Sermons Or Essays On 23rd Psalm
The Lord Is My Shepherd
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The Lord Is My Shepherd
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
I’d like to take a few moments this morning to think about the 23rd Psalm. It’s, by far, one of the most familiar passages of scripture in the Bible. Most of us learned it as children in Sunday School, can say it by memory with a little help, have heard it at virtually every funeral service we’ve ever attended and often recite it to ourselves for comfort and reassurance in difficult times.
It’s an old friend we’re all familiar with. Yet, familiarity has its downside: You can become so accustomed to the rhythm and meter of the words that you miss the meaning altogether. And so, this morning I’d like to take a closer look at these six short verses of scripture and ask you to listen to them as if you’ve never heard them before. Like the Kellogg’s Cornflakes’ and, I’d like to invite you to “taste them again for the very first time.” The passage begins, “Yahweh is my shepherd…”
The metaphor of the shepherd is used sixty times in fifty-four verses of the Bible. I got that from the Bible program on my computer. It speaks of God’s compassion – how God provides for our needs, protects us from danger and steers us along safe paths, and how, in his mercy, God seeks us out when we go astray and brings us back to the fold.
“Yahweh is my shepherd…” It was an image the people of Israel could relate to. Many of them were shepherds. They knew what it meant to go out in front, to lead the way, to be the one who had to decide which path to take. They knew the responsibility the shepherd had to watch over the sheep and guard them from predators. And so, it didn’t take much for them to make the connection, to confess the Lord as your shepherd is to place your trust in him, to surrender your will to his will and to follow obediently wherever he leads you.
This brings up the first question we ought to ask ourselves as we consider this great passage: Is the Lord your shepherd? Are you willing to follow his lead and seek his will, or are you determined to chart your own course and say, in the words of one my children when he just a toddler, “My do it my way!” E. W. Blandly had the right spirit when he penned the words,”Where he leads me I will follow … I’ll go with him, with him, all the way.”
The psalm goes on to say, “Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing.”
Now, there are two ways of understanding wants. One is having what you desire, and the other is being content with what you have. The psalm doesn’t say that God will satisfy our insatiable appetites; only that God will give us the things we need for a full and abundant life.
In his book, Faith Quakes, Leonard Sweet talks about how, in our affluence, what we used to think of as wants we now think of needs, and how, even more recently, we think of needs, not simply as things we’d like to have, but as things we deserve. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy about the dangers of excess and counseled him to seek a simple life. He said,
“But godliness with contentment is great gain.
For we brought nothing into the world,
and we certainly can’t carry anything out.
But having food and clothing,
we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8)
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” He said, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth.” (Matthew 6:19) What this says to me is, God would have us trust him to supply our needs and be grateful for what we have. The psalm goes on to say,
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.”
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As you know, I used to live in Odessa, and I can tell you there’s a lot of similarity between West Texas and the Judean wilderness, which is the setting for the 23rd Psalm. The Judean wilderness is mostly sand and rocks with a little scrub brush here and there. It’s rugged terrain, hot and dry and forbidding. And yet, there are wadis in the wilderness – creek beds, we’d call them – where, often, a tiny stream of water flows. Around these wadis you can find trees and green grass and fertile soil. And so, it’s these lush gardens in the wilderness the psalmist pictures as he sees the good shepherd leading the sheep across the jagged hillsides to a place that’s peaceful and serene, a place where they can graze and drink and be sheltered from the storms.
Well, I don’t have to tell you, we all experience seasons of barrenness in our lives, times when it takes all the strength and stamina we can muster just to keep going. What we need to remember is that it’s at times like these that God is especially there for us to see us through.
Do you know the little poem called, “Footprints”? It’s about a man walking across the sands of time, looking back over the course of his life. He sees two sets of footprints, his and the Lord’s. Then he notices that, at the most troubled times of his life, there is only one set of footprints, so he asks,
“Lord … I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most,
you would leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My child, I love you,
and I would never leave you.
