Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care;
In thy pleasant pastures feed us, for our use thy folds prepare.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus! Thou hast bought us, thine we are.
Dorothy Thrupp’s “Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us” is a powerful hymn that drinks deeply from the biblical imagery of God as Shepherd. While many are familiar with the Shepherd Psalm (Psalm 23) or Jesus’ identification as the Good Shepherd (John 10), the theme actually extends the length of the whole Bible. To help see that, let me share a brief roadmap that traces this soul-comforting, biblical-theological theme.
Genesis 48:15–16; 49:24
In Genesis flocks go back as far as Genesis 4:4. And throughout the book of beginnings, God’s people are often seen around and among sheep. Accordingly, God’s people were very familiar with the mannerisms of sheep and what it would take to be a shepherd. It’s not surprising then, the imagery of God as a shepherd began from the beginning. (For a full treatment of this shepherd theme with application to pastoral ministry, see Timothy Laniak’s Shepherds After My Own Heart).
In Jacob’s life, for instance, he learned that God was his shepherd—sometimes in hindsight (Genesis 28:16). In Canaan, he received his father’s blessing (when, in fact, he had stolen it), and under Laban’s harsh rule, he still prospered against all odds. Looking back on his life, therefore, he could see that a greater Shepherd was ordering his steps. And accordingly, when he blesses his own grandchildren, he speaks of God as his shepherd. In blessing Joseph and his sons, he writes in Genesis 48:15–16,
“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
And again, in Genesis 49:24, when blessing all of his grandchildren, Jacob (now Israel) refers to God as his Shepherd. From the beginning, God’s people related to God as their shepherd, a concept that would continue throughout all generations.
In the Pentateuch, God took Moses from the sheepfolds to lead his people. In this, God called Moses to shepherd his flock, but always Yahweh was Israel’s greater shepherd. Many times Moses described God’s activities with shepherd language.
For instance, Yahweh pursued Israel to care for them (Deuteronomy 32:10–12)
“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him.
. . . he dwelt among them to protect them (Deuteronomy 23:14),
Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.
. . . he led them with his presence (Exodus 15:13),
“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
. . . and he even healed them (Deuteronomy 32:39).
“ ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
While these passages don’t use the word shepherd, they indicate the kind of leading, feeding, protecting, and healing work that shepherds do. (Again, see Shepherds After My Own Heart for a taxonomy of shepherding tasks). In short, through the Exodus, God proved himself as a faithful shepherd, who would throughout Israel’s history raise up shepherds to lead them (see Psalms 77:20; 78:70–72).
Psalm 23 is the most familiar statement on God’s shepherding–and rightly so! David, the shepherd-king of Israel, recounts how God provided, protected, guided, and guarded him (v. 1–4). Then, turning to the royal imagery of the shepherd-king, he describes his Shepherd as a table host and merciful king (v. 5–6).
Other psalms develop this theme as well. For instance, consider these examples of God’s shepherding.
O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, Selah
Then he led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.
These Psalms are complemented by other Psalms that speak of human shepherds.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; 71 from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. 72 With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.
Importantly, the combination of divine and human shepherds begins to prepare us, canonically speaking, for the words of the Prophets which speak of God shepherding his people in the form of a human Shepherd-King.
In the prophets, the picture of God shepherding his people continues. Isaiah 40:10–11, for instance, records how God gently cares for his flock–tending, gathering, and carrying them (cf. 46:3; 56:8).
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Likewise, Jeremiah 50:19 records how God will restore Israel to his pasture, caring for his people’s physical needs. “I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead.” And Micah 7:14 calls God to defend his people with his shepherd’s staff. “Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, who dwell alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them graze in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old.”
Still, God’s promise of shepherding is not devoid of human mediation. For instance, Jeremiah 3:15–19 promises, with a vision of the new covenant, that God will give his people faithful shepherds:
15 “ ‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16 And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. 17 At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. 18 In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.
