Secure sheep - Psalm 23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is so, then how do we picture God, especially since the second of the Ten Commandments expressly forbids representing God in any visible form? The answer, of course, is that God himself presents himself to us using word pictures- metaphors. And these word pictures open to us aspects of God which otherwise would not be available to us. And since it is God the Holy Spirit who guided his chosen writers to craft these word portraits about him, then we know they are accurate, they are not simply flights of the human imagination, although they often arise out of personal experience.
And one of the most sublime, captivating and comprehensive pictures we have of God which is presented to us in the Bible over and over again is that of Shepherd. And the most famous part of Scripture which portrays God in this way is, of course, the 23rd Psalm, where David, the shepherd boy-king joyfully declares, ‘The LORD’ –Yahweh’ is my shepherd.’ Even non-Christians know this psalm, not least because it is a favourite at funeral services. And without doubt it is a religious masterpiece. One writer describes it in this way: ‘The lovely series of vivid pictures, each but a clause long, but clear cut in that small compass, like the fine work incised on a gem, combines with the depth and simplicity of the religious emotion expressed, to lay this sweet psalm on all our hearts.’ (Alexander Mclaren). And I pray that will exactly be our experience this morning. So do turn with me to Psalm 23.
Now David knows what he is talking about as for the greater part of his early life he was a shepherd and so he draws on that experience to trace out and explore what that might mean for God as the Shepherd par excellence and his people as his flock. Now we living in an urban setting tend to have a rather romantic view of what it means to be a shepherd. We picture the shepherd sitting under the shade of a leafy tree with his cap tipped over his eyes with his sheep peacefully grazing along some nearby brook only to occasionally lift his cap to see if the sheep are behaving themselves. Otherwise it is a rather relaxed, laid back kind of existence. But in reality nothing could be further from the truth- not in the ancient Near East at any rate. The shepherd worked hard from dawn till dusk and often beyond. It was a 24/7 job, which is one of the reasons why shepherds were often looked down upon by the religiously scrupulous because their job often prevented them from taking part in the major religious festivals or obeying the Sabbath strictly. The shepherd was tough and muscular- he had to be. He was the sheep’s manager, thinker, protector, vet. The sheep’s well being was all down to him. There was no way he could be slip shod and caught napping- the sheep were far too valuable to take such a risk. And if that is so with a human shepherd and his flock, how much more is it so with the divine shepherd and his sheep- us? And so David composes this beautiful song which extols the virtues of trusting in the only shepherd worth trusting- The Lord God himself. You trust in anyone or anything else and you are going to be fleeced.
First, the Lord as shepherd gives our supply- v1 ‘The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.’ Now when David refers to the LORD being his shepherd it is not some name he has just plucked out of thin air. At the very least David had access to the first five books of the Old Testament- the Books of Moses. And so when he says, ‘The LORD’ is my shepherd’ he is using the personal divine name. The word rendered LORD is actually ‘YHWH’ It is linked to the verb ‘to be’. And it is a name which embodies everything that God is and stands for. Think of it like this: if I see a man get out of a red van coming to our house with a pile of letters in his hand and I wanted to be long winded about it I could say: ‘This is the man who delivers post to our home’ or on seeing him my eyes could widen and I say more briefly -‘ Ah, postman.’ So instead of saying this is the God who will be whatever he needs to be for you , who is present with you, who cares for you, who rescues you, who makes promises to you and keeps them’, you simply say, ‘YHWH’ LORD. It is a real name, not just a title.
Can a personal name capture such a deep and profound meaning? Well, yes it can. A friend of mine was at college where there was a girl a couple of years behind him who had been adopted as a baby who had a name which was a sort of Indian sounding -‘Weneedja’ and the name was actually linked to her being adopted. You see, sometimes adopted children can feel undervalued and insecure and so her parents wanted to head that off right at the beginning so they gave her this name, which in its full form would be ‘we- need -you’ which would be cumbersome so they just made it ‘W-e-n-e-e-d-j-a’ -Weneedja. What were they trying to say through that name? Well, something like this: ‘You are our adopted daughter whom we dearly love, you are everything to us. Can you some it up in a word? A name? Yes- ‘Weneedja.’ How do you sum up the character of God, his love, his power, his presence- you say YHWH-LORD- and he, says David, is my shepherd.