During your times of trial and suffering,
when you see only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”
The truth is, God’s grace will sustain us through the difficult days of our lives, and all we have to do is lean upon his everlasting arms. The psalm goes on to say,
“He guides me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
Underscore the phrase, “for his name’s sake.” The shepherd leads the sheep along right paths, not for the sheep’s comfort and pleasure, but because it’s what a good shepherd does. A fine, healthy flock is a testimony to his good name. After all, it’s the shepherd’s reputation that’s on the line, not the sheep’s. If the sheep become lost, it’s the shepherd who’s failed. If the sheep prosper and grow, it’s the shepherd who’s succeeded. As Christians, when we fail to live up to our calling as children of God, we give the Lord a bad name. But when we keep his commandments and share his love with others, we reflect the image of God in which we are created, and his name is glorified through us.
When I was growing up, one of the highest compliments a young man could receive was for someone to say, “Boy, you’re a spitting image of your father.” When I’d hear that, it’d make me want to stand a little taller and hold my head a little higher. Well, wouldn’t it be nice if others could say something like that about us in our relationship to God? “You’re just like your father.”
What sweeter words could our heavenly Father ever hope to hear? The psalm goes on to say,
“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.”
Let’s be honest, the valley of the shadow of death is a place we’re all a little squeamish about. Death is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. It’s a reality of life over which we have little control. No one who’s died has ever come back to describe the experience. I think this is why we’re so fascinated and intrigued with so-called, “near-death experiences.” We’d like to know what to expect. Is it painful? Is it scary? Do you simply wake up on the other side?
We don’t know the answers, but we do know that it’s an individual experience. Others can be with us and hold our hand and assure us that we’re not alone, but they cannot share the experience of death with us. It’s between us and God alone. Ironically, those who’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death tell us that it’s precisely at these moments that we come the closest to knowing that we’re not alone. God is with us. His grace is sufficient for our need. The psalm continues,
“You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.”
We all have enemies. If not people who don’t like us, we have enemies such as sickness and aging and declining health. God’s promise is that, through faith, our enemies will not prevail against us. They won’t have the last word. On the contrary, in the face of our enemies, God throws a party in our honor. We’re able to feast on the riches of God’s grace, even as our minds fade and our bodies grow weak and frail. The psalmist continues,
“You anoint my head with oil.
My cup runs over.”
In the Bible, anointing refers to the practice of sealing a covenant and bestowing a blessing. In the Old Testament, for example, the prophet, Samuel, poured oil over Saul’s head to signify that God had chosen Saul to be king of Israel. (1 Samuel 10:1) In the New Testament, Luke speaks of Jesus as the anointed one of God, the Christ (Acts10:38). And, in his letters, Paul encourages the early Christians to carry on Christ’s ministry as those who are anointed in his name (2 Corinthians 1:21; 1 John 2:27).
The Good News for us today is that we are God’s anointed! We are the ones God has chosen to share his grace and love. The 1st Letter of Peter puts it this way,
“But you are a chosen race,
a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
a people for God’s own possession,
that you may proclaim the excellence of him
who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light:
who in time past were no people,
but now are God’s people,
who had not obtained mercy,
but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
The psalm concludes by saying,
“Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.”
And this is the bottom line: God did not bring us into this world to abandon us and put us out on our own. God created us in his image and bestowed upon us the gift of life in order that we might live in a loving relationship with God and each other. God is love, and the love of God is from everlasting to everlasting. Wherever the Spirit leads us, for however long we live, we have the assurance of God’s blessings along the way. What’s more, we have the promise of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who said,
“In my Father’s house are many homes.
If it weren’t so, I would have told you.
I am going to prepare a place for you.
If I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again, and will receive you to myself;
that where I am, you may be there also.”
Well, here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: The 23rd Psalm is more than just a pretty passage of scripture; it’s a reminder of who we are and whose we are, of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I hope you’ll read it often. Commit it to memory, if you will. Let it remind you of the love of God which enfolds you, the peace of Christ which surrounds you and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within you which promises to give you victory over sin and death, now and forever more.
