In Psalm 80:1 the Psalmist invokes God in this manner: “Hear us O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock…” As I was meditating recently in Psalm 23 and looking up some of the cross references to God as shepherd I was surprised to see how often this metaphor appears in the scripture. I want to read a few of my favorites to you.
Note he is the tender shepherd this from Isaiah 40:11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” He is a tender shepherd.
Note, too, that he is a diligent shepherd. This lengthier passage is from Ezekiel 34. I am looking forward to Rob getting to that chapter, verses 11-16: “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness….I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel…. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak….” He is a diligent shepherd.
In John 10, we see that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep. That is love, he knows his sheep and calls his own sheep by name. That is particular love. Note the extent of his love “who lays down his life for the sheep.” He is the Good Shepherd.
Finally we see that he is the lamb-like shepherd in Revelation 7:17, “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.”
In coming to Psalm 23 we come to a description of the Shepherd of Shepherds. What meant so much to me in my recent meditation of this Psalm is how much of the onus and burden and responsibility is on the shepherd and how little is on you and me as the sheep. It is the shepherd, you will note, who does everything. He makes us lie down, he leads, restores, guides, he is with us. He banquets the table, he is the host, he anoints our head and fills our cup to overflowing and we are going to see that he pursues and chases us with goodness and love. So I ask myself what is left for us? What is our part? As sheep all that is left for us is to follow wherever the shepherd leads.
Verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” With the Lord as our shepherd we have grounds for perfect contentment. In a materialistic culture that plays upon our discontentment let us say with the Apostle Paul, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, I know what it is to be in need, I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, I can do everything through him who gives me strength. The him, of course, is the shepherd. When we model contentment we show the Lord is not only our shepherd but our portion as well. He who comes under the care of the one who has everything, has everything as well. Are you, am I, satisfied with our shepherd?
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Green pastures might be better translated grassy meadows and it is a metaphor for all that makes life to flourish, plenty, sufficiency, abundance. Sheep will only lie down when they are sick and about to die or when they are satisfied and feel secure. When they feel they are free from danger, then they will lie down, but not before.
“He leads me beside quiet waters.” When African Wildebeest follow the shrinking riverbeds where the prey has to share the same watering hole with the predator, they come to the waters where danger is lurking. Not so the Lord’s flock, they come to quiet waters, peaceful, restful, placid, tranquil, calm, safe, nourishing waters without threat of danger. This is a lovely picture of a babe who has nursed herself to sleep at her mother’s breast, perfectly at peace without a care in the world. Such is our privilege to know him as the great and good shepherd, peace that a worldling can never enter into.
“He restores my soul.” That is he refreshes, revives, and revitalizes my spirit. He breathes life back into my weary soul so that I find I am energized to follow him again. He makes a habit of restoring me is the sense of this verse. Note that the law of the Lord has the same effect, it revives the soul according to Psalm 19:7. No wonder David could meditate on it day and night, it brought restoring nutrients to him. With God as our shepherd he can be counted on to keep on reviving us Sabbath by Sabbath and in between as well.
One of the shepherd’s chief concerns is to lead and guide, that is to get his sheep where he wants to take them. I often lose perspective here and think I care more about being led than he does in leading me. So I was very encouraged by these words I read in John White’s book titled, “The Fight” from a chapter on guidance, and this is how it goes. “Though the Bible never uses the word guidance it does talk about a Guide with a capital G. You may seek guidance but God desires to give something better namely himself. Deep in your heart it is a guide even more than guidance that you want. Which would you prefer to have while driving in heavy traffic through a strange city, a complicated set of instructions from someone on the sidewalk or a kindly stranger who says ‘Look, I’m on my way there right now. If you’ll let me hop in, I’ll show you the way.’ Or if you are a new student on a large campus dizzy and bewildered by the complexities of registration, it is help from the fellow student who is willing to take you around that counts, not the campus map or the written guidebook.” We prefer the guide and that is what the shepherd offers us, himself.
John White continues, “Only by faith can you know that he is more concerned to guide you than you are to be guided and that by your mistakes he will teach you to go in the right direction as well as how to distinguish his voice.” But you may say, I don’t trust myself, precisely. You are not called on to trust yourself, but to trust the Lord. You have neither the discernment nor the purity of motive to merit guidance, but guidance is given, not earned. You will never merit it, therefore, you must trust God to give it to you. You must trust his ability to get through to you, his power to pull you up short when you go wrong, his ability to teach you the sound of his voice.” He continues, “So take courage then. When you have a tough decision to make someone who cares deeply for you already knows what he wants you to do, he takes delight in having fellowship with you and wants the very circumstances you face to draw you closer to him.”
This comforts me because it is not so much up to me to figure out his will which sometimes seems hard to discern. It is up to him to get through my stupid sheep’s skull and he is able. With God as our guiding shepherd we have good reason to relax, no one knows the terrain and lay of the land better than he does. He wants to lead and guide us more than we want to be lead and he will get his sheep where they belong. That is his job. Notice, he does all this for his name’s sake. The condition of his flock brings him honor. A well cared for flock reflects well on the shepherd. A scattered, skittish, malnourished, neglected sheep reflects poorly on the shepherd. It shows that the shepherd is more like a hireling and not the owner of the shepherd, not a good shepherd at all. He does us good, not only for our own benefit, but for his own reputation. You see his honor is at stake.
