"He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." Isaiah 40:11

One of the leading ideas in these beautiful words is, the strong supporting the weak—Omnipotence stooping to sustain feebleness—the mighty God—the Shepherd of Israel—feeding the helpless and dependent, bearing the lambs in His arms, and gently leading the weary and burdened. In nature we have often examples of the strong being thus the prop of the fragile and tottering. The old castle, that has sustained the fierce assaults of armies, holds out its massive arm to the feeble, clinging ivy. The ocean, able to sweep down navies in its gloomy caverns, supports on its dimpled bosom the tiny skiff, or the branch washed from the shore. These, and suchlike, are dumb parables in the outer world, shadowing forth a nobler verity—"For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones."

It is different with man. The great ones of the earth generally associate only with the great. They are like the eagle, which holds little converse with the low, misty valley, when it can get up amid the blue skies and granite peaks. It is the powerful—the rich—the strong—the titled, who are the deified and worshiped. The weak, and poor, and powerless get but a small fraction of regard. These are too often left unpitied and uncared for; to endure the rough struggle of existence as best they may.

And the world has accordingly shaped its divinities after this its own ideal. We see the embodiment of that ideal chiseled in the old slabs of Assyrian marble, where the winged bull or lion is depicted trampling its enemies in the dust; the strong trampling on the weak. The early Christians had also their truer and nobler symbol, which, as previously noted, they have left in rude device in the catacombs at Rome—the often recurring representation of a Shepherd—the Great Shepherd of the sheep—the Mighty God—carrying on His shoulder a feeble lamb.

It is the perfect Humanity of Christ which forms the bond of union between omnipotence and weakness; He being alike the Everlasting God and the Babe of Bethlehem. In this respect, indeed, the emblem of the Prophet, impressive as it is, is partial and incomplete. There is lacking perfect identity of nature between the earthly sheep and their shepherd to ensure complete sympathy. For however closely the keeper of the fold, in olden times, on these wild Syrian hills or plains, may have associated with his flock—sharing their companionship by night and day—still, a vast interval in the scale of being separated the two. "How much," says our Lord, "is a man better than a sheep!"

But different is the bond of sympathy which unites the Great Shepherd with His spiritual flock. He became one of the flock Himself. Inhabiting eternity, He nevertheless pitched His tent among earthly tabernacles: He was bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh. There being thus identity of nature, there is identity of feeling and experience. "In all things He was made like unto His brethren." While, however, in this point of view the accuracy of the Shepherd-symbol fails, we must not omit to mark how beautifully it illustrates the leading truth with which we started, that is, the love of a higher nature to inferior natures.

The Palestine shepherd in a sense loves his sheep. As we have often before noted, he protects them—defends them—risks his life for them—enters into their very circumstances, and joys in their joy. It is an expressive picture of the love of the Creator to His creatures; or rather of a covenant God to His believing people. The mightiest of Beings stooping to be the Protector, Defender, yes, Friend of redeemed man. "HE shall feed His flock like a Shepherd!" Who is this? It is that God whose throne is immutability—whose power is boundless—whose dominion is immensity—whose life-time is eternity. Yet He, with a shepherd's love and tenderness, attends to the needs of the humblest and weakest of His enormous family—feeding all His flock, and marking the peculiarities of all.

There is no subject of contemplation, indeed, more marvelous, than the unceasing attention and care lavished by Deity on small as well as on great; that the vast provinces of His giant empire do not withdraw His thoughts and care from the feeble and insignificant; that He who wheels the planets in their courses, and lights up the blazing suns of the firmament, can watch also the sparrow's fall and feed the young ravens when they cry! Just as the mountain supports the tiny blade of grass and the modest floweret, as well as the giant pine or cedar—just as that ocean bears up in safety the seabird seated on its crested waves, as well as the gigantic vessel—so while the Great Keeper of Israel can listen to the archangel's song and the seraph's burning devotions, He can carry in His bosom the feeblest lamb of the fold, and lead gently the most sorrowing spirit.

The Psalmist delights to celebrate these two thoughts in conjunction—God in the vastness of His omnipotence, and God in the condescending tenderness of lowly love to the feeble and fallen. "Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, Your dominion endures throughout all generations"—"The Lord upholds all who fall, and raises up all who are bowed down!" "He tells the number of the stars; He calls them all by their names"—"He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds." Let us at present advert to a few of the cares and weaknesses and burdens of the flock, whom Jesus, the Great and Good Shepherd, so tenderly gathers, and so gently leads.