And the result of having the LORD as my shepherd is that ‘I will not be in want’. At the level of the picture it is that sheep will be cared for right down to the smallest detail. They will be led to places where they will be well fed, places devoid of poisonous weeds, pastures which are fertile- green. And note he will lead -not push from behind or bully but be out ahead of the sheep taking them beside still waters, so they will not be thirsty, dying from neglect. And when this picture is transferred to God and his people then it is lifted to a much higher plane. Do you wonder what the year 2010 has in store for you? Well, says David, the LORD knows, in fact he is way ahead of you, he is there in the future already- the future is actually present to him. Do you worry whether you will be able to step up to the mark as a Christian, whether you will have the strength to keep on going when you feel pretty weary already? The LORD, says David, will feed you from the green pastures of his Word, if you will stop and take time to graze on it with the rest of his flock. He is not going to leave you in want or need. And when you take a tumble spiritually speaking and you are struggling to get up, the Shepherd will be right beside you to set you straight which is what is probably behind that phrase ‘he restores my soul.’ And this leads us on to the next thing the Lord as our shepherd offers- safety- ‘He restores my soul, he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.’
Let’s think about sheep for a moment and then apply it again to ourselves. A sheep can find itself in a position whereby it is said to be ‘cast’, that is, it topples and maybe because it is in some sort of hollow in the ground finds itself on its back and is unable to right itself. As the sheep lies there gases build up in its stomachs which then alter the centre of gravity and so it may kick away and still not be able to move and unless it is righted then eventually it will die. A few years ago my wife Heather and I were walking in Wales when came across a sheep which was exactly in this position, lying on its back, kicking its legs, bleating. And it took both of us to lift it and turn it on its legs, and once we had done that off it went scampering to join the rest of the flock. That is the picture here, but of the shepherd coming alongside the sheep to set it back on its feet again. Now for those of you who have been Christians long enough has that not been your experience with God? There have been many occasion through my own stupidity I have found myself on my back, spiritually speaking, unable to extricate myself from the mess I had got myself into, utterly bewildered as to what to do next with no one to turn to but God. And you know what? He restored my soul- my life. It was just a month or two after I had become a Christian at the age of 17 that I was at a Christian meeting and met the father of the man through whom I became a believer. He was this tall six foot something silver haired old man, almost blind and well into his nineties. How he became a Christian is a remarkable story in itself for as a young tearaway teenager he and a group of friends went into that chapel in Nottinghamshire during a service to smash it up. But God somehow arrested him, and he sat and listened to the preacher and got saved and I, as it were was his spiritual grandson. And I remember him saying to me, ‘All these years I have known the Lord and he has never failed me and he won’t fail you.’ That doesn’t mean life is always easy, as we shall see, but it does mean that when the sheep does mess up, the mess is not irredeemable.
But not only does the shepherd pick us up when we go astray, he guides us so that we get it right- ‘He guides me in paths of righteousness.’ Or simply ‘the right paths’. For literal sheep this means that the shepherd will go ahead of the sheep to make sure the track along which they are travveling gets to the place intended- the new pasture or watering hole. But when applied to God and his people it is a way of life which is right- a life of righteousness, the kind of life we were made for. And notice why God does this- it is for ‘his name’s sake.’ What does that mean? Well, many reasons could be given as to why God saves us and guides us. It could be because he loves us. It could be that he wants the best for us. It could be that it is all part of his plan. And all of these answers are true- he does love us, he does have our best interest at heart, he does have a plan for us. But the ultimate reason why God acts faithfully, lovingly and does not give up- is because of his own honour- the sake of his name-his good reputation if you will. We know at the human level that a person’s reputation is precious, that is why we have laws of libel and slander to protect it. You can rob a person of his good name just as surely as you can rob him of his wallet and the former is often much, much harder to restore. But with God it is far more important. Everything that God is and stands for is bound up in his name- Yahweh. As we have seen it is a name which means faithful, provider, holy, righteous and true. He is the Supreme Being upon which the moral order, let alone the physical order, of the universe depend. He is perfect and beautiful within his own being and so he cannot allow his name or reputation to be tarnished in any way for that would be tantamount to ceasing to be God, which is impossible. And so he has to act in such a way that that reputation, that name is enhanced and glorified and is seen to stand for what it means. And it is often on this basis that prayers are made to God to act, not because his people deserve it, but because his reputation demands it. Think of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness. After the giving of the ten commands what did the people do? They had an orgy and started to worship an idol- a golden calf. That act was so sordid, so base that God’s anger flared up and he threatened to wipe them off the face of the earth. But Moses prayed to God to relent, to forgive and restore, not because the people didn’t deserve to be blotted out-they did- but because of the effect it would have on God’s standing in the world. He reasoned with God that if he did destroy them, then the surrounding nations would say, ‘This is not a God who should be worshipped. He is unreliable, he rescued these people from Egypt only to lead them out into the desert to take perverse delight in annihilating them and what God would that be? So for your name’s sake- save.’ And he did. For God is faithful, he doesn’t lead us so far and then abandon us- he can’t do that without denying his name, his character. And this gives me great assurance that he will stick by me. If I thought for a single moment that God’s faithfulness to me depended upon me being faithful to him, or me being good, or me reaching a certain standard of Christian behaviour or else…. then I would give up within a heart beat. But for me to know that God has bound up his reputation with me being saved- well, that makes me certain he will get the job done. And if you are a follower of Christ, so can you be.