We come now to an important transition in this Psalm in verse 4. The psalmist goes from talking and boasting about his shepherd to talking to him. This is direct speech now, notice this in verse 4. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you (no longer he or him) are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The valley of the shadow of death could also be translated valley of deep darkness, like a ravine, where you often can’t see the sun. And so the idea is that even though I have been led by you into shadowy dark places with fearful circumstances, I fear no harm, I fear no evil because you are near me. The nearness of your presence deeply consoles me just as you have proven yourself faithful through guiding in grassy meadows and still waters, so I choose to trust your faithful character while in the dark ravines.
Here the shepherd seems not so much behind us driving us in the right direction or out front leading us, but right next to us, beside us, with us, escorting us, giving us courage, comfort and consolation in the dark ravines. Is that where the Lord has you tonight? Do you think yourself in a dark ravine? Remember, that is not our final destination, our final resting place, only terrain that we must pass through. Our final resting place is so much more like the grassy meadows besides still waters, so much more like that.
If you are like me I suspect most of us fear an untimely death, either our own or a loved one, more than anything else that we fear. The shepherd who escorts us is one who died, more than that, who rose again, and gathers us in his arms and carries us close to his heart and whispers in our ear, “Death has lost its sting, death has lost its sting beloved.”
The second important transition we come to in verse 5 the psalmist is no longer using the shepherd metaphor. Now these are two humans, two friends sitting down to table. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” To anoint someone’s face or head with oil was customary treatment of honored guests especially at a banquet. You remember that the Lord would find fault with a Pharisee that would not anoint his head with oil and he contrasted him with a sinful woman who poured out expensive perfume on his feet in Luke 7. This is a picture of the joyful, celebratory abundance associated with banquets, feasting, and joyful fellowship with overflowing glad cups.
About two weeks ago I was watching PBS and a special came on where Queen Elizabeth was hosting the President of France and a number of his dignitaries and notables at Windsor Castle. It was about all the preparations that went on to host this over the weekend party. The attention to detail was incredible. How early they would come, months and weeks out they would start cleaning and preparing and ordering food and so on and so forth. But the thing that especially stuck out to me was the banquet table itself, this long, long, long table, and the care to the detail. Two men came by with some sort of measuring stick and made sure that the chairs were just this right distance from the table and then moved on to the next chair making sure every single chair was the exact same distance from the table. And then they measured where the plate would go on the table, just the exact same distance from the edge of the table went the plate. Then they measured where the next plate would go to the left and to the right and it was all equal distance all the way around the banqueting table. If that were not enough, then there were four or five goblets placed on the upper right hand corner of the plate. The first goblet was for toasting champagne, the second was for white wine for the fish that was to come, the third was for red wine for the beef and finally there was a goblet for port to go along with the dessert. Literally, a royal feast was taking place at Windsor Castle.
Here in Psalm 23 we have a picture of friends basking in the pleasure of each other’s fellowship, but note this, remember this banquet is occurring in the presence of enemies. I have always thought that that was the picture of the psalmist mocking his enemies, saying on the brink of battle, “I don’t fear you. You don’t unnerve me. You can make your war cries and chanting and dancing. I am going to have a banquet, I don’t fear you.” But I think Derek Kidner is probably right when he argues that the battle has already occurred and the enemy that is present are conquered captives looking on. That makes more sense and all the more reason for joy. The battle is over, the enemy is defeated and to the victor belong the spoils. The battle belongs to the Lord and he will defeat all of his and our enemies and throw a banquet one day that puts all earthly kings and queens bounty together to shame.
Verse 6: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The word follow is not the best translation, a better word would be surely goodness and love will pursue me, or even chase me, all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It is the same word used of Saul chasing and pursuing David for ten years in the wilderness.
Oh, to be chased, pursued by God’s goodness and his love. How good does it get? But have you noticed that sometimes being pursued and chased by God’s goodness and love may seem frightening, unsettling, stern and even painful? Does it sometimes seem like you are being forced to take another path, a less desirable path? As I thought about it another illustration from C.S. Lewis came to mind. This is from “The Horse and His Boy”. Children, perhaps you will remember that this is about Shasta and his talking horse, Bree, and how the two of them set off and they met up with Aravis, a girl about his age, and her talking horse, Hwin, and the dangers they went through together and how at one point they get separated and Shasta is feeling quite sorry for himself. This is where we pick up the dialogue:
“And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly any footfalls.
The Thing (unless it was a Person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him.
‘Who are you?’ he said scarcely above a whisper.
‘One who has waited long for you to speak’ said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
‘I can’t see you at all’ said Shasta,… ‘You’re not—not something dead, are you?’
Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. ‘There’ it said, ‘that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.’
Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fishermen. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.
‘I do not call you unfortunate,’ said the Large Voice.
‘Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?’ said Shasta.
‘There was only one lion,’ said the Voice.
‘What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and–’
‘There was only one: but he was swift of foot.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I was the lion.’ And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. ‘I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.’
‘Then it was you who wounded Aravis?’
‘It was I.’
‘Who are you?’ asked Shasta.
‘Myself,’ said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again ‘Myself!’ loud and clear and gay: and then the third time ‘Myself,’ whispered so softly you could hardly hear it.
Shasta was no longer afraid that the voice belonged to something that would eat him. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.”
In conclusion, beloved, it is far, far better to be pursued and chased by God’s goodness and love even though it may seem frightening, unsettling and painful like we are being forced to take an undesirable path. I say it is far, far better than to be abandoned to our own ways and left as sheep without a shepherd especially when our shepherd is so tender, so diligent, so faithful and so good even lamb-like in his ways toward us. Indeed, he is the Shepherd of Shepherds who will get his flock where he wants them – safely home and all that is left for us is simply to follow, to follow wherever he may lead.