Make no mistake that David, the author of the 23rd Psalm, knew what it was to be a shepherd and he knew what it was to be a sheep. Sheep have a reputation for being notoriously foolish, vulnerable, and unintelligent. Urban Dictionary says the slang use of the term sheep refers to “a waste of flesh and brain cells.” Ouch! Watch any clip of America’s Funniest Home Videos and you might be convinced that humanity is quite ridiculous! Like sheep, we need something, someone, outside of ourselves to help us and guide us. The flip side to that is that recent studies have shown that “sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter” (Harriet Constable, “Sheep Are Not Stupid, and They Are Not Helpless Either,” BBC, April 19, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-arenot-helpless-either). This all seems to track with the humanity we know. We are keen, clever, resourceful, and relational—and we are definitely in need of direction, sometimes incapable of making good choices. We can do many things all by ourselves in our own strength, but we are also helpless to overcome sin, to find sustained hope or joy, or to gain eternal life apart from our shepherd’s intervention.
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