The shepherd country of the East is full of walks and pathways, some leading this way, some that. Some lead to dangerous precipices over which the sheep might fall and be lost, others would expose them to the attack of wild beasts, while still others would lead them so far astray that they could not find their way back. It is, therefore, always needful that the shepherd go ahead of his flock and lead them in the right path. The Psalmist, in the title of the present chapter, is applying this carefulness of the shepherd for his sheep to our Lord, in His regard for our spiritual welfare. The Saviour goes before us with the blessings of His goodness to help and lead us aright, lest perchance we become lost and perish in our journey.
This solicitude of our Redeemer in providing for the various needs of our souls is characteristic of Him as Saviour. It is implied in the meaning of his name. Before He was born, before He was conceived in His Mother's womb, it was foretold of Him that He should be called Jesus, which means Saviour, for He would save His people from their sins.(26) He exercised, as we know, this mission of saviour throughout His earthly career. It was for this that He came into the world, for this that He was born in Bethlehem with a manger as His cradle, for this that, at the age of twelve, He was found teaching in the Temple, for this that He retired to Nazareth and was subject to Mary and Joseph, for this that He labored and suffered and bled and died. And with His passing from this visible scene to the bosom of His Father, He did not cease to be that for which He had been eternally anointed -- the great High Priest, the Mediator between God and man, the Saviour of the world. His work is everlasting; and now that He has gone up on high, He pleads for us ever more with the Father. We belong to Him, He has purchased us with His blood, and He must needs care for our safety to the end.
Inasmuch as we are heirs, according to divine decree, to thrones beyond the skies, it was necessary, as we have seen, that He who is our Saviour and Shepherd should have left behind Him in this world of ours a doctrine, a code, or system of instructions and laws, which should safely direct and guide us to our royal destiny. Those who lived with Him on earth, those who heard His assuring, life-giving words, and felt the inspiration of His example and visible presence needed not to fear for the direction or safety of their course. The divine, living voice and sacred presence of their Lord and Master they enjoyed, and care and anxiety fled from their souls. But not for these alone had the Redeemer come, but for all mankind, for all who in future were to breathe the breath of human life. He came to save all, He died for all; and thus the teaching which He gave to the world, and which He committed to His chosen followers, was for every human being, even to the end of the world, that through it all might live and attain to life everlasting.
The doctrine which the Saviour left us, and the laws which He prescribed were vastly different from the teachings of men. Guiding, saving words of a Shepherd to his flock, they engendered safety, comfort, peace. Free from error or mistake, sealed with the seal of Heaven, holding out a promise of future glory, they exhaled the perfumes of the eternal city, they told of mansions not built with hands. And since this immaculate doctrine, given for the souls of men, was to last till the end of time, there was need that it should be shielded against the assaults of the world and protected from the influence of our changing human teachings. It could not be corrected, because it contained no mistakes; it could not be changed or altered, because it came from the changeless God; it could have no substitute from the part of men or creatures of any kind, because it was given by Him who alone was the way, the truth, and the life. Consequently the truths which the Saviour declared to the world as the only means by which we can be saved, were at once infallible in themselves, and so provided for that no human agency, no lapse of years or revolutions of time and place should ever be able to infringe on their eternal, changeless character. It was to preserve these truths in their integrity and freshness that He founded His unerring Church and committed to it the office of custodian and expounder, under the guidance of His Holy Spirit, of all He had revealed for the salvation of human kind. Hence to hear our Shepherd's voice, to understand what He says to us, to know what we must do to obey His laws and save our souls, we need but listen to the voice of His Church. Before it was established He declared that He should build His Church upon a rock, and that no enemy, or group of enemies, not even the gates of hell should ever prevail against it.(27) He established the Church as His mouthpiece, and He said to the little band that constituted it in the beginning, |he that heareth you, heareth me, and he that heareth me, heareth Him that sent me;|(28) and, as if to emphasize this declaration, He added that any one who would not hear and obey the Church should be considered as a heathen and a publican -- types of all that was bad.(29) The Church, therefore, is the oracle of God, it is His mouthpiece; it possesses and guards the only revelation which God has made to His rational creatures; it alone has the words of eternal life.
