The Lord Who Leads

Psalm 23

July 11, 2015 | Brian Bill

Most everyone has heard of Psalm 23.  It’s a poem with no peer and has been called the sweetest psalm ever written.  Abraham Lincoln read it to cure his blues, and President Bush read part of it publicly to calm our nation’s fears after 9-11. 

Since this psalm is so familiar, we’re in danger of missing the depth of its meaning.  And, because it’s setting is in the world of sheep and shepherds, many of us city slickers can slide right past its richness.  Did you know that the Bible refers to us as sheep nearly two hundred times? 

There are two main characters in this psalm – The Shepherd and his sheep.  And there are three main ideas:

  • The Shepherd Provides (1-3)
  • The Shepherd Protects (4-5)
  • The Shepherd Preserves (6)

The Shepherd Provides

God provides for us personally because of who He is.  Look at the first phrase of verse 1: “The Lord.”  This is the name “Yahweh” and was the name first revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “I am who I am.”  Ordinary Israelites considered this name too holy to be spoken by human lips.  In fact, it was so revered that it was only pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the high priest in the most holy place of the Temple.

Notice that David says the great “I AM” is “my” shepherd.  This is very similar in thought to Psalm 8 where we read, “O Lord [“Yahweh”], our Lord.”  He is other than us and yet He is ours.  He is powerful and He is personal.  He is majestic and He is mine.  

Because the Lord is my shepherd, He provides for me in four ways according to verses 1-3.

1. Contentment (1b). 

The last part of verse 1 tells us that since the Lord is my shepherd I will not lack anything that is really necessary and good for me: “I shall not want.”  

A substitute Sunday School teacher asked his class one day, “How many of you can quote Psalm 23?”  Several raised their hands, including a little girl who was only four years old.  He was surprised so he asked her to recite it for the class.  She stood up and said, “The Lord is my shepherd.  I got all I want.”  She had the words mixed up but understood the message perfectly.

Listen.  If Jesus is your shepherd, everything else is secondary.  We could say it this way: “If the Lord is my shepherd, then I shall not want.  If I am in want, then I’m not allowing the Lord to be my shepherd.”  Psalm 34:9: Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!”  Since the Lord is our shepherd all of our needs are taken care of.  One of the best definitions of contentment I’ve ever heard is this: Contentment is not having everything you’ve always wanted.  Contentment is wanting everything you already have.

What you have in your shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life

Max Lucado refers to our discontment as the “prison of want.”  Its prisoners want something bigger.  Nicer.  Faster.  Thinner.  If your happiness comes from something you deposit, drive, drink, or digest, then you’re in the prison of want.  Are you hoping that a change in circumstance will bring a change in your attitude?  If so, you’re locked up.  You’re in a cell of discontentment.  Allow the powerful simplicity of verse 1 to sink into your soul: What you have in your shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.  Do you believe that?

2. Nourishment (2).  “He makes me lie down in green pastures…” 

Notice that the shepherd “makes” me lie down.  Sometimes the shepherd would institute forced rest periods for his sheep.  The shepherd would take the sheep and fold their legs in such a way that they would become paralyzed for a while and therefore had to lie down and get their much-needed rest.  Some of you have been made to lie down as a result of a broken bone, some other health problem, heartbreak, or even the loss of your job.  The shepherd has slowed you down for a reason.

Philip Keller points out the best way to get the flock to chill out is to make sure a couple conditions are met.

  • Freedom from fear.  By nature, sheep are nervous and fearful.  We had three dogs with us on vacation this past week and when the firworks went off they were frightened.  The only way to help them was to hold them (I took a pass).  When sheep know the shepherd is with them, they can relax.  Isaiah 43:5: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
  • Freedom from famine.  A hungry sheep is forever on its feet, foraging for food.  The shepherd makes sure that they are in “green pastures,” where they can feed among the rich, sweet grass and then chew their cud while lying down on the carpeted pasture. 

I haven’t been out to the John Deere Classic but I’m told the greens are beautiful.  All the rain has helped.  It sounds like Bill Murray was a big hit earlier in the week.  I’m not a golfer but thanks to Ray Harrison, I’ve learned that there are a growing number of golfers who are Christ-followers, like two-time winner Zach Johnson who is from Cedar Rapids.  He talks freely about his faith and the importance of reading the Bible.

