A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 #5
HE RESORETH MY SOUL
IN STUDYING THIS Psalm it must always be remembered that it
is a sheep in the Good Shepherd's care who is speaking. It is
essentially a Christian's claim of belonging in the family of
God. As such he boasts of the benefits of such a relationship.
This being the case, one might well ask, "Why then this statement
... "He restoreth my soul'?" Surely it would be assumed that
anyone in the Good Shepherd's care could never become so
distressed in soul as to need restoration.
But the fact remains that this does happen.
Even David, the author of the Psalm, who was much loved of
God, knew what it was to be cast down and dejected. He had tasted
defeat in his life and felt the frustration of having fallen
under temptation. David was acquainted with the bitterness of
feeling hopeless and without strength in himself.
In Psalm 42:11 he cries out, "Why art thou cast down, O my
soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God..."
Now there is an exact parallel to this in caring for sheep.
Only those intimately acquainted with sheep and their habits
understand the significance of a "cast" sheep or a "cast down"
This is an old English shepherd's term for a sheep that has
turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself.
A "cast" sheep is a very pathetic sight. Lying on its back,
its feet in the air, it flays away frantically struggling to
stand up, without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for
help, but generally it lies there lashing about in frightened
If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a
reasonably short time, the sheep will die. This is but another
reason why it is so essential for a careful sheepman to look over
his flock every day, counting them to see that all are able to be
up and on their feet. If one or two are missing, often the first
thought to flash into his mind is, "One of my sheep is cast
somewhere. I must go in search and set it on its feet again."
One particular ewe that I owned in a flock of Cheviots was
notorious for being a cast sheep. Every spring when she became
heavy in lamb it was not uncommon for her to become cast every
second or third day. Only my diligence made it possible for her
to survive from one season to the next. One year I had to be away
from the ranch for a few days just when she was having her
problems. So I called my young son aside and told him he would be
responsible for her well-being while I was absent. If he managed
to keep her on her feet until I came home he would be well paid
for his efforts. Every evening after school he went out to the
fields faithfully and set up the old ewe so she could survive. It
was quite a task but she rewarded us with a fine pair of twin
lambs that spring.
It is not only the shepherd who keeps a sharp eye for cast
sheep, but also the predators. Buzzards, vultures, dogs, coyotes
and cougars all know that a cast sheep is easy prey and death is
not far off.
This knowledge that any "cast" sheep is helpless, close to
death and vulnerable to attack, makes the whole problem of cast
sheep serious for the manager.
Nothing seems to so arouse his constant care and diligent
attention to the flock as the fact that even the largest,
fattest, strongest and sometimes healthiest sheep can become cast
and be a casualty. Actually it is often the fat sheep that are
the most easily cast. The way it happens is this. A heavy, fat,
or long fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in some little
hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side
slightly to stretch out or relax. Suddenly the center of gravity
in the body shifts so that it turns on its back far enough that
the feet no longer touch the ground. It may feel a sense of panic
and start to paw frantically. Frequently this only makes things
worse. It rolls over even further. Now it is quite impossible for
it to regain its feet.
As it lies there struggling, gases begin to build up in the
rumen. As these expand they tend to retard and cut off blood
circulation to extremities of the body, especially the legs. If
the weather is very hot and sunny a cast sheep can die in a few
hours. If it is cool and cloudy and rainy it may survive in this
position for several days.
If the cast sheep is an ewe with lambs, of course, it is a
multiple loss to the owner. If the lambs are unborn they, too,
perish with her. If they are young and suckling they become
orphans. All of which adds to the seriousness of the situation.
So it will be seen why a sheepman's attention is always alert for
During my own years as a keeper of sheep, perhaps some of
the most poignant memories are wrapped around the commingled
anxiety of keeping a count of my flock and repeatedly saving and
restoring cast sheep. It is not easy to convey on paper the sense
of this ever present danger. Often I would go out early and
merely cast my eye across the sky. If I saw the black-winged
buzzards circling overhead in their long slow spirals anxiety
would grip me. Leaving everything else I would immediately go out
into the rough wild pastures and count the flock to make sure
every one was well and fit and able to be on its feet.
This is part of the pageantry and drama depicted for us in
the magnificent story of the ninety and nine sheep with one
astray. There is the Shepherd's deep concern; his agonizing
search; his longing to find the missing one; his delight in
restoring it not only to its feet but also to the flock as well
as to himself.
