The Shepherd's Paths (Psalm 23:3b)
Passage: Psalm 23:3b–23:3b
God as Shepherd
I. Asking Directions
I'm sure you're aware of the old stereotype, you know, the one about men, driving, and asking for directions. Do you know the one I'm talking about ? Well, it seems like that stereotype is true.
Listen to an ABC news report about a study done in the United Kingdom last year:
"The average male drives an extra 276 miles every year as a result of being lost -- equivalent to a journey from Cincinnati to Nashville...More than one out of four men -- 26 percent -- wait at least half an hour before asking for directions, with a stubborn 12 percent refusing to ask a stranger for help at all...Almost three-quarters of women -- 74 percent -- have no qualms about asking for directions...compared to just 30 percent of men."
So it looks like women are exactly right when it comes to men, driving, and directions. Now guys, with gas prices the way they are, I don't know what you'll do the next time you're lost, but let me encourage all of us this morning: when it comes to life, all of us desperately need to stop regularly and ask for directions. All of us desperately need guidance.
Turn with me this morning as we go back to what is probably the most famous of all the psalms, Psalm 23.
The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon said this about Psalm 23:
It has been said that what the nightingale is among birds, that is this divine ode among the psalms, for it has sung sweetly in the ear of many a mourner in his night of weeping, and has bidden him hope for a morning of joy. (isn't that great)
Last week, as we focused on the first few lines of this psalm, we were introduced to the idea of God as Shepherd. We talked about the fact that our main goal with this psalm should be to explore AND embrace the depth of the shepherd metaphor that David presents to us here.
We also talked about a second point in regard to this psalm. We said that the humbling implication of Psalm 23's powerful metaphor is that we (all of us) are needy, helpless sheep.
II. The Passage: "The Lord is My Shepherd" (23:1-3a)
So last time we stopped right after the first half of verse 3. Let's start once again from verse 1 this morning, and read all the way through the end of verse 3. Listen again to the words, to this song from David, the shepherd-king of Israel. He writes:
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. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
There's the statement I'd like us to focus on this morning. The last half of verse 3...He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. It's only five words in the original Hebrew and eleven words as its translated here. But there's really a lot here.
So in order to more fully explore and more fully embrace the shepherd metaphor of this psalm, let's look at the different parts that make up the last half of verse 3.
A. He Leads Me (23:1a)
David begins that sentence this way, "He leads me". Now, we've already heard this phrase in verse 2, right? "He leads me beside still waters."
In terms of the metaphor being used, this makes perfect sense. It's said that when sheep are pushed and prodded from behind, it makes them more anxious and agitated. But when the shepherd goes out in front of them, and calls to them, they are more eager to follow.
Sheep need a leader. They need someone to guide them. In his book, "A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23", sheep rancher turned pastor, Philip Keller tells us this about the neediness of sheep:
"Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites...the greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move. That is to say, they dare not be left on the same ground too long."
As a shepherd, David understood this all too well. David tells us here, Yahweh, the God of Israel was his leader. He calls upon God with this very same plea in Psalm 139...
...see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:24)
But look at how he makes this same plea in Psalm 43, verse 3:
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 43:3)
"Your light and your truth". There's the Shepherd's voice! Listen to this: the light and truth of the word of God is the Shepherd's guiding voice for His sheep. (2x)
Asaph makes the same point in Psalm 73. He writes:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:23, 24)
Do you recognize this morning that you need a leader? That you need the guidance that only God can give you?
Like lost men driving around, in our pride, all of us can so easily think we know where we should go. The prophet Isaiah confirms this is the very thing that makes us like sheep: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way... (Isaiah 53:6a)
But remember what the book of Proverbs tells us about our own way: There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25)
But when humble ourselves and listen to the Shepherd's voice and follow Him, where is He taking us? Look at the next part of the end of verse 3.
B. Paths of Righteousness (23:1b, 2)
"He leads me in paths of righteousness." Now what exactly does that mean? Paths of righteousness? Well, the Hebrew word for "righteousness", the word tsedeq, when taken in a physical sense, simply means "true" or "straight". This explains the connection between the two parts of Psalm 5, verse 8. David writes:
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. (Psalm 5:8)
Again in Psalm 27: Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. (Psalm 27:11)
But straight in these kinds of passages is meant to point us to an ethical sense. In the same way, the word "crooked", just like in English, also has both a physical sense and an ethical or moral sense. Listen to how Solomon, David's son, talks about paths of righteousness in Proverbs 2:
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints. 9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; 10 for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11 discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, 12 delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, 13 who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, 14 who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, 15 men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways. (Proverbs 2:6-15)
So the "paths of righteousness" that God our Shepherd leads us on are paths on which we are guided into doing what is right, what is just, what is morally excellent. Just as a shepherd guides his sheep on those paths that lead to food and fullness and satisfaction, so also does God lead His people to the same kind of blessings.
Now, I don't want you to miss the real key to what David is saying here.
The light and truth of God's word, of the Shepherd's voice, does not simply lead or guide us through the revelation of deep, mystical truths about this or that abstract concept. No, for David, God's loving leadership as his Shepherd is demonstrated by the guiding gift of God's commandments.
Did you hear that? David doesn't say, "He leads me in paths of mystical knowledge" or "He leads me in paths of spiritual euphoria and experience." No, he declares, "He leads me in paths of righteousness"...that is...paths of doing what is right and just.
The Great Shepherd's deep care and concern for His sheep is demonstrated in the giving of rules! The author of Psalm 119 understood this. He wrote:
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!...With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you...Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. (119:1, 10, 11, 35)
In a day and age, in a culture that, in the context of religion or spirituality, scoffs at words like "rules" and "commandments" and "law", Psalm 23 must sound like a strange affirmation of the Shepherd's loving care for His sheep.