Some of us never slow down enough to chew on the greens of God’s Word.  We’re filled with fear or we’re in friction with others in the flock.  Some of us allow the small frustrations of life to knock us off center and we end up not ruminating on the richness and sweetness of Scripture like we should.  

After being fully fed, “He leads me beside quiet waters.”  Incidentally, sheep have to move on or they will gorge themselves on all the grass.  Plus, they need water now.  Sheep by nature are afraid of running water and will refuse to drink unless everything is still and quiet.  Shepherds would often divert a rushing river to make a placid pool [some of you have pools in your basement after all the rain this week].  

The shepherd has to lead the sheep to the good water because otherwise they will stop and drink from polluted puddles where they can pick up parasites.  We’re a lot like that, aren’t we?  God has provided so much for us and yet we often drink from places that will only harm us. 

3. Restoration (3a). 

Because sheep are careless, curious, and cantankerous creatures, they often need to be restored.  Look at the first part of verse 3: “He restores my soul.”  The word, “restore” means to “bring back to a former or normal state, to make new.” Sheep can get lost faster than any other animal.  This can be serious for many reasons.  They may fall and get hurt.  A predator may pounce on them.  Or they may simply tip over, and become “cast down.”  This is a term for a sheep that is lying flat on its back, with its feet flailing in the air.  Often sheep will lie down in a little depression in the ground and then, when their center of gravity changes, they’ll actually tip over and be unable to get back up without help.  

When a sheep is missing, the first thought to flash through the shepherd’s mind is that one of his sheep may be cast.  Buzzards and coyotes know that a cast sheep is easy pickings and death is not far off.  When the shepherd finds the sheep, he rolls it over and lifts it to its feet.  He then straddles the sheep, holding it erect, rubbing the limbs to restore circulation, while talking to it gently.  

What a picture of what God does for straying saints!  He looks for us when we have wandered and picks us up when we are flat on our backs.  Aren’t you glad that Christianity is a series of new beginnings?  If you’re cast down today, or have strayed from the flock, allow the shepherd to restore your soul.  He’ll bring you back and He’ll put you back together.

4. Guidance (3b).  “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” 

The word used for “paths” refers to a “well-defined and well-worn trail.” God longs to lead us in paths of righteousness.  Most of us know the right road we should take but our selfishness and sinfulness can lead us astray.  We need the shepherd to guide us in the right way because like sheep, we often have no sense of direction.   If we don’t go His way, we will go astray.

The Shepherd Protects

When we come to verse 4, we notice a couple changes.  In verses 1-3, the sheep are in the sunshine.  In verse 4, they’re in the shadows.  God not only provides for us through delightful times, He protects us through dark seasons of life.  

Notice also that the pronouns change.  In the first half, David is extolling the virtues of the Shepherd, using “He” and “His” to refer to Yahweh.  When we come to the second half, he speaks to the Shepherd directly: You are with me, your rod and your staff…you prepare…you anoint.”  

When times are tough, God becomes more real to David.  Have you experienced that?  The promise-keeping God protects us when we face problems.  Because of that there is…

1. No need to fear death.

Look at the first part of verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”  The picture here is of the shepherd leading his sheep through rocky ravines and narrow gorges when long shadows would dance across the trail, frightening the flock.  The shepherd knows from experience that bears and wolves like to wait in ambush for some fresh lamb chops. 

Notice that we walk “through” the valley.  We don’t have to stay there.  Through the blackness there is brightness.  Through the gloom there is glory.  In one sense the shadow of something is more ominous than what it represents.  On the other hand, the shadow of a dog cannot bite and the shadow of death cannot harm us if we stay close to the shepherd.  When there is a shadow there must be light somewhere.  As 1 Corinthians 15:55 reminds us, the Redeemer has removed the sting of death; only the shadow of it remains.  In John 8:51, Jesus says, “Whoever keeps my word will not see death” and in John 11:26, “And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

2. No need to fear separation.

David can deal with death because he can say, “you are with me.”  Jesus promises to be near to us in Hebrews 13:5-6, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.  So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” 

David continues, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The rod was used to protect the sheep.  Shepherds were very adept in their aim and would throw this club at attacking animals.  The staff was a slender pole, with a little crook on the end.  It could be hooked around the leg of a sheep to pull him from harm.  It was also utilized to lift sheep out of crevices they had fallen into.

