Are you a Shepherd?

Are you a Shepherd?

The Call of a Husband and Father

The Life of a Shepherd    
In OT scripture, shepherds were a hated, reviled class of people.1 To our modern sensibilities shaped by society’s shift from an agrarian to industrial paradigm, the shepherd’s lifestyle looks like a primitive, dirty, outdated practice best suited for the pages of a history book or an episode of National Geographic studying shepherding practices in third world countries. In other words, there’s little application for us moderns.

    To be fair, shepherding is dirty work. It’s hard, low tech work which brings the shepherd into direct contact with bugs2, parasites, the elements, and the danger of predators.
    This type of work is not glamorous, and requires that the shepherd be very intimate with his flock, leaving him smelling like the sheep. Checking the sheep for disease, the infestation of bugs, and the physical contact necessary to move the flock from one area to another means that the shepherd himself will be exposed to all the same critters, all the harsh elements, and all the dangers.

    Given that sheep are relatively helpless creatures whose only defense mechanism is to run3 from danger, a shepherd must provide all the things necessary for a sheep to flourish: green pastures with lush, healthy grass to forage, clean fresh water, and an environment free from predators in which the sheep can rest. Sheep are so dependent upon their shepherd that the simple act of falling down can prove fatal. Known as being “cast down”, a sheep in this condition is in grave danger and cannot deliver itself.

“A cast sheep is a very pathetic sight. Lying on its back, it’s feet in the air, it flays away frantically struggling to stand up, without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but generally it lies there lashing about in frightened frustration. If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep will die.4

    A shepherd's work doesn’t merely involve feeding, medical care, and helping a sheep up when cast down. The work also includes the practice of disciplining the flock. Shepherds must contend with harsh sheep, unruly sheep, discontented sheep, and especially with stupid sheep. Sheep will trample their own fresh water5. Sheep will climb through briars, thorns, thistles, and barbed wire to get to a patch of grass they perceive as better. Sheep will engage in violence against one another.

    Thankfully the shepherd has many tools at his disposal. In disciplining his sheep, a shepherd will employ his voice, his touch, and the staff he carries. A soothing word, harsh rebuke, gentle pat on the head or rump, or a blow from the staff all communicate to the sheep what the shepherd expects of them.
    A shepherd’s work is tireless and never ending. Even at rest, the shepherd must remain vigilant. In the evenings, with the sheep nestled safely into the fold, a caring shepherd will sleep in the doorway6, using his very own body as a hedge against vicious predators like wolves. With most of us living safely tucked away in modern homes sometimes referred to as our castle, having access to grocery stores, running water, doctors a phone call away, and living in a relatively safe environment, the idea of sleeping in the doorway to protect something like a sheep is foreign to us.
Yet it shouldn’t be, as scripture frequently refers to us, God’s people, as sheep (Psalm 44:22, 74:1, 78:52, 79:13, 95:7, 110:3, 119:176, Isaiah 53:6).

    Perhaps one reason for our aversion and ignorance of this comparison is the rugged individualism prevalent in American society. Another may be our overinflated view of self: “I’m not dumb, so the comparison to a sheep falls short.” Coupled with an acute case of “lack of self awareness “, as moderns, we tend to be removed from the medieval realities involved with animal husbandry due to our advanced technology and sophisticated lifestyles.

    Whatever the reason, the reality is that God’s Word says we are sheep, so that is what we are. Thankfully He has not left us to flounder about, cast down, infested with bugs (temptations) and disease (sin), or starving (without revelation), and with no hope of rest (Matthew 11:28).

    Rather, we have a Good Shepherd who provides all we need, gives us an environment in which to flourish, leads us, heals us (cleanses us from the stain of sin), carries us in our afflictions (even unto death), disciplines us, blesses us over abundantly, and has secured a place of rest for us.

