A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23
THOU ANOINTEST MY HEAD WITH OIL
AS ONE MEDITATES on this magnificent poem it is helpful to
keep in mind that the poet is recounting the salient events of
the full year in a sheep's life. He takes us with him from the
home ranch where every need is so carefully supplied by the
owner, out into the green pastures, along the still waters, up
through the mountain valleys to the high tablelands of summer.
Here, now, where it would appear the sheep are in a sublime
setting on the high meadows; where there are clear running
springs; where the forage is fresh and tender; where there is the
intimate close contact with the shepherd; suddenly we find "a fly
in the ointment," so to speak.
For in the terminology of the sheepman, "summer time is fly
time." By this, reference is made to the hordes of insects that
emerge with the advent of warm weather. Only those people who
have kept livestock or studied wildlife habits are aware of the
serious problems for animals presented by insects in the summer.
To name just a few parasites that trouble stock and make
their lives a misery: there are warble flies, bot flies, heel
flies, nose (nasal) flies, deer flies, black flies, mosquitos,
gnats and other minute, winged parasites that proliferate at this
time of year. Their attacks on animals can readily turn the
golden summer months into a time of torture for sheep and drive
them almost to distraction.
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly, or nasal fly,
as it is sometimes called. Here little flies buzz about the
sheep's head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp,
mucous membranes of the sheep's nose. If they are successful the
eggs will hatch in a few days to form small, slender, worm-like
larvae. They work their way up the nasal passages into the
sheep's head; they burrow into the flesh and there set up an
intense irritation accompanied by severe inflammation.
For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will
deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or
brush. They will rub them in the soil and thrash around against
woody growth. In extreme cases of intense infestation a sheep may
even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the
aggravation. Often advanced stages of infection from these flies
will lead to blindness.
Because of all this, when the nose flies hoveraround the
flock, some of the sheep become frantic with fear and panic in
their attempts to escape their tormentors. They will stamp their
feet erratically and race from place to place in the pasture
trying desperately to elude the flies. Some may run so much they
will drop from sheer exhaustion. Others may toss their heads up
and down for hours. They will hide in any bush or woodland that
offers shelter. On some occasions they may refuse to graze in the
open at all.
All this excitement and distraction has a devastating effect
on the entire flock. Ewes and lambs rapidly lose condition and
begin to drop in weight. The ewes will go off milking and their
lambs will stop growing gainfully. Some sheep will be injured in
their headlong rushes of panic; others may be blinded and some
even killed outright.
Only the strictest attention to the behavior of the sheep by
the shepherd can forestall the difficulties of "fly time." At the
very first sign of flies among the floc he will apply an antidote
to their heads. I always preferred to use a homemade remedy
composed of linseed oil, sulphur and tar which was smeared over
the sheep's nose and head as a protection against nose flies.
What an incredible transformation this would make among the
sheep. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep's head there
was an immediate change in behavior. Gone was the aggravation;
gone the frenzy; gone the irritability and the restlessness.
Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon
lie down in peaceful contentment.
This, to me is the exact picture of irritations in my own
life. How easy it is for there to be a fly in the ointment of
even my most lofty spiritual experience! So often it is the
small, petty annoyances that ruin my repose. It is the niggling
distractions that become burning issues that can well nigh drive
me round the bend or up the wall. At times some tiny, tantalizing
thing torments me to the point where I feel I am just beating my
brains out. And so my behavior as a child of God degenerates to a
most disgraceful sort of frustrated tirade.
Just as with the sheep there must be continuous and renewed
application of oil to forestall the "flies" in my life, there
must be a continuous anointing of God's gracious Spirit to
counteract the ever-present aggravations of personality
conflicts. Only one application of oil, sulphur and tar was not
enough for the entire summer. It was a process that had to be
repeated. The fresh application was the effective antidote.
There are those who contend that in the Christian life one
need only have a single, initial anointing of God's Spirit. Yet
the frustrations of daily dilemmas demonstrate that one must have
Him come continuously to the troubled mind and heart to
counteract the attacks of one's tormentors.
