Reading around our Psalm 23 series, I was led to “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by Philip Keller. It has become a classic of Christian literature because of its simple yet profound insights into the role of a shepherd and the various challenges of sheep management.
Keller was a shepherd who knew the Great Shepherd. He died in 1997, aged 77. His book brings new life into the all too familiar phrases contained in the Psalm, those phrases we only know on a superficial level, yet are far more profound than we have ever imagined. Green pastures, rod, staff, oil and so on, all have profound meanings at the level of sheep-shepherd relationship and God-believer relationship.
For example verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me”. We often think of the valley experience as that which occurs when we or a loved one are approaching death. But in the Hebrew it can refer to any deep, dark valley we pass through. As a shepherd himself, David would have been so familiar with the experience of leading the sheep through the deepest, steepest valleys of his homeland, where dangers lurked and sheep would be naturally terrified. No sheep would ever walk through a valley like that without knowing the shepherd personally and trusting him implicitly. The shepherd’s rod and staff were an essential part of his kit – and unique to him. Shepherds would have found it impossible to swop rods or staffs – they were personally chosen and shaped and honed with hours of practice and use. God’s rod is his word – His staff is His spirit. Only by allowing the word to form us and the Spirit to fill us can we pass through the deepest valleys as we ought.
Oh and by the way, isn’t it great that we pass THROUGH the valleys – we never stay there. For the Great Shepherd wants his sheep to get to the higher grounds – to the table land which he has already prepared for us.
That’s often the way it is with familiar scriptures – it’s not so much familiarity brings contempt but rather familiarity brings familiarity. And we can miss important truths learnt from the culture of the day, the setting, the words and phrases of great profundity.