What follows is a sermon that I had the privilege of preaching at my home church a few weeks ago. Some associated parts of the liturgy are included.
New Testament Reading: John 10:1-18
Epistle Reading: Revelation 7:8-17
Sermon Text: Psalm 23
The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
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.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
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 your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the
Sermon: Our Great Shepherd is Always with Us
1. Introduction: Importance and Structure of Psalm 23
I cannot remember the first time I heard Psalm 23, but I am sure it was early in life. My entire Sixth Grade class at Troy Elementary, the public school I attended, memorized Psalm 23 in the King James Bible. It was part of our grade. That was back when you could do that sort of thing in public schools. I can still do pretty well with quoting the Psalm from memory. I would bet that many of you could do the same. It is one of the most beautiful expressions of trust in the Bible.
The great Baptist preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon, call this “the pearl of the Psalms.” Alexander Maclaren, a noted English non-conformist preacher in the 1800s, said, “the world could spare many a large book better than this [beautiful] little Psalm. It has dried many tears and supplied the mold into which many hearts have poured their peaceful faith.” James Montgomery Boice, the famous former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wrote, “Ministers have used it to comfort people who are going through severe personal trials, suffering illness, or dying. For some, the words of this Psalm have been the last thing they uttered in life.” It is truly a remarkable poem.
In the words of Martin Luther, the great reformer, Psalm 23 is “A Psalm of thanks in which a Christian heart praises and thanks God for teaching him and keeping him on the right way, comforting and protecting him in every danger in his holy word.” It is a psalm of confidence in the Lord’s protection and care.
I do not think a young man wrote Psalm 23. I picture an older man, looking back over the course of his life and seeing the work of God. I believe this because of a conversation I had with an older friend, in his nineties, in which he told me that I had not even begun to grasp what the Twenty-Third said at my young age. I was 47 at the time.
Psalm 23 concerns two images of a shepherd: the shepherd as he tends his flock, and the shepherd as he plays host to a guest. The powerful images of a gentle, loving shepherd tending his flock begin the Psalm. We see the shepherd leading the flock to green pastures and quiet waters where food and drink can be found; the right things in the right way.
Some people have been uncomfortable with the metaphor of God’s people as sheep. We do not think of sheep as smart animals. They can be dirty, and they smell awful.
But the metaphor is fitting in some ways. John Calvin pointed out that sheep wander about without a leader, and God’s people, as is illustrated in the Old Testament People of Israel, wander about in our sin.
I happen to think sheep are smart in at least one way. They know that the shepherd is there to care for them and guide them, and they are usually smart enough to stay close to him. When you need to depend on someone, it is smart to depend on someone who is dependable. There is no one more dependable that a God who would go to the lengths that Jehovah did to rescue his people.
I am not uncomfortable with the metaphor of us as sheep, instead I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of God as a shepherd. The job of shepherd was an undesirable one. A shepherd had to live with the sheep twenty-four, seven. He had to care for them, and the task was unending. Food, water, guidance and protection were required in any weather and every season. It was a job often given to the youngest son, the least valuable of the sons in Hebrew life, as it was given in David’s case.
I am uncomfortable because this role is truly beneath God. To take an undesirable role is left to slaves, not slave owners. But we serve a God who became a man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Turn in your Bibles to Philippians Chapter 2, beginning in verse 5:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
I am uncomfortable and humbled, but not surprised that God would be a shepherd.
The second half of Psalm 23 pictures the shepherd as a host to a traveler or guest. A table is prepared. Enemies are kept at bay, as required by the tradition of hospitality that dominated David’s time.
This tradition is still practiced in many Middle-eastern and Eastern countries today. It is a tradition that would require a host to fight to the death to protect his guests. The guest’s cup is always full and his head is anointed with oil as was done for comfort and care, showing that no expense will be spared in the entertainment of a guest.
As a Hebrew poem translated into English, any form of rhyme and meter are lost to us. But there are other things unique to Hebrew poetry that will help us gain this Psalm’s value, as we shall see shortly.
