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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Psalm 23 - The Lord is MY Shepherd

Psalms is an amazing book. It’s a collection of 150 Hebrew poems, prayers, and songs—written over a span of hundreds of years by several different authors. Of the 150 Psalms, King David wrote 73 of them and nearly a third were written by anonymous authors.

The Psalms were written in Hebrew poetry, which has a few similarities to our English poetry but is, by in large, very different. Many of the Psalms came to be used by the choirs that sang in the Jewish temple, but the book of Psalms is not primarily a hymnbook. At some point after Israel’s exile into Babylon (after 586 B.C.) the various poems and songs were collected and arranged very carefully into the book of Psalms.

The book as a whole has a very unique design and message. There are Psalms of thanksgiving. There are Psalms for various festivals and feasts. There are songs of trust and meditation. But the two key themes of the Psalms that are woven through the entire Psalter are the themes of Lament and Praise.
Throughout the 150 Psalms the focus slowly shifts from lament to praise. Many of the early Psalms emphasize the personal and corporate sorrow of the nation of Israel. 

Psalm 4:1 “...answer me when I call, O God...
Psalm 5:1“...Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.

The book of Psalms Finally concludes with five Psalms of praise to the God of Israel—each of which concludes with the Hebrew word "Hallelujah!" which means "Praise Yah" or "Praise the Lord!"

The book of Psalms has long been a source of strength and comfort for God’s people. Many of the early church reformers of the 16th century who were martyred for their proclamation of the gospel leaned heavily on the Psalms as they faced execution. In the mid-twentieth century pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for conspiracy in a plot to kill Hitler. It was from prison, just prior to his execution, that he penned one of his final writings entitled "Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible." As he neared the day of his execution, Bonhoeffer leaned heavily on the Psalms and its guidance in approaching God in the proper way.

Wherever you’re at in life—whether your rejoicing over the miraculous work of God or in the depths of despair and sorrow from a devastating blow in life—the Psalms will speak pointed truth into your life.

Psalm 23 is perhaps the most well known Psalm. It’s a Psalm of David as he reflects on the work of God in his own life and it gives us a beautiful pattern and promise of God’s work in the lives of his people. Many of the Psalms captivate us with their vivid imagery and realistic acknowledgment of the struggles we face in our daily lives. Psalm 23, perhaps more than any other Psalm, reaches to the depth of our soul with an unparalleled simplicity and beauty.

Like many others who grew up in and around the church, I memorized the twenty-third Psalm with the help of my mother before I even knew how to read it.

Psalm 23:1–6
1 A Psalm of David.
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 over ows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The twenty-third Psalm gives us a beautiful picture of God’s care for His people. There’s just one main point that you need to remember from the text this morning. It’s similar to the title that most of your Bibles probably have for the Psalm and it comes from David’s opening statement in verse one that the Lord is his Shepherd.

I. The Lord is a Shepherd

One of the few similarities between English and Hebrew poetry is the use of metaphors, similes, and other figurative language to convey a truth. The challenge with figurative language is that it’s often difficult to translate the exact meaning into other languages and cultures—especially when those cultures are separated by thousands of miles and years.

Just this past week my son, Grant, was reading a book to a visiting friend from Africa and one of the characters in the book said, “he was going to completely lose it!” Even nine-year-old Grant knew that was a figurative saying that our African brother might not understand, so he stopped to explain that “completely losing it” means he would “go crazy.”

Here’s another example of figurative language from Psalm 84:11 “For the Lord God is a sun and shield...” The psalmist isn’t saying that God is a sun or that God is a shield. He’s saying that God is like the sun and like a shield in that He provides life and protection for His people.

In Psalm 23 David uses a metaphor for God’s work in his life that is especially meaningful to him. David had served as a shepherd among his father’s flocks for years. He knew the intricacies of shepherding. He knew the difficulties and commitment required on the part of a Shepherd who genuinely loved and cared for his flock. He knew it was a wonderful picture of God’s genuine love and care for his people.

The biblical imagery of the Lord as a shepherd did not originate with David though. All the way back in Genesis 48:15 Jacob blessed his sons and described the Lord as “...the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.

