The Bible typically describes human beings as wandering sheep who need a shepherd’s guidance (for example, Isa. 53:6). Having the Lord as our shepherd, then, is a comfort, one that assures the people of God that their lives are not purposeless and aimless but are under the direction of His guiding hand. That the Lord is a shepherd also reveals His tender, merciful care, which is emphasized in today’s passage.
After Jerusalem fell in 586 BC and the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon, it would have been easy for the Israelites to think that God had abandoned His covenant with their forefathers. Isaiah wrote today’s passage to show the Babylonian exiles that even though the nation would be punished for its impenitence, the Lord would not forget His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. According to Deuteronomy 30:1–10, there would be a day when the Israelites would be rescued from exile, and Isaiah 40:11 informed the ancient people of God that He, as their great shepherd, would be the one to lead them out of their misery.
W. Philip Keller, on page 70 of his A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, talks about the “cast down sheep,” which is a sheep on its back that cannot get up again under its own strength. Such sheep may bleat a little for help, but usually they just lie there with their legs flailing about, and they die if they are not rescued. This was the state of Israel in exile and, indeed, is the state of all those who are unredeemed — stuck in their sin and unable to turn themselves right side up. But there is hope. Like a shepherd, God marks off His sheep as His own, and, as one commentator notes (when unpacking Isa. 40:11), provides general oversight of His church (tending), pays specific attention to particular needs (gathering), and identifies with the concerns of His lambs (leading of those with young). This is what He did when He brought Israel back from Babylon, sending Christ, the Good Shepherd, to lead His flock, and this is what He continues to do as He adds new sheep to His fold.
Having become like us, the Good Shepherd knows the human condition and all its weaknesses (except sin). Since He carries us in His bosom, He is therefore able to empathize with us in a way no other “gods” can (Heb. 2:14–18). Be glad, then, that the mighty King is also a tender shepherd who loves each of His lambs deeply.