The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references that come up early in the song; you might dig Israel and Joseph but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention? Doesn’t matter, leave the north and south kingdoms and such to the expositors. The message of the first few verses is pretty plain:
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … Restore us; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (verses 1, 3)
This follows a nice throw-away line in the preceding reading from Micah, using that same image in the psalm of the shepherd feeding the flock:
He shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:5)
Both writers trust that preservation from a raft of trials and tribulations is assured, and that it may be both individual and collective. They both use another archaic reference, that of the shepherd and flock.
It’s often said that this recurring biblical idea has lost its punch in modern urban life, especially in this wide brown land. Maybe, but coming across a couple of modern shepherds in a busy Belgian market street complete with children’s play castle earlier this year, the action was instantly recognisable. Even if you had never seen it before, the guiding and caring role was evident.
Looking again at the psalm, verse 3 quoted above appears again verbatim in verse 7. The lectionary reading stops there but the assiduous reader will find that, after a change of imagery to the vineyard, that same line returns in the final verse 19. This is clear internal evidence that the poet had a responsorial plan in mind from the beginning. So it’s easy to pick a line to use as a response. It’s the one used in several of our usual sources.