Again and again I would spend hours searching for a single
sheep that was missing. Then more often than not I would see it
at a distance, down on its back, lying helpless. At once I would
start to run toward it - hurrying as fast as I could - for every
minute was critical. Within me there was a mingled sense of fear
and joy: fear it might be too late; joy that it was found at all.
As soon as I reached the cast ewe my very first impulse was to
Pick it up. Tenderly I would roll the sheep over on its side.
This would relieve the pressure of gases in the rumen. If she had
been down for long I would have to lift her onto her feet. Then
straddling the sheep with my legs I would hold her erect, rubbing
her limbs to restore the circulation to her legs. This often took
quite a little time. When the sheep started to walk again she
often just stumbled, staggered and collapsed in a heap once more.
All the time I worked on the cast sheep I would talk to it
gently, "When are you going to learn to stand on your own feet?"
- "I'm so glad I found you in time - you rascall." And so the
conversation would go. Always couched in language that combined
tenderness and rebuke, compassion and correction. Little by
little the sheep would regain its equilibrium. It would start to
walk steadily and surely. By and by it would dash away to rejoin
the others, set free from its fears and frustrations, given
another chance to live a little longer.
All of this pageantry is conveyed to my heart and mind when
I repeat the simple statement, "He restoreth my soull." There is
something intensely personal, intensely tender, intensely
endearing, yet intensely fraught with danger in the picture. On
the one hand there is the sheep so helpless, so utterly
immobilized though otherwise strong, healthy and flourishing;
while on the other hand there is the attentive owner quick and
ready to come to its rescue - ever patient and tender and
helpful. At this point it is important to point out that
similarly in the Christian life there is an exciting and
comforting parallel here. Many people have the idea that when a
child of God falls, when he is frustrated and helpless in a
spiritual dilemma, God becomes disgusted, fed-up and even furious
This simply is not so.
One of the great revelations of the heart of God given to us
by Christ is that of Himself as our Shepherd. He has the same
identical sensations of anxiety, concern and compassion for cast
men and women as I had for cast sheep. This is precisely why He
looked on people with such pathos and compassion. It explains His
magnanimous dealing with down-and-out individuals for whom even
human society had no use. It reveals why He wept over those who
spurned His affection. It discloses the depth of His
understanding of undone people to whom He came eagerly and
quickly, ready to help, to save, to restore.
When I read the life story of Jesus Christ and examine
carefully His conduct in coping with human need, I see Him again
and again as the Good Shepherd picking up "cast" sheep. The
tenderness, the love, the patience that He used to restore
Peter's soul after the terrible tragedy of his temptations is a
classic picture of the Christ coming to restore one of His own.
And so He comes quietly, gently, reassuringly to me no matter
when or where or how I may be cast down.
In Psalm 56:13 we are given an accurate commentary on this
aspect of the Christian's life in these words, "... thou has
delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from
falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living."
We have to be realistic about the life of the child of God
and face facts as they really are. Most of us, though we belong
to Christ and desire to be under His control and endeavor to
allow ourselves to be led by Him, do on occasion find ourselves
We discover that often when we are most sure of ourselves we
stumble and fall. Sometimes when we appear to be flourishing in
our faith we find ourselves in a situation of utter frustration
Paul in writing to the Christians at Corinth warned them of
this danger. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take
heed lest he fall" (I Corinthians 10:12).
Admittedly this may appear as one of the paradoxes and
enigmas of our spiritual lives. When we examine it carefully,
however, we will not find it too difficult to understand. As with
sheep, so with Christians, some basic principles and parallels
apply which will help us to grasp the way in which a man or woman
can be "cast."
There is, first of all, the idea of looking for a soft spot.
The sheep that choose the comfortable, soft, rounded hollows in
the ground in which to lie down very often become cast. In such a
situation it is so easy to roll over on their backs. In the
Christian life there is great danger in always looking for the
easy place, the cozy corner, the comfortable position where
there is no hardship, no need for endurance, no demand upon self
The time when we think "we have it made," so to speak, is
actually when we are in mortar. There is such a thing as the
discipline of poverty and privation which can be self-imposed to
do us worlds of good. Jesus suggested this to the rich young man
who mistakenly assumed he was in a safe position when in truth he
was on the verge of being cast down.
