Why sheep? Why not cheetahs or wolves or ligers or another animal with a bit of flair, a bit of class? But the Bible tells us often that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That sheep/shepherd word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm—Psalm 23. I spent some time with that psalm lately and tried to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us we are sheep.
I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and even now live in an area of town that explicitly forbids owning livestock. In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny. And kind of humbling.
Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons. Two of these reasons are related to the brain of a sheep and the other is related to its body.
This is a real news story that aptly tells us the first reason sheep need a shepherd: because sheep are dumb.
Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 metres to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived. Shepherds from a nearby village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000.
One sheep wandered off a cliff and 1,499 others just followed along. Can you picture it? 1,500 sheep, each walking off a cliff, one after the other. Soon they were piled so deep that the ones at the bottom were crushed to death and the ones on top were lying on a big downy-soft pillow. It is completely absurd and tells us one important fact about sheep and the first reason sheep absolutely need a shepherd: they are not the smartest animals in the world. In fact, they may well be just about the dumbest animals in the world.
And here’s a second reason sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, if he doesn’t micromanage them and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.
Sheep are dumb and directionless. They are also defenseless. Left to themselves, sheep will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal can be returned to the wild and will stand a fighting chance of survival. But not sheep. Put a sheep in the wild and you’ve just given nature a snack.
Think about it: there are different ways animals react when they perceive some kind of danger. Here are three common ones: fight, flight, and posture.
Let’s thinking about fight. A sheep gets frightened or sees that he is in danger. Maybe he sees a bear rambling toward him. What is he going to do? He doesn’t have claws, he doesn’t have fangs, he doesn’t have venom, he doesn’t have spines or quills or large talons. He’s got nothing to protect himself. Fighting is definitely out. But that’s okay—there are lots of other animals that don’t fight it out.
How about flight, just turning tail and running away? That’s a good defense mechanism. Unfortunately sheep aren’t fast; they certainly aren’t agile, especially when their wool is long, and even more so when their wool is long and wet. Last I checked they don’t have wings. A sheep is not going to outrun or outfly a bear. The sheep will not fight and it cannot take flight. So far it is looking pretty good for the bear.
How about posture? A dog will bark and growl and show his teeth to warn you away. A lion will roar. A rattlesnake will shake his rattle. A cat will arch his back and hiss. The best a sheep can do is baaa. I don’t think that bear is going be too intimidated. It is for good reason that no one relies on a guard sheep to keep their property secure.
Sheep can’t fight, they can’t run away, and they can’t scare away. So what does a sheep do when danger comes? It flocks. When a bear approaches, the sheep will gather with others in a pack and run in circles in complete panic, just hoping that the bear will choose someone else. Without a shepherd to protect them, they’ll be picked off and eaten one by one.
Sheep are dumb and directionless and defenseless. So I guess when God says that we are sheep who need a shepherd, he doesn’t mean it as a compliment to us. It is just a very realistic assessment of who we are and what we need. We are sheep who are completely dependent upon a shepherd.
To say that God is our shepherd and we are sheep, is to humble ourselves, admitting what is true about us, and to elevate God, declaring what is true of him. When you say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” you are saying something that ought to move your heart in praise and gratitude. To declare that God if your shepherd is to praise and glorify him because God the shepherd stoops down to care for poor, lost, not-so-smart sheep like you and me.