For David, describing the Lord as a shepherd was not some vague or random image. Rather, it reveals the comprehensive and committed care that God provides for his people. The concise and vivid way David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes God as a Shepherd in Psalm 23 is what has made it such a deeply moving and captivating Psalm.

There are many important details we’ll look at concerning the Lord’s role as a Shepherd of his people but they can be arranged and sorted into four main roles; four roles that are completely and perfectly fulfilled by the Good Shepherd of the New Testament—Jesus—the Messiah.

Almost 700 years before Jesus took on flesh and became like us, here’s how the prophet Isaiah described His coming ministry:  Isaiah 40:11 "He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."

We are going to look at the four ways David describes God’s role as a Shepherd and then see how Jesus, fully God and fully man, perfectly exhibited those same roles in His life and ministry. The first implication or role of God as Shepherd comes from that first phrase of verse one. David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

(1) The Lord is a Shepherd who knows His sheep (23:1a)

David understood that a shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd. On those dark and stormy nights, tending to his own flock, when he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face— David could call to his sheep and they would respond—because he was their Shepherd. God calls to his sheep and his sheep respond! Look at what Jesus said:

John 10:14–15 "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."

Jesus identifies himself as God through one of the many “I AM” statements in the book of John. This
“I AM” statement has a double emphasis since
he also equates himself with the Messianic shepherd promised in Isaiah 40. But look at what he said after that amazing “I AM” statement: “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Sheep are not that smart, but they know the voice of their shepherd! A shepherd and their sheep have a very personal relationship. God’s people enjoy a close, personal relationship with the Lord—because the GOOD Shepherd laid down his life for them. Jesus voluntarily, willingly gave His own life for His people.

Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!” Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Good Shepherd will save you from your death sentence due to you because of your sin.

The second role the Lord has as a Shepherd is found beginning in the second part of verse 1: “I shall not want.” David meant that since he had the Lord as his shepherd, he had no other want; he was lacking nothing because...

(2) The Lord is a Shepherd who provides for His sheep (23:2a)

In our American culture we are under the illusion that we are the masters of our own destiny. If you work hard enough or long enough then the American nightmare (I mean dream) is that you can have all the toys you want!

So, we spend the majority of our lives trying to secure provisions: securing enough money to buy food, to by a home, to send out children to college, to retire, etc.! Our stomachs remind us of our need for sustenance morning, noon, and night. But we cannot provide for ourselves—especially when it comes to our spiritual need.

Children grow up and hopefully become less dependent on their parents. Sheep, though, are always completely dependent upon their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to provide for them! David said, “I shall not want.” There were no wants on the part of David because he knew God has met his needs. God’s people shall lack nothing because of His care. This is an expression of contentment in the Shepherd!

For those who are God’s sheep, God has already met and will continue to meet all your needs in Christ. It’s how Paul opened his letter to the Ephesians in chapter 1 verse 3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

David had no wants because he was content in the Lord providing for his needs. And then he carries on the shepherd/sheep analogy and God’s provision by describing the provision in the first part of verse 2. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Green pastures and lush grass, both essential to the success and survival of the flock.

The spiritual nutriment we need as God’s people comes from the Word of God! When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 “Man shall not live by bread alone, buy by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Just as sheep need lush, green grass that provide the essential nutrients to sustain life—God’s spiritual  flock needs spiritual food that only comes through the Word of God! Listen to how the prophet Ezekiel describes the coming role of the Messiah:

Ezekiel 34:14–15 "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."

One of the many places we see the importance of the Word nourishing the flock is at the end of Hebrews chapter 5. The writer to the Hebrews basically took the recipients of the letter to the woodshed. (There’s that figurative language again, so if you aren’t familiar with it, that’s not a good thing to go the woodshed.) The author basically said, “you’ve been fed long enough—you should be feeding others! You should be teaching others the nourishing Word of God—yet you aren’t even weaned off  the spiritual milk. You are still unskilled in the word!”

We must seek the provision that the Shepherd has given us! The food for your soul is the Word of God! Crave it! When you get to the sections that taste more like beets or brussel sprouts keep eating it up. Your mom and dad were right: the stuff  that’s hard to get down is often the most nourishing. Wrestle with the text—work through it and grow in your spiritual life!