In closing, let’s say the words of this beautiful Psalm together once more:
“Yahweh is my shepherd:
I shall lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He guides me in the 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 runs over.
Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever. Amen.”
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.
Today we are going to take a look at the 23rd Psalm. This is a favorite passage of many. Countless numbers of people throughout many generations have found hope in it in times of great fear and panic. I came to know that even the president George W. Bush quoted from this passage when he addressed the nation from the oval office on the evening of the 911 attacks.
In this passage David speaks quite personally of God. He claims that the Lord is his Shepherd. This morning I believe it’s worth finding out why David said God is his shepherd and why we can say the same today. In this message I will be using the titles “God” and “Lord” interchangeably.
1. He knows me
Read: Psalms 23:1
A. David begins his Psalm saying ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. This statement actually shook the readers of biblical times because the temptation in ancient Israel was to speak only about “our” God, (Deuteronomy 6:4) forgetting that the God of Israel is also the God of individuals. This is another reason why Jesus told them the parable about “The Lost Sheep” (Luke 15:3-7).
B. A single flock can have as few as 10 animals or as much as hundreds of them. A good Shepherd knows each and every sheep in the flock regardless of how big the numbers could be, (John 10:3-5). Likewise David when he uses the metaphor of the Shepherd to describe God, talks not just about a designation or a name for the Lord, but the relationship between God and his covenant children.
C. The Senses Bureau of The United States says that there are at least 7.081 billion people in the world today. And the Bible says that God knows each and every one of these people by their names.
Lesson: He not only knows but he cares. The Bible says God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, (John 3:16). The Bible also says that whoever receives him (including you) receive the power to know God as personally as a son knows his father, (John 1:12).
2. He provides me
Read: Psalms 23:1-3a
A. Sheep obviously cannot voice out their needs. Yet the shepherd naturally knows the needs of each and every animal in the flock. Likewise The Bible says that we don’t have to pray lengthy prayers like heathens do because God our creator is aware of our needs even before we ask him, (Matthew 6:7-8).
B. The “green pastures” are the rich and verdant pastures, where the sheep need not move from place to place to be satisfied. The fields even parts of the desert, would be green during the winter and spring. But in summer and fall the sheep would be led to many places in search of food. God’s care is not seasonal but constant and abundant, (Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger. “Psalms 23: The Goodness of God.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994. 824+. Print.)
C. Shepherds don’t allow sheep to drink from running water (rivers etc.) because sheep while bending to drink water might also fall into it. Therefore Shepherds draw water from wells and give their sheep to drink. These wells in the middle east are very deep and require special mechanisms to draw water.
Lesson: We don’t need to worry about our needs because just like the Shepherd is aware of the needs of his flock and leads them to green pastures and still waters God also is aware of our needs, as well as how and where to meet them. Once again the new testament bears witness to His divine provision because in Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus advises us not to feel anxious about our needs and assures that God will provide. There’s one condition however. God shall not sustain our greed that destroys us, (Proverbs 30:8). He will meet our genuine needs only, (James 4:1-3).
3. He restores me
Read: Psalms 23:3a
A. There are many characteristics that sets sheep apart from other animals. They are dumb, and innocent creatures incapable of defending themselves. To add to it unlike dogs or other household animals sheep that falls on their back cannot get up unless someone roles them over and help them to stand on their feet.
B. The fate of a sheep fallen on its back is determined by many factors. The most common are natural causes such as dehydration and starvation as well as Vultures, Hyenas and wild dogs.
C. Therefore a well-informed shepherd frequently scans his flock for any fallen animals and rushes to their aid if he finds any. In case the flock is too big he watches the sky for the presence of vultures.
