July 7, 2019
Gil McConnell (North Campus) | Psalms 23:1-6
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Reflecting on the First Line
Psalm 23 is one of the best-known passages of Scripture in all of the Bible. That’s good because the psalm is so rich. But it’s also dangerous because when we know it so well, it’s so easy to skip across the surface of it, like a rock skipping along the surface of Long Lake. So, as we begin today, I want to reflect on the first line of this Psalm to draw us into just how amazing this Psalm is for us.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Psalmist, David, says the LORD is my shepherd. This is Yahweh. Israel’s covenant-keeping God. “I am who I am.” The one who was, who is, and is to come. The self-existent one who needs nothing from us. The one who created all things, and sustains all things, and rules over all things. That is who the LORD is.
David says, the LORD is my shepherd. The sovereign Lord has taken on the role of the shepherd. The shepherd is the one who does the menial job of taking care of dirty sheep. The one who is out in the elements with the sheep, hands on with their dirt, and taking on their smell. Usually, it was the youngest in the family who would get this low-level job. And yet, here the highest of the high stoops to the lowest of low to show his beloved ones what kind of LORD he is.
Lastly, David says “the LORD is my shepherd.” David uses the personal name of God, “Yahweh,” and then claims him as his own personal shepherd. David was an experienced shepherd himself. He was a shepherd of the family sheep while growing up. And then God placed him as a shepherd over his people. David knew how a good shepherd would handle his sheep. He had seen how the Lord had been a good shepherd to Israel all throughout their history and he had experienced the Lord as his good shepherd personally.
And as we will see, we can know the Lord as our shepherd and begin to plumb the depths of trusting him.
Sovereign LORD, we come to you today needing your help to see you and to know you as our shepherd. Please come by your Spirit and reveal to us who you are. Help us to see the fullness of how you care for us so that we will trust you at all times, even and especially when we find it difficult to understand the ways you are guiding us and the paths you are leading us down. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Life as a Roller Coaster and a Lazy River
Life is sometimes like a roller coaster and sometimes like a lazy river. Some of us really enjoy roller coasters. We love the thrill of the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the unexpected jolts that take our breath away. Others of us hate roller coasters. We would rather do something more predictable like ride along on the Lazy River boat.
Like it or not, we will probably ride both the lazy river and the roller coaster in our lives. When life is like a lazy river, everything is content and at rest. There is peace as we coast along. When life is like a roller coaster it can be fun, it can be thrilling, as long as the roller coaster stays in control and on the track.
But with all the twists and turns of life, it is easy to fly off the track. It becomes difficult to trust the One controlling this ride we call life. Psalm 23 will keep us on the track. It will bring us back to a place of trusting the Lord no matter what this life brings us.
We will see that …
Main Point: Because the LORD is our Shepherd, we can trust him at all times.
I want to flesh this out for you in three main points from the text.
Because the LORD is our Shepherd, we can trust him ...
1) when the provision is obvious
2) when the valley is dark, and
3) when the enemy is near.
There are times when the Shepherd’s provision for his sheep is obvious. Here, that obvious provision takes on two forms: rest and restoration.
1. The Shepherd’s Rest
Look at verse 2.
He [the LORD] makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
Now if you are a sheep, provision doesn’t get much more obvious than green grass and still waters.
The basic job of a shepherd is to lead the sheep to good pastures to feed on and good waters to drink. But David says his shepherd doesn’t just lead him to good pastures and good water—he says that he makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
I read where a sheep herder and pastor said that it is not easy to get sheep to lie down. They are such timid creatures that they are easily troubled. And when they are troubled they do not lie down. They stand up. This sheep herder said the only way sheep will lie down is when these four conditions are met:
So, making a sheep lie down requires that these conditions are met. A good shepherd knows this and does what it takes to give the sheep what they need to be at rest. The next line continues this picture: He leads me beside still waters.
To lead means “to escort with care.” Sometimes we might think of shepherds as harshly driving sheep along, but the leading here is a tender, careful leading to a place of rest beside still waters, which are literally “waters of rest.”
So, one obvious form of provision from a good shepherd is the rest he gives his sheep. Another form of a shepherd’s provision is the way he restores his sheep.
Look at verse 3.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
So what does this word restore mean? To reestablish something. To bring it back to the right place. So “restores my soul” literally means he “brings back my life.”
Some commentators think the phrase “He restores my soul” refers to when sheep needed help to get back on their feet, to be restored to an upright position. Sometimes sheep would lie down and then shift their weight. Sometimes they would shift their weight a little too much and get off balance to the point where they would find themselves upside down.
