The Lord Is My Shepherd
From Gospel Translations
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The 23rd Psalm is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. Almost every Christian has memorized John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." The same is true for Psalm 23. It is probably the most memorized text of the Old Testament.
God's Kindness Is the Only True Hope We Have
On Friday we heard that the younger brother of Mrs. C. Robert Anderson died that very morning. He died on his 79th birthday. So I went over to visit with Mrs. Anderson. Of course she was filled with grief at the death of her "baby" brother, as she affectionately called him. But her grief was not as those who have no hope. And, of course, if you know Mrs. Anderson, you know that by the time I left, I was the one who was encouraged and strengthened in my faith. I told her I was going to be preaching on Psalm 23 this Sunday. And before I could quote it for her, a beautiful smile filled her face and she said, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . " And she proceeded to quote the whole psalm.
When you hear the 23rd Psalm recited from memory by a woman of God like Mrs. Anderson, who has walked with the Shepherd so many years, you are struck afresh with this truth: "the kindness of God is the only true hope that we have—and it is all the hope we need to face any situation life can bring."
For many of you this truth has already been planted in your hearts—and the Spirit simply wants to water the seed this morning. But for some of you this truth has never been planted—you have never really been able to trust in the kindness of God; you only fear his severity. If this is you, may the windows open wide as we meditate on Psalm 23.
Yahweh Is My Shepherd
"The Lord is my shepherd." The word "Lord" is a potentially impersonal term meaning master or owner. But for many of us it has become very personal, and so it should. Because in verse 1 the Hebrew word translated "Lord" is Yahweh, the personal name of our personal God. Yahweh is my Shepherd, not some distant, nameless, or faceless deity. Yahweh is my Shepherd.
Yahweh Is My Shepherd
Yahweh is my Shepherd. That is, all those shepherd-like qualities of God are exercised for my benefit. It was a beautiful petition that we prayed and that the choir sang a few moments ago when we said, "Shepherd me, Lord." The reason we can sing and pray this is because the Lord is my Shepherd. He has personal concern for me and for you. One of the beautiful mysteries of Scripture is that the holy, almighty God has the disposition to draw near to individuals like you and me and draw us near to himself. "For thus says the high and exalted One, who lives for ever, whose name is Holy, 'I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isaiah 57:15). The Lord is my Shepherd!
Let's look a bit more closely at this disposition of the Shepherd. After that we we'll reflect on the provision of the Shepherd, and finally we'll conclude by meditating on the motive of the Shepherd.
The Disposition of the Shepherd
First, the Shepherd's disposition. In Webster's dictionary, the word "disposition" is defined as the "prevailing tendency" or "inclination" of a person. The prevailing tendency or disposition of some people is to be crabby. But the disposition, the prevailing tendency and inclination of God, our Shepherd, is to be kind. This is found in verse 6: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Goodness and Mercy
All the blessings of verses 1–5 flow out of the goodness and mercy of God. The terms "goodness" and "mercy" are almost interchangeable. They refer to God's disposition to act kindly toward people who realize they are undeserving. Goodness, or mercy, is God's prevailing tendency, his inclination, to do good for us even though we deserve only his anger.
The fact that "goodness and mercy" is God's prevailing tendency—the dominant inclination of his heart, the very love and passion of his soul—becomes clear when we inquire into the phrase "follow me." "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." The Hebrew word translated "follow" signifies a very active kind of following, a pursuit—not the passive kind of following like a shadow follows a couple as they ride off into the sunset, or an easily distracted kind of following like when Hannah is supposed to follow me into the bedroom to get ready for bed. I think that's the way we sometimes understand the goodness and mercy of God following us. Either it never quite catches up to us, or somehow God has gotten distracted by some other concern. But that's not what the psalmist means here. He means an active pursuit. "Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life."
God's Heart Is Brimming with Kindness
God is like a police car pursuing us to do us good. We may think he's trying to give a ticket. But in reality he is chasing us to tell us we won the lottery. And instead of the prize being a mere eight million dollars, it is an eternity of fellowship with him, basking in his goodness and mercy forever.
The heart of God our Shepherd is brimming with kindness. He refuses to contain himself when it comes to doing good for his sheep. To be sure, there are times this side of heaven where he strategically allows us to go through difficulties where his goodness and mercy seem to be fleeing from us rather than pursuing after us. But according to verse 6 that's only a mirage. For "surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life." And the day will come when our enjoyment of God's kindness will be unhindered, totally undistracted, for it says in Ephesians 2:7—one of the most awesome verses in the Bible to ponder—that the goal of salvation is "that in the coming ages God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."
Can you fathom what it will be like to be recipients of the immeasurable riches of God's grace in kindness nonstop for eternity?!? We all love it when people show kindness to us. I was blessed and thrilled by all the kindness shown to us while Julie was in the hospital last week giving birth to Ruth. The soup and lasagna and the cards and the strawberry pie and Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Happy Birthday Ruth poster in the front yard and baby gifts and many other kindnesses warmed our hearts greatly, but these are just echoes of the eternal kindness that awaits us. Yes, we all love it when people show kindness to us. But when God shows us the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness in the coming ages—well it is going to be so tremendous that we will need new resurrection bodies to handle it.