We will explore the main theme of this poem together first; then we will explore three other closely related, but distinct themes. We will examine the practical implications of each of the themes to our lives as we go.
2. The Lord’s Presence (“…for you are with me…”)
The main theme of Psalm 23 is that the Lord is present with us in all of life. There are two specific reasons why we know that this is the main point: symmetry and change of voice.
The phrase “…for you are with me…” is almost in the center of the English versions, but it is at the very center in the structure of the Hebrew poem. This was one way the poets of old emphasized a point. They put the main thing in the center. It is the heart of the poem, expressed plainly at the exact center of the poem.
The voice of the poem changes at “for you are with me.” Note that at the beginning, “The Lord is my shepherd,” the poet is describing the Lord to someone else. But at the phrase “you are with me,” the poet switches from describing the Lord to someone else to addressing the Lord directly. This is another strong signal used to stress the poem’s main point.
The Lord is with his people. No matter the circumstances or events of life, the presence of The Lord is a comfort. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
The “shadow of death” refers to places of great danger and foreboding. “Valleys” were places where the predators lurked and the pathway was tough. It is a dark valley where enemies lie in wait. Even in life’s most frightening situations, God’s guiding presence is what we need, and God grants his people his presence.
God does lead us through the valleys of life, but he does not lead us where he was not willing to go himself. Think of what God endured in the Person of Christ while on this earth: hunger, thirst, homelessness, betrayal, desertion, torture, and death. God goes there with us, and he is therefore even more worthy of our respect.
Many believers have found a firm foundation to fall back on in the midst of their trials and tribulations. As the Lord spoke in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This verse was the inspiration for the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” The last verse reads, "The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose; I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no never forsake!"
I have recently listened to an audiobook written by the contemporary Christian singer Stephen Curtis Chapman called Between Heaven and the Real World. It is a wonderful book, but in that book, he tells the tragic story of the death of his adopted daughter.
His family had adopted two children from China to add to their three biological children. As an adoptive parent, I can testify to the many challenges that are involved in domestic adoption, but the difficulties involved in an international adoption are many times more. It was all worth it many times over to adopt my daughter, and I know Stephen Curtis Chapman must have felt the same way about his daughter Maria Sue.
On a Summer morning, Stephen’s seventeen year old son accidentally ran over his four year old daughter in their driveway as she played. Maria was pronounced dead soon after at the hospital.
Stephen repeatedly noted in his book that the Lord’s presence made it possible for him to function in his overwhelming grief. He wrote, “I don’t see how those who don’t know Jesus can possibly make it through
something like this.” God’s presence, and the peace it brings, is part of our experience as believers, and we should be grateful for that presence. It is no small comfort, especially in difficult and sad times, to realize that the Lord Jesus is with us as our wise and gentle leader, provider and protector.
3. The Lord’s Provision (“…I shall not want…”)
We turn now to the Lord’s provision. As a shepherd guides his sheep to food that the sheep can eat in peace in “green pastures” and to water that can be drunk with ease at “still waters,” so believers can trust in God’s provision for them. As a host who provides wine, anointing oil, and protection, God can be trusted to care for his children.
God’s children “shall not want,” that is, they shall lack nothing. It is not a lack of desire, but the idea that all his needs are met and will be in the future. The New Living Translation says here, “I have all that I need.”
As Philippians 2:19 says, “God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (ESV). As Jesus said in Matthew 7:9-11, “…which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (ESV).
This includes intangible things as well. What could “he restores my soul” mean but that David’s soul, his heart and spirit, were downcast from time to time?
How many struggle with depression in all its forms? How many struggle with extreme anxiety? How many struggle with even more serious forms of mental illness?
Not to discount medicine, which is itself God’s gift and is as valuable for treating these things as it is for treating sugar diabetes, but God restores the soul. God gives us a reason to live and a reason to have faith. God fights off the gloom of depression and the hard edge of anxiety. God provides for us.
It may be only in heaven, but the good will come. We rightly shy away from the false gospel that says that God always rewards his people in this life and that financial riches are a sign of God’s approval, but we should not go to far.