If you are visiting with us today and perhaps looking for a church home, let me give some important direction to you... As you evaluate the churches you visit (including ours) ask yourself “will the teaching and preaching of this church grow me in my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and help me be weaned off  the spiritual milk if I join this church assembly?” Today many churches serve up energy drinks and candy. They provide a momentary high and excitement, but they have zero long-term nutritional value. To quote John Calvin, "[The] flock of Christ cannot be fed except with pure doctrine which is alone our spiritual food.”1

And let me say this to those of you who are elders in the church or aspire to the office of elder or to those of you who are members of our local assembly and will someday consider future elder nominations! Elders are often called under-shepherds because we are called to shepherd God’s flock serving under the great and good Shepherd.

1 Peter 5:2 directs elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Elders are responsible for the local flock that is among us. How do we shepherd the flock of God? Primarily by feeding them! Jesus had a very pointed discussion with Simon Peter in John 21. Three times he repeated a similar command—Feed my lambs—tend my sheep—feed my sheep...

Elders, the under-shepherds should model God’s shepherding of his people—and the first and primary way we are to do that is by feeding the souls of the people through the Word of God! As one author put it, “A fundamental responsibility of any and every shepherd is to assure that the sheep are well nourished.”2 It’s why we see the Apostle Paul command Timothy—preach the Word! Be ready whenever to feed the flock!

The under-shepherds (the elders) ought to oversee the preaching and teaching of the Word to protect the integrity of the food. The elders are to oversee the singing of the Word to ensure that the lyrics are theologically rich and robust. The elders are to guard the practice of the Word through baptism and communion. The elders are to oversee and model one-on-one discipleship among the flock. In whatever form the Word is dispensed it is the responsibility of the elders to make sure that the food doesn’t spoil.

Ok, we’ve made it through one and half verses. We need to keep moving. The third way the Lord is a Shepherd (there at the end of verse 2 and 3) “he leads me beside still waters... He leads me in paths of righteousness...”

(3) The Lord is a Shepherd who leads His sheep (23:2b–3)

Humans need a leader. We need direction and purpose in life! The Israelites proved that point over and over again as God led his people out of bondage in Egypt and brought them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Once the people finally entered the Promised Land, God raised up judges to rescue them from their enemies and lead the nation. Finally, the people demanded a king because they knew they needed a leader and they failed to acknowledge God as their king.

David describes God as a Shepherd who leads his people to “still waters” for refreshment and cleansing—which results in “restoring the soul.” There is a tremendous spiritual lesson here that we’ve encountered over and over again reading through the Bible together. God provides forgiveness and peace for his people. Those who are His sheep follow him to forgiveness and cleansing... which then results in us following him down paths of righteousness. He makes us righteous and then helps us walk in right paths! What an amazing picture!

God desires to lead us into greater depths of righteousness in our daily lives! 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8 says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” Striving to live a holy life as a Christian matters greatly to God! It’s why there are so many high qualifications (many of them pertaining to holiness) for leaders in the church!

Those who are in leadership positions in the church are continually reminded that they are to set an example for the flock (because the flock is behind them following their lead), but we must always remember that we are following the chief Shepherd so that HE gets the glory! Look at the end of verse three. The reason God leads his sheep is “for his name’s sake” that HE gets the glory!

All through the Old Testament God accomplished His words. He redeemed his people, He saved them from destruction, He led them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land for His name’s sake! We must always remember it is God’s work to lead his people, so that He gets the glory, but a key part of his leadership is through under-shepherds He has established to lead under his authority. Peter describes this biblical leadership as “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3) 

Speaking of not domineering over the sheep but leading out in front by example... the story is told about a group of tourists in Israel who had been informed by their Israeli tour guide, after observing a  flock and their shepherd, that shepherds always lead their flocks from the front. He told his attentive listeners that they never “drive” the sheep from behind.  A short time later they drove past a flock along the road where the shepherd was walking behind them. The tourists quickly called this to their guide’s attention and he stopped the bus to step out and have a word with the “shepherd.” As he boarded the bus he had a sheepish grin on his face (pun intended) and announced to his eager listeners, “that wasn’t the shepherd, that was the butcher!”

Beware those who look like a shepherd but really are wolves in sheepskin! Which leads us to the fourth role that God fills as a Shepherd (found in verses 4 and 5). David’s words are pointed and powerful.