The first burden we may refer to is the burden of SIN. Blessed are they—those weary ones—who feel this burden, and long to get rid of it. Blessed are they to whose spiritual eye the Holy Spirit unfolds the existence and reality of this burden—and permits them to get no rest, until, like the load of Bunyan's Christian, it falls from their back at the foot of the cross. We have previously seen how gently the Savior of old dealt with burdened sinners. Never once did He spurn penitence and anguished tears from His feet. Never once did He say, "Go, child of the devil—your sins have placed you beyond the pale of mercy, your case is hopeless, your burdens cannot be removed—weary Me no longer with your pleadings!"

On the contrary, His whole ministry and teaching were a significant comment on the prophetic utterance—"A bruised reed He will not break." Simple, but expressive emblem! The most fragile thing in nature is the shivering reed by the river-side. The Eastern shepherd tending his flock by the streams where these reeds grow, appears to have used them for his rustic pipe. When one of them was bruised or broken, he never made the attempt to mend it. By inserting it among the others he would make his instrument discordant, and accordingly he threw it aside as worthless. Not so the Great Shepherd. When a human soul is bruised and mutilated by sin, He casts it not away. That bruised reed "He will not break." He repairs it for its place in the heavenly instrument, and makes it once more to show forth His praise.

Go, burdened one, to this Shepherd of Souls! Go, weak and weary lamb of the flock—and as you lie in His bosom, hear His word of comfort and consolation—"I will remove your shoulder from the burden"—"O Ephraim, you have destroyed yourself, but in Me is your Help"—"Jehovah Rophi, I am the Lord that heals you"—"Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more!"

Another burden of the flock of God is the burden of DOUBTS. Blessed are they who bring these burdens, too, to Christ. They are heavy burdens. We must not deal harshly and unkindly with those who bear them. Happy, indeed, are the receptive spirits who can apprehend the truth as little children—who can open their hearts like the sunflower to the sun—and drink in, all at once, from his radiance. Others, however, from constitutional and mental temperament, are cautious—slow of heart. They must have a reason for all they hear, and all they believe. They arrive at the truth by slow processes. The sun's beams have to force their way through the closed calyx. They remain with shut, imprisoned blossoms long after their floral peers have been basking in his light, displaying their beauty and dispensing their fragrance.

Now those who doubt for the sake of doubting—who encourage and feed the carpings of a speculative mind—can expect no gentle leadings or dealings from the Shepherd. He will release no such burdened ones—their Unbelief is not their misfortune, but their sin—they incur a heavy risk and penalty by fostering and encouraging doubts, as they would encourage spiders, to cover with their webs the windows of the soul, and hide out the spiritual landscape. Doubt will, by and by, in such cases, pass into 'free-thinking', and free-thinking into cheerless infidelity.

But those whose doubts are the trembling misgivings of anxious inquirers—those who are really in earnest in seeking the truth; feeling their way cautiously but surely, step by step up the ladder—seeking to "do God's will," at the same time that they seek to "know of the doctrine"—these the Shepherd is ever willing to receive and lead, and to make good in their experience His own promise, "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord." Nicodemus was one who had such a burden. He stole by night, when the streets of Jerusalem were hushed in silence, to the abode of the Great Teacher, to unburden his burdened heart, and to be instructed in the things of the kingdom. Many of the new doctrines were startling and repugnant to this cautious man of the Pharisees. He honestly avowed that they crossed his preconceived opinions. "How can these things be?" The Great Shepherd kindly received and kindly instructed him; and, at the close of their conversation, gave a significant hint as to the reason why, in contrast with such honest seekers as he, many brooding doubts, in the case of others, settle into unbelief and skepticism—"Light has come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For every one that does evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that does truth comes to the light."

What was the result of this "doer" of the truth bringing his darkness to the light, and his burdens to the Shepherd of souls? It was this—that from a state of anxious doubt, he became strong in faith, giving glory to God. For when the Shepherd was smitten, and the other sheep scattered, that once trembling spirit gloried in the public avowal of his faith in Jesus, and in the broad light of day came and boldly demanded of Pilate the body of his Lord!

Thomas was another still more heavily oppressed with this burden. When the other apostles willingly credited the fact of a risen Savior, attested by trustworthy witnesses—he would not believe unless he had ocular proof—unless he saw and handled the spear-wounds of the mangled body. How did the Lord treat this doubting apostle? He knew his peculiar temperament—He had tested before the sturdy heroic faith of the man, who had, at a recent crisis-hour, boldly proposed to his fellow-apostles to perish with their Master—"Let us also go that we may die with Him." He will not spurn him now. No! even though his doubt is unreasonable and indefensible—yet He will make due allowances for a naturally hard, severe, rationalistic, speculative nature—a man slow and guarded to a fault in the reception of evidence—yet firm as a rock when once the truth has got hold of his mind. "Reach here your finger," said He, "and behold my hands; and reach here your hand and thrust it into my side: and do not be faithless, but believing."