The good will come.
Jesus did say, “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38, ESV). We cannot forget that.
Lastly, sheep cannot safely drink from swift streams. They need quiet pools of water. God not only gives us what we need, but in the way that is best for us.
4. The Lord’s Protection (“…your rod and your staff, they comfort me …You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”)
“Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod is usually made of wood, about two to four feet long, and straight. It is a perfect club. A wise and good shepherd would never use a club on his sheep because it would scare them away. You do not scare away those you are trying to protect.
The rod, or club, is for the enemies of the sheep. It is just the right size and balance for the shepherd to have a strong, effective swing to drive away those enemies. God can do “all his holy will” as the old Baptist catechism says. He is, in that sense, all- powerful, and fully able to defend us.
What are your enemies? Addiction? Difficulties in marriage? Circumstances at work? Worry over a wayward child? And we all have an enemy, the devil. O! “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (as the Bible says in 1 Peter 5:8, ESV). However, our enemies are powerless to prevent the enjoyment of God’s hospitality.
The Lord provides protection for his sheep. God will defend his sheep. He will come to their aid. As Isaiah says, “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10, ESV). The same Lord who rescued the children of Israel from Pharaoh and the great kingdom of Egypt will rescue his children today.
The staff is much longer than the club, and may be six to eight feet long. It has a crook, or bend, at one end to enable a shepherd to reach down and turn a sheep back to the right path. It is not a weapon, but a tool for guidance and rescue.
God “…leads [us] in paths of righteousness.” This is also part of the Lord’s protection. God leads us in the right path to the right destination.
Many of the problems I have faced in life have been due to my own sin, and I believe that is a common experience among many Christians. God protects us by providing his law to guide us away from sin and all its troubles and into righteousness and all its rewards. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 119:5, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And so it truly is. With the power of God’s Spirit, God’s people follow his law.
In my profession of OSHA compliance, there are many rules and regulations. So many that it is often overwhelming.
One of the ones that seems silly to construction workers is the regulation that requires a certain amount of light in stairwells on construction sites. But, as one who has performed a large number of accident investigations, it does make sense to provide that light. We see to avoid stumbles and falls, and a stairwell is a great place to fall.
And so it is with God’s Word, the light that allows us to avoid the hazards in our lives from our own sins and transgressions. It is a great gift to us as God’s children.
5. The Lord’s Pursuit (“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…”)
The goodness of God is one of the attributes of God, as well as a description of His very essence. God, by nature, is inherently good, as Psalm 34:8 tells us: "Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” He is the foundation of goodness and of everything good—He did not obtain it from another source. People can have good traits or do good deeds, but goodness is not in our character. Our goodness comes from God’s Spirit at work in us.
The Goodness of God is evident in all His creations and accomplishments. Genesis 1:31 says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good..." We cannot earn and do not merit His goodness. It is available to us regardless of our station in life, and even though we are not worthy of it. Matthew 5:45 says: “...He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." And we read in Psalm 145:9 that “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made." Because God is good, he loves all people in some sense, and he loves his children ultimately.
“Mercy” here is a unique Hebrew word, “hesed.” Because of its use in the Old Testament, theologians have often called “hesed” God’s covenant love for his people. It is love that goes beyond the requirements of duty. It is the mercy of a Holy God. That is a great mystery. How can a holy God be merciful and loving toward sinners like us? But, he is.
Vodie Baucham, a college minister who has written some great books, tells the story of a young man who came to him with a question: how can an all-powerful, benevolent God allow evil and suffering in his world. Baucham replied, “You must be a first semester philosophy student. That is a first semester question. Go study some more philosophy. Come back to me when you are overwhelmed by another question: how can a holy God love a sinner like me? Then we will talk.” Yes, God loves us.
“Follow” is a very inadequate word to translate the Hebrew in verse six according to several commentators. It translates the Hebrew word “radaf.” “Follow” is not a forceful enough word. “Pursue” might, as others have suggested, be a better word. “Chasing down” might work as well. I like even more force behind the concept. Goodness and mercy will “hunt you down.” God will do whatever it takes to lavish his love and mercy on his children.