And if this shepherd provides safety he also provides security -v 4, ‘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 staff, they comfort me.’ In ancient Israel valleys were thought of as dangerous places. We tend to reverse that-valleys’ are pleasant places, whereas the hills are wild and dangerous. But not here in this psalm. Militarily the valleys gave advantage to Israel’s enemies who had chariots. Here in the valleys the chariots- the iron age equivalent to tanks, could travel with ease and wreak havoc, and so the Israelites built their cities on hills which levelled out the playing field so it was soldier to soldier. But also it was in the valleys that the wild animals like lions and wolves would roam, however, take the sheep a little higher up the mountains, the danger was reduced you see. So the valley could literally be the valley of death. Now do you see what a wonderful reassuring thing David is saying? Even though I walk through the dark valleys, the places of threat, the venues of danger, and when it comes to the deepest and darkest valley of them all- death- I will fear no evil because you are with me. At this point- the point of death no other guide can accompany the traveller.
You will appreciate that as a minister I have invariably been with people at the point of their death. I have been able to pray with them and for them. I have been able to read words of Scripture to them and hold their hand. But what I have not been able to do is to take them from this world to the next; there is only one who can do that-‘even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.’ He is the only one who can be. And when it comes to that point for you, all the friendships, all the family, all the achievements, all the ‘stuff’ you have worked so long and hard for -will all be left behind-they can’t go with you, there is only one shepherd who can. And if you do not know him by then-you will go through that valley alone. You see the LORD is wise enough, and strong enough and powerful enough to get you across and no enemy- including the last enemy –death- can defeat him. His rod and his staff comfort. The rod was a cudgel to beat off wild animals whereas the staff was a shepherd’s crook to prevent the sheep from going astray-so both in terms of protection and guidance- the Christian is secure. And no other person on earth can say that. Blaise Pascal put it like this: ‘Without Jesus death is horrible, but with Jesus it is holy, kind and the joy of true believers.’
But finally, this shepherd provides satisfaction, v5, ‘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 will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.’ Now David hasn’t necessarily stopped using the sheep imagery. A shepherd had to prepare the pasture land for the sheep, not least in going on ahead to make sure that noxious and poisonous weeds were cleared out. And the sheep’s enemies the wild animals might look on bemused as it were, but the fact is the sheep are being cared for and they are not. And the anointing with oil too took place with sheep. One problem for sheep was the infestation of flies which would get into the mucus membrane of the nostrils where they would lay their eggs, and so the larvae would drive the sheep to distraction. And so to protect them from this the shepherd would make a mixture of olive oil and medicinal herbs and rub it over the sheep’s head. Again it is all part of the care and protection a good shepherd would afford, not giving the noxious nose fly time to breed and so hurt and irritate the sheep. Of course for David it had a further meaning because as the promised King, his head was anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel- this nobody shepherd boy from the least of the 12 tribes is chosen as King by God over and above everyone else. And David could never get over such divine generosity to him. And does not our Shepherd King do the same with us- dousing us and so protecting us? Maybe you have been a Christian for sometime now- how is it that some of the things you used to do before you became a Christian no longer excite or attract you? How come that for all your faults and temptations you are still remaining faithful to your husband or wife? How is it that you feel repulsed by things which your workmate is turned on by? It is not because you are a better person or have pulled yourself up by your own boot straps. It is because the Lord has anointed you to protect you and to get rid of the foul smelling, irritating effects of sin. And he will need to keep on doing that.
But the ultimate satisfaction is yet to come, v6, ‘Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.’ If you are a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, as your shepherd he is determined to get you home to be with him for ever. He has staked his reputation on it and given his life to make it so. In John’s Gospel Jesus describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’ or if you like the attractive shepherd- ‘good’ in the sense of being beautiful and authentic. Why are you trying to get through life by going it alone as I know some of you are this morning? Sheep without shepherds in the end do not fulfil their true potential as sheep, they end up maimed or dead or both. Here is one who offers you himself- to supply you, to secure you and to satisfy you- if you are hearing his voice now- then follow it.
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