3. No need to fear enemies. 

In verse 5, David writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  Some suggest that David is switching metaphors to that of a gracious dinner host.  There might be something to that but I think he’s using a common expression to describe what a shepherd does to “prepare a pasture.” Ideally, the best place for the sheep to graze is on a flat mesa, or tableland.  Before letting the lambs romp around, the shepherd would inspect it for poisonous plants and make sure there were not any predators prowling around.  The sheep can eat even though there are enemies nearby because the shepherd is doing His job.

This reminds me of the young boy who was messing around at the dinner table.  After being warned several times, his parents finally told him he had to eat by himself at a tiny table in the corner.  When he sat down his dad reminded him to pray before he ate.  He closed his eyes and prayed, “Bless this food that I eat in the presence of my enemies.”

The word “enemy” can mean to bind up, to tie up, to be distressed, to be troubled, to be oppressed, to be cramped.  In the midst of the cultural confusion in our country, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to live in fear of those who believe and live differently.  I’m praying that God will bring revival to our lives, our church, the QCA, our country and the world.  God has placed each of us strategically in our neighborhoods, campuses, workplaces and in our community to live on mission for Him by going with the gospel.

During our block party two weeks ago I was asked to pray before we ate and I prayed something like this: “God, you’ve told us to love our neighbors and that’s pretty easy to do because we have great neighbors.”  I’m thankful for the love God has given us for our neighbors.  This came out this week when I saw two Mormon missionaries going door-to-door in our court.  My very first thought was, “This is our neighborhood and these neighbors belong to us.”  

I prayed that no one would talk to them and then they came to our front door (one of our daughters had turned the light on for them so they’d stop by).  I was able to speak to them about salvation through Jesus by grace, not works.  I also challenged their views on Joseph Smith as a prophet and their adherence to the Book of Mormon.  When they found out I was a pastor they politely excused themselves and left our neighborhood.  The very next night however, they were back and I prayed that none of our neighbors would be led astray. They left within a couple minutes.  Let me be quick to say that I don’t see these young guys as personal enemies but the message they preach is at odds with the gospel…and they need the gospel.

4. No need to fear problems.

  The middle section of verse 5 is rich in meaning: “You anoint my head with oil.”  If David is referring to a dinner party, he has in mind the generous host who puts fragrant oil on his guest’s foreheads.  This would help neutralize body odor that could spoil a fine dining experience.  Those who will be serving at the Bix better get ready for some sweaty smells – especially from me as I stumble past the water station!  In our culture, it would be like giving your guests a stick of deodorant when they came to your house.  In that day, oil was also a sign of rejoicing so to be anointed with it was to be splashed with joy.

While that may shed some light on the meaning of this text, David is still submerged in the sheep and shepherd relationship.   In ancient Israel shepherds used oil for three purposes: 

  1. To repel insects.  Sheep are really bugged by bugs.  Flies like to deposit their eggs into the tender membrane of the sheep’s nose.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae drive the sheep insane, causing them to beat their heads against rocks and trees.  When sheep see flies they freak out.  They shake their heads up and down for hours.  The shepherd knows what flies can do so he covers their heads with an oil-like repellant.
  2. To prevent conflict.  Oil was also used to prevent injury to the rams when they butted heads in their battle to win the affection of the ewes.  Whenever the shepherd would hear two guys say to the same lady, “I want ewe, babe,” [come on, that was funny!] he knew there was going to be a rumble.  He’d quickly smear this slippery substance on their heads so the gladiators would glance off each other rather than splitting their craniums open.  
  3. To heal wounds.  Oil was also used as an ointment because the flock would get a lot of wounds and cuts simply from living in a pasture.  BTW, I think this is where “Essential Oils” got its start!  Sheep would get pierced by prickly thorns and they would receive abrasions from the rocks.  Oil would prevent infection and speed up the healing process.