Why would love and mercy have to hunt us down? Why wouldn’t we instantly response to love from a good God? Turn with me in your Bibles to Romans Chapter 3, beginning in verse 10:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Not only do we not seek God, we rebel against him. We fight him as hard as we can. As Romans 8:7 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot” (ESV).
J. Vernon McGee, in his Commentary on Ephesians, tells it this way:
I heard this story many years ago. A black boy in Memphis, Tennessee, wanted to join a conservative, fundamental church, and the deacons were examining him. They asked him, “How did you get saved?” He answered, “I did my part, and God did His part.” The deacons thought they had him, so they asked him what was his part and what was God’s part. He said, “My part was the sinning. I ran from God as fast as these rebellious legs would take me and my sinful heart would lead me. I ran from Him. But you know, He done took out after me ’til He done run me down.” My friend, there is nothing in a theology book that tells it as well as that. God is the One who did the saving. Our part was the sinning. The late Dr. Harry A. Ironside told this story. A little boy was asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The little fellow answered, “Sir, I didn’t know He was lost. But I was lost and He found me.” My friend, you don’t find Jesus. He finds you. He is the One who went out after the lost sheep, and He is the One who found that sheep.
God pursues his children until they come to him. Christians have nothing to brag about when it comes to our salvation; all we contributed was sin and rebellion. We should be the most humble people on earth.
I do not understand how some one can say that we can lose our salvation when “goodness and mercy shall [pursue] me all the days of my life.” Salvation is not up to me. It is up to God and in his goodness and mercy. He will see to it that Christians continue in the faith.
As Paul wrote so eloquently of this in Romans Chapter 8. Turn with me in your Bibles to Romans Chapter 8, beginning in verse 35:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I
am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Nothing can separate us from the goodness and mercy of God that pursue us. Absolutely nothing at all whatsoever can do that.
Conclusion: How I know the Lord is My Shepherd
Can you say with David “The Lord is my Shepherd?” Not someone else’s shepherd; not a shepherd of God’s people in general, but of me? How do I know the “he is with me”? Not his people in general, but me in particular? How do I know that I, not people in general, will live in the house of the Lord forever?
This is the most important set of questions any person could ask, and the Bible gives us an answer. We know we can answer these questions with a “yes” if we repent of our sins and have faith in Jesus Christ.
As Christ said in his first sermons, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). “Repent” is a strong Greek word. It means to turn around or change direction. It is like driving your car down a street and realizing you have missed a turn. The easiest way to go back is to do a ‘u-turn,’ to turn around and go in the opposite direction.
That is repentance. It is to realize we are going the wrong direction, into sin and rebellion, and turn from that sin to a new, holy way of life. Not a perfect life, far from it, but a good life nonetheless. It is to turn from the direction of trying to do good things to earn my way into heaven and turn to faith in Christ to get me into heaven.
As the noted Scottish preacher David Dickson said on his deathbed, "I have taken all my good deeds, and all my bad deeds, and have cast them together in a heap before the Lord, and have fled from both to Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace.”
Faith is trusting Christ. As Paul told the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Not to just believe about, but to believe in. Not just believing certain facts about Christ, but going beyond that too trusting him and what he did to get us into heaven.
Christ lived a perfect life, died a death he did not deserve, and suffered God’s punishment for the sins of his people. He offers all of us credit for what he did if we repent and believe. As the David wrote in Psalm 32, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” (Psalm 32:1-2, ESV).
What is your answer to those questions? Is the Lord your shepherd? Is he with you?
If so, rejoice, for you will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” If not, repent of your sins and believe the good news about Jesus. Repentance and faith are something God requires of you. They are his commandment to be obeyed, not just his invitation to be accepted or rejected as we see fit. May each of us turn to the Lord while he may be found.
Let us pray… Father in heaven, be our shepherd and our host. Be with us forever. Provide for us in our great need. Protect us from our many enemies. Thank you for your love and mercy toward us. In the Name of your One and Only Son we pray, Amen.