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The Good Shepherd's Work (A retro-post by John Newton)

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with his arm, And carry them in his bosom, And shall gently lead those that are with young.” Isaiah 40:11, KJV
“‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.’ The word is not restrained to feeding. It includes all the branches of the shepherd’s office. He shall act the part of a shepherd to his flock. We have a beautiful miniature description of what he has engaged to do, and what he actually does, for his people, as their Shepherd, in the twenty-third Psalm. And the subject is more largely illustrated in the thirty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy. His sheep, from age to age, have been witnesses to the truth of his promises. He has a flock at present who rejoice in his care, and greater multitudes, as yet unborn, shall successively arise in their appointed seasons, ‘and call him blessed.’* For he is the ‘same yesterday, to-day, and forever.’
‘He feeds them.’
He leads them into green and pleasant pastures. These pastures are, his word and ordinances, by which he communicates to them of his own fulness; for in strict propriety of speech, he himself is their food. They eat his flesh, and drink his blood.† This was once thought a hard saying‡ by some of his professed followers, and is still thought so by too many. But it is his own saying, and therefore I am not concerned, either to confirm or to vindicate it. The knowledge they receive by faith, of his incarnation and sufferings unto death, of the names he bears, and of the offices and relations in which he is pleased to act for them, is the life and food of their souls. The expression of feeding them, is agreeable to the analogy he has been pleased to establish, between the natural and the spiritual life. As the strength of the body is maintained and renewed by eating and drinking; so they who, in this sense, feed upon him in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving, even they live§ by him; ‘for his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed.’

The Highland Shepherd, 1859 (oil on canvas); by Bonheur, Rosa (1822-99); 49×63 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; French, out of copyright

‘He guides them.’
First by his example. He has trodden the path of duty and trial before them; and they perceive and follow his footsteps. Again, by his word and Spirit he teaches them the way in which they should go; and both inclines and enables them to walk in it.* He guides them, likewise, by his providence; he appoints the bounds of their habitations, the line and calling in which they are to serve him, and orders and adjusts the circumstances of their lives according to his infinite wisdom, so as, finally, to accomplish his gracious designs in their favour.
‘He guards them.’
It is written concerning him, ‘He shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.’† If we conceive of a flock of sheep feeding in the midst of wolves, who are restrained from breaking in upon them, not by any visible enclosure, but merely by the power of the shepherd’s eye, which keeps them in awe and at a distance, it will give us some idea of the situation of his people. He provides them food in the midst of many and mighty‡ enemies, who envy them their privilege, but cannot prevent it. If he should withdraw his attention from the flock, for a single minute, they would be worried. But he has promised to keep them night and day§ and every moment; therefore their enemies plot and rage in vain. Their visible foes are numerous; but if we could look into the invisible world, and take a view of the subtlety, malice, machinations, and assiduity of the powers of darkness, who are incessantly watching for opportunities of annoying them, we should have a most striking conviction, that a flock so defenceless and feeble in themselves, and against which such a combination is formed, can only be kept by the power of God.
‘He heals them.’
A good shepherd will examine the state of his flock. But there is no attention worthy of being compared with his. Not the slightest circumstance in their concerns escapes his notice. When they are ready to faint, borne down with heavy exercises of mind, wearied with temptations, dry and disconsolate in their spirits, he seasonably revives them. Nor are they in heaviness without a need-be for it. All his dispensations towards them are medicinal, designed to correct, or to restrain, or to cure, the maladies of their souls. And they are adjusted, by his wisdom and tenderness, to what they can bear, and to what their case requires. It is he, likewise, who heals their bodily sickness, and gives them help in all their temporal troubles. He is represented to us, as counting their sighs,* putting their tears into his bottle, recording their sorrows in his book of remembrance; and even, as being himself ‘touched with a feeling of their infirmities,’† as the head feels for the members of the body.
‘He restores them.’
 The power and subtlety of their enemies are employed to force or entice them from his rule; and too often prevail for a season. The sheep turn aside unto forbidden paths; and whenever they do, they would wander farther and farther, till they were quite lost again, if he were not their Shepherd. If he permits them to deviate, he has a time to convince them, ‘that it was an evil and a bitter thing to forsake the Lord their Shepherd,’‡ and to humble them, and to bring them back. Thus they become more sensible of their own weakness, and of their obligations to his gracious care; for he will not suffer their enemies to triumph over them. He will not lose one of his true flock; not one convinced sinner, who has, in deed and in truth, surrendered and intrusted [sic] his all to him. They must, and they shall, smart and mourn for their folly; but he will, in due season, break their snares, and lead them again into the paths of peace, for his own name’s sake.”
* Psal. 72:17.
† John, 6:54.
‡ John, 6:60.

  • John, 6:57.

* Isa. 30:21.
† Micah, 5:4.
‡ Psal. 23:5.

  • Isa. 27:3.

* Psal. 56:1.
† Heb. 4:15.
‡ Jer. 2:19.
John Newton, “Sermon XIII: The Great Shepherd,” in Messiah: Fifty Expository Discourses On the series of Scriptural Passages which form the subject of the celebrated Oratorio Of Handel. (preached in the years 1784 and 1785, in the parish church of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard-street) in The Works of John Newton, Vol. 4, ed. Richard Cecil. (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 153–157. [Italics original.]