Likewise, Ezekiel 34, which indicts Israel’s faithless shepherds promises a son of David who will carry out God’s faithful shepherding. In judgment against these sheep-slaughtering leaders, God promises to search for, be among, rescue, gather, feed, give rest to, heal, strengthen, and defend his sheep (v. 11–24). Indeed, Ezekiel 34 provides one of the most promise-laden portions of Scripture for beleaguered sheep.
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. 17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.
Moving to the New Testament, what was promised in Ezekiel 34 finds fulfillment in John 10. John records in verses 11–14,
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
In his words, Jesus Christ comes as the Good Shepherd who dies for the sheep (vv. 11–14). John records that Jesus does not come as a hireling, but as a loving shepherd who has power to lay down his life and pick it up again (vv. 17–18; cf. Isaiah 53).
In this fulfillment of the Prophets promises, God strengthens the Christian from the imposing threats of sin, Satan, and death. If Christ died for his sheep, and rose from the dead to give them eternal life—a resplendent theme in John’s Gospel–he will never lose or forsake them. Indeed, as John 10:27–29,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
1 Peter 5:1–4
In addition to all the ways that God himself shepherds his people, he also supplies his people with under-shepherds, sheep who are called to shepherd his flock. In the New Testament, the word for pastor is literally “shepherd.” And just as God has fed, led, protected, and healed his sheep throughout the Bible, now Christ appoints shepherd-teachers (Ephesians 4:11) to equip the church for every good work of service.
In keeping with Jeremiah 3, these shepherds must be faithful, and thus must meet the qualifications of an elder/overseer/shepherd. Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 supply these lists, but 1 Peter 5:1–4 is most explicit. In that passage, Peter calls elders to shepherd the flock among them.
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Many lessons can be gleaned from this passage, but the main point for us to see is how pastoral ministry is an extension of God’s shepherding theme throughout the Scripture. Such a connection heightens the responsibilities pastors have to care for God’s flock (cf. Acts 20:28). At the same time, it should remind individual believers how vital pastors are for them. As Ephesians 4 reports, they are given to equip individual saints so that the body of Christ might be built up. In this way, pastoral ministry is not just a pragmatic function of the church; it is a necessary and vital part of God’s plan for the church, until all God’s sheep are gathered in—which brings us to the end of the Bible.
In John’s heavenly vision, the beloved apostle records a final word about the eternal purposes of God shepherding his people. In Revelation 7:15–17 writes,
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
In this vision, the longing created in the whole Bible for a true shepherd who will lead, protect, feed, and guide his flock has come to fruition. Even more comforting, the Shepherd whom God’s people come to know and love in this life is the same Shepherd waiting for them when they go to glory.
Revelation is a glorious picture of the Divine Shepherd who is none other than Jesus Christ, the one all Scripture has been leading to and the one that every human heart desires. Indeed, in him we find the perfect union of God who is the eternal shepherd of his sheep, and the Good Shepherd who laid down his life to rescue his sheep from sin and death. Indeed, the Shepherd became the slain lamb who now calls his sheep home.
Learning to Follow the Good Shepherd
From this brief overview of Scripture, we learn who the Good Shepherd is, how God has always led his sheep, and where God’s children can find comfort in their hour of need. Indeed, as we hear his voice and abide in him, we the sheep of his hand (Psalm 95:7) learn to trust him and follow him in all seasons of life.
Truly, whether storm clouds are above us or in front of us, Scripture speaks of Christ who has, and is now, and forever will be our Good Shepherd. In truth, this biblical theme is far more than a trivial thread to consider in Scripture; it is a source of incredible comfort and strength. God our Shepherd in heaven has become a sheep like us; he has suffered like we have and has died for our sins, so that now he can lead us with power and personal care. He does that with his Spirit, with his word, and with his church (gifted with his undershepherds).
In all this, God has provided all that we need for life and godliness, as we his (often scared) sheep learn to follow his voice, walk in his ways, and trust him. He is our Good Shepherd, and the more we grasp that, the more comfort we will find in him, as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, he has made a way for us, he is with us, and he is preparing a pasture for his, his blood-bought sheep.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds