Phillip Keller drew from his many years as a shepherd to write, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, a book many Christians find beneficial. In one place he describes “cast” sheep: “This is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself…. Even the largest, fattest, strongest and sometimes healthiest sheep can become ‘cast’ and be a casualty…. A ‘cast’ sheep is a very pathetic site. Lying on its back, its feet in the air, it flays away frantically struggling to stand up, without success. Sometimes it will bleat a little for help, but generally it lies there lashing about in frightened frustration. If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep will die. This is but another reason why it is so essential for a careful sheepman to count his flock every day…. If one or two are missing, often his first thought is, ‘One of my sheep is cast somewhere. I must go in search and set it on its feet’” (54,61).
Keller reminds us that though the image of God’s people as sheep is common in the Bible, it is not completely complementary. From all accounts, sheep are helpless animals of limited intelligence. They are timid and can be startled by the slightest sound; but at other times they are so stubborn that nothing moves them. Pastor John MacArthur observes that “sheep are the most helpless, defenseless, straying, and dirty of animals. They require constant oversight, leading, rescue, and cleaning or they will die. Being a shepherd was good training for leading people.”
In spite of the negative connotations, however, God identifies us “sheep” and himself the “shepherd.” Calling us “sheep” might not feel like a great complement; but being the “good shepherd” greatly exalts God’s care and compassion. The Good Shepherd leads us to the green pastures and cool waters of heaven.