A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23 #9
THOU PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME
IN THINKING ABOUT this statement it is well to bear in mind
that the sheep are approaching the high mountain country of the
summer ranges. These are known as alplands or tablelands so much
sought after by sheepmen.
In some of the finest sheep country of the world, especially
in the Western United States and Southern Europe, the high
plateaux of the sheep ranges are always referred to as "mesas" -
the Spanish word for "tables."
Oddly enough the Kiswahili (African) word for a table is
also 'mesa." Presumably this had its origin with the first
Portuguese explorers to touch the East African coast. In fact the
use of this word is not uncommon in referring to the high,
flat-topped plateaux of the continent. The classic example, of
course, is Table Mountain, near Cape Town, which is world
So it may be seen that what David referred to as a table was
actually the entire high summer range. Though these "mesas" may
have been remote and hard to reach, the energetic and aggressive
sheep owner takes the time and trouble to ready them for the
arrival of his flocks.
Early in the season, even before all the snow has been
melted by spring sunshine, he will go ahead and make preliminary
survey trips into this rough, wild country. He will look it over
with great care, keeping ever in mind its best use for his flock
during the coming season.
Then just before the sheep arrive he will make another
expedition or two to prepare the tableland for them. He takes
along a supply of salt and minerals to be distributed over the
range at strategic spots for the benefit of the sheep during the
summer. The intelligent, careful manager will also decide well
ahead of time where his camps will be located so the sheep have
the best bed grounds. He goes over the range carefully to
determine how vigorous the grass and upland vegetation is. At
this time he decides whether some glades and basins can be used
only lightly whereas other slopes and meadows may be grazed more
He will check to see if there are poisonous weeds appearing,
and if so, he will plan his grazing program to avoid them, or
take drastic steps to eradicate them.
Unknown to me the first sheep ranch I owned had a rather
prolific native stand of both blue and white cammas. The blue
cammas were a delightful sight in the spring when they bloomed
along the beaches. The white cammas, though a much less
conspicuous flower, were also quite attractive but a deadly
menace to sheep. If lambs, in particular, ate or even just
nibbled a few of the lily-like leaves as they emerged in the
grass sward during spring, it would spell certain death. The
lambs would become paralyzed, stiffen up like blocks of wood and
simply succumb to the toxic poisons from the plants.
My youngsters and I spent days and days going over the
ground plucking out these poisonous plants. It was a recurring
task that was done every spring before the sheep went on these
pastures. Though tedious and tiring with all of the bending, it
was a case of "preparing the table in the presence of mine
enemies." And if my sheep were to survive it simply had to be
A humorous sidelight on this chore was the way I hit on the
idea of making up animal stories to occupy the children's minds
as we worked together this way for long hours, often down on our
hands and knees. They would become so engrossed in my wild
fantasies about bears and skunks and raccoons that the hours
passed quite quickly. Sometimes both of them would roll in the
grass with laughter as I added realistic action to enliven my
tales. It was one way to accomplish an otherwise terribly routine
All of this sort of thing was in the back of David's mind as
he penned these lines. I can picture him walking slowly over the
summer range ahead of his flock. His eagle eye is sharp for any
signs of poisonous weeds which he would pluck before his sheep
got to them. No doubt he had armfuls to get rid of for the safety
of his flock. The parallel in the Christian life is dear. Like
sheep, and especially lambs, we somehow feel that we have to try
everything that comes our way. We have to taste this thing and
that, sampling everything just to see what it's like. And we may
very well know that some things are deadly. They can do us no
good. They can be most destructive. Still somehow we give them a
whirl anyway. To forestall our getting into grief of this sort,
we need to remember our Master has been there ahead of us coping
with every situation which would otherwise undo us.
A classic example of this was the incident when Jesus warned
Peter that Satan desired to tempt him and sift him like wheat.
But Christ pointed out that He had prayed that Peter's faith
might not fail during the desperate difficulty he would
encounter. And so it is even today. Our great Good Shepherd is
going ahead of us in every situation, anticipating what danger we
may encounter, and praying for us that in it we might not
Another task the attentive shepherd takes on in the summer
is to keep an eye out for predators. He will look for signs and
spoor of wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears. If these raid or
molest the sheep he will have to hunt them down or go to great
pains to trap them so that his flock can rest in peace.
