The Shepherd's Provision (Psalm 23:1-3a) 8-7-11
Passage: Psalm 23:1–23:3a
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I. In Death or In Life?
“A thick fog of silence and grief formed around the Shoemaker High School flagpole Thursday evening as students congregated to mourn one of their own...Deirdra Todd...Todd, a Shoemaker High School senior, died Thursday morning from injuries sustained in a Wednesday morning traffic accident...A top cadet in the Grey Wolf Junior Reserve Officer Tr-aining Corps, Todd had earned the friendship and res-pect of her colleagues. Cadets raised the American flag to half staff while the growing crowd of students watched. Only soft breathing and crying could be heard as everyone stood, hat in hand, hand over heart. A cadet read Psalm 23...”
“On Christmas Eve in 1914 there was a spontaneous halt to the guns on the western front during WWI. In the lull comes the voice of a German soldier singing Stille Nacht. The British troops recognized the melody as Silent Night and joined in. There was heard calls for visits across No Man's Land. Cigars, whiskey, jams, chocolate and other small gifts were exchange between the German and British troops. Soldiers from both sides gathered for funerals in No Man's Land as they read a passage from Psalm 23.”
“As the world said goodbye to Amy Winehouse, the singer’s Back to Black album said hello to the charts, again. Winehouse’s 2007 album sold 37,000 copies since the singer passed [two weeks ago yesterday]...“Goodnight my angel, sleep tight. Mummy and Daddy love you ever so much,” said Mitch Winehouse, on Tuesday in London, as a father led tributes saying goodbye to his 27-year-old daughter. Ninety mourners gathered to say goodbye...The traditional Jewish service was led by Rabbi and family friend Frank Hellmer and included prayers in English and Hebrew. Psalm 23 was read...”
Did you notice what all of these excerpts had in common? There is no doubt that a lot of people in the western world are familiar with Psalm 23. But for a large number of people, these excerpts exemplify how they are familiar with Psalm 23: they've heard it read at a funeral.
But as invaluable and comforting and reassuring as this psalm is in that contexts, we always have to be careful not to pigeon-hole these words and somehow label Psalm 23 as simply a “funeral text”. Psalm 23 may lead to comfort in the face of death, but even more so, it should lead to confidence in the midst of life...everyday life.
This morning we begin a four-week journey through what is arguably the most famous of all the psalms. And what I hope we will discover, or rediscover, is what, in fact, gives this psalm its power. The potency of this psalm comes from what it tells us about God, and specifically, as we will quickly see, about God as Shepherd. So turn with me there: Psalm 23.
II. The Passage: “The Lord is My Shepherd” (23:1-3a)
This morning as we begin, we will look just at the the first three verses of this psalm. In fact, we'll stop just after the first part of verse three. Look at what we read here, verse 1...
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul.
I would guess that many of you, many of us, are familiar, even very familiar with these beautiful words. But all of us, regardless of our familiarity with this psalm, need to dig deeper and think more carefully about what we've just read here.
But before we go too far into these verses, there are two points that I want us to understand and hold onto throughout not only this message, but for the coming weeks as well.
Here's the first point: When it comes to Psalm 23, our aim should be to explore and embrace the depth of the shepherd metaphor presented here. (2x) Throughout the Bible, God has chosen to use metaphors, that is, everyday, human imagery in order convey certain ideas, certain truths about Himself. And the metaphor given here, the image of a shepherd, is one that would resonate with all of the original hearers of this psalm.
In fact, a shepherd is the kind of image that has resonated with, that has been familiar to, most of humanity for most of history. It is only in more recent times that people are less familiar with shepherds and shepherding.
So our aim, especially since most of us are modern, city dwellers, our aim should be to explore and embrace the depth of this shepherd metaphor.
Now, if you know anything about this man, David, then you'll know that he is a great person to teach us about the power and extent of this metaphor. David was himself a shepherd.
When we are first introduced to David back in I Samuel 16, this is exactly what he's doing. He's not at the banquet for Samuel, he's not with his brothers because he is taking care of the sheep. And when he goes to fight Goliath in I Samuel 17, his confidence in God comes directly from God's favor on David as he took care of his sheep. So David is intimately acquainted with shepherding, with the life of, with the work of a shepherd.
