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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"My Shepherd" (Psalm 23).


(I initially presented a version of this at Heritage Presbyterian Church in Edmond Oklahoma on 3 March 2017; and then presented this version to the Capitol Bible Forum at the Oklahoma State Capitol on 26 April 2017)

My Shepherd
Psalm 23

With regard to Psalm 23 you could definitely dissect Psalm into several parts, nevertheless it easily and effortlessly falls open into three petals (Want, Way and Wellbeing) with the pistil being the middle of v.4 (“with me”). Hopefully by the end of this sermon you will be reminded of many old reasons, and gain several new reasons for trusting our Shepherd.

Want (23.1-3): The primary point out of which flows the remainder of 1-3 is this first line: “The LORD is my shepherd”.  In a day and an age when police protection was non-existent, to say “The LORD is my Shepherd” is a claim of utmost trust. When wide prairies, pathways, wildernesses and wastelands were spaces and places wide open for animal attacks – both the four legged and the two legged predators – then to submit to and trust in the LORD as Shepherd was clearly a way of claiming that in the face of dangers where no other help could be had David trusted that the LORD was his security, and so “I shall not want.” The next two verses have four “He” statements that work out David’s confidence in the Good Shepherd’s safekeeping. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” There is some planning on the part of any shepherd in this regard. Once a shepherd heads out in the wee morning hours with his flock, he has to know where the green pastures are, how best to get there, and where to find quiet, still waters. Apparently sheep don’t take to rolling streams. And so, David describes his reliance on the LORD as a sheep who entrusts himself to his shepherd to work out those details and draw him to repast, refreshment, and rest. “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Both the Hebrew yeshovev and the English “restore” give a clear indication that David is saying that when he had strayed from his Shepherd that the LORD brought him around, and is now guiding him forward. David, a shepherd himself, likely spent many significant evenings combing the hillsides and hollows looking for, and listening for, that lamb or sheep that had meandered thoughtlessly away from the flock and endangered itself and made itself vulnerable to predators or peril. The LORD can be trusted to hunt us down, even in our waywardness, to restore us and right us. And he does it not only for our good, but also his glory, “for his name’s sake”.  It is quite a satisfying to know that when we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name” we are also praying that the LORD will continue to track us down when we stray and turn us right! David explains here that we can trust our Shepherd as our security, and to be confident so as to say, “I shall not want.” Then he gives us further reasons as he shows that the Good Shepherd is with us in the way.

Way (23.4-5): The Valley of the shadow of death includes walking into the grave, but also refers to other dangers. Shepherds knew that the way to green pastures and still waters was often through valleys that would have narrow footpaths where the sheep could only go one or two abreast. On the one hand, at any moment a mountain lion or marauder could swoop down and snatch a victim; and on the other hand, at any moment the footing could become treacherous and a sheep plummet to its death on the rocks and ragged edges below. But even in the face of death or disaster David can confidently say of the Good Shepherd, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Here is the pistil in the middle of our pedals. This is the summit of the Psalm 23 climb. It is the Immanuel principle: Immanu-el, God with us! How fitting that our Lord Jesus picks up this shepherd imagery and applies it to himself in Luke 15 and John 10! Jesus is “YHVH my Shepherd” who provides, preserves and pilots us! And one way you know “YHVH my Shepherd” is with you is by his rod to defend you and staff to preserve you, which comforts/consoles you. Though I go through the valley that is dark-as-death where evil lurks above, about or below, I can go through it with no fear of evil. Our Shepherd uses his rod to defend us and his staff to preserve and pilot us, and so to comfort/console/calm us.

Now the metaphor changes (v.5), but it is still expounding on the Immanuel principle, and it is the next two “you” statements. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Notice that the Lord’s hospitality is set up intentionally and spread out in a conspicuous place, to the shock and surprise of enemies! And it’s not a bare minimum hospitality, but a lavish and lush conviviality, “you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Because of our Good Shepherd’s provision, protection, preservation and piloting we can feast, and find that we are flush in his faithfulness; even if his and our enemies hauntingly hover around! And so, “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Then the Psalm ends with our wellbeing.

Wellbeing (23.6): This whole Psalm is beautiful and boosting and this last part as well. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Even when I must walk through the valley dark-as-death, his goodness and his chesed (his steadfast love and mercy) follow me. That Hebrew word for “follow” is more aggressive than the English makes it sound. It means something like this: His goodness and mercy follow me like a hound dog hot on the trail; they follow me to be with me and overtake me! Our Good Shepherd sends his sheepdogs, Tov and Chesed**, Goodness and Mercy, to herd us, keep at our sides, steer us and shield us; not once, not twice, not thrice, but “all the days of my life”! And so we end up in the delightful destination at the end of v.6. The Good Shepherd will walk me through all of the insecurity and unrest and will not lose me. He will walk me through and bring me in to dwell in his house, to be with him for “length of days” or forever. And isn’t that the promise Paul hammers home in Romans 8?!

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have won for us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. O Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen (Richard of Chichester, 13th Century).

**After I presented this at the Oklahoma State Capitol, one of the women came to me and excitedly recounted how when she went to Ireland they ran across a shepherd, and he had 2 sheepdogs that were named "goodness" and "mercy".

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