The Good Shepherd

    Arguably one of the most popular passages of Scripture can be found in the Book of Psalms, chapter 23. It reads as follows:

 “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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

    Listen to the comforting language found here:
  • “The LORD is my shepherd”: in other words, the Creator of the universe and all it contains is the one who will intimately guide me, protect me, provide for me, and discipline me.
  • “He makes me lie down”: here we read a promise of rest which is non-negotiable, a sure fact.
  • “Green pastures”: only the best grazing for God’s people.
  • “He leads me”: God does not leave us to our own devices, He does not allow us to go without a guide.
  • “Beside quiet waters”: Thirsty sheep are restless sheep7; Christ gives water which when drank, one never thirsts8.
  • “He restores my soul”: regeneration, the forgiveness of sins, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit all serve to restore us into a right relationship with Him; no longer are we wayward sheep.
  • “He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”: through faith, Christ’s active and passive obedienceare credited to us, God declaring us as righteous in His sight, not for anything we have done, but for His own glory and name10.
  • “You are with me.”: Emmanuel, God with us. Unlike hired hands, the LORD has promised to never leave nor forsake us.
  • “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”: No shepherd worth his salt would neglect to protect or discipline his flock, and the LORD is no exception. In fact, He is the standard for what it looks like to protect and discipline a flock, treating wolves without mercy, and little ewes with gentleness and compassion.
  • “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies”: God does not promise a life void of conflict and danger, but rather, an abundant life in the midst of it (John 10:10).
  • “You have anointed my head with oil”: shepherds would frequently have to pour various products upon the head of their sheep as a means of pest control. The great Shepherd of the sheep is no different, as He anoints His people with the Holy Spirit, washing away their sins. 
  • “My cup overflows” with more of the abundant life spoken of in John 10:10.
  • “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” All things work together for our good (Romans 8:28), and in the ultimate, eschatological sense, we will dwell bodily with the LORD in eternal bliss in a place prepared for us by Him.

As Christians with all of Scripture available to us, we know that the Shepherd spoken of in Psalm 23, the LORD, is our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ezekiel 34 echoes the Shepherd imagery introduced in Psalm 23 even further.

Ezekiel 34:11-16  For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. “I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. “I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.

Note the bold print in the passage from Ezekiel.
Feed them, care for them, deliver them,  good pasture, lie down, good grazing ground, rest, bind the broken, and strengthen the sick- all harken back to the song of David written to extol the Shepherd watching over Israel and includes the same promises.

In John 10 we read Jesus explicitly identifying Himself using language which leaves no doubt as to how He relates to His people:

“I am the good shepherd” (John 10: 11,14).

In John 10 Jesus says that He leads the sheep (vs 3,4), provides good grazing for the sheep (vs 9), protects the sheep (vs 11,12,15), disciplines the sheep (vs 4), gives the sheep abundant life (vs 10), and even lays down his life for the sheep (vs 11,15,17,18). The idea of being a sheep may grate on your nerves, feel demeaning to you, or seem outdated, but if you are a Christian, there is no denying that God’s people have always been viewed as sheep in need of a Shepherd.

“When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34 NASB 95)

    Much of the leading, discipline and provision given to the sheep by Christ comes by way of teaching. Whether it was by His preaching11, His personal interaction with sheep12, the laying on of His hands13, or the example of godly, righteous living which He displayed14, Christ as the Good Shepherd never faltered, wavered, or shirked the responsibilities He had to His sheep. Referring to Himself as the door through which the sheep would enter into rest (Jn 10: 7,9), Jesus identifies with the earthly picture of a shepherd lying at the opening of the sheepfold, guarding the flock from predators and ensuring their peace, safety, and rest.

What comfort this should be for us! We have a shepherd who was willing and able to lay down His life, take it up again, and in the process, save us!

In light of these truths, what are some applications for us?

Husbands and fathers as shepherds

    In Ephesians chapter 5 verse 1 we are told to “Be imitators of God as beloved children.” Imitation is often referred to as the highest form of flattery, as any father knows when he comes into the house after a long day of work to find his toddler wearing dad’s tool belt, or watches as his children develop a love for his interests as they get older. How we relate to other image bearers (for today’s purposes, how a husband and father relates to his wife and children) is no different: we ought to do so in the way in which God relates to us. As we have seen already, God the Son relates to His people as a shepherd relates to his sheep, and this dear brothers is the high calling of God in our lives as husbands and fathers.

Proverbs 27:23 (NASB95)
“Know well the condition of your flocks, And pay attention to your herds;”

    Perhaps no other text in scripture better summarizes the duty we have toward our wives and children: that of paying attention to and knowing them. This verse from the Proverbs literally means that we are to skillfully know their faces (suggesting close observation)  and to pay such close attention that we are in intimate physical contact with them. Moses in the Book of Genesis uses this language to refer to physical intimacy between Adam and Eve (Gen 4:25). Suffice it to say that “knowing” and paying “attention” to your flock, ie, wife and children, are not passive activities.

