I look forward to Monday mornings when my pastor friend Alan in Mt. Uniacke, Nova Scotia (whom I have never met in person, only by heart) emails me the sermon he preached in his church on Sunday. I am always blessed with his insights. I share today as a Guest Post the message he preached yesterday. Let's relax in green pastures and by quiet waters to take another look at that familiar Psalm.
in Psalm 23 and John 10:1—14
An accountant worked long hours over his accounts crunching numbers on his computer. He found he was not able to sleep at night and he went to see his doctor. The doctor asked him if he had tried counting sheep. The accountant replied, “I do, but if I make a mistake, it takes me hours to find it.”
I will speak about sheep and shepherds today as we look at Psalm 23. The Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament which portrays the Lord Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd. I invite you to meet your Good Shepherd in Psalm 23.
NOT A PSALM OF DEATH
It is unfortunate that Psalm 23 has become associated with death, often read at funerals and on Remembrance Day. The psalm is actually a song for the living and was written by king David who himself had been a shepherd. He wrote it in celebration of his daily walk with God. The psalm also prefigures Jesus Christ, Son of David and Good Shepherd. There is nothing wrong with using it at funerals, etc. People should certainly feel free to use whatever Scripture they like. But lets realize there is so much more to it. Lets hear the invitation of our Lord to come and dine at the table of His presence. Come to Me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matt. 11:24
A WORD ABOUT SHEPHERDS
Obviously, Psalm 23 was written in a time when tending sheep was very much a part of every day life. That's why the Lord drew upon this very familiar image in John 10. Today, people may not tend sheep the same way, although they do in some parts of the world, but the principles remain true for us. We actually have sheep in our area, down Windsor way and over in South Rawdon. I once preached a kids sermon on the llamas being used to shepherd the sheep (no kidding).
In the chapter on the Good Shepherd, Christ contrasts Himself with hired hands and thieves. I worked as a hired hand on a farm for a time, so I can relate. As a hired hand, you put your hours in, then leave. The farmer on the other hand is always near at hand to his animals. The person who owns the animals will see them very differently than a hired hand.
In Bible times, thieves, whether human or animal, often came hunting for sheep. We would use the term rustlers. There are many false shepherds today, e.g. the cults. False religions are false shepherds. The Lord did not come to bring a new religion. He came to bring us into a relationship with our heavenly Father. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” The television can become another false shepherd, luring us to watch hour after hour of programming with cheap values, time which could have been spent on more enriching things. The devil uses all these things to try to steal our souls, but our Lord says, “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy,. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” Jn. 10:10
Lets take a look at how we may meet our Shepherd in Psalm 23.
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
Note that David uses present tense. He is going to be writing about a very present, ongoing relationship, not something that will happen in the future. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” v. 11 A shepherd literally had to lay down his life for the sheep. You didn't put your eight hours in, then go home. It was a 24/7 job. If predators attacked, the shepherd was expected to position himself between them and the sheep. David writes of killing the lion and the bear who came against the sheep. At night, when the sheep were safely in the sheepfold, the shepherd lay down across the door, protecting the entrance with his body.
One of God's Hebrew names is suggested here—Jehovah Rohi—the Lord my Shepherd. I love to pray this psalm. “Lord Jesus, thank you for being the shepherd of my soul. Thanks for all you do for me today.”
I SHALL NOT WANT
When Jesus is our Shepherd, we have need of nothing. We sing a little chorus in our church called Jehovah Jireh—God my Provider. That is another of God's names. It comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. God asks Abraham to take his only son Isaac and sacrifice him atop Mt. Moriah, site of the Jewish Western Wall in Jerusalem. In obedient faith, Abraham lays out Isaac upon the altar and prepares to plunge the knife into his heart. At the last moment, God calls to him from heaven and shows him a ram in the bush for the sacrifice. God had indeed provided. It was a prophetic moment, pointing to the Messiah who would be crucified for sinners not far from that site.
Time and time again, our church has seen God be our Provider, usually in response to prayer vigils, when people came together in concerted prayer. I spent many years in college and university. I had to raise much of the funding myself. God always opened doors of bountiful supply for me. We can say with the apostle Paul, “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4:19 So we can pray, “Lord, you are my Provider. Thank you for meeting all my needs. You are all I need today.”
HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES
When a shepherd got up in the morning, his first order of business was to lead the sheep to green pastures as the pasture where they were would have been picked clean. “He (the Good Shepherd) will go in and out and find pasture.” The author Philip Keller was actually a shepherd for eight years. He said that in order for sheep to lie down, four conditions must be met. 1. They must be free from fear. 2. They must be free from friction with other sheep. 3. They must be free from torment by flies and parasites. 4. They must be fed.