The Provision of the Shepherd
Well, I'm getting a little carried away here; we must move on. So if the disposition of the Shepherd is overflowing goodness and kindness, what then is the provision of the Shepherd which flows out in practical ways from his kindness?
Lacking No Good Thing
According to verse 1 the provision of the Shepherd is total. He doesn't promise to give us 80% if we can just come up with 20%. No, his provision is complete. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." "Want" here means "lack." "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack." Lack what, David? In another psalm that David wrote, Psalm 34:9, 10, we gain some light. "O fear the Lord, you his saints; for to those who fear him there is no want. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing." The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack any good thing.
Have you ever lacked any good thing? Of course you have; I have too. And it's not just that we have all lacked things like BMW's, tickets to the all-star game, a dream date with the school knockout, or a two month vacation cruise. But haven't we all lacked good things of spiritual significance, good things that we know God approves of?
I think David will make things clearer for us as we finish the psalm. The rest of the psalm spells out the positive counterpart to the negative statement, "I shall not lack." It does so by laying before us the provision of the Shepherd.
No Lack of Restful Security
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack restful security—verse 2 and the first part of verse 3. "He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters (or more literally, waters of quietness); he restores my soul." At first glance, it seems here that the Shepherd provides food and drink for his sheep. But that is reserved for verse 5. Here the picture is that after the noon-time grazing, the Shepherd leads his flock to another grassy oasis with a spring of fresh, clean water amidst a dry and thirsty land.
Here the sheep lie down in restful security. It is restful because they don't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They are laying on it! David, the experienced shepherd and the theologian, sees a reflection of God's heart in the heart of the shepherd. God wants his people, the sheep of his hand, to enjoy rest, trusting in the Shepherd's provision for the future. God restores our soul through rest. Are you getting the spiritual and physical rest you need? Or are you constantly burying yourself with so many things?
No Lack of Guidance
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack guidance—the second part of verse 3. "He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." If it weren't for the guidance of a shepherd, sheep would settle for brown, crusty stubble and stagnant, polluted pools. But thanks to the wisdom and knowledge of the Shepherd, the sheep are led past stubble and polluted waters, and even past some pretty tempting oases, until they reach the grassy meadows. So also God our Shepherd will lead us in paths of righteousness. We too are called upon to walk right by paths that obviously lead to destruction and even some paths that seem on the surface to lead to happiness. But we follow the Shepherd because we know his kind disposition and his wisdom.
No Lack of Protection
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack protection—verse 4. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." On the way to green pastures and waters of quietness, the shepherd may perhaps, if necessary, lead his sheep through dangerous territory. God our Shepherd, also leads us when necessary through bitter experiences climaxing in death itself. Notice that the Shepherd doesn't keep us from the valley of the shadow of death. He leads us through it. His presence is our comfort—no matter what the circumstances. This verse is clear evidence that the statement, "I shall not lack," of verse 1 does not mean the absence of hardship. If anyone knew a life of hardship and sorrow, it was David. But he could say with integrity, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack," because God was his portion and God was with him in the valley of the shadow of death.
No Lack of Nourishment
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack nourishment—verse 5. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows." The enemies of the sheep are helpless when the Shepherd is present. The enemies can only lick their lips from a distance as the Shepherd turns a little picnic in the wilderness into a feast. At this feast God exhibits his absolute self-sufficiency by playing the role of a servant, preparing the table, anointing the guests' heads with oil, and providing more nourishment than our utensils can hold.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack anything that the Shepherd determines I need to be happy in him. "Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
The Motive of the Shepherd
But why? Why does the Shepherd pursue you and me with goodness and mercy? What is the Shepherd's motive behind all his provision? As much as it might burst our bubble of earthly shepherds, we must admit, and so would they, that they are in the business of shepherding not because of some altruistic concern for sheep, but they are in it for the wool sweaters and for the lamb chops at meal time. But not so with God. His motive is spelled out in verse 3. "He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake." God's motive is to display the honor of his name. And there is nothing that will better display his honor, his character, his glory, his all sufficiency, than to overflow in goodness and mercy toward needy, sheep-like people—like you and me.
So for his name's sake and for your restful security, your guidance, your protection and your nourishment, I strongly urge you to let God shepherd you. I urge you to be his faithful follower, to take his outstretched hand now, to quit drinking at stagnant pools no matter how they glisten in the sun, and stop yearning for dried up stubble no matter how tasty it appears. Trust the Shepherd that if you follow him, you will lack no good thing—you will only be pursued by omnipotent goodness and mercy all the days of your life and you will dwell in his presence forever. AMEN.