Like sheep they sink down to Sheol; Death will be their shepherd; and the upright will rule over them in the morning, and their form shall be for Sheol to consume, so that they have no lofty home. Psalm 49:14 NASB
Death will be their shepherd – Could there be any more chilling fate of the foolish? Psalm 23 extols the place of the true shepherd, who will lead us beside still waters. But there is another shepherd, a much more ominous one. While we can extrapolate from this verse and name the alternate shepherd Lucifer, or some equivalent, that idea doesn’t seem to have come into existence until quite late. What is clearly the case is that Death rules life—unless God redeems. By the way, there is no intimation of some eternal bliss in “heaven.” Sheol consumes us all, but not all equally.
It’s interesting to note that the word for shepherd (rāʿâ) has three separate semantic domains.
rāʿâ I means pasture, tend, graze. This meaning is extended to include those who provide leadership, protection and care. “The root rāʿâ is cognate to Akkadian reʿû, a very ancient word, used as an honorific title in royal names and inscriptions . . .” “From very ancient antiquity, rulers were described as demonstrating their legitimacy to rule by their ability to ‘pasture’ their people. Hammurabi and many other rulers of ancient western Asia are called ‘shepherd’ or described as ‘pasturing’ their subjects. In the ot, however, it is the Lord who feeds his people and is praised for his mercy in providing for them.”
rāʿâ II means associate with, be a friend of. “The breadth of usage of this word shows that when Christ quoted Lev 19:18, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ the lawyer need not have asked his famous question. The preceding verse in Lev. is not so famous, but shows that the ot law was aimed at the heart as well as the action, ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart.’”
rāʿâ III appears to be associated with things like purpose, longing, striving, and has the same vocalization as the denominative verb רָעַע (rāʿaʿ), meaning bad or evil. As you can see, context really matters! To proclaim that Death is their shepherd is not only terrifying, but also tragic. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not what God wanted. But bad decisions lead to bad consequences and the end of that road is probably injury to self and others and certainly divine displeasure. But the fool thinks otherwise.
Now that we know from the previous verse that even cognitive agreement with these kinds of errors in judgment carries the same consequences, the phrase “Death will be their shepherd” covers a much wider group than simply the ones who make the choices. Frankly, this is one of those “scariest verses in the Bible,” especially when we realize that our versions of right and wrong have little to do with the real test. No wonder the rabbis pray, “May Your mercy outweigh Your wrath.” Perhaps you imagine that you are immune. You’re “saved.” You’re obedient. In that case, you are truly blessed. I’m concerned that if I look too closely at myself, I can find plenty to worry about.
Topical Index: rāʿâ, shepherd, friend, purpose, Death, Psalm 49:14
AN ANNOUNCEMENT REMINDER: We will start the next book study (Avivah Zornberg’s Bewilderments) on May 8. It is on the ivebeenskipped web site. You can access it HERE.