A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23 #6
HE LEADETH ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
FOR HIS NAME SAKE
SHEEP ARE NOTORIOUS creatures of habit. If left to
themselves they will follow the same trails until they become
ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes;
pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and
parasites. Many of the world's finest sheep ranges have been
ruined beyond repair by over-grazing, poor management and
indifferent or ignorant sheep owners.
One need only travel through countries like Spain, Greece,
Mesopotamia, North Africa and even parts of the western United
States and New Zealand or Australia to see the havoc wrought by
sheep on the land: Some areas in these countries which were
formerly productive grasslands have gradually been reduced to
ravaged wastelands. Too many sheep over too many years under poor
management have brought nothing but poverty and disaster in their
A commonly held, but serious misconception about sheep is
that they can just "get along anywhere." The truth is quite the
reverse. No other class of livestock requires more careful
handling, more detailed direction, than do sheep. No doubt David,
as a shepherd himself, had learned this firsthand from tough
experience. He knew beyond dispute that if the flock was to
flourish and the owner's reputation was to be held in high esteem
as a good manager, the sheep had to be constantly under his
meticulous control and guidance.
The first sheep farm I purchased as a young man was a piece
of derelict land that had been "sheeped to death." An absentee
owner had rented the place to a tenant. The latter simply loaded
the ranch with sheep, then left them pretty much to their own
ways. The result was utter desolation. Fields became so
overgrazed and impoverished they would grow little but poverty
grass. Little sheep trails had deteriorated into great gullies.
Erosion on the slopes was rampant and the whole place was ravaged
almost beyond repair.
All of this happened simply because the sheep, instead of
being managed and handled with intelligent care, had been left to
struggle for themselves - left to go their own way, left to the
whims of their own destructive habits. The consequence of such
indifference is that the sheep gnaw the grass to the very ground
until even the roots are damaged. I have seen places in Africa
where grass roots were pawed out of the soil, leaving utter
barrenness behind. Such abuse means loss of fertility and the
exposure of the land to all the ravages of erosion.
Because of the behavior of sheep and their preference for
certain favored spots, these well-worn areas become quickly
infested with parasites of all kinds. In a short time a whole
flock can thus become infected with worms, nematodes, and scab.
The final upshot is that both land and owner are ruined while the
sheep become thin, wasted, and sickly.
The intelligent shepherd is aware of all this. Not only just
for the welfare of his sheep and the health of his land, but also
for his own sake and reputation as a rancher, he must take the
necessary precautions to safeguard against these adverse animal
traits. Such habits, in themselves, comprise very serious
The greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in
handling his flock is to keep them on the move. That is to say,
they dare not be left on the same ground too long. They must be
shifted from pasture to pasture periodically. This prevents
over-grazing of the forage. It also avoids the rutting of trails
and erosion of land from over-use. It forestalls the
reinfestation of the sheep with internal parasites or disease,
since the sheep move off the infested ground before these
organisms complete their life cycles.
In a word - there must be a pre-determined plan of action, a
deliberate, planned rotation from one grazing ground to another
in line with right and proper principles of sound management.
This is precisely the sort of action and the idea David had
in mind when he spoke of being led in paths of righteousness.
In this following of a precise plan of operation lies the
secret for healthy flocks and healthy land. Here is the key to
successful sheep husbandry. The owner's entire name and
reputation depends on how effectively and efficiently he keeps
his charges moving onto wholesome, new, fresh forage. The one who
directs his flock along this course is sure of success.
Casting my mind's eye back over the years that I kept sheep,
no other single aspect of the ranch operations commanded more of
my careful attention than this moving of the sheep. It literally
dominated all my decisions. Not a day went by but what I would
walk over the pasture in which the sheep were feeding to observe
the balance between its growth and the grazing pressure upon it.
As soon as the point was reached where I felt the maximum benefit
for both sheep and land was not being met, the sheep were moved
to a fresh field. On the average this meant they were put onto
new ground almost every week. In very large measure the success I
enjoyed in sheep ranching must be attributed to this care in
managing my flock.
A similar procedure applies to flocks of sheep taken out on
summer range in the hills by itinerant herders. They deliberately
lead or drive their sheep onto fresh range almost every day. A
pattern of grazing is worked out carefully in advance so that the
sheep do not feed over the same ground too long or too
frequently. Some shepherds set up a base camp and fan out from it
in wide circles, like the lobes of a clover leaf, covering new
pasturage each day, returning to camp at night.
