Throughout Scripture, sinners in general, and God’s people in particular, are described as sheep. And those God sends to lead them are equally frequently called shepherds. Today we will look at the character of the sheep, and tomorrow at the character of the shepherd. We start with the sheep because the key to leading as a shepherd is in understanding the nature of sheep.

I pastored for 12 years in the Scottish Highlands. During that time, I was surrounded by sheep: sheep on the roads, sheep on the mountains, sheep on the beeches, sheep in my yard. O, yes, and sometimes sheep in the shepherds’ fields. My study on the Isle of Lewis was 12 inches away from a field full of sheep. Sometimes at night I would look up from my computer and see many pairs of luminous green eyes staring at me through my window! I got to know sheep pretty well. What did I learn?

1. Sheep are foolish

I don’t know what sheep would score in an animal IQ, but I think they would be close to the bottom of the scale. They seem to only know how to do one thing well – eat grass (and produce more grass-eating sheep).

It’s possible to know little, yet not be foolish; but not if you are a sheep. They are so irrational. You watch them as they pause in front of a stream. They know they can’t jump it or swim it. So what do they do? They jump in anyway!

2. Sheep are slow to learn
Every shepherd will tell you countless stories about how sheep can be taught a very painful lesson, and yet fail to learn the painful lesson. A sheep may get caught in barbed wire trying to break through a fence. And the next day it will try it again, and again,… 

3. Sheep are unattractive
Some animals may not be very bright, but make up for it with grace and elegance in their movement and actions. But sheep are so awkward, so lacking in agility and dignity. Although some shepherds may tell you differently, to most outside observers sheep are dirty, smelly, and ugly.

4. Sheep are demanding
Ever watch a lamb suckle its mother? Almost as soon as it is born, it is violently sucking its mother’s udders. And that insatiable demand never leaves them. They demand grass, grass, and more grass; day after day, and night after night. (Do they ever sleep?) And when snow is on the ground, they aggressively demand food from the shepherd. Just listen to them bleat if their troughs are empty even for a short time. And watch the life-or-death stampede when the shepherd appears. 

5. Sheep are stubborn
Have you ever tried to move a sheep? It’s like trying to move an elephant. Ever watched a shepherd try to manoeuvre a sheep into a fold or a dip-tank. It’s like trying to wrestle with a devil. Half a dozen sheep invaded my garden once. I thought it would be easy to hustle them out the wide gate again. But it was as if an electric shield (visible only to sheep) stretched across the gap. I could get them to go anywhere and everywhere, but through that gate. 

6. Sheep are strong
I’ve watched the most macho of men beaten by sheep. You look at their skinny “arms” and “legs” and think “easy.” Next thing you are flat on your back or face down in the dirt. I’ve been flattened by running sheep. It was like getting run over by a tank. 

7. Sheep are straying
Perhaps the main reason Scripture chooses sheep to characterize us, more than any other animal, is because of its well-deserved reputation for straying (Isa. 53:6) and getting lost (Lk. 15:3ff). So many times I was out in the middle of nowhere when I would come across a sheep – miles from anyone and anything – and totally unconcerned. I would look up on a cliff and there was a sheep out on a lethal ledge. Other times, when fishing miles from anywhere, I would come across ditches and bogs with the decaying remains of a wandering sheep, and I’d think, “How did that get out here?”

8. Sheep are unpredictable
If you travel along the roads of the Scottish Highlands you will soon learn to expect the unexpected. You look ahead on a quiet piece of long straight road with no cars. You spy sheep in the distance on the side of the road. They watch you driving along towards them. Hundreds of yards pass. You are almost level. Well, they aren’t going to cross the road now, are they? Screeeeeech! Well, what do you know! 

9. Sheep are copycats
OK, bit of a mix of metaphors here, but I think you get my point. When one sheep decides to start running, they all decide to start running. If you were able to ask one, “Why did you start running?” it would say, “Well, because he started running.” The next would say the same. And the next one. And when you got to the last sheep he would just say, “I dunno.”

10. Sheep are restless
It always puzzled me how little sheep slept. I would be in my study at midnight, look out, and there they were still eating grass. And no matter what time I arose in the morning – 3am or 5am – they would still be eating grass.

Other times, there would be a beautiful summer evening when everything was still and quiet and you would come across a field full of sprinting sheep (usually due to the Scottish midges – look it up on Google).

I once heard that for sheep to lie down they need freedom from fear, freedom from friction with others, freedom from hunger, and freedom from pests and parasites. From what I’ve seen, that combination is very rare.

11. Sheep are dependent
Some animals can cope and thrive without any close supervision. Not sheep. They are very dependent on their shepherd. They cannot live without him (or her).

12. Sheep are the same everywhere
I’ve been in a number of different countries in my life and enjoyed the many cultural differences. But sheep are the one constant – in character if not in looks. The American sheep is the same as the African sheep (see 1-11 above), which is the same as the Asian sheep, which is the same as…

The shepherd is a sheep
Well, of course, this is not a zoology lecture, nor an agricultural seminar. The sheep metaphor reveals the nature of the sinner, even the saved sinner, and hence the difficulty of the task facing the shepherd.

And the greatest difficulty of all stems from the fact that the shepherd is also a sheep! It might be easy for pastors to read this post and say, “Hey that sounds like my congregation!” But it also sounds uncomfortably too much like you (and me) as well doesn’t it!

So how does a sheep-like-shepherd shepherd sheep?

That’s one for tomorrow.

  • Jason Moore

    great observant insights…and weeks of possible application. Thanks for writing this. :)

  • Tom Oles

    I can’t help but think of Phillip Keller’s book: A Shepherd’s Look At Psalm 23 when i read this post.

  • Jim Boling

    This post only further solidifies with me the notion that sheep are an excellent argument against the Darwinist tenet of the survival of the fittest.

  • Joan

    Several years ago, one of my students, a city kid, asked me where I lived. After I told him the country, his eyes got big, and he told me that wasn’t good at all. When I asked him why, he replied with utter conviction, “Because there’s sheeps in the country, and some sheeps is mean.”Something else to add to your list do doubt.

  • Roger Gallagher

    The problem with your comment No. 11 – Sheep are dependent – is that sheep are actually a lot more independent than they’re portrayed here. In Australia, sheep exist without close supervision, as shepherds haven’t existed for over a century. The work was too boring, too isolated, and too underpaid, and better jobs or a promising gold strike were always on offer. Eventually, farmers couldn’t afford them – at the same time, farmers were fencing in their properties, they discovered that as long as their sheep had food & water, they pretty much looked after themselves.

  • David Murray

    Roger: Aussie sheep beet the Poms, then. Guess that makes up for the Ashes.

  • Joseph Bridges
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