Sunday, April 6, 2008

Psalm 23 - Good Shepherd Sunday

There is perhaps no psalm better known than the 23rd psalm. There is good reason for that. People have always needed such words as these, because all our lives are full of trouble and cares are all around us. Never give into the lie that no one else knows the troubles you have seen. Self-pity robs us of the abundant comfort that we can find in such a passage as this from God’s Word. Instead of saying “Woe is me!” let us confess these words with our brother, King David: 1: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

When I read these words, I always remember the story of a woman who sought out a minister who had just preached on this psalm. She was in deep trouble and despairing. He asked her simply: “Do you believe the LORD is your shepherd, right now?” She said, “Yes, I do.” Then he said, “Then you can say, not only that you will not lack what you need, but that you do not want now, for He is your Shepherd now.” David is not saying, “Everything will be all right someday,” he is saying, “The LORD is my shepherd, and because he is my shepherd, therefore I have all I need now and I always will.” We only experience the caring love of our Heavenly Father today. Is that not what Jesus tried to help us to understand? Matthew 6:34 (Phillips’) "Don't worry at all then about tomorrow,” He said. “Tomorrow can take care of itself! One day's trouble is enough for one day." You are no longer in the past. You are not in the future, and have no idea what it will bring. You only live now and it is here and now that Jesus, your Good Shepherd, stands with you, ready to help you, moment by moment, through this very day. He is taking care of what happened yesterday. He is preparing your blessings and graces for tomorrow. Life is now. We walk with our Lord now. There is much wisdom in the saying, “Live one day at a time,” for that is the only day in which you can live and it is the day in which the Lord is ready to make real to you His love.

There’s something else I always think about when I read Psalm 23. It was a comment made by a friend one time, when he said, “In order to have the LORD as your shepherd, you must first realise that you are a sheep.” How true that is. Do you know what one of the biggest reasons is for why we worry so much? It is because we take on our troubles ourselves and spend our time trying to figure out what we are going to do about them. We think we are the answer to our needs. A sheep doesn’t do that. A sheep relies on its shepherd, and it’s a good thing that it does. Sheep are some of the dumbest animals, and least able to care for themselves, of all the animals on earth. Their strength is in their shepherd, not in their own resources. If they have a good shepherd, they will thrive.

Does it not make sense that, if God promises to lead us and provide for us, we should rather look to Him to do so than to ourselves? Do we think we know better than he?

If we would know the comfort of having the LORD as our shepherd, we must first realise our weakness and helplessness. Only then will we really rely on him; only then will we really follow him; only then will we be able to receive from him the blessings he has for us.

Recently, I picked up an old volume that I’ve not look at for a long time on the Psalms, and reading the commentary on Psalm 23, the writer brought to my attention something else that I’m sure to think about from now on whenever I read the psalm. Let me show you what I’m talking about.

The psalm begins very evidently, as we have observed, with the image of a sheep and his shepherd. But notice the change in the latter part. In verse 5 we read: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” As the writer noted, David has changed images. He now speaks of a host and his guest, doesn’t he. I’ve always enjoyed these words in the psalm, and have recognised how they add to the blessing of the relationship between David and the LORD, but the shepherding image is so strong in it, that for some reason it hasn’t dawned on me that there is a real change of image here. I see plainly now that the psalm is not just a psalm on God’s shepherding. It is a psalm with two images: the divine shepherd and the divine host.

Now, what is the importance of this change of image? As the writer explains, in both cases we have divine care and provision, but in the latter, everything is intensified, the need and the supply being move vivid. Instead of a sheep in a pastoral scene, we now have the scene of someone who is marching through enemies in battle, working his way home to the LORD’s house. We find the LORD providing an abundant provision of refreshment and security interspersed in a dangerous and wearying march. It reminds us of the image of the Christian life in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Though Christian faced many a peril, the LORD would here and there refresh and restore him on his way to the Celestial City. Here, in verse 5, we see the LORD’s care for us in the dangers we meet in his service.

There was, of course, danger to be considered in the shepherding image. But the danger there encountered was by the shepherd on behalf of his sheep. If a wolf or some other dangerous beast were to attack the flock, it would be the shepherd who would need to encounter the danger of their rescue, with his rod and his staff. David knew this well. You will recall the story of when David was talking to King Saul about Goliath the giant and how David argued with Saul that he would be able to kill the giant. David said: 34: …Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: 35: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. 36: Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God. 37: David said moreover, the LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.” In the shepherding image, it would be the shepherd that would have to confront the danger on behalf of his sheep. And, by the way, this idea moves our hearts, does it not, when we recall that our Good Shepherd, Jesus, did this very kind of thing for us. We were in danger of being devoured by the devil! But our Jesus took on the devil and fought him and gave him his death’s blow that we might be rescued from him. The Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

But to get back to our point: the second image now has the guest of the host as the one who is facing the dangerous conflict. The table is spread in the presence of the guest’s enemies. The verse depicts how we have the privilege of dealing with our LORD’s foes in this life on his behalf. He fought for us; now we fight for him. But we learn here that, though we be always in conflict, yet we always have a spread table and an abundance of provision – so much so that David could say his cup ran over.

Thus we find in both images our dear LORD’s kind, thoughtful, and abundant provision for those upon whom he has set his merciful care. As sheep, we have such abundant provision, that we can lay down and rest in green pastures. As soldiers, we have such abundant provision, that we can talk about it as like a cup running over with blessing.

Dearly beloved, when we feel our life is stuck in a valley full of shadows, and darkness is all around, when we feel threatened and wearied with the things we have to deal with as we seek to serve the Lord, let us heed the Spirit of God when He reminds us of Psalm 23. He is trying to remind us of what is true about God and what is true about us, in spite of what our circumstances may lead us to believe. We are sheep – but we have a Shepherd who takes care of us today and who takes care of our tomorrows. We are warring pilgrims, but we have a gracious Host who so cares for us that we feel protected by Him. Your Heavenly Father has always been and always will be your faithful Shepherd and your faithful Host. He will not fail you. As He has seen you through the darkness before, He will do so again. He will so abundantly provide for you that you can with confidence say with David those wonderful words: “6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” Let not your heart be troubled. Be at peace and wait upon Him in your daily duties. Your weeping may endure for the night, but your joy, your God, will come to you in the morning.

Amen.

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