The Good Shepherd, who thus gently led that burdened one out of his doubts into strong faith, had no harsher reproof than this—"Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed." The apostle never, to his dying day, forgot being thus carried in these gentle arms. A future life of zeal and hard labor atoned for the passing hour of hesitancy, and showed that the "My Lord, and my God," uttered by adoring lips, was no formal ejaculation—no empty, hollow protestation of love and devotedness.

Yes! it is a cheering consolation, that He who suggested the merciful excuse for the sleepers in Gethsemane—"the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak," He will "gently lead" the Little-faiths and Ready-to-halts—as well as the Samsons and Asahels of His flock. Often does He come in the night-seasons of their darkest doubt, and lights the dim candle of faith and hope and loving confidence. Just as a mother, when her child awakes at midnight, frightened and scared with visions, strikes a light and illuminates the chamber, smoothing the ruffled brow, and kissing every fear away—so does the Lord remove the gloomy misgivings of His children—"You," says the Psalmist, "will light my candle, the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness."

Another burden of the Lord's flock is the burden of SORROW. How many are weak and weary, and weighed down with this! Few comparatively may have the burden of doubt, but many are the children of affliction—many more than the world knows of. For the saddest sorrows are secret ones, with which a stranger does not intermeddle. God gently leads such. He takes them in His arms. He will not conduct them over a rougher road than they are able to bear. He adapts His consolations to them. As the Refiner of Silver, He is seated by the furnace of His own lighting, regulating the fury of the flames. "I will correct you," says He, "in measure." All will be meted out. "He will stay His rough wind in the day of His east-wind."

That Great Shepherd, who has "shorn the lamb," has "the winds in His fists," and He will temper them accordingly. He will give the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness. Oh! You who are burdened with life's manifold afflictions, think of the strong Arm that bears you! We have heard of the seaman grasping the infant from the sinking ship in one hand—and cleaving the roaring breakers with the other—bringing it safe to shore. That is a picture of your God. Omnipotence sustaining weakness. "Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." Through all the billows of this mortal life, He will bring you to the desired haven. "The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters; yes, than the mighty waves of the sea!"

Let us suggest, in conclusion, one or two brief thoughts from this description of the Savior's dealing with His weary and burdened flock; gathering the lambs with His arm, carrying them in His bosom, and gently leading those that are with young. This language speaks of SAFETY. Where is a lamb so safe as in its shepherd's arms? The wolf may be prowling close by—the flooded stream may be threatening to sweep away the rest of the fold; but that weak and helpless creature is secure. Before you can injure or destroy it, you must destroy the shepherd. The feeblest member of the flock of God is safe in the arms of Covenant love and faithfulness. His throne must first be shaken before the interests of the humblest believer can suffer. The life of Jesus is the pledge and guarantee for the life of His people. "Because I live, you shall live also!"

The words speak of AFFECTION. An Eastern traveler tells us that the Syrian shepherd is often seen surrounded by some favorite lambs which do not mix with the rest of the flock—but are to be seen at one time borne in his arms, or frisking and fondling at his heels. Or, shall we look again at that higher symbol of earthly affection—the child nestling in its mother's arms—confiding in that mother's tenderness—whispering its little tale of sorrow or joy in its mother's ear, and she, in return, singing over its couch her lullaby of love? Both are feeble pictures of the affectionate intercommunion between Christ and His chosen. "The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant." Yes, and there is this difference; the shepherd may forsake—the mother may forget "yet," says the Good Shepherd, "yet will I not forget you!"

This beautiful saying of the Prophet speaks still further of SYMPATHY—gathered in His arms—borne in His bosom—it tells how near we are to Christ—how closely we are brought into endearing union with Himself, and especially in our burdened seasons—our times of trial and sorrow. There is no more precious truth upon which the mind can repose, than this infinitely pure and exalted sympathy of the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. He Himself—the Prince of Sufferers—having borne our griefs and carried our sorrows—as He bears us in His arms through the wilderness, can tenderly enter into every pang which rends our hearts.

It has been observed, with regard to the Eastern shepherd and his flock, that there is a mysterious sympathy which grows up between them, on account of their sharing common dangers. This has a deeper and truer meaning in the relation of the Chief Shepherd to His people. In every thorny thicket of their wilderness He has been—every midnight of storm and tempest that has environed the sheep has environed Him—the loneliness and desolation of the loneliest of His flock has been shared in a far intenser severity by Him. "In all points He was tempted like as we are." "In that He Himself has suffered being tempted, He is able to support those who are tempted."