Coupled with this entire concept of management, there is of
course the owner's intimate knowledge of his pastures. He has
been all over this ground again and again. He knows its every
advantage and every drawback. He knows where his flock will
thrive and he is aware of where the feed is poor. So he acts
A point worthy of mention here is that whenever the shepherd
opens a gate into a fresh pasture the sheep are filled with
excitement. As they go through the gate even the staid old ewes
will often kick up their heels and leap with delight at the
prospect of finding fresh feed. How they enjoy being led onto new
Now as we turn to the human aspect of this theme we will be
astonished at some of the parallels. As mentioned earlier it is
no mere whim on God's part to call us sheep. Our behavior
patterns and life habits are so much like that of sheep it is
well nigh embarrassing.
First of all Scripture points out that most of us are a
stiff-necked and stubborn lot. We prefer to follow our own
fancies and turn to our own ways. "All we like sheep have gone
astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6).
And this we do deliberately, repeatedly even to our own
disadvantage. here is something almost terrifying about the
destructive self-determination of a human being. It is inexorably
interlocked with personal pride and self-assertion. We insist we
know what is best for us even though the disastrous results may
Just as sheep will blindly, habitually, stupidly follow one
another along the same little trails until they become ruts that
erode into gigantic gullies, so we humans cling to the same
habits that we have seen ruin other lives. Turning to "my own
way" simply means doing what I want. It implies that I feel free
to assert my own wishes and carry out my own ideas. And this I do
in spite of every warning.
We read in Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25, "There is a way which
seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of
In contrast to which Christ the Good Shepherd comes gently
and says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh
unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). "I am come that they
might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly"
The difficult point is that most of us don't want to come.
We don't want to follow. We don't want to be led in the paths of
righteousness. Somehow it goes against our grain. We actually
prefer to turn to our own way even though it may take us straight
The stubborn, self-willed, proud, self-sufficient sheep that
persists in pursuing its old paths and grazing on its old
polluted ground will end up a bag of bones on ruined land. The
world we live in is full of such folk. Broken homes, broken
hearts, derelict lives and twisted personalities remind us
everywhere of men and women who have gone their own way. We have
a sick society struggling to survive on beleaguered land. The
greed and selfishness of mankind leaves behind a legacy of ruin
Amid all this chaos and confusion Christ the Good Shepherd
comes and says, "If any man will follow me, let him deny himself
daily and take up his cross and follow me." But many don't want
to do this. We don't want to deny ourselves, give up our right to
make our own decisions - we don't want to follow; we don't want
to be led.
Of course, most of us, if confronted with this charge, would deny
it. We would assert vehemently that we are "led of the Lord." We
would insist that we would follow wherever He leads. We sing
songs to this effect and give mental assent to the idea. But as
far as actually being led in paths of righteousness is concerned,
precious few of us follow that path.
Actually this is the pivot point on which a Christian either
"goes on" with God or at which point he "goes back" from
following on. There are many, willful, wayward, indifferent,
self-interested Christians who cannot really be classified as
followers of Christ. There are relatively few diligent disciples
who forsake all to follow the Master.
Jesus never made light of the cost involved in following
Him. In fact He made it painfully clear that it was a rugged life
of rigid self-denial. It entailed a whole new set of attitudes.
It was not the natural, normal way a person would ordinarily live
and this is what made the price so prohibitive to most people.
In brief, seven fresh attitudes have to be acquired. They
are the equivalent of progressive forward movements onto new
ground with God. If one follows them they will discover fresh
pasturage; new, abundant life; and increased health,
wholesomeness and holiness, in their walk with God. Nothing will
please Him more and most certainly no other activity on our part
will or can result in as great benefit to other lives around us.
1. Instead of loving myself most I am willing to love Christ best
and others more than myself.
Now love in a scriptural sense is not a soft, sentimental
emotion. It is a deliberate act of my will. It means that I am
willing to lay down my life, lay myself out, put myself out on
behalf of another. This is precisely what God did for us in
Christ. "Hereby perceive [understand] we the love of God, because
he laid down his life for us" (I John 3:16).
The moment I deliberately do something definite either for
God or others that costs me something, I am expressing love. Love
is "self-lessness" or "self-sacrifice" in contradistinction to
"selfishness." Most of us know little of living like this or
being "led" in this right way. But once a person discovers the
delight of doing something for others, he has started through the
gate being led into one of God's green pastures.
