Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23

As I was looking around for a good book to read, last week my eye stumbled on A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller.  It was lingering in my bookshelf because it had been a Christmas gift from a member at our church to my husband.  The book was instantly treasured simply for the words of blessing she had inscribed on the front cover, but I hadn't taken time to read it yet.

I was intrigued by the background of the author first. Raised in African sheep country, once a sheep rancher and then a minister, he had a uniquely appropriate background to explain the Psalm.  Not only that, but as a widower he had first-hand experience with the "valley of the shadow of death."  

I enjoyed the book for the light he shed on detail.  Did you know a shepherd's rod and staff are different?  The rod is a club used in the sheep's defense.  He talked about the skill with which African shepherds can hurl that rod at the animals that prey on the herd.  The staff on the other hand is used to guide the sheep.  This I knew having seen Asian shepherd nudge their flocks the right way using the long crooks.  What a comfort to have both God's protection as well as his guidance! 

Metaphor abounds in the Psalm, and Keller brings out every nuance. He spoke of the oil that shepherds use.  First they use oil to fight flies and other parasites.  A second more serious use is to prevent a highly contagious skin disease called "scab."  The sheep catch scab by rubbing heads.  Almost he said, the way that Christians rubbing minds with the world around us bring ruinous ideas and thoughts back to our churches and our families. Finally during mating time the oil is used with great effect on the fighting rams.  The rams would butt each other with their heads and horns, damaging not only the peace of the flock but the health of their brothers.  So the shepherd would smear axle grease all over their heads, so they sort of slid off each other.  I couldn't help but snicker as he described the "sheepish" look on their faces (some of us need to look more sheepish after trying to attack our brothers). He compares that oil and grease to the Spirit which helps all of us keep our minds clean and in love teaches us to smooth the way between brothers. (Galatians 5:22, Romans 5:5)

The book wasn't difficult, no tome of theology here.  Any child of 10 could have read and understood it.  Yet it lingers with me.  I've been teaching my preschoolers the story of the good Shepherd.  Over and again in the simplest language I can devise, I tell them Jesus loves them, that he is their shepherd, that he keeps them safe and helps them when they are lost and scared.  The truth of those simple facts has impressed itself upon me very deeply this week.  I'm glad W. Phillips Keller brought his shepherding to life!


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