Often what actually happens is that these crafty ones are up
on the rimrock watching every movement the sheep make, hoping for
a chance to make a swift, sneaking attack that will stampede the
sheep. Then one or other of the flock is bound to fall easy prey
to the attacker's fierce teeth and claws.
The picture here is full of drama, action, suspense - and
possible death. Only the alertness of the sheepman who tends his
flock on the tableland in full view of possible enemies can
prevent them from falling prey to attack. It is only his
preparation for such an eventuality that can possibly save the
sheep from being slaughtered and panicked by their predators.
And again we are given a sublime picture of our Saviour who
knows every wile, every trick, every treachery of our enemy Satan
and his companions. Always we are in danger of attack. Scripture
sometimes refers to him as "a roaring lion" who goes about
seeking whom he may devour.
It is rather fashionable in some contemporary Christian
circles to discredit Satan. There is a tendency to try and write
him off, or laugh him off, as though he was just a joke. Some
deny that such a being as Satan even exists. Yet we see evidence
of his merciless attacks and carnage in a society where men and
women fall prey to his cunning tactics almost every day. We see
lives torn and marred and seared by his assaults though we never
see him personally.
It reminds me of my encounters with cougars. On several
occasions these cunning creatures came in among my sheep at night
working terrible havoc in the flock. Some ewes were killed
outright, their blood drained and livers eaten. Others were torn
open and badly clawed. In these cases the great cats seemed to
chase and play with them in their panic like a housecat would
chase a mouse. Some had huge patches of wool torn from their
fleeces. In their frightened stampede some had stumbled and
broken bones or rushed over rough ground injuring legs and
Yet despite the damage, despite the dead sheep, despite the
injuries and fear instilled in the flock, I never once actually
saw a cougar on my range. So cunning and so skilful were their
raids they defy description.
At all times we would be wise to walk a little closer to
Christ. This is one sure place of safety. It was always the
distant sheep, the roamers, the wanderers, which were picked off
by the predators in an unsuspecting moment. Generally the
attackers are gone before the shepherd is alerted by their cry
for help. Some sheep, of course, are utterly dumb with fear under
attack; they will not even give a plaintive bleat before their
blood is spilled.
The same is true Christians. Many of us get into deep
difficulty beyond ourselves; we are stricken dumb with
apprehension, unable even to call or cry out for help; we
crumple under our adversary attack.
But Christ is too concerned about us to allow this to
happen. Our Shepherd wants to forestall such a calamity. He wants
our summer sojourn to be in peace. Our Lord wants our mountaintop
times to be tranquil interludes. And they will be if we just have
the common sense to stay near Him where He can protect us. Read
His Word each day. Spend some time talking to Him. We should give
Him opportunity to converse with us by His Spirit as we
contemplate His life and work for us as our Shepherd.
There is another chore which the sheepman takes care of on
the tableland. He clears out the water holes, springs and
drinking places for his stock. He has to clean out the
accumulated debris of leaves, twigs, stones and soil which may
have fallen into the water source during the autumn and winter.
He may need to repair small earth dams he has made to hold water.
And he will open the springs that may have become overgrown with
grass and brush and weeds. It is all his work, his preparation of
the table for his own sheep in summer.
The parallel in the Christian life is that Christ, our great
Good Shepherd, has Himself already gone before us into every
situation and every extremity that we might encounter. We are
told emphatically that He was tempted in all points like as we
are. We know He entered fully and completely and very intimately
into the life of men upon our planet. He has known our
sufferings, experienced our sorrows and endured our struggles in
this life; He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Because of this He understands us, He has totally identified
Himself with humanity. He has, therefore, a care and compassion
for us beyond our ability to grasp. No wonder He makes every
possible provision to insure that when we have to cope with
Satan, sin or self, the contest will not be one-sided. Rather, we
can be sure He has been in that situation before; He is in it now
again with us and because of this the prospects of our
preservation are excellent.