When a sheep finds itself upside down, it is totally helpless. It cannot turn itself right-side up. If it stays upside down, gases build up inside, circulation is cut off, and before long the sheep will die. What the sheep needs is a shepherd to come to the rescue. A good shepherd will keep his eyes open and run to the sheep in trouble. He will put it back on its feet and save its life.
Sheep are also prone to wander. If a sheep were to wander off on its own, it would be subject to all kinds of danger and likely be consumed by predators. Sheep need the guidance of a tender shepherd to keep them on the “right paths.” That’s literally what this says, “He leads me in ‘right paths’ for his name’s sake.”
When sheep are at rest and when sheep are returned to right side up and on put on right paths, the provision of the shepherd is obvious.
David’s Life With His Shepherd
David knew this kind of provision from the Lord. David was a poor shepherd boy, and the Lord put in him the palace. The Lord gave him lush riches as king of Israel and caused him to be at rest. But David sometimes got off track. You remember when David’s thinking got upside down, and he decided he would build a house for the Lord. Then the Lord turned him right-side up and said, “No, I’m going to build you a house.” So, the Lord put David on the right path. The path was really the Lord’s promise to make his own Name great and provide for David at the same time. More than all he had experienced before, David trusted in the promises God had made to him for the future.
In Psalm 22, David was lamenting his situation, but in Psalm 23, David has come to a place of trust. The Lord’s provision is not obvious because he can see it in front of him in the moment. Some commentators think David is running for his life from Absalom here. But the Lord’s provision becomes obvious when David remembers his Shepherd and loads in all that he knows his Shepherd to be for him and all that he knows his Shepherd will do for him.
And the Lord wants to do the same thing for us.
Our Lives With Our Shepherd
Friends, do you know God’s provision? Is it obvious to you right now? Do you have food and drink? Are you healthy and content? Are you on the right track? Is your thought life good? Do you have the sense that God is leading you? Do you sense that God is making his Name great in your life? Can you see clearly that God is working for your good? If so, if that is you, you should enjoy these good gifts. And you should look through them and praise God as the Good Shepherd. May these good gifts cause your trust in the Lord to soar. He is the giver of life and breath and everything else.
But what if God’s provision is not so obvious to you? Are you restless? Do you find it hard to sleep at night? Are you anxious, or bothered, or fearful? Are your relationships a mess? Do you feel like you’re a mess? Is your life upside down, and you can’t seem to get it turned right side up? Has the life been knocked right out of you? Are you wandering off the right path? If so, and if this is you (and it has been all of us at some point) … what you need is a Rescuer. You need a good Shepherd to bring you back, to care for you as his own sheep, and to give you rest, and to restore you.
Isn’t this what Jesus has promised to do for us? In John 10:14, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” And again, in verse 27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says again in Matthew 12:28–29, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He is leading us, not just with a rod and a staff, but with his voice. He says to us who are restless and need our life restored, “Come, and I will give you rest.” Our souls will be restless until they find their rest in Jesus. Will you hear his voice? Will you follow him? The provision of the Good Shepherd is right before your eyes. Trust him now while the light is shining on his provision for you. He will give you all you need.
And you will need to trust him all the more …
In verse 4 we have a change in the scenery. The psalmist has gone from green pastures and still waters to valleys and deep darkness. That’s what the “valley of the shadow of death” is. It’s literally the valley of deep darkness. It’s a scary, gloomy darkness.
But you might be saying, “Wait a minute. What happened to the Shepherd? Isn’t the Shepherd supposed to lead the sheep into green pastures and still waters? Where did he go? And how will the sheep handle this? They are such fearful creatures! Won’t they be so afraid?”
David says, “I will not fear.” Why? Because he knows that the Shepherd has not left him. He knows the Shepherd’s presence and the Shepherd’s comfort.
1. The Shepherd’s Presence
The danger was real in the dark valleys near Bethlehem. Robbers and predators could lurk in the shadows. How could sheep travel through these dark valleys without being crippled by their fear? Answer: Their shepherd was with them.
And no doubt David knows there is much to fear. He had led sheep through dark valleys and probably had to fight off robbers and wild animals coming after the sheep. And he describes himself here as walking through a dark valley. How could he not fear? Again, the answer is that his shepherd was with him.
David knew this reality really well. He reminds us of God’s constant presence in some verses we’ve been memorizing as a church from Psalm 139 (vv. 7–12).
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
The shepherd’s presence in the darkness makes all the difference. And with the shepherd’s presence comes his comfort.
