There can be a problem for Christians with familiar and comfortable passages in the Bible. We have heard them many times. We have read them many times. We have perhaps heard them preached many times. The result is that we no longer think about them when we read them, hear them read to us, hear them preached. We think we know what they mean. It is sometimes good, then, to stop when we read them, to go through them phrase by phrase, word by word, asking ourselves what they mean. It is good to think on them, to mull over them, to meditate on them, that we may hear them anew and hear afresh the Word of God speaking to us.
“He restores my soul.” Four simple words in English. Two simple words in Hebrew. But what do they mean? What do they say to us? What should they say to us? We have before us the image of the Shepherd with His flock. The images in verse 2 are clear. We can see the lush pastures beside the quiet stream where the flock lies under the watchful eye of their Shepherd. But “he restores my soul”? What image does that call to mind? How do we see the Shepherd restoring the souls of His flock? It is easy to think that perhaps David has shifted his gaze here from the sheep to the person. But the following phrases also refer to the flock and the Shepherd’s leading, leaving us to ponder the connection of this clause with those that precede and with those that follow.
It is the Good Shepherd, then, who in restoring our souls binds up our wounds, heals our sicknesses, and gives us strength in place of weakness.
He restores. It is at this point that we receive help from other shepherd passages. Perhaps the best shepherd passage in the Old Testament is Ezekiel 34. This passage may well have been in the mind of Jesus when He began His discourse on the good shepherd in John 10. In Ezekiel 34, we hear the Lord condemning the shepherds of Israel. Part of their guilt is that they have not brought back the sheep that have strayed (v. 4). When the Lord later in the passage states that He Himself will be their shepherd, He says, in part, that He will bring back the sheep that have strayed (v. 16). There’s our connection. We tend to see the sheep lying peacefully in the meadow and we forget that sheep are contrary animals. They get up. They walk around. They stray. It is the task of the shepherd to bring them back. In the psalm, then, we see the Shepherd, active, going after those sheep that have strayed, bringing them back to the flock. And we are comforted, knowing that our Good Shepherd will not allow us to stray too far. He will search us out and bring us back to the flock.
My soul. My life. My nephesh. The Good Shepherd not only brings back the straying sheep, but He gives life to the dead. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and our Good Shepherd gives us new life. The sheep that are weak or sick or injured—those sheep the Shepherd strengthens and heals and binds up (Ezek. 34:16). He restores them to full life so that they are once again able to stand and walk and feed, to hold their own as part of the flock. Our old life left us not only dead in our sins but weak, sick, and damaged by our sins. It is the Good Shepherd, then, who in restoring our souls binds up our wounds, heals our sicknesses, and gives us strength in place of weakness.
Our nephesh is not just our life, but the seat of our appetites. In restoring our souls, He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness. He feeds that hunger. He quenches that thirst. Our nephesh is also the seat of our emotions. In restoring our souls, He gives us joy in the morning after the night of weeping. He turns our mourning into dancing. He removes our sackcloth of lamentation and distress, giving us the new clothing of gladness. The nephesh also occasionally refers to our mental acts, our thinking and our knowing. In restoring our souls, the Good Shepherd restores our thinking and our knowing. We begin to understand things in a new way. The Word that was once no more than words on a page begins to have meaning. We begin to hear and understand and know the voice of our Shepherd. We hear His call, and we respond, following His leading, even if it takes us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Our restoration is also not simply individual, though the psalm is often read as a promise to the individual. The Shepherd is never the shepherd of just one sheep. He is the Shepherd of the flock. In restoring the lives of the flock, He restores also the life of the flock. He makes it a flock of healthy and strong sheep, able to band together for the good of the flock.
Except for the new life, none of this restoration is instantaneous. The healing of the sick and the wounded takes time. The strengthening of the weak takes time. The renewing of the appetites and of the mind takes time. The Good Shepherd uses the flock in the restoring of the individual. As the individual grows stronger, he in turn is used by the Shepherd in the restoring of other souls. May we be pleased to have our Good Shepherd restore our souls so that we may be used by Him in the restoring of the souls of others.
Dr. Benjamin Shaw is academic dean and professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.