December 29, 2008
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.
In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed…
If you are a believer in Christ you have felt his shepherd’s touch. It has come upon your life in your moments of weakness, indecision, and need, when he lifted you up like a shepherd would an injured lamb and carried you when you could not seem to get your own legs underneath you. Grief left you broken and he brought wholeness. You recall those moments when you have been gathered with others in the arms of the Savior and together have felt his heart and compassion. You have heard him lead you in where you should go and what you are to value.
But maybe it has been a long time since these things have been part of your consciousness. And perhaps it is your heart’s desire today to feel his touch again. Christ is ready to let you know him again as your Shepherd.
Isaiah used four verbs to describe this character of Christ: tends, gathers, carries, and gently leads. Of course, he was not really writing about sheep but about believers. Each of these verbs compliments the others and provides a picture not only of the care that individual believer’s experience, but the design of God for the entire flock, or the church.
If I am being carried by the Lord close to his heart, then I am not alone in that experience; other lambs in his flock are also there, we are being gathered together, assembled in his arms. Given the way poets in the ancient world mixed their metaphors – something we are taught not to do in English – we do not abuse the passage to read into it what effect it has upon us to be carried close to his heart. We begin to catch the thoughts of the heart of our Savior, to sense his values and his compassion.
In fact, is there such a beautiful picture of church unity in the Bible as this? The church is a community of redeemed people, weak in their character, sustained by the redemptive strength of God, brought into relationship with one another by being carried close to the heart of Christ. Doesn’t this also speak to the heart and passion of the church, to be joined to the heart of Christ in the seeking and saving and including of the lost?
Christ also gently leads. The verb is comprised of one word in Hebrew but needs two in English to convey the message. It conveys the idea of someone strong with compassion leading someone weak in the direction he should go. It was used elsewhere in Scripture to describe guiding a drunken person, or helping a crippled or lame person to walk. Moses, in the song he taught Israel to sing, used the same word in Exodus 15:13.
The gentle leading of the Savior is compared to a shepherd who knows he cannot push the flock beyond the ability of the ewes with young lambs to keep pace. This means that God takes into account our specific needs and weaknesses when leading us. Often doors are shut that that we have begged to be opened, but God knows that we are not ready for that assignment. There is nothing but love expressed in these moments, and even if our failures have played a part in our unpreparedness for the assignment, the intent of our Shepherd is gentle restoration. Or if due to the cruelty of others we have lost opportunities, the hand of God has not been withdrawn from our lives. He still acts with gracious redemptive care. As Peter wrote for just such situations:
For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:25
The Lord leads us in the redemptive paths of grace for his name’s sake. These paths include decisions we make in this physical world: places we should go, things we should do, words we should share, people we should meet, and many places, actions, words, and people we should avoid, as well. But the redemptive paths of God’s leadership are primarily spiritual in nature, and have primarily to do with our paths of thought, our ways of thinking and viewing the world, our values and priorities, our passions and perspectives.
What does this say about following the will of God when you have small children? Having served and raised children overseas as foreign missionaries, my wife and I have been repeatedly grateful for these words: He gently leads those with young. In seeking where to serve we have noticed the gentleness of the Savior who takes into account the needs of our children. Sometimes we have not entertained assignments simply because we did not have the inner peace that our children would do well in that situation. Other times we have taken steps of faith and gone where we sensed the Spirit leading us with the promise contained in this verse in our hearts, that though we could not know what shape the provision of God for our children would take, we believed that his gentle leading would fully take into account their needs.
He gently leads us who have been crippled by betrayals, who have been drunk with worldly values, who must deal with the consequences of our own failures, and who are weighed down with the right responsibilities as well, to follow in his footsteps, in deeds, in thoughts, in purpose, and in hope.
Lord, we thank you and praise you for your compassion. We stand in awe of your sovereign power and holiness and are moved by your grace and redemption. Let us experience you today as our Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. We confess all that is false within us, and ask that your full redemptive work would be experienced in our souls. Give us wisdom for the challenges we face and strength to follow you. Gather us to your heart today and guide us in the paths we are to take. Amen.
Notes on the Sovereignty and Compassion of God
God is both the Sovereign Lord and the Caring Shepherd, and he plays both of these roles in our lives. In some moments he reveals his greatness and his holiness and becomes the consuming fire described in Hebrews 12:29. In other moments he reveals his compassion and redemptive gentleness and becomes the shepherd who tenderly cares for his flock. But which is he really? If God had to choose, which way would he go? Sovereign or Shepherd?
The good news is that God does not need to choose. He perfectly balances these two aspects of his character, and God never acts contrary to who he truly is. Isaiah described the Lord as the awesome God and the redemptive Savior, and both of these traits go all the way to the core of his personality. In fact, they give strength to one another: we have not only a caring shepherd, but a Sovereign shepherd as well.
In human society we often confuse these two and overdo one or the other. We are either too harsh or too generous, too strict or too lenient, and even as we mature and seek to fine tune these traits, none of us seems to get it right all of the time. What ruler has always ruled perfectly? What judge has always made exactly the right decision? What parent has always disciplined in just the right way? What minister of the gospel or missionary in service or pastor of a church has always known when to rebuke and when to be patiently quiet? This is our human condition, we are fallen and sin-marred creatures, so we have difficulty envisioning how God sorts it all out. But He does, he sorts it all out and he finds no conflict within himself and he acts with justice and mercy.
The scripture says that a man’s folly ruins his life but his heart then rages against God (Proverbs 19:3). This is also the human condition, that sin and human weakness has made earth, originally created to be a paradise, an unpleasant place. Rather than accept responsibility and face up to the real cause – human folly – people rage against God. I cannot recall in my lifetime, or in reading the previous several centuries of thought, a greater amount of anger and rage being expressed against God than we see today. Without global revival the world will face spiritually deprived times.
Believers can and must avoid this way of thinking and lead the world in confession of our sins and acknowledging our weaknesses. We can release our own bitterness into the hands of God, and instead focus on our failures, finding the forgiveness of Christ.