There are many word-pictures in the Bible to illustrate to the human mind what God is like. One of the biggest we see is God as our shepherd. I’d like to examine something that perhaps you have never thought of regarding God shepherding His people.
Shepherds in the Middle East
In the middle eastern culture, shepherds live in the desert. Any arable land is used for farming and you can’t have herds going through farmland or you won’t have any produce. And so the shepherds lead their flocks through the desert. They lead their sheep by walking ahead of them and constantly calling out to them. The sheep will follow the shepherd’s voice because they recognize it, and many times if the shepherd is killed they will slaughter the whole flock because the sheep won’t follow another person’s voice. To train a replacement takes time so that the sheep get used to hearing the replacement’s voice. And so because of this, several shepherds will keep their flocks in the same stable/cave overnight, and when morning comes they will each call to their own sheep and all of the sheep that belong to a particular shepherd will follow her. Compare now the words of Jesus:
“When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
And so with that context in mind, let’s look at how God Himself shepherded His flock, Israel.
After the Exodus from Egypt, God led the Children of Israel into the wilderness. Like sheep in a flock, they followed God through the desert:
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
The Hebrew word translated above as “went” is halak which literally means “to walk”. And so you can see the obvious metaphor here: just as a shepherd walks before his flock, so too God walked before the Israelites. What’s doing the walking? Well in some sense you could call the two pillars (of cloud and fire) God’s legs. And so in a very real sense, God, as the shepherd, walked in front of His people.
The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
The metaphor of God leading His flock through the desert continues. In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar, with the root consonants being DBR, Dalet-Bet-Resh. The key to understanding a Hebrew word is understanding its root, and it is very common for several words to share the same root. Many times words which share a common root are related in the Hebrew mind. From the same root word DBR that we got “wilderness” from we get the words for “sheepfold” and for the “Holy of Holies” in the temple. So you could say that the picture of God walking ahead of Israel through the desert can be extended such that God’s temple is where he stops and brings his sheep into the sheepfold.
The image of God leading His flock to His temple and stopping there was strong. At Solomon’s Temple there were two pillars of bronze.
He erected the pillars at the portico of the temple. The pillar to the south he named Jakin and the one to the north Boaz.
–1 Kings 7:21
The rabbis have said that these pillars represented God’s legs coming down to rest on the Earth, which is His footstool.
This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”
The Earth is where God props up His legs. The pillars of bronze at the temple were the closest they could get to a substance that would glint in the sun like fire, like the fiery pillar, the legs of God.
But the picture continues on even in the New Testament whenGod came down as a man and walked among us and asked us to follow behind Him.
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said.
Do you find it any coincidence that Jesus spoke about himself as a shepherd (John 10:11)? Being a disciple of Jesus is about following him as he walks in front of us.
Finally (for this post as well as the Story), and interestingly enough, God’s angel in Revelation chapter 10 continues with the theme of God’s legs as pillars of fire.
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.
God is walking, leading His people, through His son, Jesus the Good Shepherd. Walk in His ways. Follow God’s legs.
Peace to you,