What a beautiful picture of what the shepherd does for us.  He deals with our problems by protecting us from those things that can wipe us out.  He helps us have harmony with others.  And, He comforts us and heals us when we’re beat up.  We’re wounded sheep in need of a healing shepherd.  Do you have any wounds today?

The Shepherd Preserves

Our Shepherd provides and He protects.  He also preserves us in two ways.

1. God gives us more than we need today (5c-6a). 

Look at the last part of verse 5: “…My cup overflows.”  The word “overflow” refers to an overabundance.  The “cup” has two possible meanings.  A shepherd would often carry water to drink and would share it with his sheep.  He would be generous because he knew they had to have some liquid or they would perish.  

The other meaning may be that of a dinner host who would serve drinks in cups and fill them to the brim.  This was a common way to tell guests that they could stay as long as they wanted.  But when a cup sat empty, the host was hinting that it was time to leave.  When the host really enjoyed the company of the person, he filled their cup until the liquid ran over the edge of the cup and onto the floor.  God loves to lavish His blessings on us as Ephesians 3:20 says: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…”

And notice the beginning of verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…”  “Surely” is an emphatic expression and the word “follow” literally means, “to pursue or to chase after.”  One paraphrase puts it like this: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.”  What a picture!  Aren’t you glad God chases you with His “goodness”?  I love one of the sayings from Celebrate Recovery, our ministry on Friday nights for people dealing with hurts, habits and hang-ups: “God is good all the time…and all the time God is good!” 

We’re also recipients of his “mercy,” by not receiving what we do deserve.  If God gave us justice, we’d be consumed by His righteous wrath.  God’s goodness and mercy led Jesus to the Cross, where the shepherd gave his life for his sheep.  He’s pursuing you right now in order to give you more that you need and certainly more than you deserve.

2. God prepares us for everything we’ll need forever (6b). 

Today is covered…and so is tomorrow.  Look at the last phrase of verse 6: “…And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” The word “dwell” means “to reside, to settle down and be at home with.”

The sheep have been following the shepherd to green pastures and through shadowy gorges.  The flock is now ready to winter in the safe harbor of the Good Shepherd’s home.  They are so satisfied with the flock to which they belong and with the ownership of the Shepherd that they want everything to just go on forever.  And for those who are saved, Jesus the Good Shepherd, promises in John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Lamb Lessons

I see three lamb lessons from this Shepherd’s song.

1. Join the shepherd’s flock. 

The Lord is looking for lost sheep right now.  If you have never asked Jesus save you from your sins and shepherd your life, you are not yet in His flock. 

Jesus said in John 10:14: “I am the good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.”  Do you kow the Shepherd?

When we stay close to the shepherd, He will make sure all of our needs are met

2. Stay close to the shepherd. 

Many sheep will come to the shepherd daily and rub against his legs and wait for a pat on the head.  Sheep that stay close to the shepherd reach the water first.  Those next to the shepherd get to the sweetest grass first.  But most of all they get to enjoy it all with the shepherd by their side.  When we stay close to the shepherd, He will make sure all of our needs are met.

Unfortunately, some of us like to stray.  As a last resort, a shepherd will discipline a straying sheep by putting a leg across his staff and with one quick motion, pull down on the leg to break it.  Because the sheep cannot walk, the shepherd then carries the sheep from field to field, sometimes even putting him on his shoulders.  As a result the sheep becomes so used to being close to the shepherd that he can’t imagine going his own way again. 

Perhaps the Lord is disciplining you right now.  Remember, its not to punish you but to bring you back to His side. I like 1 Peter 2:25: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

3. Follow wherever He leads.

The shepherd has a plan for you and wants to lead you in paths of righteousness.  Are you willing to follow Him, regardless of the direction He takes you?  Maybe that’s baptism or church membership or plugging into a Life Group or serving as a cross-cultural missionary.

In our previous church, one of our Sunday School teachers was helping kids learn the names of God.  She had them make t-shirts with this phrase on them: “Your way, Yahweh.” That’s a good question for us today.  Can you say, “My way is Yahweh?”  Are you actively following Him?

Praying the Psalm

The Good Shepherd provides, protects and preserves.  Please join me as we pray this song of the sheep back to the 

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?