God used animals to demonstrate various principles according to the animal’s character. One of these animals was referred to frequently in the Bible to teach important lessons. The importance of the domestic Sheep to the Israelites is shown by its being mentioned some 400 times throughout the pages of the bible.
Uses for the sheep
Sheep started out like all animals as being wild. However as time progressed we see them slowly being domesticated. Sheep were first domesticated for their meat and fat. Their wool was also later used as well. The wool was developed by careful breeding and became very valuable, being the most useful and easily available fibre for clothing. As matter of fact the wool was so important that the shearing of sheep was a great festival in Israel.
The sheep is mainly a grazier, that is, it feeds on grasses. The luxurious grasslands of Gilead, Ammon and Moab were the most important sheep-raising regions in biblical times.
In modern times, the Awassi is the most numerous and widespread breed of sheep in the Middle East. It is the only indigenous breed of sheep in Israel. Awassi is an extremely resilient breed, with a calm temperament. It is used for a range of products which include milk, meat and wool. In particular, it has a reputation for being one of the highest milk producing sheep in the world. It is multi-coloured with white bodies, brown head and legs and has long ears that hang down.
Characteristics of the sheep
The Bible tell us some of the characteristics of the sheep.
Sheep are known for their affection.
but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 2 Samuel 12:3
The sheep have the characteristics of docility, meekness and submissiveness.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. Isaiah 53:7
Sheep have helplessness, when they are left on their own with no one to protect them.
And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, in the midst of many peoples, like a lion among the beasts of the forest, like a young lion among the flocks of sheep, which, when it goes through, treads down and tears in pieces, and there is none to deliver. Micah 5:8
The sheep need guidance. They are entirely dependent on the shepherd.
In the Bible, the sheep represent Christ’s followers.
The shepherd was a well-known character in Palestine. Dressed in the simplest and roughest of garments, equipped with the club and the staff, he led his flock into the desert for pasture during part of the year.
The shepherd in Israel led his flock and did not drive them as it is done in other countries. He didn’t use a dog, but rather used his voice – calling out to the sheep and encouraging them to follow him. However, the sheep would not follow the voice of a stranger.
There was a close relationship between the shepherd and the sheep which were in his care. The best shepherds were the ones who were willing to give their own life to defend the flock. An example of this is when David fought with a lion and a bear to protect the flock he was responsible for. In 1 Samuel chapter 17 and verses 34 and 35, David speaks of his own experiences as a shepherd of his father’s flock:
But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.
So great was the love of the shepherd for the sheep, that he was always attentive to them ensuring they did not stray or come to harm.
Therefore, we can see that the shepherd faced hardship and danger continually. The straying sheep, which had maybe fallen down from some cliff-edge must be found and returned to safety. And this wasn’t the only problem – the wild beasts, like the lion, bear, leopard, jackal and hyena were an ever-present danger. Therefore, the shepherd had to have courage, strength, patience and endurance.
Sheep in the Bible
Throughout the Bible the sheep and the shepherd had a deep symbolical meaning.
The sheep is a picture of man (and woman). It represents man in a state of helplessness, easily lead astray and lost, unable to fend for himself or find his way home. He is shown as being badly in need of a shepherd to bring him back to the main flock.
Shepherds in the Bible
There were a number of shepherds in the Bible. The following are examples of Shepherds in the Bible.
If we go back in time, we see that Moses was a shepherd, firstly of Jethro’s flocks and then later on of God’s people.
David also was a shepherd firstly of his father’s flock and then of the sheep of Israel.
God was the Great Shepherd of His people, whether of an individual or a nation. Who can forget the words of Psalm 23 and verses 1 and 2:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.
A good shepherd is a careful shepherd who knows his animals’ needs and what can be expected of them. Sometimes he will carry young lambs inside his cloak so as to protect them.
To such a man each sheep in his flock is important. The prophet Ezekiel’s saw that God was such a shepherd, and he describes in some detail how God took care of those that were under his care. This is what he wrote in Ezekiel chapter 34 and verses fifteen and sixteen.
I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord God. “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick;...
Baptised believers come under the care of God who they see as their Heavenly Father. If we should stray from the straight and narrow way God will be there to assist us back on the path towards the kingdom which he has promised. We just have to be willing to come back to that way of the truth. If we are willing to allow God to help us, we must open our hearts to God and let Him direct our lives in the direction of the kingdom so that we don’t find ourselves heading down that rocking path to destruction.
Not only is God depicted as a shepherd but so also is Jesus portrayed as the good shepherd who directs the wayward man in the direction of the kingdom. The words of Jesus are recorded in John chapter ten and verse eleven where we see him referring to himself as the Good shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep”.
The good shepherd is further discussed in John chapter ten and verses fourteen to seventeen.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.
Because Jesus is the good shepherd he knows his sheep, and they know him.
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27
If even one goes missing he knows about it and seeks to bring it back into the flock.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Matthew 18:12-14
This close friendship and trust is a reflection of the relationship between himself and his father. He trusted his father so much that he lay down his life at the command of his Father. He knew that it was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.
In a similar way he wants us as the sheep to trust his lead as the shepherd and therefore lay down our lives in self-sacrifice. This means to live our lives dedicated to God and not to ourselves. We must be willing to accept Jesus’s lead in all things and follow him.
In verse sixteen of that passage (John 10) we just read it refers to “other sheep” which are not of this fold. This refers to the Gentiles to whom Christ would ultimately send his disciples. These gentile sheep are brought into God’s sheepfold where they become one with their Jewish brethren. This is why we read in verse sixteen the words “there will be one flock, one shepherd”. For Gentiles to qualify for this status they must throw off their former way of life and adopt the “covenants of promise”.
We must do likewise today throwing off the things of the world and taking on those promises of old as our own.
God sent the good shepherd to watch over the flock. That is, Christ came to watch over the believers. Not only is Jesus the good shepherd, he is also the chief shepherd.
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1 Peter 5:4
This reveals that there will be other shepherds to watch over the flock. These other shepherds were the apostles. Paul was one of these shepherds and he asked us to follow him, as he followed Christ.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Cor. 11:1
We were once sheep straying in a field but now we have a shepherd to give us guidance.
or you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:25
Let us be like sheep and be submissive to the will of our Master. Jesus as the good shepherd can give us protection, guidance and safety.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Hebrews 13:20-21