When have you found your soul in turmoil? When have your cries sounded like those of the psalmist? Maybe you’re there even now — cast down in a ditch of discouragement and despair. Your needy soul thirsts for God as for flowing streams of water. You remember and long for the joy you once experienced in His presence (Ps. 42:1,4.) But now He seems so very distant.
You feel so very alone.
The psalmist mourns his distance from the Lord (he’s many miles from the Jewish temple, where he would worship most fully) and yearns for the closeness of God (Ps. 42:5-7). He knows that reminders of God’s truth are what he needs in his cast-down state. In his despair, he needs to remember that:
“The LORD is my shepherd … He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1, 3)
But even more than reminders, the actual presence of his Lord, who alone can restore his cast-down soul, is his only hope. Lesser despair-quenchers and fear-subduers abound in this life — and we, in our pain (and to our detriment) turn to them for temporary relief — but only God shepherds in ways that truly restore us when we’re in turmoil. Like the psalmist, when I become a cast-down sheep, I desperately need the true, restoring Shepherd.
Overturned in the ditch of no hope
Most of us know very little about tending sheep, so to drink in the rich meaning of these verses, we need to learn from those who shepherd — we don’t want to miss the hope-giving comfort meant by the psalmist’s words.
So what do we learn from those who care for cast-down sheep?
Shepherds tell us that sheep are full of fear and quickly disoriented. They aren’t very smart, they spook easily (sounds like me), and their physical make-up broadcasts to lurking predators, “Here I am! I’m an easy prey. Come get me!” Even the most spry are slow and defenseless. So, the good shepherd tends to his little flock’s needs with an ever-watchful eye and self-sacrificing care.
Picture a round-bodied sheep: Physically unstable and heavy with wool, she walks along on spindly legs. Head down, she meanders here and there, eyes to the ground, nibbling blades of grass. On a good day, she stays upright.
But on a day when she comes to an unexpected dip in her terrain, she easily loses her top-heavy balance. She topples over and finds herself helpless, stuck on her back in even the shallowest of ditches. She lies, “cast down” — the word used for “cast down” in Psalm 42 carries the same meaning as that of a “cast sheep” — she’s helpless and hopeless and so very alone.
Stricken and bewildered
As our little sheep turns over onto her back, she begins to thrash about in fear. She’s completely unable, because of her body-structure, to turn herself upright. As she struggles in her upside-down confusion and ever-growing bewilderment, her heart pounds with fury, and blood flow to her extremities stops. Her spindly legs stiffen and movement to upright herself becomes impossible. On her back, in her terror, she doesn’t even remember to bleat out a cry for help.
She lies where she fell; stricken, despairing and lost.
In her upside-down state, internal gases begin to expand her abdominal area. Her body swollen, her legs straight and stiff, she lies as if paralyzed. In her agonizing bloat, if left on her own, our little sheep dies quickly. As a frail and cast-down creature, her rescuing shepherd must find her and restore her. He is her only hope.
The arrival of the hope-giver
And here’s the life-fortifying, hope-giving news: Her shepherd understands the inner workings of her frail structure better than she. For our cast-down sheep, his arrival calms the panic-stricken, death-causing pounding of her heart. He cares for her with kindness she desperately needs. Kneeling beside her, he whispers tender assurances in her ear. He gently rubs her bloated mid-section, and the steadying truth of “I am here. I will save you, little cast-down one” stills her anxiety.
She is not alone.
The words of her shepherd, and the presence of her shepherd, rescue her. His trusted voice soothes her panicked heart. He wraps his arms around her and carefully uprights his scared, little sheep. She’s wobbly and disoriented, and he carries her until she can stand on her own feet again. He knows her fear has left her weak and tired, and that she’ll stumble and fall if he doesn’t hold her up.
Little human sheep
She, as we, when we’re full of despair or anxiety or fear, must have rescue arrive from outside ourselves. The good and true Shepherd of the psalms restores our soul.
Oh little sheep, know that your Lord is the One who rescues you when you are cast down. Bleat out your cry for help! Cry out, and then listen for the assurance only He can speak to your fear-filled, anxiety-riddled heart:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
What unsearchable love this is! Jesus, your good Shepherd, lays down His life for you. Cry out to Him in your turmoil and despair! None other can assuage your feelings of fear, your thoughts of desertion, your panic or anxiety. Only the unchangeable, ever-vigilant Shepherd, loving you with rooted and immovable compassion, understands and cares in ways you truly need.
He alone has the power and tenderness needed to turn you right-side-up in your ditch of despair.