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"God as a Dog Owner?" on Psalm 23 by Joe Ellis — July 7, 2024

I want to name something that sometimes happens when you are talking with Christians who also take care of sheep — don’t take too seriously in what I’m about to say, I’m being fairly playful — there is a certain joyful excitement that comes over them when you ask if they have any special insights about when the Bible talks about God as a Shepherd and his people as sheep. A gleam comes into their eye when you ask them what special knowledge they have as shepherds. I was talking with two shepherds on Thursday and this was definitely the case. One shepherd took great delight in telling his story of correcting a pastor after hearing that the main point of his sermon was how stupid sheep are. “Pastor, you don’t know sheep.” He went on to share that while sheep can be stupid, they are also incredibly smart. He described the necessity of keeping their bedroom light off in the morning so as to not let the sheep know they’re awake, lest they start crying out for breakfast. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.

Hearing their experience opens up my own imagination around this deep and resonant metaphor in the Scripture of God being a Shepherd. But sometimes I can feel that talking about God as a Shepherd is a sanctioned metaphor, and that other metaphors are off limits. Can I talk about God as a dog owner? It does feel a little risky to say that, but as a dog person, I want to say that, especially when I see the trust, love and delight that dogs have in their owners. That’s why I find it helpful to wonder if there were times when talking about God as shepherd may have felt a little edgy. After all, David, who wrote this Psalm, had the job of shepherding not because he was the most spiritually mature to hold the lofty position of shepherd. Rather, he was a shepherd because he was the youngest in his family and the youngest were given the worst jobs. I speak from experience.

The first time we meet David in the Bible is when the Prophet Samuel comes to David’s father, Jesse, to anoint a new king. Samuel knows that the new king is one of Jesse’s sons. So, Samuel invites Jesse’s sons to a special sacrifice where all of Jesse’s sons are expected to attend. That is, all of them except for David who was left behind, because he was the youngest and someone needed to tend the sheep! When he first started looking after the sheep, I’m not sure that David felt that this was such a lofty, spiritual task he had been given that would give him keen insight into the character of God. What would have felt truly spiritual was to leave those silly sheep behind and go join the prophet Samuel in that special sacrifice.

David certainly wasn’t the first one to make the analogy between God and a Shepherd. The first one to make the analogy was actually Jacob. Jacob was David’s great, great, great.... grandfather (actually, I’d need to say great around 12 or 13 times). Jacob was an incredibly shrewd man, and was an incredibly shrewd shepherd. But Jacob didn’t set out to be a shepherd — when he was with his parents he was as a farmer, but later he was forced to work as a shepherd to earn a dowry for his beloved. In other words, shepherding was something he was forced to do to pay off a debt. But somewhere over the course of his life, Jacob seemed to experience a shift in how he saw the role of shepherd. Over time, Jacob began to make connections between the role of a shepherd and the God that he worshiped. He started making connections between the way that God took care of him, protected him from danger, provided for his needs, gave him rest, loved him and cared for him — Jacob made a connection between the God he worshiped, and the way he himself took care of his sheep. For Jacob, this sense of God as Shepherd matured and developed until we see Jacob on His death bed. There Jacob went to bless his son Joseph, and began his blessing by saying, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” and then he goes on to bless his son Joseph. At some point in his life, Jacob may have wondered if he could say this out loud? After all, the job of shepherd is menial, mundane, messy, dirty, dangerous and not altogether glamorous. Can I liken this lowly job of shepherding to God our Creator, our redeemer, our protector, our sustainer. And perhaps to Jacob’s surprise, he learned the answer was ‘yes’! So much so that Jacob’s God would later even follow Jacob’s lead and use that imagery to describe Himself!

Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God describes himself as the Shepherd of His people. Centuries later, Jesus would claim the title of “The Good Shepherd”, and in doing so, Jesus would be indicating his own unique identity to the Father. 

So, what am I saying in all this? I want to highlight the fact that at some point it may have felt like a leap to identify God as shepherd. That there were and are plenty of aspects of being a shepherd that do not seem to fit at all with who God is. Shepherd is not a perfect image for God, but God takes it on, he embraces it, he owns it. The theological way of describing this is “Divine accommodation.” That is, God accommodates himself to our imperfect metaphors and our imperfect ways of describing who he is. Our language will always fall short. But throughout Scripture God seems to hold this tension of reminding us that He is far beyond our imagination, yet he continually helps us out by giving us imperfect metaphors by which to understand Him!  He invites us to use our imagination just like Jacob did on his death bed, and as David did throughout Psalm 23. So, God draws us to get to know Him through our imagination!

Last Thursday, I was talking with Cindy along these lines, and she took the risk of trying out her own image. One of Cindy’s many roles is that she manages a fish hatchery in Houston — so, she wondered aloud, “Can I say, “The Lord is my fish hatchery manager?” When she said that, we both had this look in our eyes that seemed to say, “Can we say that? Is that allowed?” We felt that risk, just like maybe Jacob first felt that risk when he first named the Lord as His Shepherd.  Cindy and I then went on to explore the imagery of God providing for us like the river provides a home for fish. Even that felt a bit like a risk — is that okay? Can we talk about God as a river? But Scripture continues to invite us to explore the imagery and see where it leads — knowing that none of our pictures of God will ever completely capture His essence. So, when we read Psalm 23, we are read a Psalm that invites us into playfulness. The Psalm says it's okay for you or me to think about what is most familiar to us, the sometimes mundane tasks and roles that make up our very real lives, our experience of life or with death, or beauty, or rest, or abundance, or peace, or love or joy — Psalm 23 says it's okay to think about those special experiences in life and explore how those experiences show us something of the character and nature of God. 

Jacob and David show us that we can be playful in the way we imagine about relating to God. And to say it again — God shows us that he will be playful along with us. He not only puts up with our images that try and grasp at who He is — God adopts them for Himself! God does this in Ezekiel when He says “I am the shepherd of my people” and again, in John 10 when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd!”  Of course God Himself is certainly aware of the myriad of ways the metaphor falls short of completely describing the Lord and Creator of the Universe — yet he engages us in this play, he takes our play seriously, he desires us to bring our imagination to understand Him more deeply based on our experiences of Him, of Life and of His Creation. 

And so we find a myriad of metaphors that Christians, Jesus and God have played with over the millennia — inviting us to imagine God as a mother, a father, a mountain, a hen, a wild goose. Or perhaps God is like a dove, a river, a fountain, a midwife, a landowner, a judge. Or perhaps God is like thunder, fire, light, a cloud, a tree, a slain lamb, a lion… just to name a few. All of these pictures can show us a piece of who God is, a piece of the way that he has revealed his character in His good world. All these pictures are of course imperfect and in countless ways fall short of capturing who God is — but God doesn’t seem too worried, and He continues to invite us, as poets, to play with Him in these ways. And we see throughout Scripture that as we play with Him in these ways, He will play back with us. 

I wonder where God might be modelled in your own life, in tasks that you might at first disdain?

I wonder where God might be inviting you to see his character in the real stuff of your own life? In caring for little ones? In building? In gardening? In making music? In writing? In receiving care? In fixing? In healing others?

I wonder if this week, you could ask God to show you a picture of who He is in the world around you?


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