How full of meaning and how comprehensive are these simple yet beautiful words which introduce the Good Shepherd Psalm! They at once sum up the whole round of the shepherd's life -- his duties, his solicitude, his ceaseless care of his sheep. But here, be it noted, in this opening verse, the reference, so direct and unmistakable, is not to an earthly shepherd; it is to the benign and constant Providence of Jehovah towards His children, to the untiring love of God, our Father and Saviour, for the souls He has created and redeemed. The Psalmist is looking back, in grateful remembrance, upon the history of his race, and upon his own life in particular, and he traces there at every step the goodness and watchfulness of his Creator. He sees there has never been any want. Dark days at times have come upon his nation, sufferings and trials there have been; and in these, as in other respects, his own individual experience has mirrored the history of his people; but throughout it all there has never been any lasting want. As the shepherd is ever near his sheep, whether at peace or in trouble, to provide for their needs, so, sings the Psalmist in gratitude, has God been near him and his people. And his confidence is unshaken; that which has been in the past will be in the future; as sheep put their trust in their shepherd, so will he put his trust in his Lord and God. Nor is this gratitude for past favors and this unshaken trust for the future to be restricted to the Psalmist alone; his words had meaning not only for himself; he knows the same Providence provides for us all, and therefore he would have his words find an echo in the hearts and sentiments of all.
The Lord is my shepherd; He ruleth me with the rod of gentleness. I am His creation, He has bought me with a great price, He has set me a divine example and taught me the way to life. There may be times of distress for me, brief periods of temporal need; but surely, since I am the possession of my God, and He is providing for me, nothing can long be wanting to me -- permanent want there can never be.
The Lord ruleth me, and all my kind, as a shepherd ruleth his flock. What a consoling thought to each one of us, if only we be faithful souls! How unspeakable the thought, how surpassing the privilege to know and to be assured that we belong to God! that out of countless millions of creatures, far nobler than we, to whom He might have given the joy of life, He has chosen to select us; to think that He has allotted to us a short period of existence here below, during which it is our privilege to be able to merit and draw near to Him for eternity; and that after this, our little time of trial, we are to reign with Him in everlasting glory! Of a certainty we are a favored people and a royal race, for we belong to God. He has purchased our souls by creating us, He has come down from Heaven to redeem and buy us back from the enemy to whom our race in folly had surrendered itself, He has borne our sorrows and our sufferings to make amends for us and to teach us the way to life, and finally He has given His own life for our salvation.
Since, then, God has created us, it follows that He must have had us in His mind from everlasting, because nothing that is, or can be, is unforeseen by Him. From the remotest dawn of eternity, therefore; from the very beginning of the eternal years, He saw us as He sees us now, clearly, distinctly, lovingly. We did not exist from eternity as we do now, but we were present to God before we were to ourselves, He saw us mirrored in Himself. And when, in time, He called our race into being and endowed it with life, we know what happened. This human nature of ours which He had loved from eternity, and favored in time with existence, turned its back upon its God and strayed away to sin and death. This was the disobedience of our first parents, and in their sin we all have shared, for the very reason that they were our parents and responsible for us as well as for themselves. We became a ruined race, deserving punishment, fit for perdition; and yet God did not give us up. He followed after us, as it were; He pursued us, as a shepherd pursues his chosen flock, until finally He led us back to His fold, and to pastures of rest and plenty.