And so as we think about David's metaphor, this image of God as Shepherd, what we need to see is that this image is really about one critical reality: how well God takes care of us. That's it. David wants to tell us in this psalm how well God takes care of him.
And that idea leads to the second point. Are you ready? The second point I want us to understand and hold onto throughout this series is this: The humbling implication of Psalm 23's powerful metaphor is that we are needy, helpless sheep. (2x)
Now, if most of us were to pick the animal that best represents us, I have no doubt that we would have plenty of wolves and eagles and dogs and bulls and horses and maybe even a few peacocks. But I doubt very much that we would have any sheep.
But throughout the Bible, we are routinely compared to sheep:
Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way... (Is. 53:6)
In his book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”, author Philip Keller tells us this about sheep:
“Sheep do not “just take care of themselves” as some might suppose. They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care. It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways...Our...[mob instincts], our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.”
If we are to embrace the depth of the shepherding metaphor in Psalm 23, if we are to embrace God as shepherd, we must first embrace the reality that we are needy, helpless sheep. While we can find this metaphor in other places in the Old Testament, and the New Testament, it is routinely applied to God's care for His people corporately. Only David in this psalm explicitly claims the power of the metaphor as an individual. “The Lord is MY shepherd.” David has embraced his 'sheep-ness'. Have you?
Now, holding onto these two ideas, let's consider three things we discover in these verses that help us go deeper into the shepherding metaphor David has presented to us.
Look back at the opening words of this psalm, to the first half of verse 1.
A. The Importance of His Identity (23:1a)
The first thing we see here is the importance of the Shepherd's identity. The first half of verse 1 is only five words in English. Only two words in Hebrew. It reads, “The LORD is my shepherd.” But a literal translation of these two words would read this way, “YHWH is the shepherd of me.”
Who or what is YHWH? YHWH is the divine name that God revealed to Moses back in the book of Exodus. Just like our words God and Lord today, the ancient Near East also had general terms for gods and goddesses. That's why the God of the Bible would often refer to Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But when Moses asked for a name from God, a name he could present to the enslaved Hebrews, God told him in Exodus 3:14, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
And in the very next verse, Exodus 3:15, God added this statement, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” You see the name “I AM” and the name YHWH are related. They both come from the Hebrew verb hayah, which means “to be”.
So when David says “YHWH is my shepherd”, he is not making some sort of vague, sentimental, greeting card kind of statement, something that would be palatable to lots of people with different ideas about God.
No, David's shepherd is YHWH, and YHWH is the God of creation. He is the God of the covenants. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the Exodus, who crushed the Egyptians and released His people from bondage. He is the God who gave His people commandments. He is the God who brought His people to the land of promise. He is the God who blesses and curses, the God who judges and forgives. He is the God of the Scriptures. Double-click on the name YHWH and you will discover the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
Is this God your shepherd? Does He take care of you? Do you belong to Him? To His flock?
David could assert with such sweet confidence that God was His shepherd because He knew the One to whom he entrusted himself. If we accept the fact that we are spiritual sheep, we must also accept the fact that we are prone to follow other shepherds. Who or what takes care of you? To whom or to what do you belong? If YHWH is not your shepherd, something or someone else is.
B. The Goodness of His Guidance (23:1b, 2)
But look how David begins to unpack his affirmation about God. Look at the second half of verse 1: “The Lord (YHWH) is my shepherd; I shall not want.” David is saying, “Because God is over me, because God is taking care of me, I lack for nothing. I have all I need.” And verse 2 explains how this is possible by describing for us the goodness of God's guidance.
If God was simply some distant, disinterested deity, there is no way that David could make this assertion (“I shall not want”). But again, David knows his Shepherd because His shepherd has revealed Himself. And because God has revealed Himself, David can say, “I shall not want...because...YHWH MAKES ME lie down in green pastures. HE LEADS me beside still waters.”
So when God is your Shepherd, you can not only rejoice in His guidance, but also in the goodness of His guidance. God makes his sheep lie down...He leads His sheep. He is right there among them, involved. And where does He lead them? To “green pastures”. To “still waters”.
Again Keller gives us some insight into the work of shepherding: “It is not generally recognized that many of the great sheep countries of the world are dry, semi-arid areas...in those...regions, it is neither natural or common to find green pastures...Palestine, where David wrote this Psalm and kept his father's flocks, especially near Bethlehem, is a dry, brown, sun-burned wasteland. Green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time, and skill in land use.”
