There are four places in the Bible where God is called by this name, Yahweh (Yeho’vah) Ra’ah. The most notable is in the Psalms.
Psalm 23:1, ‘A Psalm of David. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.’
What’s beautiful about that particular line, the first line of that psalm, is that it explains who God is and what His role is as a Shepherd of people. You could almost read that line and never have to wonder what God as a Shepherd means because the last four words by David infers that his Shepherd will never allow him to lack anything. “I shall not want.” If He (God) is my Shepherd, then I’ll want for nothing!
The word ‘ra’ah’ means shepherd in Hebrew. A shepherd is responsible for the care, comfort and health of his sheep. There’s also an extended translation of the word ‘ra’ah’ which is ‘rea’’ and it means friend or companion, and what these words infer is intimacy and when you read through the Bible you see that God repeatedly tells His people that He wants intimacy with them, He wants them to love Him in response to how much He loves them.
Here are some verses that express just how much God loves His people and how He longs for relationship with them.
Jeremiah 31:20, ‘“Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a delightful child? Indeed, as often as I’ve spoken against him, I certainly still remember him; Therefore, My heart yearns for him. I’ll surely have mercy on him,” declares the Lord.’
Hosea 2:19, “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I’ll betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion.”
Zephaniah 3:17, ‘The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He’ll rejoice over you with gladness; He’ll quiet you by His love; He’ll exult over you with loud singing.’
Have you ever felt so secure in the love and protection of another person that it immediately gives you calm and peace because you know they’re with you? Well, times that by a gazillion and that’s the love God has for His people. That’s incredibly intimate.
The other places this name, Yahweh Ra’ah, is used is in the chapter where Jacob blessed Joseph. Remember Jacob had to leave his family very quickly after he deceived his father Isaac and he was basically alone for many years. Yes he married and had many children, but while he was initially welcomed by his father-in-law, that welcome ran out quickly when all the blessing and prosperity became Jacobs. Jacob was so concerned about the changed attitude of his father-in-law Laban, that he gathered his family and possessions and left secretly so as to avoid anything unpleasant happening. Jacob had his own taste of being deceived and he had rivalry going on between his wives and concubines and then one day, his favourite son never came home. His other sons told him that Joseph had been torn to pieces by wild animals and he was heartbroken.
Jacob’s life wasn’t a particularly happy or contented life, but God directed Jacob, God was the one leading him and directing his steps. God was the one who provided for him and his family and God ultimately reunited him with the son he thought was dead. Jacob recognised this.
Genesis 48:15, ‘He (Jacob) blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day….”’
This is significant because Jacob himself was a shepherd. If anyone knew the attributes necessary for being a good and successful shepherd, it was Jacob and he recognized those attributes in the God he had covenant with.
As I said, Jacob’s life wasn’t a particularly easy one, he started out being a momma’s boy, he tricked his father, ripped off his brother and had to flee for his life. He was conned by his uncle and ended up with a wife he didn’t want. When he finally got the wife he wanted, both his wives were competing for his affection and when his favourite wife couldn’t conceive she blamed him for it. He had loads of children, several of whom committed heinous acts and tried to shame him…possibly because of the hostility they’d grown up witnessing between their mothers and the favouritism given to Joseph. When he was making his way back to his own homeland, he was in great distress because he thought his brother was coming to kill him and his family. His favourite son was killed…so he thought…and then his favourite wife died in childbirth. Then his family struggles with drought and near starvation and that results in two of his sons being taken captive in Egypt, including his only surviving son to Rachel, Benjamin…something he was fearful would happen. Eventually, his family moves to Egypt where he experiences the miracle of being reunited with Joseph, his favourite son.
Through all those years, Jacob recognised that God was indeed his Shepherd. God loved Him, He kept His promise to him and God never failed him even once, in spite of the sorrows he’d experienced. Truly, if David hadn’t written Psalm 23, Jacob could have. The evidence of God’s blessing and approval has nothing to do with contentment or lots of possessions or the absence of struggle or heartbreak. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If you do a search in the Bible for the word Shepherd, it appears dozens of times and the concordance reveals that the word is referring to a shepherd of sheep, a pastor (of people), herdmen who care for livestock, someone who ‘keeps’ sheep but not merely possession but one who cares for their wellbeing. It’s referring to a companion as well. It’s referring to someone who provides nourishment, safety, instruction, friendship and relationship.
Coincidentally…or not…but these attributes are also akin to the attributes of the name Adonai, our God who owns us, who is our Master. Remember, the owner of the slave has to provide for every need of the slave and for their families. All those needs rest on the responsible shoulders of the owner, the Master and in this instance, the Shepherd, but in this instance there is also the added dimension of the compassion and intimacy of the Shepherd.
This is a very special name. It’s easy in our culture to think that a shepherd is lowly and primitive and not particularly interesting, but the role of a shepherd is incredibly important but because we don’t see the role of a shepherd in our society we don’t understand the significance of it. Most Aussie farmers keep sheep in fenced paddocks, they’re not in the constant company of the sheep. That’s not how Aussie farmers care for sheep, so it can take a bit of a paradigm shift for us to really come to terms with just how close, personal and intimate the relationship is between a shepherd and his sheep.
The vast majority of Israel’s lessons and examples that God used were agricultural and the fact that He has presented Himself as a Shepherd…not just any shepherd, but the Good Shepherd should tell us that studying this incredible role will tell us so much about God’s character, nature and what He desires in His relationship with us. In the case of our Good Shepherd, He actually put His life on the line for us so that we could live.