Psalm 23 is arguably the best known of all the psalms. Personally, Psalm 23 was the first piece of scripture that I can remember memorising. I can still picture reciting it, eyes half-closed, in front of Sunday school. Many others will remembering singing these words at school, at weddings and particularly at funerals.
What is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so popular? Well, it's short and it's poetic. But I think the reason, really, why Psalm 23 is so popular is that it strikes a chord with us. This psalm contains both the promise of restoration; of being led beside quiet waters and the realism of the 'valley of the shadow of death'. It's subject is how we get from the shadow of death to those quiet waters, how we cope with a desperate situation. All of know our need some answer, some mechanism to help us when nothing feels like it's firm under our feet.
David is in that place as he writes this Psalm, likely he is in fear for his life. If you can remember back a year to when we were last in Psalms, you'll remember the opening line of Psalm 22 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' and yet David can say here that the same God makes him lie in green pastures and restores his soul. How does David get from Psalm 22 to Psalm 23?
The answer I think is in the first five words of the Psalm, helpfully they are also our title tonight: 'The LORD is my shepherd'. I hope that tonight we'll be able to claim those five words for ourselves and see how they make all the difference to our lives especially when they pass through the darkest valleys. So we're going to think about the LORD being our shepherd under three headings, the first of which is...
1. The LORD is my shepherd I shall not lack [v1-3]
1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
David begins the Psalm with a remarkable personal claim on God. David calls Yahweh, the God who created the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, HIS shepherd. He doesn't say OUR shepherd, he says God's relationship to David, personally, is like that of a shepherd to his shepherd. In Psalm 78 David describes God leading Israel out of Egypt like a flock of sheep, certainly God is the shepherd of Israel corporately but the language David uses in v1 and through the Psalm is intensely personal. God is Israel's shepherd, yes but David also knows him as the shepherd of his life, of his heart.
David speaks of the God who is above all things as being intimately involved in his life so he says with confidence 'I shall not be in want', literally; 'Yahweh is my shepherd, I do not lack'. What David means by this becomes clear over the following verses. In verses two, three and four David describes how God is the one who restores his soul, how he guides his life and protects him from harm. It's clear, particularly from verse four, that David is painting a picture of a charmed life. He does not say that Christians will live in plenty, free from care or difficulty. He hardly could given the life that he has led.
Rather, David says that since Yawheh, the faithful God of Israel is his shepherd then it is impossible for him to lack anything that is good or truly necessary for him to live. If the God who formed the earth and David, who watches over and loves his people is on his side then David cannot be vulnerable. He may suffer, he may be hurt but can never be separated from the God who loves him who restores his broken spirit, who guides him along right paths. David knows that God is the life-giver both in the physical and the spiritual sense. In Psalm 34 David spells out his meaning even more clearly saying, 'The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.'
In other words even those who are mighty and powerful (like the lion) are vulnerable, they may become tired or weak and therefore they may become hungry, they may lack things that are truly necessary in order to live. In contrast those who seek God are connected to someone who never grows tired or weak, one who is able to supply all of our needs and as David so beautifully images for us in v2 and 3 who loves to care for us, who delights to restore and provide for us, just as a shepherd looks after his sheep.
David's statement is an uncompromising one; if the LORD is personally our shepherd then will not lack. We have access to a God of infinite power and infinite love, a God who is capable of providing for all our needs and who delights in caring for them. David will not allow any doubt to be cast in God's direction, the only chink that could be prised open is whether we can say those first five words with David; the LORD is MY shepherd.
A friend of mine says that nearly every concern in the Christian life has at its root the question: 'Is God really good', is God really trustworthy and does he really care about, really love me? How can I match that up with the context of my life, now? David's call to us and I think to his own heart here is to declare a resounding YES! Yes God loves you, yes he cares for you, yes he is good and yes he is capable of giving you all you need and as we're about to see David says this is true even in those times when we face real pain and difficulty. How can he say this? Well Paul argues for such a view in Romans 8 writing:
...If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
David could look back and call the God of the Exodus, the God who led Israel like a flock through the desert, HIS shepherd. Sitting here tonight we can look back and call on the God who did not spare us his own Son, but who sent the Lord Jesus to the cross for us. How will he not give us every good thing if he has not already withheld from us the very best of things.