    All manner of things serve to distract us from this difficult and lofty calling:

Desire for male friendship,
Work pressures,
Ungodly appetites,
Love of money,
False doctrine,
Peer pressure,
and a whole host of other things.

    Some of these things are normal, typical, everyday pressures which every man will face. Others are sinful hindrances which may be unique to one man, but not another. The common thread however, is that none of them are acceptable excuses or reasons for not knowing and not paying attention to your flock.

Imagine Christ in the midst of the storm15 on the Sea of Galilee responding to His disciples' cries of “help” opening one eye and saying “not right now, I’m taking a nap.”

What about the story of the five loaves and two fish16? What if it went like this:

Disciples: “Jesus, the people are hungry, send them away.”

Jesus: “Scram you needy masses! Let them eat cake.”

    Neither of these examples, and a host of others if true, would have been consistent with one who called themselves a Good Shepherd. Imagine a shepherd refusing to protect or feed his flock! Imagine a shepherd so indifferent to what his flock needs, that he cavalierly dismisses them with a wave of his hand. This husband or father would be a sham shepherd by all accounts.
    Perhaps for you it isn’t a matter of neglecting protection or providing food.
“I pack my pistol everywhere I go, I lift weights, and work 70 plus hours a week to put good food on the table. Check, check, and check. No responsibility shirking here.”
Touché, you got me.

    What about when your wife complains about her workload at home? Do you protect her and provide for her at that moment?
“Protect her from what?” you may ask. Provide what, exactly?

    Well, if you are a typical, modern, reformed, patriarchal kind of guy, you’ll likely respond by saying and doing nothing, because us men are generally too cowardly to protect and provide in moments like that. In that moment, it could be that all your wife needs is to be washed in the word as Ephesians 5:26 says. A gentle rebuke, a word of encouragement regarding her noble calling from God’s word, may suffice. But your  knowledge of her and attention to her cannot stop after that. Your job is not done.

What if your wife is actually worn out? If all you do is offer the words and move along, you could be exasperating an already precarious situation.
Did you ask her why she was worn out, or just offer up the words and jump on Twitter to counsel strangers online?

Asking her follow up, diagnostic questions, could assist you in actually knowing her and paying attention to her.
  • Maybe she is sick
  • Perhaps she didn’t sleep well the night before
  • Perhaps she spent a lot of time on social media and got behind 
  • Did you consider she’s pregnant with your 5th child?
  • Maybe a lot of “good” activities like helping a family member, play dates, or other things blew up the household schedule and now she is suffering (you do have a schedule or routine for your home, do you not?)
  • Maybe you haven’t been protecting and providing, and she doesn’t know what to do.
  • It could be that you haven’t disciplined your children this month and their raging has brought her to the breaking point

    Whatever the situation, if you are paying attention to your wife and desiring to know her condition, what your response cannot be is to simply take over all her responsibilities, become Mr. Mom for a few hours, and think that everything will be fine. Flipping God’s design for men and women on its head is not the answer.

    However men, this does not mean you are not free to help your wife with the dishes, or cook a meal, or do a load of laundry. These reliefs for your wife are akin to picking up the sheep that is cast down. Think of how monstrous a shepherd would have to be to see his sheep floundering upside down, look down and say “try harder little fella.” The key is to get to the root of why your wife is cast down, apply God’s word there, and actually put your hands on the situation and guide her in fulfilling her biblical mandate as wife and mother.
    Your wife needs protection, provision, comfort, affection, God’s word, and His grace. How do you do this as her husband?

  • John 15:13 (NASB95) “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” 

  • Ephesians 5:25 (NASB95) “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,”

    Husbands, you must die to self. Whatever notions you have that do not issue from God’s revealed will for you, must die a thousand deaths if it means shepherding your wife in a godly manner. Your wants, do not negate her needs.

“But I just wanted to kick up my feet when I got home.” Kill it if your wife needs your leading in the home.

“The only reason I am working so much (leaving all the discipline of the children to my wife) is because I want to make more money so that we can have a better life at some point in the future.”
Destroy it if your wife needs help disciplining the children, your children’s souls may be at stake.