Sometimes if, through self-indulgence, I am unwilling to
forfeit or forego the soft life, the easy way, the cozy corner,
then the Good Shepherd may well move me to a pasture where things
aren't quite so comfortable - not only for my own good but also
His benefit as well.
There is the aspect, too, of a sheep simply having too much
wool. Often when the fleece becomes very long, and heavily matted
with mud, manure, burrs and other debris, it is much easier for a
sheep to become cast, literally weighed down with its own wool.
Wool in Scripture depicts the old self-life in the
Christian. It is the outward expression of an inner attitude, the
assertion of my own desire and hopes and aspirations. It is the
area of my life in which and through which I am continually in
contact with the world around me. Here is where I find the
clinging accumulation of things, of possessions, of worldly ideas
beginning to weigh me down, drag me down, hold me down.
It is significant that no high priest was ever allowed to
wear wool when he entered the Holy of Holies. This spoke of self,
of pride, of personal preference - and God could not tolerate it.
If I wish to go on walking with God and not be forever cast down,
this is an aspect of my life which He must deal with drastically.
Whenever I found that a sheep was being cast because it had
too long and heavy a fleece, I soon took swift steps to remedy
the situation. In short order I would shear it clean and so
forestall the danger of having the ewe lose her life. This was
not always a pleasant process. Sheep do not really enjoy being
sheared and it represents some hard work for the shepherd, but it
must be done.
Actually when it is all over both sheep and owner are
relieved. There is no longer the threat of being cast down, while
for the sheep there is the pleasure of being set free from a hot,
heavy coat. Often the fleece is clogged with filthy manure, mud,
burrs, sticks and ticks. What a relief to be rid of it all.
And similarly in dealing with our old self-life, there will
come a day when the Master must take us in hand and apply the
keen cutting edge of His Word to our lives. It may be an
unpleasant business for a time. No doubt we'll struggle and kick
about it. We may get a few cuts and wounds. But what a relief
when it is all over. Oh, the pleasure of being set free from
ourselves! What a restoration!
The third chief cause of cast sheep is simply that they are
too fat. It is a well-known fact that over-fat sheep are neither
the most healthy nor the most productive. And certainly it is the
fattest that most often are cast. Their weight simply makes it
that much harder for them to be agile and nimble on their feet.
Of course once a sheepman even suspects that his sheep are
becoming cast for this reason he will take long-range steps to
correct the problem. He will put the ewes on a more rigorous
ration; they will get less grain and the general condition of the
flock will be watched very closely. It is his aim to see that the
sheep are strong, sturdy and energetic, not fat, flabby and weak.
Turning to the Christian life we are confronted with the
same sort of problem. There is the man or woman, who because they
may have done well in business or their careers or their homes,
feel that they are flourishing and have "arrived." They may have
a sense of well-being and self-assurance which in itself is
dangerous. Often when we are most sure of ourselves we are the
most prone to fall flat.
In His warning to the church in Revelation 3:17 God points
out that though some considered themselves rich and affluent,
they were actually in desperate danger. The same point was made
by Jesus in His account of the wealthy farmer who intended to
build more and bigger barns, but who, in fact, faced utter ruin.
Material success is no measure of spiritual health. Nor is
apparent affluence any criteria of real godliness. And it is well
for us that the Shepherd of our souls sees through this exterior
and takes steps to set things right.
He may well impose on us some sort of "diet" or "discipline"
which we may find a bit rough and unpalatable at first. But again
we need to reassure ourselves that it is for our own good,
because He is fond of us, and for His own reputation as the Good
In Hebrews 12 we read how God chooses to discipline those He
loves. At the time it may prove a tough routine. But the deeper
truth is that afterward it produces a life of repose and
tranquility free from the fret and frustration of being cast down
like a helpless sheep.
The toughness it takes to face life and the formidable
reverses which it brings to us can come only through the
discipline of endurance and hardship. In His mercy and love our
Master makes this a part of our program. It is part of the price
of belonging to Him.
We may rest assured that He will never expect us or ask us
to face more than we can stand (I Corinthians 10:13). But what He
does expose us to will strengthen and fortify our faith and
confidence in His control. If He is the Good Shepherd we can rest
assured that He knows what He is doing. This in and of itself
should be sufficient to continually refresh and restore my soul.
I know of nothing which so quiets and enlivens my own
spiritual life as the knowledge that - "God knows what He is
doing with me!"
To be continued