherds who feed themselves rather than the sheep, neglect the sheep and plunder them for their own profit. One does not have to look far, from biblical times to today, to find such leaders.
In contrast, the good shepherd – as the Gospel of Matthew says – is willing to leave the 99 sheep to go to look for the one that wandered off. “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” It is a marvellous promise that God will not give up on us.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.