Today we look at the most popular Old Testament passage. This Psalm has been quoted in fox holes and in funerals. Presidents have used it to help a grieving nation; Lincoln read it during the Civil War and George Bush after 911. It’s only 6 verses; simple enough for kids to understand and yet a bottomless pit for theologians to discover. The 23rd Psalm has ministered to millions of believers. It is as timeless today as it was when written over 3000 years ago.
Do you like dogs? We do. We have three. Have you ever seen a dog that was mistreated in some way? One time it was cold outside and I saw this dog tied to a tree shivering, I thought to myself, “that person really shouldn’t own a dog!” Or have you seen that person and their dog has a little sweater, their nails done and they eat like a king or queen? Like Paris Hilton’s dog carried around a little purse always on her lap? Which dog would you chose to be?
Each of us has a choice in who will care for us in this life. Satan would love nothing more than for you to be tied up to a tree shivering out in the cold. Or we can choose to let God guide us. Some will say, “I lead myself.” If I lead myself I tend wrap the rope around and around the tree and I choke myself! I’m not capable leading myself for long. I believe God does a better job!
Let’s look at verse 1 “The LORD is my shepherd.” Noticed how personal this is. It’s not, “the lord is A shepherd, but MY shepherd. I think it’s great to insert your name where it says “my shepherd.” The Lord is Darrell’s Shepherd.
Notice also the use of all cap for LORD. The word used here is the word “Yahweh.” the Covenant name of God, the personal name of God. We first see this word used in Exodus 3 when Moses asked God through the burning bush, “who shall I say sent me?” “God replies, you say ‘I AM THAT I AM’ sent you.” Fast forward to the New Testament in John 8:58, Jesus was having a discussion about who he was with the Pharisees and he says, “before Abraham was I AM.” Jesus claims to be Yahweh; A God that is knowable. He is “the first and the last,” He is the one who’s “the same yesterday today and forever,” so another way to look at this Psalm is to say “Jesus is my shepherd” and that would be very accurate!
The second part of verse 1 says, “I shall not be in want.” This is also translated, “I shall not be in need.” God is our Shepherd and will meet our needs (not to be confused with our greeds.) Phillip Keller wrote a book called, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” He was a Shepherd by trade born in Africa and later move to Canada. He writes that he would always take his sheep to the best pastures so that they could be fed and cared for. He tells of one particular sheep, a beautiful female. She would always tend to walk along the fence line looking out into another pasture; he also called her, “Ms. Gadabout.” She never seemed to be content. I wonder how many of us as believers are like that? Always looking over the fence thinking that someone else’s life is better, or that someone else’s blessings are better or that the grass is greener? What type of reflection is that upon our shepherd who is guiding us and leading us exactly where he wants us to be?
In verse 2 it says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” The main idea of these first two verses to me is that God wants to give us an enduring peace. I’ve been fascinated by the articles lately talking about how in our society today there are high levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia and suicide. Especially among young people, these issues are at all-time highs. I wonder how in a time where we have so much technology, so many medical advances, food and resources and comfort at our fingertips why is there such high stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia? Some propose different reasons, but I wonder how often do we trust those things instead of God? I know for me I’ve tried to find peace in the pantry (food or drink). How many try to find peace in a pill or peace in a bottle, peace in a relationship? I’ve discovered the only lasting peace is found in God.
In verse 3 it says, “you restore my soul.” Sheep get “cast” meaning they eat something they shouldn’t eat and then it causes their bellies to swell up. They then lie down and before long they’re lying on their back with their feet sticking up. If they stay like this they will die. The shepherd has to come along pick them up set them upright, massage their swollen belly and help them to feel better. This is also a picture of what God does for our hearts minds and souls when we follow him. That is why a day off is so important (like the Sabbath) a day to rest physically and mentally. But I also believe that we need to be restored spiritually by worshipping and attending church. This is how God restores our soul.
Verse 3 continues, he guides me in Paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. This could also be translated, “he guides me down well-worn paths.” In other words God knows the paths that we need to go down and they are clear in His Word. How many times do we try to take another path and find ourselves in trouble? There are some fascinating stories out there about sheep. One that comes to mind is from some Shepherds in turkey that gathered their flocks together to talk, and before they knew it one of the small sheep decided to go off the cliff and took 400 other sheep with it before the shepherd’s could run over there and stop the chaos! How many times we see people taking other people astray, away from God’s principles and paths that are clearly outlined in His Word? We may think a new path or teaching may be better for us but it will lead us to death and destruction.
