Psalms 23 is another great psalm of comfort, to many readers the greatest of all, for in it we find another “Jehovah-compound,” the LORD Is My Shepherd. The Hebrew behind shepherd (rō‘iy, or rō‘eh, H7462) is one of many words that have a truly ancient history. It goes all the way back to the Akkadian (re‘û) (an extinct Semitic language that existed in Assyria and Babylon), and is then subsequently found in Phoenician, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Arabic.
Appearing some 170 times in the OT, rō‘iy pictures the simplicity of ancient civilization. Shepherding was the most common occupation throughout ancient Palestine, and this common, ordinary word simply refers to the feeding of domestic animals. Such a mundane word, however, was transformed by biblical usage. It was used to describe the true function of the leaders of God’s people. A true leader is not a despot or dictator who not only drives his sheep but sometimes even slaughters them. Rather, a true leader is a shepherd who leads, tends, feeds, and protects his sheep at the risk of his own life.
Our Lord, of course, is the Great Shepherd. As Charles Spurgeon writes in his The Treasury of David, “What condescension is this, that the Infinite Lord assumes towards his people the office and character of a Shepherd!” Think of it! God descended and assumed one of the lowliest occupations in the ancient world. Likewise, the true function of the king of Israel was to be a shepherd (2Sa_5:2; 2Sa_7:7; Jer_3:15), as was that of other leaders, although at times they did it badly (Jer_2:8; Jer_22:22; Eze_34:2-3; Eze_34:8; Eze_34:10).
Coming to the NT, the word pastor is the direct descendant of that OT precedent. The word “pastors” in Eph_4:11, in fact, is a translation of the Greek poimēn (G4166), which means shepherd (poimēn is used to translate rā‘â in the Septuagint). In Classical Greek, it referred to the herdsman who tended and cared for the sheep. It was also used metaphorically to refer to a leader, a ruler, or a commander. Plato, for example, compared “the rulers of the city-state to shepherds who care for their flock.” This meaning was carried over into the NT. A pastor leads, tends, feeds, and protects the sheep that God has entrusted to his care. What a solemn responsibility!
Scriptures for Study: Read the “Shepherd Trilogy,” noting that in Psalms 22, the Great Shepherdredeems the sheep (cf. Joh_10:11); in Psalms 23, He rescues the sheep (cf. Rev_7:17); and in Psalms 24, He rewards the sheep (cf. 1Pe_5:4).