A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23 #3
HE MAKES ME TO LIE
DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES
THE STRANGE THING about sheep is that because of their very
make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down
unless four requirements are met.
* Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are
free of all fear.
* Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not
lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their
* If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down.
Only when free of these pests can they relax.
* Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need
of finding food. They must be free from hunger.
It is significant that to be at rest there must be a
definite sense of freedom from fear, tension, aggravations and
hunger. The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the
sheepman himself who can provide release from these anxieties. It
all depends upon the diligence of the owner whether or not his
flock is free of disturbing influences.
When we examine each of these four factors that affect sheep
so severely we will understand why the part the owner plays in
their management is so tremendously important. It is actually he
who makes it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to
be content and quiet and flourishing.
A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and
disturbed never does well.
And the same is true of people.
It is not generally known that sheep are so timid and easily
panicked that even a stray jackrabbit suddenly bounding from
behind a bush can stampede a whole flock. When one startled sheep
runs in fright a dozen others will bolt with it in blind fear,
not waiting to see what frightened them.
One day a friend came to call on us from the city. She had a
tiny Pekingese pup along. As she opened the car door the pup
jumped out on the grass. Just one glimpse of the unexpected
little dog was enough. In sheer terror over 200 of my sheep which
were resting nearby leaped up and rushed off across the pasture.
As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger
from dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears or other enemies the sheep
stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no
means of selfdefense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures
whose only recourse is to run.
When I invited friends to visit us, after the Pekingese
episode, I always made it clear their dogs were to be left at
home. I also had to drive off or shoot other stray dogs that came
to molest or disturb the sheep. Two dogs have been known to kill
as many as 292 sheep in a single night of unbridled slaughter.
Ewes, heavy in lamb, when chased by dogs or other predators will
slip their unborn lambs and lose them in abortions. A shepherd's
loss from such forays can be appalling. One morning at dawn I
found nine of my choicest ewes, all soon to lamb, lying dead in
the field where a cougar had harried the flock during the night.
It was a terrible shock to a young man like myself just new to
the business and unfamiliar with such attacks. From then on I
slept with a .303 rifle and flashlight by my bed. At the least
sound of the flock being disturbed I would leap from bed and
calling my faithful collie, dash out into the night, rifle in
hand, ready to protect my sheep.
In the course of time I came to realize that nothing so
quieted and reassured the sheep as to see me in the field. The
presence of their master and owner and protector put them at ease
as nothing else could do, and this applied day and night.
There was one summer when sheep rustling was a common
occurrence in our district. Night after night the dog and I were
out under the stars, keeping watch over the flock by night, ready
to defend them from the raids of any rustlers. The news of my
diligence spread along the grapevine of our back country roads
and the rustlers quickly decided to leave us alone and try their
"He maketh me to lie down."
In the Christian's life there is no substitute for the keen
awareness that my Shepherd is nearby. There is nothing like
Christ's presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of
We live a most uncertain life. Any hour can bring disaster,
danger and distress from unknown quarters. Life is full of
hazards. No one can tell what a day will produce in new trouble.
We live either in a sense of anxiety, fear and foreboding, or in
a sense of quiet rest. Which is it?
Generally it is the "unknown," the "unexpected," that
produces the greatest panic. It is in the grip of fear that most
of us are unable to cope with the cruel circumstances and harsh
complexities of life. We feel they are foes which endanger our
tranquility. Often our first impulse is simply to get up and run
Then in the midst of our misfortunes there suddenly comes
the awareness that He, the Christ, the Good Shepherd is there. It
makes all the difference. His presence in the picture throws a
different light on the whole scene. Suddenly things are not half
so black nor nearly so terrifying. The outlook changes and there
is hope. I find myself delivered from fear. Rest returns and I
This has come to me again and again as I grow older. It is
the knowledge that my Master, my Friend, my Owner has things
under control even when they may appear calamitous. This gives me
great consolation, repose, and rest. "Now I lay me down in peace
and sleep, for Thou God keepest me."
It is the special office work of God's gracious Spirit to
convey this sense of the Christ to our fearful hearts... quietly
to reassure us that Christ Himself is aware of our dilemma and
deeply involved in it with us.
And it is in fact in this assurance that we rest and relax.
"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and
of love, and of a sound [disciplined] mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
The idea of a sound mind is that of a mind at ease - at
peace - not perturbed or harassed or obsessed with fear and
foreboding for the future.
"I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for thou, Lord, only
makest me dwell in safety."
The second source of fear from which the sheepman delivers
his sheep is that of tension, rivalry, and cruel competition
within the flock itself.
In every animal society there is established an order of
dominance or status within the group. In a penful of chickens it
is referred to as the "pecking order." With cattle it is called
the "horning order." Among sheep we speak of the "butting order."