Thus it is that our divine Shepherd goes before us, leading us in the paths of truth and justice, preserving us from danger and error with respect to our spiritual destiny. We cannot go astray if we listen to Him speaking to us through His church. In all our perplexities and uncertainties, when confronted by any doubt, or confused and distracted by the wrangling voices and conflicting opinions of men, we can be calm and at peace, assured in our inmost souls that the voice which guides us cannot err, that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one word of His to fail.(30)
He leadeth me in ways of justice, in the ways of holiness, in the ways which the saints have walked. How exceeding great, indeed, is our privilege, and how certain and individual our election! All that remains to us is to listen to His words and to follow Him, and present peace will attend our labors, while future glory waits upon our end.
But in the midst of abundant blessings and spiritual favors which have surrounded and sheltered us from infancy, we are apt to be unmindful of our state of plenty and forgetful of the duty of gratitude. We are apt to venture out like thoughtless children, trusting in our own strength to battle with the foe; or else, on the contrary, we sluggishly presume that a bountiful Providence will provide for us regardless of our own co-operation. We have never known what it is to want for spiritual food and spiritual direction, except when indolence, careless indifference, and our own folly have led us astray. These are evils which continually assail us, and we often make friends with them, not knowing what we are doing for the most part, until the blood of life has almost ebbed away. We are not, indeed, removed from a world where sin abounds and where deceiving voices may allure us this way and that. Like the pastoral country of the Orient, the walks of life are fraught with perils: false teachers, false doctrines, false prophets, pseudo-christs;(31) |perils from our own nation, and perils from abroad, perils in the city and perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea and perils from false brethren|(32) -- all trying to attract and lead us away from the paths of justice and deliver us to the enemy of our souls.
It is necessary that we should know that wolves are abroad in sheep's clothing; |false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.|(33) They come to us with winning words and easy teachings, with new creeds, new forms of belief, new ways to the promised land.
The doctrine and truths which Christ taught and which He entrusted to His Church are set aside or explained away by these modern teachers, and the novel and the strange are made to assume the role of the old, the familiar and the true. The harm done is incalculable. How many innocent and unwary sheep have been lost to the fold of Christ by following the call of these unworthy preachers and false shepherds! What multitudes of precious souls have been deceived by their polished words and led away into paths of error, into deadly ways of thinking, believing, and acting, never to return to the path that leads to life!
This poisoning of the soul and the heart by erroneous doctrines is effected in many and diverse ways; the victims of falsehood are variously captured. There are the wisdom and sagacity of men, there are the conquests of science and the learning of the philosophers, the discoveries of our day, the strides of history, the breakdown and overthrow of many things held sacred by our forefathers -- and all these changes and ruptures in the order of a former generation are now used to beguile the flock of Christ and sway them from the paths of truth and righteousness. But amid all this din and uproar of conflicting voices, amid the wrangling tumult and confusion of converging opinions, those who will may hear and discern the loving voice of the true Shepherd speaking to the world through His Church with the same calm, assuring words which He uttered to living witnesses two thousand years ago. He has not changed, neither has His teaching; He has not deserted His chosen flock, but is with it all days, even to the end of the world.(34) His love for us, His watchfulness for our needs, His enduring care for our interests, in spite of our enemies, can never fail.
And while assured of this, it behooves us also, as appealing to our sense of gratitude, and as inducing to greater love of Him, to reflect that this abiding faithfulness of our Saviour in caring for our wants is not from any worthiness of ours, or because of our merits, but only for His Name's sake, because He is Saviour. It was His love for us that prompted our creation, His love that provoked His passion and redeemed us, His love that made Him suffer for us, His love that teaches and shall guide us to life everlasting, for His love endureth forever.