So the first lesson David teaches us in moving from Psalm 22 to 23, from desperation to comfort and restoration, is to remember who God is and to remember our relationship to him. God is still God, he is powerful and mighty and for those of us who have confessed our sin and have called on his name he is our shepherd. God is our redeemer, our restorer, our guide, our source of life. That is the first anchor to reality.
Secondly, our shepherd is the one who is always there to protect us so we need not fear. That's point two: 'The LORD is my shepherd I will not fear'.
2. The LORD is my shepherd I will not fear [v4]
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me and your rod and your staff they comfort me.
'Even' or in the AV 'Yea', despite the valley of the shadow of death, despite difficulty, despite desperation David will not fear. The valley of the shadow of death is real. Whether David is thinking of a literal road, a dark ravine perhaps near Bethlehem where bandits had stalked his life or whether that image describes more broadly the very real danger, betrayal and anguish David has lived in it is real. It is real and it demands an 'even'. Even though I face real danger, even though I face things that are truly painful, things that threaten my very life, that pull it's fabric apart from the seams. Even though I suffer, even though I lose my security, even though I lose my best friend, even though I have cancer, even though I do not have what my heart cries out for, even though I face death. Even though I will not fear evil. I will not fear evil, though it and it's effects surround me, for two reasons...
1 My shepherd is with me
'For you are with me' David's God, his shepherd, is with him always. Even in the valley of the shadow of death God is there. David's psalm is already intensely personal but here in the valley it become even more so. There is a change in v4 from the third person in v1-3 'my shepherd... he makes, he leads, he restores', to the more immediate 'you' in v4; '...for YOU are with me and YOUR rod and YOUR staff they comfort me.
Having stood back from the valley in v1-3, having remembered the unchanging reality of who God is and of how he relates to David as his shepherd it's almost as if David plunges back into his more immediate context and says yes but even here, now in the valley, in my suffering, as I face the shadow of death God is here. God is here, not in some mere intellectual sense, as if God is vaguely conscious, aware of David's circumstances but HERE, present, with David within the valley.
Instinctively a person's presence is precious to us isn't it? The joy of just being with our very best friends. I can remember a particular car journey at the end of a day that began pre-dawn in a different country where my friend said 'Isn't it wonderful to be such good friends that we don't have to speak - we can just be together and that's enough'. And yet even that pleasure is still less precious than the presence of those who love us when life is falling apart. To have that person, the one we really want to walk through the door, to be with us when we need them is immensely precious. David says he will not fear evil, even when it is very close to him because closer still is his shepherd, closer still is his God, the lover of his soul, the sustainer of his life.
2 My shepherd comforts and protects me
Under painful circumstances a person's presence can be almost all we need but better still is the presence of someone who can really help. David's God is present but not just present, he is active. David pictures God as his defender whose rod (perhaps his shepherds crook) could lift David out of danger as a shepherd lifts his sheep out from a deep hole and whose staff is able to hold back those who would attack him. David's God protects and sustains him, his life may not be taken from him for it is held firmly in the hands of God.
David remembers HIS God, HIS friend - YOU, YOU are here with me in this anguish, in this danger and YOU God are not impotent you are powerful. David's theology in v1-3, his knowledge of who God is and of his relationship to him are not abstract. They are not truths that he can only explain to others or write pretty sounding poetry about they are his possession and they drive his prayers even during pain and difficulty. In fact it is here in the furnace that David's faith in these truths is being refined, personalised so he may cry out my God, my shepherd, YOU are with me and YOUR rod and YOUR staff comfort me. Knowing God's presence, knowing God's protection provides real. heartfelt comfort. They are realities that david can stand on whilst he is buffeted by trials, whilst he is exposed to evil.