Verse 4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Can a shadow hurt you? When we walk with God even something as scary as death is only a shadow. It reminds me of the story of a dad and his young daughter driving down the road with the windows open on a nice spring day. Suddenly a bee flies in, the little girl is terrified and begins to scream. She’s allergic to bees and a sting could be dangerous for her. The bee lands on the dashboard and the dad cups his hand over the bee and weights for the inevitable, the sting. After the bee stings he opens his hand and the bee flies out. It’s buzzing around and the little girl screams again, “Oh Daddy the bee! The bee!” The dad says, “Honey he can’t hurt you now, and he opens his hand and reveals the stinger lodged in his hand. And this is exactly what Jesus has done for us! He’s taken the sting of death upon himself.
Shepherd’s would intentionally lead their sheep through dark valleys or crevices between cliff facings leading them from one pasture to another. God also leads us through shadows and dark times in our lives. There’s a there’s an Arab proverb that says, “All sunshine and no rain makes for a desert.” What does all rain make? A flood. Plants and animals need both sun and rain. Human beings also need times that are up and times that are down. God is the God of the hills and the valleys. God is there in the high times of our life and God is especially there in the low times of our life. Notice in verses 1 through 3 it says “he” or “his” five times referring to the Shepherd. In verse 4 he moves from talking ABOUT the shepherd to talking TO the shepherd!
It’s as if the dark times is when God becomes closest and most personal to us. It’s been said that, “God speaks to us in our pleasure but he shouts to us in our pain.” He is close to the brokenhearted. In dark times in scary times God is there.
It goes on to say, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” This is referring to the tools that the shepherd would use. The rod was for protection. It was generally a heavy stick that could be used as a club against the enemies of the Sheep. The rod wasn’t for the Sheep, but the enemies of the sheep.
How many times do I try to fight my own battles instead of letting God fight my battles for me? I’m reminded that the battle belongs to the Lord. That no weapon formed against me shall prosper! If I start trying to defend myself against people who would accuse me or speak against me main. I find myself on the wrong path of trying to get even, or get vengeance and that’s not God’s path for me.
The staff was longer and had a cook at the top. The end was used to guide the sheep, or prod the sheep when they needed to go on the right path. The crook was used to catch the sheep if he was going to go off of a cliff.
Verse 5, “you prepare a table for me” is also translated, “you prepare a banquet.” The Hebrew word is, “a king’s table.” This is no TV table! What do you find on a king’s table? Just goldfish and juice boxes? No, the king’s table would have the very best! This is a picture of God desiring to bless us in the presence of our enemies. How many times do I know that I’m blessed, but I’m slow to acknowledge my blessings come from God to others? I don’t want people to be jealous or envious. But I’ve found that God chooses to bless His people and he’ll do it in front of others! I don’t have to be ashamed a God’s blessings.
“You anoint my head with oil.” Now this is a term it’s not used very much in today’s language. In Old Testament times anointing was generally for kings, prophets and priests. They were anointed with olive oil (poured on their head) signifying that they were set apart for a particular task or purpose. The truth is that God still anoints as His followers today! You have been set apart for a task and purpose. That’s why God has created you to be here on this planet. He has something for you to do and he sets you apart and anoints you to make a difference in your family! To make a difference at your work! To help people, serve people, love people, encourage people! You are on this planet at this time at this moment and you’ve been anointed by God to make a difference.
“And my cup overflows.” this is also a picture of God’s abundance. God doesn’t just bless us a little bit. He often gives us so much and we need to see ourselves blessed in this way! Each of us has been greatly blessed by God and we have an opportunity to either act like Eor or from Winnie the Pooh. “Oh woe is me. poor me!” Or we can act like Tigger and be jumping up and excited about all that God has done in our lives.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” This is a promise: God’s blessings are not just for today, but every day for the rest of my life! Then it leads us to the last part that says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As this Psalm closes it again reminds me of Jesus.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He leads us, He calls us, He protects us, He lays his life down for the sheep. In the Old Testament the Sheep died for the sins of the Shepherd (in the sacrificial system). In the New Testament Jesus Our Shepherd dies for the sins of the sheep. He conquered death, He rose again and he says, “Do not fear, in my father’s house are many mansions I go and prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.” We know that guides us through life through hard times and ultimately to him in heaven.
I’ll close with story about a group of people that were at a dinner party. At this gathering was a famous play actor who had been in Broadway plays and a few movies. People were asking him to quote famous lines from plays or movies. As he did people would clap and cheer. There was also a pastor there that night and he asked the play actor, “Do you know the 23rd Psalm? He’d had a hard week and he wanted a little bit of encouragement. The play actor said, “Yes I do know the 23rd song and I will quote it under one condition. After I quote it, I would like you to quote it.” The pastor agreed, so the play actor quoted the 23rd Psalm and everybody clapped and cheered. It was a pastor’s turn, (thinking about his hard week and the Lord with him) he quoted the 23rd Psalm and when he got done there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Someone asked the play actor, “why when you quoted 23rd Psalm people clapped, but when he quoted the 23rd Psalm people cried. (They were impressed by the play actor but they were moved by the pastor) The play actor said, “I know the Psalm, he knows the shepherd.
Do you know the shepherd?