It is this attitude of rest in Him, of confidence in His
care, of relaxation as we realize His presence in the picture
that can make the Christian's life one of calm and quiet
confidence. The Christian walk can thus become a mountaintop
experience - a tableland trip - simply because we are in the care
and control of Christ who has been over all this territory before
us and prepared the "table" for us in plain view of our enemies
who would demoralize and destroy us if they could.
It is encouraging to know that just as in any other aspect
of life where there are lights and shadows, so in the Christian
life there are valleys and mountaintops. Too many people assume
that once one becomes a Christian, automatically life becomes one
glorious garden of delight. This is simply not the case. It may
well become a garden of sorrow just as our Saviour went through
the garden of Gethsemane. As was pointed out previously, you do
not have mountains without valleys, and even on the mountaintop
there can be some tough experiences.
Just because the shepherd has gone ahead and made every
possible provision for the safety and welfare of his sheep while
they are on the summer range does not mean they will not have
problems there. Predators can still attack; poisonous weeds can
still grow; storms and gales can still come swirling up over the
peaks; and a dozen other hazards can haunt the high country.
Yet, in His care and concern for us Christ still insures that we
shall have some gladness with our sadness; some delightful days
as well as dark days; some sunshine as well as shadow.
It is not always apparent to us what tremendous personal
cost it has been for Christ to prepare the table for His own.
Just as the lonely, personal privation of the sheepman who
prepares the summer range for his stock entails a sacrifice, so
the lonely agony of Gethsemane, of Pilate's hall, of Calvary,
have cost my Master much.
When I come to the Lord's Table and partake of the communion
service which is a feast of thanksgiving for His love and care,
do I fully appreciate what it has cost Him to prepare this table
Here we commemorate the greatest and deepest demonstration
of true love the world has ever known. For God looked down upon
sorrowing, struggling, sinning humanity and was moved with
compassion for the contrary, sheep-like creatures He had made. In
spite of the tremendous personal cost it would entail to Himself
to deliver them from their dilemma He chose deliberately to
descend and live amongst them that He might deliver them.
This meant laying aside His splendor, His position, His
prerogatives as the perfect and faultless One. He knew He would
be exposed to terrible privation, to ridicule, to false
accusations, to rumor, gossip and malicious charges that branded
Him as a glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners and even an
imposter. It entailed losing His reputation. It would involve
physical suffering, mental anguish and spiritual agony.
In short, His coming to earth as the Christ, as Jesus of
Nazareth, was a straightforward case of utter self-sacrifice that
culminated in the cross of Calvary. The laid-down life, the
poured-out blood were the supreme symbols of total selflessness.
This was love. This was God. This was divinity in action,
delivering men from their own utter selfishness, their own
stupidity, their own suicidal instincts as lost sheep unable to
In all of this there is an amazing mystery. No man will ever
be able fully to fathom its implications. It is bound up
inexorably with the concept of God's divine love of
self-sacrifice which is so foreign to most of us who are so
self-centered. At best we can only grasp feebly the incredible
concept of a perfect person, a sinless one being willing actually
to be made sin that we who are so full of faults, selfish
self-assertion and suspicion might be set free from sin and self,
to live a new, free, fresh, abundant life of righteousness.
Jesus told us Himself, that He had come that we might have life
and have it more abundantly. Just as the sheepman is thrilled
beyond words to see his sheep thriving on the high, rich summer
range (it is one of the highlights of his whole year), so mt
Shepherd is immensely pleased when He sees me flourish on the
tablelands of a noble, lofty life that He has made possible for
Part of the mystery and wonder of Calvary, of God's love to
us in Christ, is bound up too with the deep desire of His heart
to have me live on a higher plane. He longs to see me living
above the mundane level of common humanity. He is so pleased when
I walk in the ways of holiness, of selflessness, of serene
contentment in His care, aware of His presence and enjoying the
intimacy of His companionship.
To live thus is to live richly.
To walk here is to walk with quiet assurance.
To feed here is to be replete with good things.
To find this tableland is to have found something of my
Shepherd's love for me.
To be continued