Similarly, “When sheep are thirsty they become restless and set out in search of water...if not led to the good water supplies of clean, pure water, they will often end up drinking from polluted pot holes...”
The key in all this, the key to our care always comes back to the Shepherd, doesn't it?
When it comes to your heart, are you well-fed and well-watered? Or have false shepherds left you spiritually hungry and thirsty?
The God of Scripture wants to give us the very best provision possible. Do we trust Him to do that? It doesn't just happen, as He himself has made clear. Are you allowing God to take care of you?
This morning, the God of the word, through His word, wants to bring all of us to His green pastures...to His still waters. He wants us to know the goodness of His guidance.
C. The Consequence of His Care (23:3a)
And look at what the first half of verse 23 tells us about the consequence of His care:
[starting in verse 2:] He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul.
The goal of God's guidance as our shepherd is not simply maintenance or even harm. He does not let us eat at His green pastures in order to fatten us up for the slaughter. No! God's goal is to “restore your soul”.
As David fled from Saul's jealous rage, as David hid in caves and lived among the Philistines, as David faced threats, as David bore the burden of leadership, as David wrestled with his own fear and inadequacies, his soul was in desperate need of restoration. As he said in Psalm 42:11, Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?
God's provision is not simply about meeting your material or vocational or relational needs. He wants to meet your spiritual needs above all else. He wants to give you what you need in this life so that you will look to Him for eternal life...for fullness of life. And that kind of life only comes when we are right with God; when we are fed in the “green pastures” of His character and when we drink from the “still waters” of His promises. (2x)
Does your soul need to be restored this morning? There is a shepherd who wants to do that very thing. He knows you are tired and sick and hungry. Listen to how God later described his shepherd's heart through the prophet Ezekiel:
“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out...14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak...” (Ezk. 34:11, 14-16)
Has God taken care of you like this? Are you trusting Him to do that again. Can you look back and say with David, “The Lord is MY shepherd; I shall not want.” God wants to take care of you. He does. Are you allowing Him to do that?
III. And the Psalm Became Flesh
Psalm 23 represents not simply David’s confession of what God had done. It was also his confidence of what God would do. It was David’s confidence that God would take care of him.
Can you and I have that same confidence…come what may? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”! You see, we stand in an even better position when it comes to an assurance of God’s provision, even better than a man who received God’s anointing and God’s covenant promise.
How could where we stand today be better? Because of these words:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15)
One question that we must always keep in mind as we wander about as needy, helpless sheep; one question that has been answered definitively, is this: “How far will the shepherd go to take care of His flock?” How far will He go?
John 1:14 tells us “the word [this word who was with God from the beginning, this word who was God (1:1), this word…] became flesh and dwelt among us”. And what John 10:11-15 affirms for us is that it’s also appropriate to express it this way, “and Psalm 23 became flesh and dwelt among us”. The Shepherd whom David spoke about in Psalm 23 is the same Shepherd who spoke in John 10. The Shepherd who stood with David according to Psalm 23 is the same Shepherd who stood among us, in human flesh, in John 10.
And in John 10, Jesus Christ makes it clear how are the Shepherd will go to take care of His flock. In verses 11 and 15, Jesus confirms the extent of His commitment and the extent of His provision: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… and I lay down my life for the sheep.
The shepherds of this world are not shepherds at all. They are the hired hands of sin who care nothing about the sheep. Jesus suffered for His flock. In facing our greatest enemy, Jesus gave His own life on the cross to make sure the fullness of God’s green pastures and God’s still waters could be ours. And now that Shepherd lives, risen from the dead and alive forevermore; and He is calling us to Himself. He is calling us to come with faith and to walk in confidence that His provision is good and sufficient and certain.
Are you hungry this morning? Are you thirsty? Are you scared? Are you lost? Are you in a place of danger…of pain…of shame? The death of Jesus Christ for our sins is God’s constant and clear testimony to us that He wants to rescue us and make us part of His flock. Can you wrap your mind around this: the Shepherd of Psalm 23 became the Lamb of God in order to give His flock the fullness of His provision.
By grace, through faith, because of His Spirit, we can say with David, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I pray that is your testimony this morning. Let’s pray.