Generally an arrogant, cunning and domineering old ewe will be
boss of any bunch of sheep. She maintains her position of
prestige by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from the
best grazing or favorite bedgrounds. Succeeding her in precise
order the other sheep all establish and maintain their exact
position in the flock by using the same tactics of butting and
thrusting at those below and around them.
A vivid and accurate word picture of this process is given
to us in Ezekiel 34:15-16 and 20-22. This is a startling example,
in fact, of the scientific accuracy of the Scriptures in
describing a natural phenomenon.
Because of this rivalry, tension, and competition for status
and self-assertion, there is friction in a flock. The sheep
cannot lie down and rest in contentment. Always they must stand
up and defend their rights and contest the challenge of the
Hundreds and hundreds of times I have watched an austere old
ewe walk up to a younger one which might have been feeding
contentedly or resting quietly in some sheltered spot. She would
arch her neck, tilt her head, dilate her eyes and approach the
other with a stiff-legged gait. All of this was saying in
unmistakable terms, "Move over! Out of my way! Give ground or
else!" And if the other ewe did not immediately leap to her feet
in self-defense she would be butted unmercifully. Or if she did
rise to accept the challenge one or two strong thrusts would soon
send her scurrying for safety.
This continuous conflict and jealousy within the flock can
be a most detrimental thing. The sheep become edgy, tense,
discontented and restless. They lose weight and become irritable.
But one point that always interested me very much was that
whenever I came into view and my presence attracted their
attention, the sheep quickly forgot their foolish rivalries and
stopped their fighting. The shepherd's presence made all the
difference in their behavior.
This, to me, has always been a graphic picture of the
struggle for status in human society. There is the eternal
competition "to keep up with the Joneses" or, as it is now - "to
keep up with the Joneses' kids."
In any business firm, any office, any family, any community,
any church, any human organization or group, be it large or
small, the struggle for self-assertion and self-recognition goes
on. Most of us fight to be "top sheep." We butt and quarrel and
compete to "get ahead." And in the process people are hurt.
It is here that much jealousy arises. This is where petty
peeves grow into horrible hate. It is where ill-will and contempt
come into being, the place where heated rivalry and deep
discontent is born. It is here that discontent gradually grows
into a covetous way of life where one has to be forever "standing
up" for himself, for his rights, "standing up" just to get ahead
of the crowd.
In contrast to this, the picture in the Psalm shows us God's
people lying down in quiet contentment.
One of the outstanding marks of a Christian should be a
serene sense of gentle contentment.
"Godliness with contentment is great gain."
Paul put it this way, "I have learned in whatsoever state I
am, therewith to be content," and certainly this applies to my
status in society.
The endless unrest generated in the individual who is always
trying to "get ahead" of the crowd, who is attempting always to
be top man or woman on the totem pole, is pretty formidable to
In His own unique way, Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd, in
His earthly life pointed out that the last would be first and the
first last. In a sense I am sure He meant first in the area of
His own intimate affection. For any shepherd has great compassion
for the poor, weak sheep that get butted about by the more
More than once I have strongly trounced a belligerent ewe
for abusing a weaker one. Or when they butted lambs not their own
I found it necessary to discipline them severely, and certainly
they were not first in my esteem for their aggressiveness.
Another point that impressed me, too, was that the less
aggressive sheep were often far more contented, quiet and
restful. So that there were definite advantages in being "bottom
But more important was the fact that it was the Shepherd's
presence that put an end to all rivalry. And in our human
relationships when we become acutely aware of being in the
presence Of Christ, our foolish, selfish snobbery and rivalry
will end. It is the humble heart walking quietly and contentedly
in the close and intimate companionship of Christ that is at
rest, that can relax, simply glad to lie down and let the world
When my eyes are on my Master they are not on those around
me. This is the place of peace.
And it is good and proper to remind ourselves that in the
end it is He who will decide and judge what my status really is.
After all, it is His estimation of the that is of consequence.
Any human measurement at best is bound to be pretty un-
predictable, unreliable, and far from final. To be thus, close to
Him, conscious of His abiding presence, made real in my mind,
emotions and will by the indwelling gracious Spirit, is to be set
free from fear of my fellow man and whatever he might think of
I would much rather have the affection of the Good Shepherd
than occupy a place of prominence in society... especially if I
had attained it by fighting, quarrelling and bitter rivalry with
my fellow human beings. "Blessed [happy, to be envied] are the
merciful: for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7).
As is the case with freedom from fear of predators or
friction within the flock, the freedom of fear from the torment
of parasites and insects is essential to the contentment of
sheep. This aspect of their behavior will be dealt with in
greater detail later in the Psalm. But it is nevertheless
important to mention it here. Sheep, especially in the summer,
can be driven to absolute distraction by nasal flies, bot flies,
warble flies and ticks. When tormented by these pests it is
literally impossible for them to lie down and rest. Instead they
are up and on their feet, stamping their legs, shaking their
heads, ready to rush off into the bush for relief from the pests.