(4) The Lord is a Shepherd who protects His sheep (23:4–5)

Through the fiercest drought and storms, the darkest valleys of life, the valley that comes in the shadow of death, David feared no evil... and then he gave two reasons why:

(1) For you are with me. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he told his disciples “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” God is forever with those who are His own because he lives in us through the Holy Spirit! It is the Spirit that empowers and seals us for that great day of redemption!

(2) Your rod and your staff  they comfort me. These are the tools of the shepherd. David said that he defended his flocks against lions and bears using these tools. Think about what the Lord can do who has every tool and power at his disposal to protect His sheep!

When we turn to the New Testament, here’s how Jesus again establishes himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:27–28 "27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand."

As God’s sheep we need fear no evil for what can man do to us!! Certainly, Paul had the amazing protection of the Great Shepherd in mind when he penned these words in Romans 8 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: Romans 8:38–39 "38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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."

God’s persistent, steadfast love secures our ultimate salvation/redemption. But on the way toward our ultimate redemption there are many things that God provides/does for us as his sheep. Clearly, God protects His sheep by keeping us secure in our salvation, but look at the other ways God protects His sheep: 

(1) He uses the elders/overseers among the flock. Here are the words of Paul speaking to the elders at Ephesus recorded for us in Acts 20:28–30 "28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them."  God uses others who can protect us from those who would seek to pull us away and shipwreck our faith! This couldn’t be more perfectly illustrated than by this story put out by the Associated Press back in 2005. It came in from Istanbul, Turkey.

              First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had 
              left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others 
              followed, each leaping off  the same cliff, Turkish media reported. In the end, 
              450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the local 
              newspaper said.  Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher 
              and cushioned the fall. 26 families had their sheep grazing together and only 
              a few families had sheep left.4

I can’t even imagine what a pile of 1,500 white fluffy sheep must have looked like, but what a horrific situation for those families! We need under-shepherds who protect the flock from the errant sheep who runs off the cliff!  

(2) God also protects His flock by placing us together in local assemblies! In Matthew 18, immediately after telling the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells us what to do if our brother or sister in Christ sins against us. The first line of protection from the escalating trap of sin is to go talk to them alone. If they don’t listen, we are to talk one or two others. If they still don’t listen and repent of their sin, then we are to take it to the church—to the assembly. The assembly then becomes the protection for the name of Jesus and his reputation that could be marred by this one who claims to be a sheep but isn’t acting like it.

The Lord is a shepherd who protects his sheep. Now look at verse 5. Even in the presence of our spiritual enemies, he supplies us with what we need—down to the last enemy to be destroyed—death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

David finally concludes the Psalm with the reminder of God’s faithfulness to His sheep. Those who walk by faith shall realize the goodness and mercy of God. David knew that God’s good, loyal love would vigorously pursue him throughout his life so that David might enjoy full communion and fellowship in the presence of the Lord ...another picture we see of Jesus with His sheep in Revelation 7:17 “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

I have 5 questions for you to evaluate your own life and evaluate whether you're following the shepherd in paths of righteousness.

(1) Is the Lord YOUR Shepherd? The question I asked earlier—Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!”

(2) Do you long for the Shepherd’s return? 1 Peter 5:4 “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” We have a great hope to look forward to, the glorious appearing of the Good Shephard. Do you long for his return?

(3) Do you properly appreciate God’s provision in your life? If God is the shepherd who provides for the sheep, do you appreciate what he has done in your life? God gave His only Son, Jesus—to die in your place! When you fully grasp and believe in that truth in WILL transform your life! What does that appreciation look like in your life?

(4) Are you following the path of righteousness? Living a holy life, living a life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, should define your life—if you are one of God’s flock. You should look like and act like one of His sheep.

(5) Finally, have you thanked the Shepherd recently? Have you thanked our heavenly Father for calling to you, for knowing you, for providing for you, for leading you, for protecting you?

May we together as the flock of God, say confidently and joyfully with David— The Lord is MY Shepherd!

1 John Calvin, Commentaries, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 22:144.
2 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 141. 
3 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 156. 
4 beat/2005-07-08-sheep-suicide_x.htm

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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