Here is our second lesson, to careful apply our theology. To know what we understand, or perhaps to know more than we understand. To place our faith in the reality of God's love and care for us, to cultivate our experience of his presence, to deeply trust in God's promises to us so that we may cling on to these things when we are tempted to fear.
And yet how can we fear when we know so much of our shepherd's great love for us. We read in our New Testament reading these staggering words of Jesus:
14 "I am the good shepherd: I know my sheep and my sheep know me - 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father - and I lay down my life for the sheep"
Jesus is the good shepherd. He knows us, he knows us with complete intimacy, he knows us and he loves us. He loves us such that he would have compassion on us, that he would suffer alongside us and more that he would suffer for us. That he would lay down, under no compulsion other than love, his life for us.
Jesus is our good shepherd. So when David says my God is with me, we say Jesus left heaven and came to earth for me. When David says that God's staff lifts him out of danger and his Rod protects him from evil we say Jesus has laid down his life for me. Jesus has lifted me out of my sin and shame. Jesus has nailed to the cross all that stood to condemn me, Jesus has risen again and defeated death - I will fear no evil for he is with me. That's point two: The LORD is my shepherd I will not fear. Finally point three: 'The LORD is my shepherd and I will live for him forever'.
3. The LORD is my shepherd and I will live with him forever [v5,6]
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
If v1-3 were pointed back to remember who God is and how he cares for us and if v4 looked at God's present help then v5,6 change tense again to look forward to what God will accomplish for us as our shepherd. One commentator H.C Leupold says all the verbs bar 'anoint' and 'overflows' in v5b should be thought of in the future tense. In other words v5,6 are things that David looks forward to, they are what David hopes for. Though the way David writes makes it sound as if they are already a reality or at least imminent.
David imagines a great banquet set before him and his defeated enemies. David trusts that he will be on the victorious side, despite his present circumstances. David looks to God now as the one who restores his broken soul as the one who leads him in righteousness and who comforts him even through the valley of death. But there is a destination which David looks to beyond the trials of this life. One day, though David knows the reality of God's presence here and now, there will be a greater joy. One day David will 'dwell in the house of the LORD forever' he will now the unmediated presence of God he will be with him, known by God and able to know him perfectly. One day David will pass through the dark ravine of the shadow of death and approach the one who sits in unapproachable light.
Simply put David knows the certain hope of heaven. As David wonders at the sight of sharing that great banquet meal with his God his suffering retreats in view of it. Just as Paul will later write about the persecution of the early church as being 'light and momentary' when viewed in light of the eternal weight of glory they are achieving. So David is able to visualise himself being blessed by God, he knows that though he lacks nothing now there is an abundance waiting for him, there is a glory that awaits him which reaches back into his present reality.
So David may write even whilst facing real trail, without lurching into platitudes, in v6: '6Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life' God's love and blessing are pursuing David, driving him toward that final destination when he will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
In Jesus' death and resurrection our hope of heaven is made more certain than David's. We will dwell in heaven with God, we will be raised to life and seated with Christ, his resurrection guarantees ours. And whilst we wait we are promised the permanent indwelling of God's Holy Spirit so we already dwell with him as he dwells with us by his Spirit.
Looking back to the reality of who God is and how he relates to us as our shepherd helps us to understand and live through our present difficulties. David even says that it is possible even to know God's presence and help in them so by looking forward to heaven we can set our trials, real and painful though they are, in such a context that they are dwarfed by God's goodness and love to us.
Psalm 23 then is a beautiful description of God's relationship to each of his people as their shepherd and it shows us how to live through agonising circumstances knowing that we will lack no good thing, clinging on to the God's felt presence and comfort whilst we look ahead to the day when we will live with our God, when we will dwell with and worship and serve the good shepherd who has laid down his life for us, his sheep. Let's pray.