Signpost for Sunday 21 April – Easter 4: Psalm 23; Rev 7:9-17; Acts 9:36-43; John 10:22-30
I used to live in Wales, and we thought there were a lot of sheep there. Actually there are about 8 million sheep and 3.5 million people in Wales. Now I live in New Zealand and there are 31.2 million sheep and just over 4 million people.
Is it because there are so many wooly ruminants around that we miss the significance of the imagery of the shepherd and his flock? Or is it because the image has become a sort of Biblical cliché for people so they don’t really think about it much anymore?
The ancient Jews were even more familiar with the image in their OT scriptures but it meant a lot more to them than us, I suspect.
Psalm 23 used to be the most famous Psalm in the Bible and people I knew when I was growing up who had never actually read their Bibles knew it almost by heart. Apparently it’s still popular at funerals. Which shows just how differently we understand it from how Jews did, and still do.
23:1 seems so familiar but if we read it as someone three thousand years ago would have, then it literally says, “YHWH is the one shepherding me.” And YHWH knows that sheep need three things more than anything. Reading on we find that is summed up in delightful descriptions of the basics – food, rest and water.
The ancient Jews also read more into 23:6 than we might. Goodness and mercy weren’t just tagging along. They saw it more as an image of God’s love pursuing them, the lover chasing the beloved. A courtship even.
The last line explains why Psalm 23 is popular at funerals, but it shouldn’t really be because scholars reckon it’s not about eternal life at all. It’s about life before death – a daily life lived in the way God intended (e.g. Deut. 30:16).
Right at the other end of the bible we find these same shepherd and sheep references in Revelation.
Rev 7:16 could be said to echo Psalm 23: 2, 3 and 5. In fact, aren’t they all echoed spritually in Matt. 5:6; John 4:14; 6:35 and 7:37?
7:17 is key too. The Jews had been, and still were, largely people who lived in the desert. For them water would always be very precious. That’s another reason why Psalm 23:2 is such a comforting image. And look again at Psalm 23:4 – in the RSV, the King James and many other versions, the rhythm of the lines echo each other.
The first part of 7:17 could be seen as the biggest deal of all, though. The shepherd of the Jewish people in Psalm 23 and the Good Shepherd of John 10:11 and 10:16 is now the Shepherd of all the sheep in the world; of all people on earth.