2. The Shepherd’s Comfort
In verses 2 and 3, it’s clear who is doing the leading because it says right in the text “He leads me.” That’s the Lord leading. But when we get to verse 4, you can’t really tell who is leading until you get to the second half of the verse where David says, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This is the Shepherd’s rod and the Shepherd’s staff.
A shepherd uses his rod as a weapon to protect the sheep against the robbers and predators. He uses his staff as a weapon when needed, but he also uses it to guide and direct the sheep.
So the Shepherd is the one who has led into this dark place. But he didn’t lead David there to leave him there. No, David says he walks through the dark valley. The Shepherd is leading him through to the other side, and he is using his rod and his staff.
But how are his rod and his staff comforting? The rod and the staff represent protection and guidance through the dangers of the dark valley.
David knew evil was on every side, but he was comforted by the Lord’s protection and guidance in the midst of it. The Lord comforted David. And this comfort overwhelmed his potential fear of the evil surrounding him.
The presence of evil pushes sheep close to their shepherd. The Shepherd’s comfort in the presence of evil pushes fear far away. So, the Shepherd’s presence and comfort caused David to trust in him even when the valley was dark.
Maybe you’re familiar with classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The character Christian is making his way to the Celestial City. Along the paths, he encounters all sorts of troubles, but he is convinced that he is on the right path, so he stays the course even though others turn back. He comes to the edge of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Two men meet him there and try to convince him to turn back. But he goes on with his sword in hand.
He walks a very narrow path between a deep ditch on one side and a dangerous marsh on the other. It is so dark that Christian can’t even see where his next footstep will land.
About halfway through, he comes to the pit of hell itself. There are flames and smoke and sparks and hideous noises. His sword doesn’t work against them, so he prays out loud, “Oh Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.” Evil things are coming at him and he thinks he might be ripped to shreds. He has half a thought that he might turn back, but then thinks he might be halfway through and that going back might be even worse than going forward. So he goes on, saying, “I will walk in the strength of the Lord God.” Then he hears whispers of all kinds of horrible things. He is so confused that he thinks the whispers are coming from his own mind.
Then, after quite a long time, he hears a voice up ahead, saying, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” And he gathers strength to keep going. Eventually, morning dawns and he remembers Amos 5:8 “He has turned the shadow of death into morning.” In the light of day he looks back and can see clearly all the dangers he has come through. But he is not as afraid as he was before, because the things of darkness stay away from the light. But now at least he is more aware of the dark things, and he is given strength and light to face even more dangerous trials ahead.
Our Journey as Christians
Dear friends, do you see yourself in the character of Christian? You should, because his story is your story and my story. We all face dark valleys. Right now, you might be staring death in the face. Or, maybe a series of events has left you so confused you don’t know the next step to take. You feel paralyzed. Temptations to sin are all around you. You slip and feel you can hardly get back on track. Some of your friends have faced the darkness and decided they want no part of this journey of the Christian faith. They tell you to turn back too. You might even consider it sometimes. What’s it all worth anyway? But then we hear the piercing question of the Lord Jesus come to us, “Do you want to go away as well?” And with Simon Peter we answer, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67–69).
Jesus walked through a darker valley than we will ever know. He could do this because he knew his Father was with him and the Sprit was helping him. So he was able to walk all the way to the cross to die for our sins and absorb God’s wrath for us. He walked all the way through valley of the cross to the other side, when morning dawned on the third day and he rose again. And now all the dark things don’t seem as scary anymore.
Before Jesus ascended to heaven he told his disciples, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” And Jesus says that to you today. Jesus, the good shepherd, is with you. So, dear friends, as you walk through your dark valley, whatever it is, you can know his comfort. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Jesus walked through the dark valley so that he would know what it’s like and so he could walk with us in the dark valley. And now you can know his presence and his comfort in deeper ways than you ever would have if he hadn’t led you into the valley. Trust your Good Shepherd when the valley is dark. Trust him to lead you through to the other side.
And trust him when the enemy is near.
In verse 5, the Shepherd also becomes a host. It sounds kind of strange unless you remember that the shepherd and sheep metaphor is supposed to lead us to greater trust in the LORD. That theme of trust is developed more as we see the shepherd’s welcome and the shepherd’s faithfulness.