Let us finally learn THE BLESSEDNESS OF REPOSING IN CHRIST—trusting Him implicitly in all the vicissitudes and exigencies of life. We ourselves cannot calculate on the future. We cannot predict one turn in the highway of existence. The morrow is a blank and enigma—we cannot point our finger to one of its hours and say, 'So and so it shall be with us.' We know in our libraries where to find a book—we know in our gardens where to find a flower—we know in the mountain we have often ascended where to pause for the view, and to look in the distance for the blue smoke of some loved hamlet—we know where to look in the heavens for a favorite star—or where to direct the telescope to view a brilliant planet. We can with confidence predict the march of the seasons—when spring will tread on the heels of winter, and flowers appear on the earth, and the time of the singing of birds may come.

But we cannot predict or foresee the manifold changes of this manifold existence. The flowers in life's garden may wither in a moment. We may look up in vain on life's firmament in search of an extinguished star. Ours is at best an April day—showers and sunshine. We never can tell when the shadows will sweep across the landscape—when the clouds may gather and the birds cease to sing, and the sun of happiness be swept from the meridian. But it is our comfort to be assured that He who feeds His flock like a Shepherd—who marshals the sun and planets—knows every flower of life's garden, counts every tree of its forest, and every leaf of every tree! All that concerns us and ours is in His hands.
"Father, I know that all my life
Is portioned out to me;
And the changes that are sure to come,
I do not fear to see."

And it is not His sovereignty merely we have to exult in—(that is the lesser, or least comforting, portion of the great truth)—but it is His Paternal or Shepherd-love—His covenant-interest in us. "He shall feed His flock"—not like a sovereign, who often rules his people with a rod of iron, but "like a shepherd," who gently leads them with rod and staff of love. In all the periods and stages, too, of life, "He is faithful who promised." Youth has few burdens. Middle-age—the glory of manhood—although associated with "the burden and heat of the day," has, generally speaking, at all events, strong shoulder and agile limb to bear its burdens.

But some whose eyes trace these pages may, with fragile step, be tottering under the burden of old age—the burden of declining years. The keepers of the house may be trembling, and the strong men bowing themselves; fears may be in the way, and the grasshopper may be a burden. To such the Great Shepherd draws near, and says, "Fear not! I will gently lead you. Even to old age I am He, and even to hoary hairs will I carry you. I have made and I will bear, even I will carry and will deliver you." When the decrepit, enfeebled body is fast failing—when the outer casement is fast crumbling to decay—how beautiful is it often to see the inner shrine of the soul lustrous as ever, as if the very splits in the house of the earthly tabernacle were only opening a way for the transmission of the rays of the coming heavenly glory!

Yes, and often, too, when memory is hazy and clouded for every other theme, there is one Name which cleaves imperishably to its tablets—the name of Jesus!—the music of that name refreshing and cheering at the hour of departure, as if the aged Christian really felt himself upborne in the Shepherd's arms, as he passed through the floods of Jordan. Would those who may be feeling that the vigor of manhood is past that their sun is fast setting—that, having long ago reached the top of the hill, they are now descending the shady side into the valley—would they know in time how to be eased of their burdens, and to sing in old age as in the days of their youth? It is by walking at their Shepherd's side, and breathing the prayer for conscious nearness—"Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent."

Go, then, burdened one, whatever be the diversity in your age and experience, lean on your Shepherd's bosom. "His gentleness will make you great." Earthly friends—earthly shepherds—may deceive you; they may prove summer shepherds—summer friends: at your side when all is sunshine; but when the winter's blast comes, and the trees are stripped, and the brooks fail, and their protection is most needed, they may leave you unsheltered to the sweep of the storm.

But He will not. Omnipotence loves to stoop to weakness. The Royal Shepherd of Bethlehem, who laid in the dust the giant of Philistia, could also weep tears of love and tenderness over a tiny, pining flower in his own palace. So is it with the true David. He combines the might and majesty of Godhead with the tenderness of weeping humanity. The same hand that upholds the world could take, and can take, the little child into His arms and bless it. He may lead you along the wilderness by a way that you know not, and by paths that you have not known. But trust Him: He will feed and lead His flock "like a shepherd;" supporting the faint, carrying the weary, sustaining the burdened.

This description of the people He led of old out of Egypt will be the history of every member of His flock still, when safe gathered within the heavenly fold—"He found him also in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; He led him about, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up her nest, flutters over her young spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her wings—so the Lord alone did lead him." In the quaint words of an old writer, "He will lead you in—He will lead you up—He will lead you through—He will lead you HOME!"

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