As one meditates on this magnificent poem it is helpful to keep in mind that the poet is recounting the salient events of the full year in a sheep’s life. He takes us with him from the home ranch where every need is so carefully supplied by the owner, out into the green pastures, along the still waters, up through the mountain valleys to the high tablelands of summer.
However, summertime is fly time. Only those people who have kept livestock or studied wildlife habits are aware of the serious problems for animals presented by insects in the summer. Their attacks on animals can readily turn the golden summer months into a time of torture for sheep and drive them almost to distraction.
Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly. These little flies buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose. If they are successful, the eggs will hatch in a few days to form worm-like larvae. They work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head; they burrow into the flesh and there set up an intense irritation accompanied by severe inflammation.
For relief from this agonizing annoyance sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself. Often advanced stages of infection from these flies will lead to blindness.
All this excitement and distraction has a devastating effect on the entire flock. The ewes will go off milking, and their lambs will stop growing gainfully. Some sheep will be injured in their headlong rushes of panic; others may be blinded and some even killed outright.
At the very first sign of flies among the flock, a shepherd will apply an antidote to their heads. The remedy is composed of linseed oil, sulphur, and tar, which is smeared over the sheep’s nose and head as a protection against nose flies.
What an incredible transformation this would make among the sheep. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep’s head, there is an immediate change in behaviour. Gone was the aggravation, irritability and restlessness. Instead, the sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.
Just as with the sheep, there must be continuous and renewed application of oil to forestall the “flies” in our life; there must be a continuous anointing of God’s gracious Spirit to counteract the ever-present aggravations of personality conflicts. Only one application of oil, sulphur, and tar was not enough for the entire summer It is a process that has to be repeated. The fresh application is an effective antidote.
It is both a logical and legitimate desire for us to have the daily anointing of God’s gracious Spirit upon our minds. God alone can form in us the mind of Christ. The Holy Spirit alone can give to us the attitudes of Christ. He alone makes it possible for us to react to aggravations and annoyances with quietness and calmness.
When people or circumstances or events beyond our control tend to “bug” us, it is possible to be content and serene when these “outside” forces are counteracted by the presence of God’s Spirit. It is this daily anointing of God’s gracious Spirit upon our mind which produces in our life such personality traits as joy, contentment, love, patience, gentleness, and peace.
Now as summer in the high country moves gradually into autumn, subtle changes occur both in the countryside and in the sheep. The nights become cooler; there are the first touches of frost; the insects begin to disappear and are less a pest; the foliage on the hills turns to crimson, gold, and bronze; mist and rain began to fall; the earth prepares for winter.
In the flock, there are also subtle changes. This is the season of mating, of great battles between the rams for possession of the ewes. The shepherd knows all about this. He knows that some of the sheep can and will actually kill or injure each other in these deadly combats. So he decides on a simple remedy. At this season of the year, he will catch his rams and smear their heads with grease. Then when they collide in their great crashing battles, the lubricant would make them glance off each other in such a way that they stood there feeling rather stupid and frustrated. In this way, much of the heat and tension was dissipated and little damage was done.
Among God’s people, there is a considerable amount of knocking each other. Somehow if we don’t see eye to eye with the other person, we persist in trying to assert ourselves and become “top sheep”. A good many become badly bruised and hurt this way.
Yet when the gracious Holy Spirit invades a man or woman, when He enters that life and is in control of the personality, the attributes of peace, joy, longsuffering, and generosity become apparent. This is to come to a place of great contentment in the shepherd’s care.
If He is the One who has all knowledge and wisdom and understanding of my affairs and management; if He is able to cope with every situation, good or bad, that I encounter, then surely I should be satisfied with His care. In a wonderful way my cup, or my lot in life, is a happy one that overflows with benefits of all sorts.
The autumn days can be golden. No other season finds them so fit and well and strong. But at the same time, unexpected blizzards can blow up. The flock and their owner can pass through suffering together. It is here that we grasp another aspect altogether of the meaning of a cup that overflows. There is in every life a cup of suffering. Jesus Christ referred to His agony in the garden of Gethsemane and at Calvary as His cup. And had it not overflowed with His life poured out for men, we would have perished.
He is there with us in every storm. Our shepherd is alert to every approaching disaster that threatens His people. He has been through the storms of suffering before. He bore our sorrows and was acquainted with our grief.
An excerpt from A Shepherd Look at Psalm 23