But God wants His sheep to live. And His laws, His rules, His ordinances, His precepts, His commandments are given for our good; for our protection; so we can enjoy life. God does not simply enjoy making rules, or making rules in order to make all of us miserable.
When God talks about righteousness and money, or righteousness and sex, or righteousness and marriage, or righteousness and our words, or righteousness and ambition, He is trying to protect us from the destructiveness, from the emptiness of sin.
Are people really happier when they throw off God's commandments as restrictive and archaic and boring, and follow their own desires; Are they really happier and more fulfilled when they live according to the world's standards? They may feel happier for a short time, but in the end, they usually end up suffering under the weight of all kinds of consequences. They are often left feeling hollow and confused.
The pastures of sin are always barren and polluted. Sin is like those companies that come and spray paint your lawn green. It might look good, but just try grazing in a painted pasture.
But that's what we so often do: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way... (Isaiah 53:6a)
But the Shepherd is good. He knows what we need. He will lead us on paths of righteousness. In commenting on the plural word "paths", Charles Spurgeon writes:
The Christian is not obedient to some commandments and neglectful of others; he does not pick and choose, but yields to all. Observe, that the plural is used—"the paths of righteousness." Whatever God may give us to do we would do it, led by his love.
C. For His Name's Sake (23:3a)
And look at how David explains the Shepherd's ultimate motive in all this. Look at the last part of Psalm 23:3: He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
God leads His people down such paths for their good. But He does...all that He does... ultimately for His own glory. He does it for the sake of His name. David's declaration in Psalm 31 makes a similar point: For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me... (Psalm 31:3)
When it comes to understanding this phrase, Isaiah 48:9-11 is very helpful. In speaking about His mercy and restoration of sinful Israel, God declares:
"For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. 10 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. 11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another." (Isaiah 48:9-11)
For the "sake of God's name" has to do with the "sake of his praise". God acting for the sake of His name is about not allowing His name to "be profaned", but about receiving the "glory" He deserves.
Thus the Shepherd leads His sheep, God leads His people in doing what is right in order that He might be glorified through their obedience. When we faithfully follow the Shepherd's voice, we are telling the world about His authority over us and allowing His wisdom to shine through us. Thus, His name is exalted.
If we are truly His sheep, if we belong to His flock, brothers and sisters it should be our greatest desire to do all for His name's sake. In I Corinthians 10:31, the Apostle Paul wrote, "So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."
As David celebrated the care of His heavenly Shepherd, he was pleased that God could be glorified through His life, that the Shepherd could be honored by the obedience of His sheep. He cared about the Shepherd's reputation. Do you? Do we?
III. The Gift of Righteousness
This morning, if you are willing to embrace both your 'sheep-ness' and the goodness of the Shepherd's voice, if you are willing to be led in "paths of righteousness", then God's word, the Shepherd's voice, also gives us some safeguards, so that sin does not "pull the wool over our eyes" when it comes to this topic of righteousness.
First of all, the Shepherd's paths of righteousness might always be straight, but it doesn't mean they're always smooth.
We know from God's word, and hopefully from experience, that it is always better to obey the Shepherd's voice. But we also need to remember that doesn't always mean it will be easy to obey.
And it doesn't always mean that things will work out the way we expect. In Peter 3:13 and 17, Peter writes: Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed...For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
In some cases, following the Shepherd's voice will mean the loss of our comfort, or the loss of our reputation, or maybe a financial loss or the loss of a relationship. Sometimes there will be difficult consequences when choose to obey God.
But unlike the consequences of sin...the consequences of straying, obedience will not leave us empty. No, when we listen to His voice, God will stand with us and strengthen us and help us down the path.
The second safeguard we need to know is this: the Shepherd's paths of righteousness are delightful to us because our delight is first in Him.
Jesus himself said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15)
The apostle John later wrote: By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (I John 5:2, 3)
Paul explained this so beautifully in II Corinthians 5:14, 15: For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (II Corinthians 5:14, 15)
We follow the Shepherd's voice, not simply because it seems sensible or safe, but ultimately because God has confirmed to us His goodness through the love of Christ...because we have been assured of the fact that our heavenly Father loves us and wants what is best for us.
Finally, number three, the Shepherd's paths of righteousness must be travelled with the assurance that His righteousness is our only hope.
Connecting our second point to this third point, Paul tells his readers this in Philippians 3:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith... (Philippians 3:8, 9)
While God longs to lead us in His "paths of righteousness", the sad truth is that all of us are more prone to stray than obey. Therefore, our only hope before a holy God...our only hope in the face of sin's deadly consequences...our only hope is to be carried by the shepherd.
And God does this when he reckons or imputes or credits the righteousness of Jesus to our account. We can stand because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, stood in our place, accepting God's judgment for our stubbornness and straying.
Therefore, when we are led in "paths of righteousness", for God's glory, for His name's sake, when can do so because Jesus has not only purchased a new heart for us, a heart that wants to hear and heed the Shepherd's voice, but He has also released us from the burden of working for God's acceptance.
When we receive the gift of Jesus' righteousness through faith, we can rest assured that we are accepted by God because of Christ. We can obey with great joy and confidence because the Good Shepherd himself is carrying us.
There's an old expression that goes something like this: "No one likes being told what to do." But that shouldn't apply to us, should it? We should delight in being told what to do by our good and gracious Shepherd.
When it comes to life, all of us desperately need to stop regularly and ask for directions. All of us desperately need guidance. May God help us this day, and this week, and this month, and this year, to listen attentively to the Shepherd's voice. May we rejoice that God, in His incomparable love, has blessed us with His commandments....that He has shown us these "paths of righteousness".