It was not enough for God's goodness to give us the gift of life, and to endow us with understanding, will, and freedom; it did not satisfy His bountifulness to make our life fair here on earth, and to enable us to reap much of the joys and pleasures with which even this world abounds -- no, far more than all this has He wished and prepared for His elect, for the souls who belong to His flock. It was nothing less than Himself, Heaven and its rewards, that the eternal Father had in store for us when He called us into being. In order, therefore, that we should not lose our destined crowns through the guilt and wounds of original sin, He provided for us a remedy, He sent us a Saviour, who was His only son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now since it is to Christ, the Saviour, that the spiritual meaning of the Shepherd Psalm refers in a particular manner, it is in Him especially, and in His earthly life, that we discern and find fulfilled the chiefest qualities of the good shepherd. As God, we see, He has, indeed, been our shepherd from the beginning, creating and endowing our nature, and providing for us unnumbered benefits, temporal and eternal. But it is in His human nature, in His character as God and man, that He draws nearest to us and proves unto us in ways most gracious that He is, in truth, our loving Master and the Shepherd of our souls. Marvelous, assuredly, has been the goodness of God to create us at all; and still more marvelous that He should have destined us for a participation in His own eternal blessedness; but in no way has the heavenly Father so stooped to us, in no way has He so manifested His utter condescension towards us, as in the abasement of His Only-begotten Son, |who, being in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.|(4) For let us reflect that to raise our race from its fallen state and restore it to the divine good-pleasure, it was not necessary that the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity should have come down to earth. Such extraordinary means were not of necessity to bring us back to Heaven's smile and favor. As by a simple act of His omnipotent will God had called the world and us and all that is out of nothingness in the beginning, so again by a single wish of the same divine will He could have restored us, from a condition of bondage and sin, to the realms of grace and peace. And even when the Son of God did condescend, in accordance with the will of His Father, to clothe Himself with our nature and visit our blighted sphere, how simple, really, He could have made our redemption! How easily could He have blotted out the handwriting that was against us, and presented our tearful world, all smiling and glad, to the arms of His eternal Father! Yes, Christ could have made our redemption easy. He could have paid our debt to God in a thousand different, simple ways, had He wished it so. One drop of His precious blood, one tear of His eye, one sigh of the Sacred Heart would have sufficed to redeem innumerable worlds like ours.
But the Saviour wished it otherwise. He was our Shepherd and He loved us, His deceived and wounded sheep. He was with the Father when we were planned and made. He it was, in truth, who made us, for He and the Father are one.(5) He, therefore, knew our nature, since He designed and gave it to us. He foresaw our yearnings and aspirations; He knew the sublime, transcendent possibilities of which, with His help and divine example, we are capable; He understood the heights of love and worship to which the human heart can ascend, when assisted from on high, and hence to awaken and kindle on earth these all-consuming fires;(6) to stir the very depths of our souls, and elevate and perfect our gifted nature; to afford us the utmost inspiration to climb with Him the heights of Heaven. He stooped to our own estate, in all things made like unto us, except, indeed, our proneness and ability to sin. Since He loved us, He longed to be like us, in as far as that was possible, and not even our sin-stained, wounded nature could stay the force of His love.
There is another reason for the mysterious manner of our redemption, a further explanation of the extreme condescension on the part of our Lord towards the frail creatures whom He came to save. Had he come to us in a foreign attire, with a nature unlike our own, would it not have been difficult for us to approach Him, and to put our confidence and trust in Him? If He had appeared like an angel, all bright and dazzling with glory, if He had come as an earthly king and ruler, crowned and clad in regal splendor, would it not have been hard for the poor ones of earth? would it not have been a trial for those who were in need of a shepherd's love and care? Already sorely oppressed and trodden down by worldly pomp and power, they could only have tried to shun His notice and draw back from Him with feelings of fear and awe. But our Redeemer came not only to save, but also to teach and to lead the way to life. As a shepherd He was not to drive, but to lead His sheep; He does not point the direction, but goes before His flock, and they follow Him, and He leads them out to living pastures and to bright, sparkling, far-off waters.
Because He was God, as well as man, Christ knew that, as a result of our sinful state, we should have to pass our earthly sojourn forever beneath the shadow of the cross. When sin entered into the world by the disobedience of the first man, the handiwork of the Creator was despoiled. That which before had been a paradise of pleasure, replete with all delights, was wrecked and ruined, and became a place of sorrow, suffering and death. Thenceforth, pursuant to the divine decree, the lot of man was to labor, to suffer, and to die.(7) Knowing, therefore, that this was to be our portion, the Shepherd-Saviour of our souls must also teach us the secret of pain and toil, and help us to bear our cross.
