It is probably the best known psalm in the western world and possibly the best known scripture period. It is loved by Jews and Christians alike and probably the reason is that it is an incredibly positive Psalm, all up beat and uplifting.
It has been quoted and misquoted, it’s on plaques and mugs and posters, T-shirts and tombstones. It’s featured in the sacred and the profane. Most of us can quote at least a portion of it from memory if only from hearing it read at funerals. It was read earlier but let’s read it again together. Normally we use the New Living Translation on Sunday Morning but some scriptures aren’t right unless they are from the KJV. This is one of them.
Psalm 23 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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 mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
It is a very positive Psalm, not a negative word in it at all, not a hint of complaint. It is a psalm of comfort and reassurance, and maybe that just because we are so familiar with it. But what does it mean to us today, May 22, 2011? If anything.
For the person who originally wrote it, it meant something. For the people who originally read it, it meant something, but does it mean anything to us? Is it anymore then a familiar litany that we can recite by heart without really thinking about what it says? The Lord is my shepherd, now I lay me down to sleep, hickory dickory dock.
So what can we learn from the 23rd Psalm today? Are they simply words of comfort and reassurance to be repeated like a mantra or are there actual lessons to be learned and if so then what are they.
This is a Psalm of thanksgiving, David is writing it to give praise and honour to his God. And long before there was David the King or even David the giant slayer there was David the shepherd. From the time David was just a young boy he spent his days tending the sheep that belonged to his father Jesse. Maybe this Psalm had its beginnings in the pasturelands overlooking Bethlehem. We will never know for sure, but what we do know is that when David was searching for a metaphor for the provision of God to his people he reached back in his past and pulled out the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep.
So how did David say that God provided for him and for us?
Psalm 23:1-2 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. Tells us that God cares for our 1) Our Physical Needs. Let me start by saying God cares about you. He loved you so much that he willing came to earth as a human, lived here for thirty three years and willing offered his life up as a sacrifice for your sin.
It’s easy sometimes to get a pout on and think that nobody loves us and life’s against us and we never get what we deserve and others are better off than we are. And if we were writing a Psalm it would go something like: Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms. But listen to me, God loves you and God cares for you and God is concerned about you. And God wants to meet all your needs. The problem is that we have such a tough time separating needs from wants.
Maybe that’s part of why David used sheep in this analogy because their needs and their wants are so close together. Sheep need and want good grazing and a quiet source of water to drink from. That’s it, don’t want a bigger pasture, don’t need more water then they can drink from, just water and grass. And that’s what the shepherd does for them, he leads them to the place where they can find all they need. He doesn’t take them to brown wilted pastures he leads them to green pastures. He doesn’t direct them to a rushing torrent to drink instead he leads them to the still waters.
Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 10:29-32 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”
Or Matthew 6:28-30 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
Our problem isn’t that God doesn’t provide us with what we need, it’s that sometimes he doesn’t provide us with what we want. For too many people our prayer list is kind of like this: Janis Joplin song: “Mercedes Benz” (I used a MP3 clip here but you could read the lyrics)
Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
I’m counting on you, Lord, please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round,
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town ?
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Do I think we ought to live in poverty? No. Do I think that we shouldn’t have nice things? No. Do I think we shouldn’t drive nice cars? No. Do I think that God should provide all those things for us? No. Another one of the promises of provision that Jesus made is found in Matthew 6:26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Jesus said that God feeds the birds but he doesn’t just drop the worms in their mouths and if they just hang around their nest and do nothing then they will eventually starve to death.
It’s funny if you watch the progression of churches and denominations. They often begin reaching the down and outers. Those on the fringe of society and yet within a couple of generations they are made up of affluent folks. Why is that? Could it be that when those on the fringe get saved they begin to give up expensive vices and start providing a day’s work for a day’s wage? That God makes a change in their hearts which makes them better citizens and better employees who are more responsible with their resources? Could be. I truly believe that God wants to provide for our needs and he wants to make us the type of people who will be responsible for the rest of it. Are you trusting God to provide your needs?
I love the story of the old Christian lady who was struggling to make ends meet and one day as she was praying two teens walked by her window and heard her. They decided to play a little joke on her. They got together a box of food from their homes and put in front of her door, rang the doorbell and hid around the corner. When she came out and saw the box she began praising God for providing for her. The two teens jumped out and said “You silly old woman it wasn’t God who gave you that it was us.” To which she replied “God provided even if he used the devil to deliver it.”
Do you believe that God will provide for your physical needs today?
Psalm 23:3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. It’s here we discover that God is concerned with 2) Our Spiritual Needs.
Sometimes we think that we are in this spiritual walk thing all by ourselves, but that isn’t true. God is there for us, he’s given us his word and he guides us with his spirit. Throughout the bible he tells us that he will guide us, and protects us. But it’s always our choice.
