Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning…
(with Revelation 7:17): — These two verses have a much closer parallelism in expression than appears in A.V. The R.V. renders the former of my texts, "Death shall be their shepherd," and the latter, "The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd." The Old Testament psalmist and the blew Testament seer have fallen upon the same image to describe death and the future, but with how different a use! The one paints a grim picture, all sunless and full of shadow; the other dips his pencil in brilliant colours, and suffuses his canvas with a glow as of molten sunlight. The one is speaking of men whose portion is in this life, the other of men who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
I. THE GRIM PICTURE DRAWN BY THE PSALMIST.
1. Death a shepherd! What a grim and bold inversion of a familiar metaphor! "Death is their shepherd." Yes, but what kind of a shepherd? Not one that gently leads his flock, but one that stalks behind the huddled sheep, and drives them fiercely, club in hand, on a path on which they would not willingly go. The unwelcome necessity, by which men that have their portion in this world are hounded and herded out of all their sunny pastures and abundant feeding, is the thought that underlies the image. Ask yourself the question, Is the course of my life such as that the end of it shall be like that? — a grim necessity which I would do anything to avoid.
2. This first text suggests not only a shepherd, but a fold. "Like sheep they are thrust down to the grave." He does not mean either the place where the body is deposited, or a place where there is punitive retribution for the wicked, but he means a dim region, or, if I might so say, a localized condition, in which all that have passed through life are gathered, where personality and consciousness continue, but where life is faint, stripped of all that characterizes it here; shadowy, unsubstantial, and where, according to the metaphor, there is inactivity, absolute cessation of all the occupations to which men were accustomed. But there may be restlessness along with inactivity; may there not? And there is no such restlessness as the restlessness of compulsory idleness. That is the main idea that is in the psalmist's mind.
3. The kind of men whom the grim shepherd drives into that grim fold. The psalmist is speaking of men who have their portion in this life. Of every such man he says, "when he dieth he shall carry nothing away" — none of the possessions, none of the forms of activity which were familiar to him here on earth. He will go into a state where he finds nothing which interests him, and nothing for him to do. Surely there can be no more tragic folly than the folly of letting myself be so absorbed and entangled by this present world as that when the transient has passed I shall feel homeless and desolate, and have nothing that I can do or care about amidst the activities of eternity.
II. THE SUNNY LANDSCAPE DRAWN BY THE SEER. To begin with, note the contrast of the other shepherd. "Death shall be their shepherd." "The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd." All Christ's shepherding on earth and in heaven depends, as do all our hopes for heaven and earth, upon the fact of His sacrificial death. It is only because He is the "Lamb that was slain" that He is either the "Lamb in the midst of the Throne," or the Shepherd of the flock. He is the Lamb, and He is Shepherd — that suggests not only that the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ is the basis of all His work for us on earth and in heaven, but the very incongruity of the metaphor making one who bears the same nature as the flock to be the Shepherd of the flock, is part of the beauty of the metaphor. They follow Him because He is one of themselves, and He could not be the Shepherd unless He were the Lamb. But then this other Shepherd is not only gracious, sympathetic, kind to us by common participation in a common nature, and fit to be our Guide because He has been our Sacrifice and the propitiation of our sins, but He is the Lamb "in the midst of the throne," wielding therefore all Divine power, and standing in the middle point between it and the ring of worshippers, and so the Communicator to the outer circumference of all the blessings that dwell in the Divine centre. He shall be their Shepherd, not coercing, not driving by violence, but leading to the fountains of the waters of life, gently and graciously. And it is not compulsory energy which He exercises upon us, either on earth or in heaven, but it is the drawing of a Divine attraction, sweet to put forth and sweet to yield to. There is still another contrast. Death huddled and herded his reluctant sheep into a fold, where they lie inactive but struggling and restless. Christ leads His flock into a pasture. He shall guide them "to the fountains of waters of life."
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.