Summary: 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.
The Lord Who Leads
Most everyone has heard of Psalm 23. It’s a poem with no peer and has been called the sweetest song ever sung. Abraham Lincoln read it to cure his blues, and President Bush proclaimed it publicly to calm our nation’s fears after 9-11.
I read these words out loud a week ago when I met with someone who just found out that a family member had drowned. I’ve read Psalm 23 to people in the hospital, though on occasion when I’ve turned to it, a patient has gotten frightened because they think I know something they don’t know! Since the psalm is often quoted at funerals, they might have wondered if I was getting ready for theirs!
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?
In order to help us better understand this powerful poetry and unlock the psalm’s secrets, I want to ask Harold Davis to come up and give us a lesson on lambs. Harold is the co-chairman of our deacon board but his first love is sheep (after Bonnie, of course). Check out his tie as he comes up here! I’m told that when he was younger he even skipped school in order to shear sheep. He estimates that during his 53 years of sheep shearing, he has given haircuts to over 850,000 sheep! Harold is the President of the Illinois Lamb and Wool Board, gives demonstrations at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and is heavily involved in the 4-H Fair and Thresherman’s Reunion.
Harold, thanks for “shearing” with us today! With that as background, let’s take a close look at this prayer. There are two main characters in this psalm The Shepherd and his sheep. And there are three main ideas:
The Shepherd’s Provision is Personal (1-3)
The Shepherd’s Protection is Pervasive (4-5)
The Shepherd’s Pleasure is Paramount (6)
The Shepherd’s Provision is Personal
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.
If the name needed to be written, the scribes would take a bath before writing it and then destroy the pen afterward. While “Yahweh” is difficult to define, this name refers to the fact that God is who He is; He’s the one who causes everything else. He is unchanging, the one who inhabits eternity.
And yet, this is the name David chooses in the opening verse of Psalm 23. 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. He is a consuming fire and yet He is my sensitive shepherd. I love the image of Yahweh as shepherd in 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.”
Because the Lord is my shepherd, He cares for me personally. We see four ways that His provision is personal in verses 1-3.
1. God’s provision makes us content (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 be in want.” A substitute Sunday School teacher asked his class one day, “How many of you can quote Psalm 23?” Several of the children raised their hands, including a little girl who was only four years old. The teacher was surprised that someone so young would know Psalm 23 so he asked her to recite it for the class. She stood up and said, “The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I want.” She had the words mixed up but understood the message perfectly.
Friend, 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 the Lord is not my shepherd.” Psalm 34:9: “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” This is really the main idea of the psalm. Since God 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 want. Contentment is wanting everything you have.