According, then, to our present state, suffering and sorrow are inseparable from us, because we are born into the world with sin upon our souls, and in the wake of sin follow all the evils to which the world is heir. And, moreover, under existing conditions, it is necessary for our future happiness that our earthly life be largely spent amidst toil and pain and tears. It is only through these that we shall be able to atone for the injuries sin has done, and hold in check the disorders of our nature. The cross is before us and we cannot escape it. It is ready for us when we enter the world, it follows us throughout the length of our days, and finally bears us down in death to our graves. This does not mean that life on earth is entirely made up of pain and sorrow, for the divine mercy has mitigated even the stroke of sin, and has caused the world, in spite of all its wounds, to bloom with many delights. Nevertheless, our sojourn here below shall always be fraught with diverse ills, and we at last must yield to death. In spite of all the world can afford us, in spite of its pleasures and joys, its sunshine and pleasing pastimes, real, though fitful and fast-flying as they are; in spite of health and wealth and fame and honor; in spite of all the goods that life contains, it still is ever true that we live in a region of tears, and that death and sorrow are sure to follow upon the footsteps of joy and mirth. It must be so, for the stains of sin are indelibly upon the world; and not until the final renovation comes can life on earth be made entirely happy.
All this our Saviour knew when He chose our human nature and embraced a life of labor and sorrow. His divine foreknowledge took in our lives, and the lives of all our kind, until the end of all shall be. Our infant tears, our trials and pains of body, the ceaseless pangs of mind and heart that pursue us throughout life, were all before Him as in a mirror, and He must needs instruct and assist us to fight this battle and walk this way of earth, lest all should perish before the journey's end. Since we were to suffer, then He would suffer also; since our lives were to be amidst labors and trials, then He would labor and travail also; since we were to feel the sting of pain, be subject to heat and cold, be in want, in poverty, and in distress, be misunderstood, be thwarted, be cast down from our highest hopes, and broken, at times, in every cheerful prospect -- since these and other countless ills were to be woven in our web of earthly life, He, the divine Master, who came to save, to teach a lesson, to suffer and die, would assume a body so sacred, so delicate, so pure and sensitive that, when exposed to the rough and ruthless ways of life, He could truly cry out from the depths of His anguish: |O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow!|(8)
How comforting, then, it is for us to feel that we are not alone in suffering, and to know that, while all we suffer is but just and due to our sinful state, we can nevertheless make use of all our ills to attain to joys unending in Heaven! If we must toil and struggle while on earth, it is because these things are a result of our state; if we must be subject to sickness, to weakness and fatigue, to cold and hunger, to weariness and pain, it is not because God is pleased at the misery of His creatures; neither does He rejoice on account of our misfortune. We are simply reaping the harvest of sin and transgression, and sin is the work of our own free choice and that of our ancestors. And even though it be objected that we are born into this inevitable condition, and are made the unconsulted heirs of a heritage we loathe but cannot escape, the solution of our difficulty is not far to seek. We need but hearken to the promptings of reason, and lift our sorrowing eyes to the realms of faith to be convinced that God's mercy and goodness are above all His works,(9) and that for reasons not less benevolent than holy He has called us into life and permitted all our woes. God could not have created us for suffering and punishment, because He is infinite goodness; He cannot be pleased at our misfortunes, since He Himself has borne our sorrows and carried all our pains.(10) If He Himself had not come into the world in visible human form; if He had not explained our purpose and destiny, and led the way to Heaven; if He had not, by His words and divine example, provided us with the solution for all life's difficulties, then, in truth, we might object, and sit and grieve and wonder. But in the light of the life of Christ all this is altered; the picture takes on a different coloring. Who now can rail at the crosses of life and think of the sufferings of Christ? Who can murmur at the injustice of pain, and remember the passion of Jesus? Who can say that God is deaf to our pleading and unmoved at our tears, and look upon the Saviour dying? Who can believe that our lives are of little worth, or of no account with the Almighty, and recall the price that was paid for our souls and ponder the death of our God?
Thus it is with a bountiful goodness that the Saviour has purchased His sheep. By His own free choice, by a life of suffering entirely voluntary, endured for our salvation and instruction, through a bitter, but willing agony and death, He has provided the means to free us from sin, and has bequeathed to us every blessing. Now we can truly say: the Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want. If only we can look into that divine life which has been given as our model, if only we can ponder it, and read in it the lessons, the hopes, the inspirations it contains for us, we shall not be weary of our burdens and cares, we shall not falter in any of life's battles. Rather, rejoicing at our opportunities, eternal as they are, and with feelings of exultant gratitude over our condition, as heirs with Christ to the kingdom of Heaven,(11) we shall bravely welcome all the conflicts of life, being assured with St. Paul that |that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.|(12)