This is a practical and intimate matter between myself and
my Master. In Luke 11:13 Christ Himself, our Shepherd, urges us
to ask for the Holy Spirit to be given to us by the Father.
It is both a logical and legitimate desire for us to have
the daily anointing of God's gracious Spirit upon our minds. God
alone can form in us the mind of Christ. The Holy Spirit alone
can give to us the attitudes of Christ. He alone makes it
possible for us to react to aggravations and annoyances with
quietness and calmness.
When people or circumstances or events beyond our control
tend to "bug" us, it is possible to be content and serene when
these "outside" forces are counteracted by the presence of God's
Spirit. In Romans 8:1-2, we are told plainly it is the law of the
Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that makes us free from the law of
sin and death.
It is this daily anointing of God's gracious Spirit upon my
mind which produces in my life such personality traits as joy,
contentment, love, patience, gentleness and peace. What a
contrast this is to the tempers, frustration and irritableness
which mars the daily conduct of so many of God's children.
What I do in any given situation is to expose it to my
Master, my Owner, Christ Jesus, and say simply, "O Lord, I can't
cope with these petty, annoying, peevish problems. Please apply
the oil of Your Spirit to my mind. Both at the conscious and
sub-conscious levels of my thought-life enable me to act and
react just as You would." And He will. It will surprise you how
promptly He complies with such a request made in deadly earnest.
But summertime for the sheep is more than just flytime. It
is also "scab-time." Scab is an irritating and highly contagious
disease common among sheep the world over. Caused by a minute,
microscopic parasite that proliferates in warm weather, "scab"
spreads throughout a flock by direct contact between infected and
Sheep love to rub heads in an affectionate and friendly
manner. Scab is often found most commonly around the head. When
two sheep rub together the infection spreads readily from one to
In the Old Testament when it was declared that the
sacrificial lambs should be without blemish, the thought
uppermost in the writer's mind was that the animal should be free
of scab. In a very real and direct sense scab is significant of
contamination, of sin, of evil.
Again as with flies, the only effective antidote is to apply
linseed oil, sulphur and other chemicals that can control this
disease. In many sheep-rearing countries dips are built and the
entire flock is put through the dip. Each animal is completely
submerged in the solution until its entire body is soaked. The
most difficult part to do is the head. The head has to be plunged
under repeatedly to insure that scab there will be controlled.
Some sheepmen take great care to treat the head by hand.
Only once did my sheep become infected by scab. I had purchased a
few extra ewes from another rancher to increase the flock. It so
happened they had, unknown to me, a slight infection of scab
which quickly began to spread through the entire healthy flock.
It meant I had to purchase a huge dipping tank and install it in
my corrals. At great expense, to say nothing of the time and
heavy labor involved, I had to put the entire flock, one by one
through the dipping solution to clear them of the disease. It was
a tremendous task and one which entailed special attention to
their heads. So I know precisely what David meant when he wrote,
"Thou anointest my head with oil." Again it was the only antidote
Perhaps it should be mentioned that in Palestine the old
remedy for this disease was olive oil mixed with sulphur and
spices. This home remedy served equally well in the case of flies
that came to annoy the flocks.
In the Christian life, most of our contamination by the
world, by sin, by that which would defile and disease us
spiritually comes through our minds. It is a case of mind meeting
mind to transmit ideas, concepts and attitudes which may be
Often it is when we "get our heads together" with someone
else who may not necessarily have the mind of Christ, that we
come away imbued with concepts that are not Christian.
Our thoughts, our ideas, our emotions, our choices, our
impulses, drives and desires are all shaped and molded through
the exposure of our minds to other people's minds. In our modern
era of mass communication, the danger of the "mass mind" grows
increasingly grave. Young people in particular, whose minds are
so malleable find themselves being molded under the subtle
pressures and impacts made on them by television, radio,
magazines, newspapers, and fellow classmates, to say nothing of
their parents and teachers.
Often the mass media which are largely responsible for
shaping our minds are in the control of men whose characters are
not Christlike: who in some cases are actually anti-Christian.