“Dishes, laundry, and cooking are women's work. I do construction, she takes care of the home. I’ve been gone all day, she’s been home all day. I’m the man of the house, what I say goes, and what I say is ‘manage your time better dear, I’ll be at the bar having some smokes with the men.”
Throw it into perdition.

Honey, I haven’t seen the men all week. We just want to chat a bit about baptism (not considering that she hasn’t seen the ladies all week either, and also not considering all the time you wasted during the week which could have been better spent on fellowship with your brother or sister in Christ)”…..all the while your 2 year old is running in the middle of the street and your wife is embarrassed that John-boy won’t respond when she calls to him.
Put your lazy negligence to death, lay down your life, and discipline your children as a family shepherd ought to.

Which brings us to the shepherding of your children.

Ephesians 6:4 (NASB95) “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Proverbs 3:12 (NASB95)
For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.

Proverbs 23:13 (NASB95)
“Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.”

    Scripture is clear that the rod of correction is the instrument which drives foolishness from the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15). However, methods of discipline and the tools to be employed are not within the scope of this essay.

What is well within the scope of this essay is the following question:

Do you love your children?

    Surely all of the Church would answer a hearty, resounding “Amen!”. With “Amen!” as your answer, in regards to shepherding your child: what does loving your child look like?

  • Does it look like permitting them to not pick up after themselves at home, leaving your wife trailing behind a long line of destruction all day long, with you asking like a Johnny-come-lately “you’re too tired for sex again?”. Incidentally, this pattern follows you to the church house, but you get to leave after church, so, out of sight out of mind.
  • Does loving your child look like you permitting your child to interrupt adult conversations, whether with your wife or another adult, reinforcing in your child’s mind that they truly are the center of the universe?
  • Does loving your child look like the case of the “here’s”? What are the “here’s” you ask? It’s when your child comes to you 1,000,000 times throughout the day, the context and location irrelevant, and asks for things, for stuff. Maybe it’s your attention while on the pot. Maybe it’s a request for a soda before dinner. Maybe it’s screen time.. In response you, (without thinking, without considering ramifications, without asking a question like “is this good for them or just convenient for me”) say to your child “here…here…here………………here…….”, and on and on ad nauseum. Rather than teach your child delayed gratification, the benefit of a no, patience, and even disappointment, you reinforce their already sinful nature which wants all their appetites fulfilled now. Then you wonder why they’re never thankful.
  • Does loving your child display itself by the way you permit your child to interact with adults (incidentally, the way your children relate to adults, for instance at church, out in the open, is surely how they relate to you and your wife when no one else is around)? Do you love your child by allowing them to ignore adult corrections? Backtalk? 

    By now you’ve picked up on my use of sarcasm. By acknowledging that “yes we all love our children”, then following up with “Does it look like this?”, all I’ve done is show you how patently absurd it is to say we love our children, yet our lack of knowledge of, and attention to them leads to sinful tendencies which all of us can clearly see, and that’s just on a Sunday morning.

    Men, all is not lost. We have a Heavenly Father who loves us, who sent His Son Jesus, our Good Shepherd, to lead us, wash away our sins, and give us rest. Remember, “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). These admonitions are goads, disciplines, meant to strike you with a godly sorrow which leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7: 9,10). You are very loved by Your Good Shepherd whose rod and staff comfort you.
Repent, and do not harden your hearts.
Repent, and love your wives and children, imitating your Savior Jesus Christ, who is the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)

 1.  Genesis 46:34 states that shepherds were “loathsome” to the Egyptians; we are not told why, but one can speculate that the earthy, dirty, undignified nature of the work may have been a motivating factor.
2.  Keller, W. Phillip A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 p.138
3.  Keller, W. Phillip A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 p.43
4.  Keller, W. Phillip A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 p.70

5.   Ezekiel 34:18,19 
7.  Keller, W. Phillip A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 p.58
8.  John 4: In His encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus presents a dichotomy between water one can drink and still be thirsty, and the living water
9.  WCF Larger Catechism Q.70,71; Christ fulfilling all righteousness in His obedience to all of God’s Law is referred to as Christ’s “active” obedience, while His patient enduring of God’s wrath being poured out upon Him for the remission of sins while on the cross refers to His “passive” obedience.
10.  Ezekiel 36:22
11. Mark 1:15
12.  John 4:7-26
13.  Mark 1:40,41
14.  Acts 10:39
15. Matthew 8
16.  Luke 9