What a wonderful picture of what our Good Shepherd does for us. Each day, He is leading us in the best pathway for our life. He quiets our hearts from fear and anxiety. He brings love and fellowship with others. He will not allow us to be tormented by the demonic if we are wearing the armor of God. He feeds us on His presence. “Thank-you Lord for leading me today in the best pathway for my life. I am at peace in You.”
The reasoning mind always wants to know what direction things are going in, how it will all unfold. God says, “You don't get to see that. I will lead you along step by step. Trust me today to lead you into green pastures.” We can relax and say, “I do not know, but I know the One Who Knows.
HE LEADS ME BESIDE QUIET WATERS
Another of the shepherd's tasks was to find a water source for his sheep. Peaceful waters suggest rest which is so sorely needed in our stressed out, driven culture. Our Good Shepherd says, “”I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know Me.” . 14 The word know means to be intimately acquainted with. Think of the rest we enjoy in His presence.
We are at peace with our God and accepted in Christ Jesus. Many people think God must be angry with them, but not true if we have put our trust in His Son. He does not see our flaws and failings. He sees us robed in the radiant glory of Christ. “He has made us accepted in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:6
The rest we partake of is one of stillness. “Be still and know that I am God.” Ever notice how noisy the world has become? The T.V. Is blaring, the radio is chattering away. People are tethered to their cell phones. Cars roar by at high speed.
Many people are rattled by silence. They don't know how to handle it. I have done a number of week long silent retreats and have learned to love the riches of solitude and silence. In the silence, we will hear God's voice and we will be at rest with Him. “Lord, I am resting in your presence today. I will hide myself in You.”
HE RESTORES MY SOUL
Life has a way of grinding us down, stressing us out and chewing us up. Another of the shepherd's jobs was to tenderly tend his sheep, especially the lambs, the sick and the weak. This brings to mind another of God's names. He is Jehovah Rophe—the Lord our Healer.
God has many ways of healing us. One way is through confession. When we think of confession, we often think of acknowledging our sins to God and asking His forgiveness. But confession involves much more than our sins. We can confess our anxieties, burdens, shortcomings, limitations, weaknesses, emotions, etc. As we do, our God embraces and restores us. “Lord thank you that you are my healer and my restorer. I am whole in your presence.”
HE GUIDES ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
This has to do with the direction of our lives. A shepherd would try to lead his sheep along the safest, most accessible paths. “He (the Good Shepherd) goes on ahead of them and the sheep follow Him because they know His voice....My sheep know My voice and they follow Me.” 4. 27.
A Spirit filled believer will be led by the Holy Spirit. We are to get to know, listen to and obey the voice of our Shepherd. I could preach a whole sermon on how to hear God's voice. I can share some quick tips. 1. There must be a desire to hear God's voice. 2. We must develop sensitivity to His voice. 3. We must create an atmosphere conducive to hearing from God. 4. We must ask to hear His voice. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives genrously to all without finding fault and it will be given to him.” James 1:5
Note that we are being led in paths of righteousness. Our Shepherd is Jehovah Tsidkenu—the Lord our Righteousness. Through His death upon the cross, Christ became our righteousness. “Lord, today I will listen to Your voice. I will obey You.”
FOR HIS NAME'S SAKE
There is a reason God is leading us in paths of righteousness. He is a holy God who leads us along the highway of holiness. The Hebrew term suggested here is Jehovah M'Kaddesh—God's name is holy. “Thank you, Lord, for being the Promise Keeper who will never break His Word to us.”
EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH I WILL FEAR NO EVIL FOR YOU ARE WITH ME
This verse often causes people to associate Psalm 23 with death. For example, in the movie Titanic when the ship begins to sink with one end up, a man slowly walks the deck reading this very verse from the Bible. Jack, the hero, is a man of action who wants to save lives. Frustrated and wanting to get by him, he says, “Could you go a little faster through that valley?”
But David was not speaking of his imminent death. He actually lived a long time after writing Psalm 23. He is speaking of situations that make him feel as if the shadow of death looms over him. The apostle Paul speaks of feeling the same way. “We were under great pressure far beyond our ability to endure so that we despaired even of life.” 2 Cor. 1:8 It's at these times that we discover the God who is present with us, our very present help in time of trouble. He is Jehovah Shamma—the God who is there. “Lord, I know whatever the circumstances I face today, You are with me. With You I can face anything.”
YOUR ROD AND YOUR STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME
A shepherd did not carry his shepherd's crook just for looks. Shepherds actually learned to wield them with great skill, fending off predators. I have read that shepherds used their staff so effectively that they were able to disarm swordsmen. Not only did the staff protect, it was used to push, pull and prod the sheep. God trains us in the way we should go. I have experienced His pushing and prodding many times. A child of God can expect to be trained by the Shepherd of his soul. “Lord, thank you for comforting and encouraging me today in the way I should go.”