Lesson: Needless to say just like the sheep we also are dumb and incapable of defending ourselves against Satan’s schemes, especially because of the fallen nature that dominates our behavior, (Psalms 51:5). It causes us to fall into sin and later we wish that we never did what we did. At such times it is important that we repent and allow the Lord to restore us. We must not leave room for feelings of guilt. This was evident in the life of Peter. In Luke 22:61-62 Peter repented and Jesus restored him in John 21:15-17. Judas in the other hand did the opposite. He took his own life because he permitted feelings of guilt in his heart instead of repenting and allowing the Spirit of God to restore him, (Matthew 27:3-5).
4. He guides me
Read: Psalms 23:3b
A. A Shepherd knows exactly where the best feeding grounds are and leads his sheep to those places. In this verse David tells the same about God because God directed him down paths of uprightness during his kingship and enabled him to win great battles in his commission to possess the land promised to the nation.
B. He guides us in paths of righteousness for his own glory and reputation, (Matthew 5:16). This might generate the impression that God is selfishly concerned about his own name. This is not true. Like everything else in this passage this verse also should be interpreted in the context of shepherding.
C. What honor could David have earned if he allowed the flock to go in search of food on their own and thereby walk into their death. Likewise how can we win the lost for God if they are not convinced of his goodness expressed towards his own children? In guiding us God shows the world that he is one hundred percent dependable and faithful.
Lesson: Most of the problems if not all we face in life are the results of not heeding God’s guidance. We can enjoy every little instance of our personal life, marriage, career and ministry if we are sensitive to his leading. He knows what’s best for us and he will help to achieve our goals as long as they are pure and within the perimeter of his will.
5. He protects me
Read: Psalms 23:4a
A. The phrase ‘shadow of death’ portrays death as a deep shadow or as deep darkness. This image of death compliments the metaphor of the shepherd because the shepherd at times has to lead his flock to feeding grounds across ravines with sharp cliffs. Apart from the risk of a slippery foot, chances are high these ravines are inhabited by wild animals like Leopards. Yet the sheep that follow in the path of the shepherd don’t need to worry about cliffs or predators because the shepherd shall fight them off, (1 Samuel 17:34-36).
B. The darkness among ravines symbolize different seasons in David’s life. His victory over Goliath was a turning point for both good and bad. The good was he unconsciously won the hearts of people in Israel. The bad was Saul envied him so badly he wanted him dead.
C. Death followed David everywhere. In Keilah Philistines fled before him. Next David had to run for his own life, (1 Samuel 23:1-29). When God guided David to throne he actually walked him through the valley of the shadow of death, (as a shepherd leads his flock to green pastures over the valley of death) and God’s hand of deliverance was over him even in the valley of death. His presence in David’s life was more powerful than the ever presented shadow of death, (1 Samuel 23:14).
Lesson: Problems are not absent in life. There are certain seasons however where our very existence is threatened. The year 1997 was such a time. My father narrowly escaped death after an automobile accident and later that same year I almost lost my right leg. Today after 16 years he recalls how he sensed the presence and protection of God even as he lay on a bed unconscious, for days. Today He fears nothing, because he is aware of God’s protection over life.
6. He comforts me
Read: Psalms 23:4b
A. The rod and the staff refer to a single instrument. It has 4 major applications to the shepherd. (In addition to being a symbol of his authority over the sheep.) First to fight off animals such as Lions, Leopards, Bears, Hyenas and Wolves that usually seek to prey upon the sheep.
B. Second, the crook part of the staff was used to gently seize the sheep that tend to run away by its legs or neck and add them back to the flock. Third it was used to examine the sheep. The shepherd uses the rod to pull the sheep’s wool away from its skin to check for rashes, wounds, or defects.
C. Fourth to count the sheep. In the terminology of the Old Testament this was referred to as passing “under the rod”: Here the shepherd holds his rod over the sheep and counts each and every sheep that enter by the gate. What happens if he finds out that one of them are missing? He places others at the hands of a faithful servant and takes off searching for the lost one.