One cannot be exposed to such contacts without coming away
contaminated. The thought patterns of people are becoming
increasingly abhorrent. Today we find more tendency to violence,
hatred, prejudice, greed, cynicism, and increasing disrespect for
that which is noble, fine, pure or beautiful.
This is precisely the opposite of what Scripture teaches us.
In Philippians 4:8 we are instructed emphatically in this matter,
". . . whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest,
whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure,
whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good
report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think
on these things"! Here again, the only possible, practical path
to attaining such a mind free of the world's contamination is to
be conscious daily, hourly of the purging presence of God's Holy
Spirit, applying Himself to my mind.
There are those who seem unable to realize His control of
their minds and thoughts. It is a simple matter of faith and
acceptance. Just as one asks Christ to come into the life
initially to assure complete control of one's conduct, so one
invites the Holy Spirit to come into one's conscious and
subconscious mind to monitor one's thought-life. Just as by faith
we believe and know and accept and thank Christ for coming into
our lives, so by simple faith and confidence in the same Christ,
we believe and know and accept with thanks the coming (or
anointing) of His gracious Spirit upon our minds. Then having
done this, we simply proceed to live and act and think as He
The difficulty is that some of us are not in dead earnest
about it. Like a stubborn sheep we will struggle, kick and
protest when the Master puts His hand upon us for this purpose.
Even if it is for our own good, we still rebel and refuse to have
Him help us when we need it so desperately.
In a sense we are a stiff-necked lot and were it not for
Christ's continuing compassion and concern for us, most of us
would be beyond hope or help. Sometimes I am quite sure Christ
comes to us and applies the oil of His own Spirit to our minds in
spite of our own objections. Were this not so, where would most
of us be? Surely every gracious thought that enters my mind had
its origin in Him.
Now as summer, in the high Country, moves gradually into
autumn, subtle changes occur both in the countryside and in the
sheep. The nights become cooler; there are the first touches of
frost; the insects begin to disappear and are less a pest; the
foliage on the hills turns to crimson, gold and bronze; mist and
rain begin to fall and the earth prepares for winter.
In the flock there are also subtle changes. This is the
season of the rut, of mating, of great battles between the rams
for possession of the ewes. The necks of the monarchs swell and
grow strong. They strut proudly across the pastures and fight
furiously for the favors of the ewes. The crash of heads and thud
of colliding bodies can be heard through the hours of day and
The shepherd knows all about this. He knows that some of the
sheep will and can actually kill, injure and maim each other in
these deadly combats. So he decides on a very simple remedy. At
this season of the year he will catch his rams and smear their
heads with grease. I used to apply generous quantities of axle
grease to the head and nose of each ram. Then when they collided
in their great crashing battles the lubricant would make them
glance off each other in such a ludicrous way they stood there
feeling rather stupid and frustrated. In this way much of the
heat and tension was dissipated and little damage done.
Among God's people there is a considerable amount of
knocking each other. Somehow if we don't see eye to eye with the
other person, we persist in trying to assert ourselves and become
"top sheep." A good many become badly bruised and hurt this way.
In fact I found as a pastor that much of the grief, the wounds,
the hurts, the ill will, the unforgiven things in people's lives
could usually be traced back to old rivalries or jealousies or
battles that had broken out between believers. Scores of
skeptical souls will never enter a church simply because away
back in their experience someone had battered them badly.
To forestall and prevent this sort of thing from happening
among His people our Shepherd loves to apply the precious
ointment of the presence of His gracious Spirit to our lives. It
will be recalled that just before His crucifixion, our Lord in
dealing with His twelve disciples, who, even then, were caught up
in jealous bickering and rivalry for prestige, told of the coming
of the Comforter - the Spirit of Truth. Because of His being sent
to them, He said, they would know peace. He went on to say that
His people would be known everywhere for their love for one
But too often this simply is not true among God's own people.
They hammer and knock each other, stiff-necked with pride and
self-assertion. They are intolerant, dogmatic and uncharitable
with other Christians.
Yet when the gracious Holy Spirit invades a man or woman,
when He enters that life and is in control of the personality,
the attributes of peace, joy, long-suffering and generosity
become apparent. It is then that suddenly one becomes aware of
how ridiculous are all the petty jealousies, rivalries and
animosities which formerly motivated their absurd assertions.