YOU PREPARE A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES
After the prophet Samuel anointed David king of Israel, he was a marked man. Saul was not about to relinquish his throne gracefully. David became a man on the run. But wherever he hid in the wilderness, he found God preparing the table of His presence for him. The Bible says, “Taste and see the Lord is good.” In Revelation 3:20, Christ, the Lord of the Church said to the Church, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” What a wonderful invitation to fellowship and intimacy? Jesus Christ himself invites us to His table.
He prepares the table of His presence for us in the midst of our adversities, difficulties, vexing problems, fears and anxieties. We can feast and rejoice no matter what our circumstances happen to be.
A pastor tells the story of being invited to a home for Thanksgiving dinner. He recalls that once his host welcomed him, he never saw her again until it was time to say good-bye. Unfortunately, that is a picture of what happens with many believers. We become so busy doing this and that for the Lord like stressed out Martha, that we have little time for actually lingering in His presence like contemplative Mary. Church work must never replace devotion to the Lord. As Byrn MacPhail puts it, “Jesus has called you first to worship, second to work.”
“Lord, I'm coming to the table of your presence today. Thank you for the banquet laid out for me.”
YOU ANOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL
This is where it gets interesting. In Bible times, a guest invited for dinner was offered water and a towel for his feet upon arrival as the roads were dusty and people wore sandals. He would also be offered olive oil to refresh his face after being in the hot sun. Oil was a sign of fellowship. The Bible tells us there were all kinds of uses for olive oil.
A new king would be dedicated by pouring olive oil out over his head. For example, when the prophet Samuel came to the house of Jesse, he asked to see his sons. But God did not reveal who his next king was. Samuel asked if there was any other son. Jessie said almost as an afterthought that little David, the runt of the family was out tending sheep. Samuel said, “Get him.” and proceeded to anoint him king of Israel.
The priests used olive oil to fuel the lamp in the Holy Place in the Temple, symbolic of the God who was watching over Israel. They also used it to consecrate or set apart items as holy to the Lord. Priests would prepare themselves for ministry by putting olive oil on their bodies.
Olive oil was also used in prayer for healing of the sick. In James chapter five, the apostle calls for the elders of the church to anoint the sick with oil and pray for them. There is nothing magical about the oil. It symbolizes the Holy Spirit who does in us all these things already mentioned.
Shepherds would rub the oil into the face of a sheep to heal cuts, fend off insects and moisturize.
To anoint means to pour out. Spiritually and symbolically, the oil reminds us the Holy Spirit is pouring out His power on us. Some times in a church, you will hear people say, “That preacher or that singer was very anointed today.” What they mean is that the Spirit of God was residing upon them with great power. “Lord, thank you for pouring out your Holy Spirit on me today.”
MY CUP OVERFLOWS
David continues his celebration of God's presence. An overflowing cup symbolizes abundance, the God of more than enough. It's the attitude of gratitude. “Lord, my cup overflows with your goodness to me today. “Thanks for all you are doing in my life today.”
SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY WILL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE
The Christian life is one of progressive maturity in Christ. I don't know about you, but I find it pretty amazing to know God's goodness and mercy will be following along behind me as I keep my eyes on the Good Shepherd. “Lord, thank you for your goodness and mercy which follow me today everywhere I go.”
AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER
This is often thought to mean that David is speaking of life after his death. But remember, David was called “a man after God's own heart,” so called because he constantly craved intimacy with God. The Temple was not yet built when Psalm 23 was written, but the Tabernacle was kept in a tent where the faithful went to worship. David loved to go to the house of God every day, to bask in His presence. The New Testament tells us that God's Temple is no longer a building. Believers are the temples of the Spirit.
It's true that we believers will one day live forever in God's house, and our Good Shepherd did say, “In my Father's house are many rooms. I go there to prepare a place for you.” But let's not forget to fellowship with Him daily on the way through life as temples of the Spirit.
Dwelling in the house of the Lord also has to do with cultivating the present moment sense of God's presence. We don't need to wait for next Sunday to worship Him. Lets say you are doing the dishes. What a heaven sent opportunity to spend some time conversing with the Lord as you wash and dry. Every day circumstances present us with many opportunities to practice God's presence, to turn the present moment into a moment of worship. “Lord I will live in your presence moment by moment. I will worship you all day.”
Have you allowed yourself to associate the Shepherd's psalm with gloom and death, never realizing the invitation extends to us to meet Jesus our Good Shepherd? The Shepherd calls to each one of us, inviting us into His presence. “Lord, I am coming. I will sit with You at the table of your presence.”