Theme: The Shepherd of Israel
In this week’s lessons we learn that there is no restoration of God’s favor without repentance.
Scripture: Psalm 80:1-19
A second striking feature of this psalm is its effective employment of two great images for God: God as Israel’s shepherd, developed briefly in the first stanza (vv. 1, 2) and God as the planter and caretaker of a vineyard, which stands for Israel, developed in stanza three (vv. 8-18). The first of these two images, God as Israel’s shepherd, is one of the ways the Bible has of describing God to people who, for the most part, lived pastoral lives.
There is an important use of the image in Isaiah 40:11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” There is an extensive development of it by Jesus in John 10, including, for example, verses 14-16: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” Peter called Jesus “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Hebrews ends, “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20, 21).
Although appearing frequently elsewhere, the idea of God being Israel’s shepherd occurs in the Psalter only twice, here and in Psalm 23. It is helpful to know that the first use of the shepherding image for God in the Bible is in the farewell words of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, recorded in Genesis 48. Jacob spoke of God as the one “who has been my Shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm” (Gen. 48:15, 16). The reason this is so helpful is that Jacob had been a shepherd himself, and he knew from experience how difficult a shepherd’s work is. In his moving confrontation with Laban, after Laban had pursued him on his flight from Haran back to his own country, Jacob aptly described the difficulties of a shepherd’s life, saying in part: “This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household…. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed” (Gen. 31:40-42).
This is a powerful statement. But it seems to be an understatement as a description of the difficulty of a shepherd’s life. Sheep are notoriously helpless, wayward and even stupid animals, and it is a difficult full-time job to care for them.
Jacob had also learned a second thing about shepherding, and that was how great a failure he had been when he was trying to shepherd himself. Self-shepherding means trying to run your own life, and that was exactly what Jacob had been trying to do. He was like many Christians today. He acknowledged God. He would have described himself as a believer. But he had followed his own judgment and taken his own paths rather than trusting in the word and wisdom of the divine Shepherd. The wonderful thing is that, in spite of Jacob’s waywardness, God had been a faithful Shepherd to Jacob anyway, which he acknowledges, just as God also is to us.
This, then, is the image we have in the first stanza of Psalm 80. But lest we get the idea that a shepherd is only some gentle, almost helpless soul doomed to care for sheep, the psalm reminds us that this wonderful Shepherd of Israel is nevertheless also the God who sits “enthroned between the cherubim.” This might refer to God’s throne in heaven or to that earthly representation of it within the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or temple. But whatever the case, it is a reminder of the majesty and power of the true God. In fact, it is on the basis of God’s power that the psalm’s appeal for salvation from Israel’s enemies is made: “Awaken your might; come and save us” (v. 2).
What two images are used to depict God?
Describe what a shepherd does. How does God act as a shepherd to us?
Reflection: Make a list of the times when you sought to shepherd your own life. What were the results?
Prayer: Thank God for his faithfulness to you during times when you sought to run your own life.