Have you had your soul restored lately? That’s what God offers. He doesn’t just put a new coat of paint over the old; he restores it to the way it’s supposed to be. The way it was before it was tarnished with sin and all the crud that comes with it. Jesus spoke of the New Birth, Paul talked about us becoming new creations. That’s the offer, that when we come to God and repent, that is say we are sorry for our sins and mean it, and ask for his forgiveness that we become new creations. We have our souls restored. Listen to what it says in Romans 5:10-11 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.
Jesus has made us friends of God. That’s a concept that is difficult to even imagine. That’s taking us back to the relationship before the fall, that is what we were created for, to have a relationship with God, our creator, the master of the universe.
And he doesn’t just restore us and leave us. “Ok Guys you’re a brand new creation and you’re on your own.” The very next thing the Psalmist writes is he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. The NLT says it this way He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name. Listen to the promise that Jesus made to his disciples in John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. And Jesus brother James tells us in James 1:5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. And he gave us the book.
But here is the reality he may lead you in paths of righteousness or he may guide you along right paths but he will never drag you there. You can choose to do right or you can choose to do wrong, but It is now, always has been and always will be your choice. If you want wisdom, to know what God wants you to do you have to ask.
Do you believe that Jesus will provide for you spiritually?
Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. The Shepherd also provides for 3) Our Emotional Needs. When Anne Landers was writing her advice column she was receiving over ten thousand pieces of mail a month, and most of that mail was from people with problems. Big problems and little problems as well as little problems that they thought were big problems. She was asked one time if there was any one problem that came up more often than any other. She said there was and it was . . .? Any ideas? Fear!
People are afraid of losing their health, their wealth, and their loved ones, they are consumed with fear. I’m no expert but I would suspect the one thing that wears down our emotional health more than anything else is fear.
Fear of what will happen and fear of what won’t happen. David is saying that because of his Shepherd his fear is under control. Knowing that he comes under the protection of someone greater then him. Now we are all afraid of something Dave Barry wrote “All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears–of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark, or speaking before a Rotary Club, and of the words “Some Assembly Required.”
But it is when we allow those fears to control our lives and control our emotions that we become crippled by them. The Psalmist says even when we are in death’s shadow we need to understand that God is in control. If we are in God’s hand then we are safe. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of falling on lobsters in the dark, but we shouldn’t let that fear control us. One of my favourite stories in the gospels is when the apostles were crossing the Sea of Galilee and were caught in a storm. You remember it right? The storm blows up and Jesus comes walking on the water and he says “It’s all right, I am here! Don’t be afraid.” And that’s what he still tells his disciples today, “It’s all right, I am here! Don’t be afraid.” . And when we can come to grips with that concept then we are well and truly on the way to emotional stability.
Do you believe that Jesus can provide for your emotional needs?
Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. And finally the Shepherd will provide for 4) Our Eternal Needs. Sometimes you hear people who say “Because I’m a Christian I’m going to live forever.” Got news for you, it don’t matter if you are a Christian or not you’re going to live forever. The only difference is going to be the address. The Bible, God’s word is very clear about that, each one of us has an eternal soul and when this life is over we will live forever. Either in the presence of God with all that is good and beautiful and right or out of the Presence of God in the Presences of all that is evil and ugly and wrong. When we are a child of God not only does he provide for us all the days of our lives, but he provides for us forever.
That’s why we have the promise of Jesus in John 14:2-3 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.
If we trust him with our here and now we certainly will be able to trust him with our there and then.
Can you believe that Jesus will provide for your eternal needs?
But here’s the bottom line, these promises and these provisions aren’t for everyone! Listen to how the Psalm starts. Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; Here’s 5) The Condition. People, if you want to be provided for as one of the shepherd’s sheep he has to be your shepherd. David wasn’t comparing himself to a wild sheep that wandered the Palestinian hills, not beholden to anyone. You gotta watch out for those feral sheep. Nor was he saying that he was someone else’s sheep who just snuck into the pasture for a free ride.
Now we aren’t an agricultural society, most of us have never met a shepherd and probably never will meet a shepherd. So let’s put it in terms which may be easier for us to understand. The Lord is my master, my boss, my owner. The Lord is my Lord. And it isn’t just a verbal thing, it’s not just a matter of calling him lord and saying that he is my Lord. It’s making him your lord by allowing him to be your lord by believing in him and obeying him. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German theologian who died for his faith under the Nazi’s who said “Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.”
And that’s why Jesus had this conversation in Matthew 7:22-24 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.
Is he your Shepherd? Is he your Lord? Do you listen to his teaching and obey him? If not it can happen, but it has to be your choice. Jesus said John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me. . .
If you haven’t made a decision to know Jesus, not just know about him but to know him then you can make it today. Is it time to make the 23rd Psalm more than simply a pretty poem? Is it time to make it your own?