It’s Psalm 23 today and for the only time this week it’s me (Phil) doing the notes.
It’s amazing how quickly we grow accustomed to things. A beautiful view can merit barely a glance after passing it a few times. A melody that filled the mind can become a bit stale after hearing it countless times. This is a very familiar psalm; in fact, it’s probably the most well-known psalm in the psalter. Countless people have found it to be a comfort in times of stress. I’ve witnessed a grieving person who did not attend a church, remembering the words from somewhere and finding comfort from them. It’s well-known because it’s brilliant; God has used it many times.
David knew all about sheep and shepherds; he had cared for his father’s sheep in his early life. It wasn’t a glamorous occupation and it was certainly dangerous, David had come face to face with a lion and a bear, but as David thought of his relationship with the Lord, he chose to call him ‘my shepherd’. That the Lord should allow himself to be called a shepherd gives us some insight into his love for his people.
It’s important that the Lord is ‘my’ shepherd. Of course the Lord is the shepherd of all his people but for David it was personal. Shepherds knew the names of their sheep and the sheep knew the voice of the shepherd, it was a relationship. Until you can say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ you cannot be part of his flock (John 11).
Shepherds in the east did not herd their sheep with dogs as we do in the west; they led them, calling the individuals by name. The sheep would depend upon the shepherd as he would lead them to green pastures and quiet waters. On their own, the sheep could not survive so they followed the shepherd. They would know the comfort of the rod and staff, the rod to fend off wild animals and the staff to guide the sheep.
The shepherd who leads to green pastures and quiet waters also leads through the valley of the shadow of death. In the Psalm, it may refer to some of the deep dark valleys that were the way to pasture but for us it shows that we are not immune to the trials of life when we are following the shepherd. The good news is that in the valley, he is with us.
There may be something else here too; the previous psalm revealed a vivid picture of Jesus and his death on the cross whilst the following psalm pictures Jesus at his ascension. Between the two we have the shepherd leading through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus said;
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Since Jesus has been through the valley of the shadow of death it need hold no fear for us.
The shepherd who supplies pasture for his sheep prepares a table. The wonderful terms; “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Speak of God’s abundant provision for his people. The interesting thing is that it is ‘in the presence of my enemies’. It isn’t that we need to wait until we get to heaven to enjoy God’s goodness, we can know it now in the presence of our enemies. Instead of being followed by ferocious predators, the shepherd’s leading means that we are followed by goodness and love. Wow!
David’s hope is for this life; “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life”. But it’s a hope that goes beyond this life as well; “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” I’ve been to a few humanist funerals and for me they are empty and bereft of hope. The Christian message speaks when the wisdom of the world has been exhausted. We have it on the authority of word of God that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Hallelujah!
“I hear Your voice and I catch my breath
‘Well done my child, enter in and rest’
Tears of joy roll down my cheek
It’s beautiful beyond my wildest dreams
I want to run on greener pastures
I want to dance on higher hills
I want to drink from sweeter waters
In the misty morning chill
And my soul is getting restless
For the place where I belong
I can’t wait to join the angels and sing my heaven song” (Heaven Song – Phil Wickham)