Lesson: The rod and the staff in all four applications brought comfort to the sheep. In our walk with God this rod is none other than his word. I mentioned in the beginning that the shepherd’s staff is a symbol of authority over his sheep. Likewise God’s word is a symbol of his authority over our lives which brings comfort when we voluntarily submit ourselves to it. In the light of the four fold application of the shepherd’s rod, first his word helps us to resist temptations, (Psalms 119:11). Second it prevents us from making wrong decisions, (Psalm 119:105). Third it searches our hearts, (Hebrews 4:12). Fourth it convicts sinners and leads them to the cross of Christ, (Acts 2:37-40).
7. He exalts me
Read: Psalms 23:5-6
A. This verse describes the Lord’s faithfulness to his children even in times of great storms. Now David’s life never lacked people who envied him and desired his fall and death so earnestly. Ex: King Saul (1 Samuel 18:7-10), People who belonged to his inner circle (1 Chronicles 27:33; 2 Samuel 15:31), his own son (2 Samuel 16:11).
B. Yet Psalms 25:3 says that God exalted and honored David and put his foes into utter shame. (In the ancient days it was customary for the host of a banquet to anoint the honored guests with oil made by adding perfumes to olive oil
C. The overflowing cup literally means “My cup is an abundant drink”. It refers to a shepherd’s cup, which was a large, hollowed-out stone that could hold forty or fifty gallons and from which the sheep drank.
Lesson: There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘There’s only one God so stop applying for his position’. David was a skilled warrior. A king who won the hearts of his people. A mighty man called and anointed by God. Nevertheless, he didn’t seek to retaliate or engage his enemies in his own strength. This was evident in his battle against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:34-37; 1 Samuel 17:38-40; 1 Samuel 17:45-47). He never sought to avenge his enemies, which was evident in his reaction to Saul’s wickedness, (1 Samuel 24:1-22). He believed that the battle and vengeance both belong to God, (1 Samuel 17:47; Romans 12:19). In doing so he waited upon the Lord.
Sadly this is where most of us mess up. The Lord cannot exalt us, honor us before our enemies or ensure overflowing provision in times of storms unless we save both the battle and vengeance for him. Jesus also commanded his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, (Matthew 5:44).
May be there are some of you here today who haven’t fully experienced God’s shepherdly care in your life yet and you might wonder why? I said in the beginning of this message that the Shepherd metaphor refers to God’s relationship with his covenant children. You may ask me what does it mean to be a covenant child and how can I become one?
Let me explain in the simplest way possible. A covenant is basically a conditional agreement between two or more parties. Now God’s relationship with man has always been a covenant relationship. The Bible tells us that in the Old Testament times God related to his chosen people using the old covenant which required perfect obedience to mosaic law or works of merit. To violate the law was sinful and this caused punishment and separation from God which was amendable only through a sin offering (also called an animal sacrifice).
Animal sacrifices were supposed to accomplish
A. The worshiper’s perfection (Hebrews 10:1 … make perfect those who draw near to worship…)
B. The worshiper’s purification (Hebrews 10:2 … would have been cleansed once for all…)
C. The worshiper’s guiltlessness (Hebrews 10:2-3 … would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.)
D. The worshiper’s sinlessness (Hebrews 10:4 … to take away sins…)
However animal sacrifices could not accomplish any of the above because, animal sacrifices were mere shadows of what was yet to come, (Hebrews 10:1) and were ineffective (Hebrews 10:1-2).
If animal sacrifices were futile why did God order the slaughter of innocent animals in first place? God wanted his people to realize that the wage of sin is death and it is stoppable by nothing other than the blood of a man who did not know sin.
This is why God’s son Jesus was born into this world through a virgin. The Bible says that God made Jesus who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God, (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Since Jesus’ death paid the penalty of our sin in full there’s no need for animal sacrifices anymore and he is the new covenant through whom we enjoy anunsevered relationship with God. Anyone who receives him (including you) has the power to become a (covenant) child of God which entitles them to enjoy God’s shepherdly care in life, (John 1:12).
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Expository sermonPsalms 23