When we hear the word shepherd, we typically think of a gentle, mild-mannered man in a relaxed posture surrounded by sheep grazing in a serene valley with beautiful hills. But that’s only part of the picture. Shepherds are first and foremost guardians and protectors of the sheep. They must be gentle and strong, tender and courageous, caring and fierce. Today, in many parts of the world, as in the ancient Near East, shepherds are some of the most skilled hunters and warriors among their people.
This is why Jesus calls Himself the Great Shepherd, and He does not drive His sheep with a whip from behind but calls His sheep by name and leads them into green pastures.
Before facing Goliath, David described to King Saul how he defended his father’s sheep: “When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth” (1 Sam. 17:34). David knew what it meant to tend to his father’s sheep, and he also knew all that it took to protect the sheep not only from predators, but also to protect the sheep from fighting and hurting one another and to keep them from wandering away from the flock and falling off a cliff. David was skilled in using a sling, and he was undoubtedly skilled in using his rod and his staff. While the sling was used to stop predators at a distance, the rod was a short club that could be thrown with great speed at a fast-approaching predator. The rod was also used to discipline sheep when they were fighting, to examine the sheep, beneath their wool, to ensure they were free from skin diseases, and to number the sheep (Ezek. 20:37). The staff was a much longer, narrow rod with a crook on the end that was used for many purposes, chiefly to guide the sheep and to rescue them from thickets or from the crag of a rock. While the sling was typically tucked away, the shepherd’s rod and staff were always visible to the sheep. As the shepherd walked and dwelled among his sheep, rather than on a hillside overlooking the sheep, he was always with them, and his rod and his staff, the tools he used to guard, rescue, and protect his sheep, were a constant comfort to his flock.
The full biblical picture the Lord paints for us is that of a Shepherd-Warrior who cares for His sheep, lovingly disciplines His sheep, rescues His sheep, and protects His sheep from themselves and from their enemies. This is why Jesus calls Himself the Great Shepherd, and He does not drive His sheep with a whip from behind but calls His sheep by name and leads them into green pastures. For He is the author, the pioneer, and the captain of our faith who goes before us, even laying down His life for His sheep, and He is the finisher of our faith who protects and preserves us to the end.
Dr. Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) is editor of Tabletalk magazine, senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow. He is cotranslator and coeditor of A Little Book on the Christian Life by John Calvin.