A person who takes care of sheep. Figuratively, the Old Testament pictures God as Israel's Shepherd-Leader <Ps. 80:1; Ezek. 34:14>. The New Testament reveals Jesus as the Good Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep. When He said, "I am the good shepherd" <John 10:11>, Jesus linked His own divine nature with one of the most ordinary occupations in Israel.
Abel is the first shepherd mentioned in the Bible <Gen. 4:2>. Kings who led Israel <Jer. 6:3; 49:19> and certain ministers <Jer. 23:4> are also called shepherds. The sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob herded sheep <Gen. 13:7; 26:20; 30:36>. Rachel was a shepherdess <Gen. 29:3>. David <2 Sam. 5:2; Ps. 78:70-72>, Moses <Ex. 3:1>, and Amos <Amos 1:1> found herding to be excellent preparation for future leadership roles.
Jesus' life exemplifies these leadership traits. Jesus knows each of His sheep intimately <John 10:3-5>. Sometimes several shepherds will pen their sheep together in a cave or a sheepfold at night. The next morning each shepherd calls to his own sheep with his own unique gutteral cry. Each sheep knows his shepherd's voice and responds immediately. Even in a large flock, one individual sheep will run to his shepherd when his own pet name is called <John 10:27>.
Sheep are curious but dumb animals, often unable to find their way home even if the sheepfold is within sight. Knowing this fault, the shepherd never takes his eyes off his wandering sheep <Ps. 32:8>. Often a sheep will wander into a briar patch or fall over a cliff in the rugged Palestinian hills. The shepherd tenderly searches for his sheep and carries it to safety on his shoulder, wrapped in his own long cloak <Luke 15:6>.
In water-hungry Syria and Palestine, shepherds have always had to search diligently for water, sometimes for hours every day. Sheep must be watered daily. The shepherd might find a bubbling stream for the sheep that are always on the move and needing fresh pastures every day <Ps. 23:2>. An old well with a quiet pool or trough close by might provide the water <Gen. 29:7; 30:38; Ex. 2:16>. Often the shepherd carries a small pail with him, patiently filling it many times for the thirsty sheep who cannot reach the available water.
A trusted shepherd also provides loving protection for his flock. Shepherds on the Bethlehem hillsides still use a sling, made of goat's hair or leather and immortalized by David against Goliath <1 Sam. 17:49>. At times the shepherd will throw his rod at a stubborn, straying sheep that refuses to hear his voice. At other times he gently nudges the stray with the end of his six-foot staff, crooked at one end to fit his strong hand. Both the rod and the staff work together to protect the sheep <Ps. 23:4>.
The presence of the shepherd also offers comfort to the flock. David recognized this in <Psalm 23>. Sheep are content merely to be in the same field with their shepherd; Christians are comforted by the very presence of the Lord. This thought is especially comforting when darkness overshadows the believer. Jesus is our Door; nothing can touch our lives without touching Him first. This is a perfect picture of the shepherd. He literally becomes the living door of the sheepfold. He curls up in the door or in the entrance of a cave. He puts his body between the sleeping sheep and ravenous animals or thieves.
One day Jesus the Chief Shepherd will return, gather His whole flock into one fold, and divide the sheep from the goats <Matt. 25:31-33>. Until that time, Jesus continues His search for every lost sheep <Matt. 18:12-14>. His sheep are to yield themselves to Him for His useful service until, at last, they "will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" <Ps. 23:6>.
(from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary)
(Copyright (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
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