Summary: What a fantastic Pslam! This is a short talk using illustrations from shepherding, and the experience of an evangelist in hospital.
King David, the author of Psalm 23, trained as a shepherd. He knew exactly what it meant to care for, tend, feed and protect a flock of sheep. So when he wrote this Psalm I can picture him meditating on his own experiences, and realising that God was in them.
Now I don’t know about you but when I look at a flock of sheep I just see a bunch of sheep; but in his book ‘The Sheep that taught me much’ Phil Hylton wrote this: “We had our flock of some seventeen to twenty ewes, many different characters, like humans, none were exactly the same.” Phil named each one of his sheep according to their size, their shape, and their markings. He knew each of his sheep as individuals and at one point in his book he refers to Twiggy – a Ewe who didn’t entirely trust her shepherd; Phil in other words; but he also tells the story of Little Lady, a Ewe that trusted Phil completely.
Psalm 23 is about trusting God completely.
‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters; he restores my soul’ (23: 1-3a).
Placing our full trust and confidence in the Good Shepherd will result in a transformed existence. We need to eat, drink and rest, in every respect – physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually. God is the one who – in Jesus - gives us the food and drink of life. No wonder Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35); “If anyone is thirsty let [them] come to me and drink” (John 7:37); and “Come to me all [of] you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He leads us to quiet waters. He restores and heals the troubled soul.
‘He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake’ (23: 3b). David has in mind the Middle- Eastern shepherd who leads his sheep by walking ahead, and the trusting sheep follow one by one.
The best path in life is to follow the Good Shepherd himself in paths of righteousness, learning to become more like Jesus in who we are. To be righteous is to be not just morally right. It is to be like Jesus – ‘for his name’s sake’; for the sake of his name. An ambassador comes in the name of the King, or in the name of a country; and as an ambassador of Jesus a Christian is in the world in his name.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ (23:4).
What wonderful words of comfort and assurance! The former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken writes about this Psalm in his book ‘Psalms for people under pressure’. He refers to a conversation with the evangelist Michael Green after Michael was rushed into hospital following a heart attack. Green was lying horizontally in Casualty with Doctors injecting and working on him.
Looking up at the bright lights he thought to himself, “Green, this could be it!” He realised he was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and at that moment he was suddenly filled with a wonderful warm glow of joy and peacefulness. God was with him.
The Psalmist now switches metaphors by describing God as the great host of a banquet. ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows’ (23:5). If it sometimes seems like the world is against you – and remember there were plenty of people who were against Jesus – this illustration is so encouraging. There is a heavenly banquet that awaits believers. Our service of Communion points to it, and when enemies are shooting at us, either with words or actions that hurt, let’s not lose sight of the future that is assured for the believer – a future that includes the heavenly dwelling promised by Jesus (John 14:1-2), “I am going to prepare a place for you.”
‘Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (23:6).
For the believer, the Lord is a shepherd. He is the host of the banquet, and he owns the house of our eternal dwelling.
If there’s anything troubling you today surrender it to the Lord. Listen for his word to you as a trusting sheep. Feast on all that he provides. Let him still your soul, and trust him for your future.