Most of us have have a fairly good understanding of the Metaphor that Jesus used when He described Himself as “The Good Shepherd”. A shepherd is one who leads, feeds, and cares for a flock of sheep. Jesus saw the masses of people wandering in confusion and felt sympathy for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Sheep are very dependent creatures, probably the most dependent creature that God created. Sheep are totally dependent on someone to take care of them. God designed mankind to be dependent like sheep, which is why there are so many metaphors comparing mankind to sheep in the Bible.
Sheep are dependent
Here are a few examples of how dependent a sheep is on the Shepherd.
- If the wool of a sheep is not removed once a year, the fleece may get so thick and heavy that the sheep may suffocate in hot weather, and die. Sheep need a shepherd to shear them.
- Sheep do best in arid, dry climates, where they have to move around alot in order to forage for food. This controls gluttony because sheep do not know when to stop eating. They gorge, then bloat, then die if no shepherd is around to de-gas them.
- Sheep need 2 gallons of water daily. They are dependent on the Shepherd for their water supply. They need fresh water every day. They will not drink yesterday’s water. They will arise early in order to get the dew off of the grass, which meets most of their daily requirement. If they miss the morning dew, finding water during the day may be very challenging for the shepherd. On it’s own, a sheep cannot find water or food. The shepherd is the key, the answer, the provider for life for the sheep’s sustenance and survival.
- Sheep must be rotated from pasture to pasture by the Shepherd. If left to its own devices, a sheep will strip a pasture bare, leaving no more food to eat.
- Sheep cannot go in reverse. If they are caught in a thicket, they keep burrowing forward to get out. A shepherd has to extricate them because they cannot extricate themselves.
Rod & Staff?
Thy rod and they staff, they comfort me. What does this mean? The Hebrew word for rod is “shebet” which means staff, branch, offshoot, club or scepter. The staff is “mish-eneth” translated as staff or support. A different word “mat-tah” is used in the context of the rod that Moses held in Exodus 4:2 but the two are related. The rod is noted as a tool for chastisement (Prov 13:24). The presence of these two instruments had a twin effect on the sheep.
- First they cautioned them that the shepherd may apply it against an errant sheep.
- Secondly, they gave them confidence that the shepherd would protect them against wild animals using the same rod and staff. They also symbolized the shepherd’s instruments of guidance for his sheep.
David's declaration in Psalm 23:4 is evidence of his total trust in God's rule as his ultimate source of protection and guidance even in the darkest or most trying moments of his life.
Sheep are defenseless
Sheep have no top teeth so they cannot bite a predator. Sheep legs are very skinny, so they can’t run fast or far. They are easily overtaken by a predator. There are safety in numbers. If a sheep wanders off by itself, it is much more susceptible to being picked off by a predator. Sheep are also susceptible to falls because they are top heavy. If they fall over and roll over on their back, they cannot stand back up themselves. Only a shepherd can restore them to right side up.
“At every sheepfold, there is a big earthen bowl of olive oil and a large stone jar of water. As the sheep come in for the night, they are led to a gate. The shepherd lays his rod across the top of the gateway just higher than the back of his sheep. As each sheep passes in single file, he quickly examines it for briars in the ears, snags in the cheek, or weeping of the eyes from dust or scratches. When such conditions are found, he drops the rod across the sheep’s back and it steps out of line. Each sheep’s wounds are carefully cleaned. Then the shepherd dips his hand into the olive oil and anoints the injury. When all the sheep are at rest, the shepherd lays his staff on the ground within easy reach in case its needed for protection of the flock during the night. Then he wraps himself in his heavy woolen robe and lies down across the gateway, facing the sheep for his night’s repose. (Robert Gamble, Scotland, in “My Shepherd, my sheep”). The shepherd faces the sheep because the sheep need to see the Shepherd’s face for their safety and security. Only then can they rest assured.”
Sheep are directionless
Sheep are directionless and have a predisposition to go their own way. If sheep are lost, they tend to go in circles. Sheep are flock animals and will also follow a lead sheep, even if that lead sheep leads them right off a cliff. A sheep that wanders off by itself is much more likely to be picked off by a wolf or some other predator. If a flock of sheep are not rotated from pasture to pasture by their Shepherd, they will destroy all the green grass in the pasture and be left to starve.
The difference between sheep and goats
In North America, sheep and goats are easily distinguishable, due to specialization through breeding. Sheep are fluffy and wooly; goats are not. However, throughout history, and still today in parts of Asia and Africa, sheep and goats are almost identical, and no one but a shepherd can easily tell the difference. So the application here for the parable would be that outward conformity (being part of the herd) isn’t all that’s required of us. There is something that only our Shepherd can see in us, and that unseen thing tells God whether we are sheep or goats. It determines whether God sorts us to the left or to the right.
Sheep have always been dependent on their shepherd and defenseless. Goats, on the other hand, have a reputation for being independent, opinionated and curious at best—or vulgar, dangerous and destructive at worst. The main thing though—the central difference between sheep and goats—is really simple. It’s an idea that we can come back to when we need to stay on track: A sheep is led by its shepherd. A goatherd is led by his goat.
Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd and trust him to lead them to food, water and safety. If they wander, which some do, the shepherd will go out and rescue them and bring them back to the safety of the flock. Sheep separated from their shepherd and flock are nervous and vulnerable because they have no defensive or offensive survival abilities.
A goat, however, doesn’t follow anyone. A herd of goats goes where it wants, and the goatherd follows behind. Instead of grazing, goats “browse”—foraging for whatever strikes their fancy. So that tells us that if we are allowing ourselves to be led, being sensitive to the pull of God’s Spirit, and following the path of our Shepherd, we are sheep. If we are headstrong, going our own way, and pulling back against God’s Spirit, we may be a goat.
So the thing that God sees in His sheep is a gentle and yielded spirit. They trust their Shepherd. They follow His voice. On the other hand the goats have a spirit of defiance, self-will, or independence from God’s involvement in their lives.