Only the diligent care of the owner who keeps a constant lookout
for these insects will prevent them from annoying his flock. A
good shepherd will apply various types of insect repellents to
his sheep. He will see that they are dipped to clear their
fleeces of ticks, And he will see that there are shelter belts of
trees and bush available where they can find refuge and release
from their tormentors.
This all entails considerable extra care. It takes time and
labor and expensive chemicals to do the job thoroughly. It means,
too, that the sheepman must be amongst his charges daily, keeping
a close watch on their behavior. As soon as there is the least
evidence that they are being disturbed he must take steps to
provide them with relief. Always uppermost in his mind is the aim
of keeping his flock quiet, contented and at peace.
Similarly in the Christian life there are bound to be many
small irritations. There are the annoyances of petty frustrations
and ever-recurring disagreeable experiences. In modern
terminology we refer to these upsetting circumstances or people
as "being bugged." Is there an antidote for them?
Can one come to the place of quiet contentment despite them?
The answer, for the one in Christ's care, is definitely "Yes!"
This is one of the main functions of the gracious Holy Spirit. In
Scripture He is often symbolized by oil - by that which brings
healing and comfort and relief from the harsh and abrasive
aspects of life.....
Finally, to produce the conditions necessary for a sheep to
lie down there must be freedom from the fear of hunger. This of
course is clearly implied in the statement, "He maketh me to lie
down in green pastures."
It is not generally recognized that many of the great sheep
countries of the world are dry, semi-arid areas. Most breeds of
sheep flourish best in this sort of terrain. They are susceptible
to fewer hazards of health or parasites where the climate is dry.
But in those same regions it is neither natural nor common to
find green pastures. For example, Palestine where David wrote
this Psalm and kept his father's flocks, especially near
Bethlehem, is a dry, brown, sun-burned wasteland.
Green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures
were the product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land
use. Green pastures were the result of clearing rough, rocky
land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing
and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special
grains and legumes; of irrigating with water and husbanding with
care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks.
All of this represented tremendous toil and skill and time
for the careful shepherd. If his sheep were to enjoy green
pastures amid the brown, barren hills it meant he had a
tremendous job to do.
But green pastures are essential to success with sheep. When
lambs are maturing and the ewes need green, succulent feed for a
heavy milk flow, there is no substitute for good pasturage. No
sight so satisfies the sheep owner as to see his flock well and
quietly fed to repletion on rich green forage, able to lie down
to rest, ruminate and gain.
In my own ranching operations one of the keys to the entire
enterprise lay in developing rich, lush pastures for my flock. On
at least two ranches there were old, worn out, impoverished
fields that were either bare or infested with inferior forage
plants. By skilful management and scientific land use these were
soon converted into flourishing fields knee deep in rich green
grass and legumes. On such forage it was common to have lambs
reach 100 pounds in weight within 100 days from birth.
The secret to this was that the flock could fill up quickly,
then lie down quietly to rest and ruminate.
A hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move,
searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and
satisfy its gnawing hunger. Such sheep are not contented, they do
not thrive, they are no use to themselves nor to their owners.
They languish and lack vigor and vitality.
In the Scriptures the picture portrayed of the Promised
Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was
that of a "land flowing with milk and honey." Not only is this
figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology.
In agricultural terms we speak of a "milk flow" and "honey flow."
By this we mean the peak season of spring and summer when
pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that
feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said
to be producing a corresponding "flow" of milk or honey. So a
land flowing with milk and honey is a land of rich, green,
And when God spoke of such a land for Israel He also foresaw
such an abundant life of joy and victory and contentment for His
For the child of God, the Old Testament account of Israel
moving from Egypt into the Promised Land, is a picture of us
moving from sin into the life of overcoming victory. We are
promised such a life. It has been provided for us and is made
possible by the unrelenting effort of Christ on our behalf.
How He works to clear the life of rocks of stoney unbelief.
How He tries to tear out the roots of bitterness. He attempts to
break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried
clay. He then sows the seed of His own precious Word, which, if
given half a chance to grow will produce rich crops of
contentment and peace. He waters this with the dews and rain of
His own presence by the Holy Spirit. He tends and cares and
cultivates the life, longing to see it become rich and green and
It is all indicative of the unrelenting energy and industry
of an owner who wishes to see his sheep satisfied and well fed.
It all denotes my Shepherd's desire to see my best interests
served. His concern for my care is beyond my comprehension,
really. At best all I can do is to enjoy and revel in what He has
brought into effect.
This life of quiet overcoming; of happy repose; of rest in
His presence, of confidence in His management is something few
Christians ever fully enjoy.
Because of our own perverseness we often prefer to feed on
the barren ground of the world around us. I used to marvel how
some of my sheep actually chose inferior forage at times.
But the Good Shepherd has supplied green pastures for those
who care to move in onto them and there find peace and plenty.
To be continued