1. The Shepherd’s Welcome
Look at verse 5.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
David knew the way his Exodus ancestors had tempted the Lord when they said “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:19). In other words, “Can God really provide for us, even in this desolate place?” David’s answer is, “Yes!” God can spread out a table in any place he wants, including right under the noses of our enemies. In other words, God can and will provide for me even here. He will welcome me in as a guest at his table. He will soothe my parched head with his healing oil. The fragrance of the oil will fill the room and calm the senses. The abundance of the Shepherd’s table will overflow my cup. He will fill me up and satisfy me. It doesn’t matter how close the enemy is, my Shepherd will bring me in, keep me safe, and provide for more than all I need. Not only that, but he will show his faithfulness still more.
Look with me at the Shepherd’s faithfulness in verse 6.
2. The Shepherd’s Faithfulness
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Goodness and mercy are together here to show the character of the Shepherd. The Shepherd is good, and he is going to do good. The word for mercy here is God’s covenant love and faithfulness. The Shepherd is faithful and he is going to show his faithfulness. This Shepherd has made a covenant and has pledged himself to take good care of his sheep. This means he will not just lead them into what is good but pursue them with his own goodness. That’s what David means when he says “goodness and mercy shall follow me.” It’s not some kind of random goodness and random mercy coming out of nowhere to find you and make your life pleasant in the way you want it to be. No. The source of the goodness and mercy is the Shepherd. While enemies may seek to hunt down the sheep to kill them, the Shepherd hunts down the sheep to do them good and show them his faithfulness—not just once, but all the days of their life.
David knows that at the end of his days, his Shepherd will keep being faithful and spread out for him not only to a temporary table in the presence of his enemies but a forever table in the presence of his Lord.
Faithful Friends and Home Sellers
When a faithful friend invites you over for dinner and you walk in the door and the smells of all the good cooking fill your nostrils, you feel welcome. You feel at home.
That’s why realtors will tell faithful home sellers to bake some cookies or to put on some potpourri before potential buyers come to look at their house. You don’t leave your smelly shoes by the door so they smell that when they walk in. You whip out the welcome mat and put on the potpourri. When buyers walk into a house that smells like chocolate chip cookies or banana bread or cinnamon sticks or lavender, they find refreshment through their senses. It smells like maybe they have found a place to call “home”—and all the better if you leave out some milk and cookies to satisfy them.
Faithful God and Our Eternal Home
Friends, we know this life is more than just buying and selling homes. It’s actually dangerous. The enemy is near. 1 Peter 5 tells us that our enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. But the hymn writer Martin Luther reminds us…
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
One word from God is above all earthly powers. That word has come to us through the person of Jesus. He is the Word! Through him God has welcomed us around his table to satisfy us as with fat and rich food. Now, we don’t live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Jesus is the bread of life that has come down from heaven, so we feast on him by taking in his word to us, digesting it by prayer and meditation. That way, we can see his faithfulness to us. We can know his faithfulness to us. We know that he has not just welcomed us into God’s family, but he will welcome us into his heavenly home forever.
Revelation 7 tells us of how Jesus will be our shepherd, guiding us to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Revelation 19 tells us of a great feast called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, where we will sit down and feast with the Lord Jesus forever. Revelation 21 tells us that “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
The Lord Jesus has promised to prepare a place for all those who trust him, that where he is, there we would be also. The church is a glimpse of that heavenly place right now. With all of its imperfections and failures and sin, the church is a place where Jesus welcomes us and all our sheepliness. A place where Jesus shows us his faithfulness, even when people within the church or your earthly shepherds within the church fail you. Together we are to keep pressing in close to the Good Shepherd who will never fail us.
We should trust our Shepherd when the enemy is near. We have an enemy for sure. We need to be aware of his schemes. We need to resist him, firm in our faith. And yet, as we do, we need to remember that the devil is a defeated foe. He cannot keep us from reaching our eternal home.
So, dear friends, we are about to walk away from the pasturelands of Psalm 23 and get back on the roller coaster of life. As we do, let’s remember that the Lord is our shepherd, so we will trust him at all times.
We have dark valleys to face, but Jesus will be with us and comfort us. Our enemy is near, but Jesus has spread out a table before us, to show he has conquered the devil through his body and blood.
As we approach the Table, we remember that Jesus said his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. In other words, there is a sweet time of nourishment for our souls, and fellowship with him, as we remember his broken body and shed blood on the cross for us.
This table is only for those who have surrendered to the Shepherd. If you have not trusted in Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins on the cross, please let the trays pass and do not partake. But even before the trays come, you can surrender your life to Jesus. You can trust in him to save you.
And if you are placing your trust in this Shepherd Savior and his sacrifice for you, you are welcome to eat and drink with us to remember Jesus in his death.