2. Instead of being one of the crowd I am willing to be singled
out, set apart from the gang.
Most of us, like sheep, are pretty gregarious. We want to
belong. We don't want to be different in a deep, distinctive way,
though we may wish to be different in minor details that appeal
to our selfish egos.
But Christ pointed out that only a few would find His way
acceptable. And to be marked as one of His would mean a certain
amount of criticism and sarcasm from a cynical society. Many of
us don't want this. Just as He was a man of sorrows and
acquainted with grief, so we may be. Instead of adding to the
sorrows and sadness of society we may be called on to help bear
some of the burdens of others, to enter into the suffering of
others. Are we ready to do this?
3. Instead of insisting on my rights I am willing to forego them
in favor of others.
Basically this what the Master meant by denying one's self.
It is not easy, nor normal, nor natural to do this. Even in the
loving atmosphere of the home, self-assertion is pretty evident
and the powerful exercise of individual rights is always
But the person who is willing to pocket his pride, to take a
back seat, to play second fiddle without a feeling of being
abused or put upon has gone a long way onto new ground with God.
There is a tremendous emancipation from "self" in this attitude.
One is set free from the shackles of personal pride. It's pretty
hard to hurt such a person. He who has no sense of
self-importance cannot be offended or deflated. Somehow such
people enjoy a wholesome outlook of carefree abandon that makes
their Christian lives contagious with contentment and gaiety.
4. Instead of being "boss" I am willing to be at the bottom of
the heap. Or to use sheep terminology, instead of being "Top Ram"
I'm willing to be a "tailender."
When the desire for self-assertion, self-aggrandizement,
self-pleasing gives way to the desire for simply pleasing God and
others, much of the fret and strain is drained away from daily
A hallmark of the serene soul is the absence of "drive," at
least, "drive" for self-determination. The person who is prepared
to put his personal life and personal affairs in the Master's
hands for His management and direction has found the place of
rest in fresh fields each day. These are the ones who find time
and energy to please others.
5. Instead of finding fault with life and always asking "Why?" I
an willing to accept every circumstance of life in an attitude of
Human beings, being what they are, somehow feel entitled to
question the reasons for everything that happens to them. In many
instances life itself becomes a continuous criticism and
dissection of one's circumstances and acquaintances. We look for
someone or something on which to pin the blame for our
misfortunes. We are often quick to forget our blessings, slow to
forget our misfortunes.
But if one really believes his affairs are in God's hands,
every event, no matter whether joyous or tragic, will be taken as
part of God's plan. To know beyond doubt that He does all for our
welfare is to be led into a wide area of peace and quietness and
strength for every situation.
6. Instead of exercising and asserting my will, I learn to
cooperate with His wishes and comply with His will.
It must noted that all the steps outlined here involve the
will. The saints from earliest times have repeatedly pointed out
that nine-tenths of religion, of Christianity, of becoming a true
follower, a dedicated disciple, lies in the will.
When a man or woman allows his will to be crossed out,
cancelling the great "I" in their decisions, then indeed the
Cross has been applied to that life. This is the meaning of
taking up one's cross daily - to go to one's own death - no
longer my will in the matter but His will be done.
7. Instead of choosing my own way I am willing to choose to
follow in Christ's way; simply to do what He asks me to do.
This basically is simple, straightforward obedience. It
means I just do what He asks me to do. I go where He invites me
to go. I say what He instructs me to say. I act and re-act in the
manner He maintains is in my own best interest as well as for His
reputation (if I'm His follower).
Most of us possess a formidable amount of factual
information on what the Master expects of us. Precious few have
either the will, intention or determination to act on it and
comply with His instructions. But the person who decides to do
what God asks him has moved onto fresh ground which will do both
him and others a world of good. Besides, it will please the Good
Shepherd no end.
God wants us all to move on with Him. He wants us to walk
with Him. He wants it not only for our welfare but for the
benefit of others as well as His own dear reputation.
Perhaps there are those who think He expects too much of us.
Maybe they feel the demands are too drastic. Some may even
consider His call impossible to carry out.
It would be if we had to depend on self-determination, or
self-discipline to succeed. But if we are in earnest about
wanting to do His will, and to be led, He makes this possible by
His own gracious Spirit who is given to those who obey (Acts
5:32). For it is He who works in us both will and to do of His
good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
To be continued