This is to come to a place of great contentment in the Shepherd's
care. And it is then the cup of contentment becomes real in the
life. As the children of God, the sheep in the Divine Shepherd's
care, we should be known as the most contented people on earth. A
quiet, restful contentment should be the hallmark of those who
call Christ their Master.
If He is the One who has all knowledge and wisdom and
understanding of my affairs and management; if He is able to cope
with every situation, good or bad, that I encounter, then surely
I should be satisfied with His care. In a wonderful way my cup,
or my lot in life, is a happy one that overflows with benefits of
The trouble is most of us just don't see it this way.
Especially when troubles or disappointments come along, we are
apt to feel forgotten by our Shepherd. We act as though He had
fallen down on the job.
Actually He is never asleep. He is never lax or careless. He
is never indifferent to our well-being. Our Shepherd always has
our best interests in mind.
Because of this we are actually under obligation to be a
thankful, grateful, appreciative people. The New Testament
instructs us clearly to grasp the idea that the cup of our life
is full and overflowing with good, with the life of Christ
Himself and with the presence of His gracious Spirit. And because
of this we should be joyous, grateful and serene.
This is the overcoming Christian life. It is the life in
which a Christian can be content with whatever comes his way -
even trouble (Hebrews 13:5). Most of us are glad when things go
well. How many of us can give thanks and praise when things go
Looking again at the round of the year through which the
sheep pass in the shepherd's care, we see summer moving into
autumn. Storms of sleet and hail and early snow begin to sweep
over the high country. Soon the flocks will be driven from the
alplands and tablelands. They will turn again toward the home
ranch for the long, quiet winter season.
These autumn days can be golden under Indian summer weather.
The sheep have respite now from flies and insects and scab. No
other season finds them so fit and well and strong. No wonder
David wrote, "My cup runneth over."
But at the same time, unexpected blizzards can blow up or
sleet storms suddenly shroud the hills. The flock and their owner
can pass through appalling suffering together.
It is here that I grasp another aspect altogether of the
meaning of a cup at over flows. There is in every life a cup of
suffering. Jesus Christ referred to His agony in the Garden of
Gethsemane and at Calvary as His cup. And had it not overflowed
with His life poured out for men, we would have perished.
In tending my sheep I carried a bottle in my pocket
containing a mixture of brandy and water. Whenever a ewe or lamb
was chilled from undue exposure to wet, cold weather I would pour
a few spoonfuls down its throat. In a matter of minutes the
chilled creature would be on its feet and full of renewed energy.
It was especially cute the way the lambs would wiggle their tails
with joyous excitement as the warmth from the brandy spread
through their bodies.
The important thing was for me to be there on time, to find
the frozen, chilled sheep before it was too late. I had to be in
the storm with them, alert to every one that was in distress.
Some of the most vivid memories of my sheep ranching days are
wrapped around the awful storms my flock and I went through
together. I can see again the gray-black banks of storm clouds
sweeping in off the sea; I can see the sleet and hail and snow
sweeping across the hills; I can see the sheep racing for shelter
in the tall timber; I can see them standing there soaked,
chilled, and dejected. Especially the young lambs went through
appalling misery without the benefit of a full, heavy fleece to
protect them. Some would succumb and lie down in distress only to
become more cramped and chilled.
Then it was that my mixture of brandy and water came to
their rescue. I'm sure the Palestinian shepherds must have
likewise shared their wine with their chilled and frozen sheep.
What a picture of my Master, sharing the wine, the very life
blood of His own suffering from His overflowing cup, poured out
at Calvary for me. He is there with me in every storm. My
Shepherd is alert to every approaching disaster that threatens
His people. He has been through the storms of sufferings before.
He bore our sorrows and was acquainted with our grief.
And now no matter what storms I face, His very life and
strength and vitality is poured into mine. It overflows so the
cup of my life runs over with His life . . . often with great
blessing and benefit to others who see me stand up so well in the
midst of trials and suffering.
To be continued