The Shepherd King

Introduction

In 2015, I spent three months in Tanzania, working with the local Anglican Church in Musoma. Locally, the people speak Swahili, a beautifully phonetic and simple language; fast in Rhythm and full of exotic sounds.  After a few weeks, I soon picked up some of the basic’s of the language; phrases you would use in everyday conversation. As our frequent point of contact was the local church we also became familiar with the titles used when addressing different positions. The word used to address clergy was “Mchungaji.”   Eventually, when people found out that  upon my return to the UK I would enter training for ordination; they started to joke and call me “Mchungaji.” A few weeks later, when, we were out at a local project and meeting some new people that in conversation I asked someone what they had worked at, he responded: “I work as a Mchungaji.” I was standing with the local minister, so I thought the man I was talking to standing with a heard of animals was either joking or confused.

In conversation with my friend John I learned: Swahili as a language is a confusing mix of Arabic, English and local dialects – it is quite happy to recycle words and give them multiple meanings in different contexts; Mchungaji while meaning pastor could also be translated as Shepherd: What a powerful Image that a local minister would always be referred to in some way as Shepard and remind them of their God-given responsibility to shepherd the flock of God.

Today we look at that word; Not in relation to a pastor, or leader – not even as someone to sheep, we are looking at the meaning of it in Light of God the Shepherd. So let us come to Psalm 23 anew not as funeral Psalm.  No, we are thinking about Psalm 23 in relation to the character and attributes of God.  God as Shepherd.

PSALM 23: INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT

This is a song of confidence in Yahweh:  It is a Psalm that oozes confidence in who God is. Furthermore, it was written in the midst of a hard situation – notice the enemies in verse 5 – which makes the confidence in this Psalm all the more powerful. In our context it is normally heard when someone is close to death: Read to offer comfort that God is with the person in what they face. This associate has come from the phrases: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

However, recent scholarship has cast doubt on the historical narrowness of the Psalm, thus, its application pastorally and use in church.  Psalm 23 is not just a funeral, its a Psalm for use in all stages.

An important thing to remember as we get stuck into this Psalm is that it is a Hebrew poem which is always added to their structure:  It lends to their meaning. Often the centre point is important and Psalm 23 is an example of this:  It is all about its centre (v4) so as we read it, we need to read it almost like a pyramid, working its way up from verse one to verse four before it descends downward.

Verse one is perhaps the most memorised verse in all of the Psalms. it is an Intimate relationship: between God the Shepard and a Psalmist who acts as the sheep.  However, this is more than just a pastoral metaphor: This is a Royal metaphor.  God is the Shepherd-King who cares for his people, and it is a relationship that is described in an intensely personal and intimidating manner.

The Psalm then has two parts:

  1. (1-4) God as Shepherd who passionately cares for his sheep.
  2. (5-6) God as a Host of a heavenly banquet where the sheep is the guest of honour

GOD AS THE ULTIMATE SHEPHERD (VERSES 1-3)

Verse One: The Shepherd King

 Verse One begins strongly and boldly, reminding us of the single reason for, and, the focus of our existence:  “The Lord.”  However, we see that God is not some distant deity in the sky: he is deeply close to those whom he Shepherds the “my” emphatically linking God to the Psalmist.

Everything in this psalm flows from that Intimacy, and, understanding of God as Shepherd. Indeed, its the most intimate metaphor used to describe God throughout the Psalms: King, Deliver, Rock, Shield and Tower. All powerful names that describe different attributes of God, yet, none as meaningful as Shepherd: A 24/7, diverse employment because it was not just that the Shepard acted as a Watcher, he is the defender, physician and guide.  He is everything to the sheep as God is everything to those who are with him.

Furthermore, when we consider the metaphor of God as Shepherd within its wider cultural understanding it adds to it even more.  Throughout the near east kings and other leaders in positions of power were styled as Shepherds of their people; to portray what was expected of them. This Pattern is concurrent in the Old Testament, where its use was normally negative. With kings portrayed as Bad shepherds who would lead their sheep astray (Ezekiel 34) and into sin.  The Image of God as Shepherd is not limited to this Psalms either, we see it throughout the Old Testament and the Psalms. Where Earthy leaders will not lead their people according to the ways of God, he will. The extensive use of the Shepherd-Imagery in this Psalm reveals it to be a Royal Psalm, the Psalmist is expressing confidence that God is the Shepherd-king. God is the perfect shepherd who supplies all the needs of his sheep, those who follow God and belong to him through Christ will have no lack or want.

Verse Two: The Perfect Shepherd

Verse Two describes the perfect life of Sheep.  They lack nothing as they journey from green pasture to a water. It is a beautiful picture of serenity and calmness; an image that is added to when you recall the dry and often barren climate of Israel. A wonderful book for this is ‘A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23’ (Zondervan, 1970) where the author Philip Keller reflects and notes that Sheeps only lie down when they feel fully safe and satisfied:

“It is impossible for them to made to lie down unless until four requirements are met… they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear… sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind…. Only when free of these pests [files or parasites]. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feed in need of finding food.  They must be free of hunger.”

Thus, what this short verse portrays is nothing, short, of, a miracle: satisfied sheep. What verse two tells us, is that this is the perfect Shepherd, who provides all the needs of his sheep: Emotionally, Physically, Medically and Socially.

This shepherd is deeply invested in and cares for his sheep; in the same way, its expected a parent should love and provide for their children: A shepherd should love and provide for their sheep. This verse assures us that God the good shepherd would not take on the responsibility of a flock if he did not intend to be intimately tied up with them in a two-way relationship.

VERSE 3: THE FIRM SHEPHERD

Understanding verse two helps better perceive the firmness we see in the next two verse’s of this passage as an extension of the Good ness of this amazing shepherd: ”He Restores my soul” is a phrase that is open to some interpretation:  It could be in relation to the wondering sheep being brought back to the fold akin to Isaiah 49:5, Psalm 60:1 or Ezekiel 34 which use the same verb, of which the intransitive sense is repenting or conversion; through a sense of sinfulness based on reflection against the law. See Psalm 19:1. However, whatever the proper understanding of this phrase the point is clear; Not only do those who are with God trust and allow him to meet their needs, they find refreshment in his guidance and direction. We as New Covenant people know where God is leading us through the reading and teaching of his word, which means that we enjoy and find delight in spending time in Gods word and Church.

The second half of this verse, and, the final in the first stanza can be confusing.  But the principle is clear, God the Shepherd who guides his sheep along the best path. Biblically speaking “path” is a metaphor for life and the progression of time.  It is something we all walk down, and, there are two paths that we can walk:

  1. The straight/narrow path that leads to everlasting covenant with God the Father through Christ;
  2. The crooked path that leads to death and judgment and eternal separation:

So whether the proper translation is paths of righteous or right paths the sense is clear, those who trust God for provision shall rejoice because he will guide them along the right path: His Path. God like the wise father in Proverbs will guide his people on paths where they will act with justice and integrity, know fullness of life and glorify him.

Why Does God Shepherd?

What we have heard and seen so far is a beautiful picture of who God is, and a wonderful picture of the grace and abundance we receive when we admit our sin and accept our need of a saviour. Do you ever wonder why God would bother to shepherd rebellious sheep at all?  It is simple really, see the motive clause at the end of Verse:

“For His Names Sake”

God is to us the shepherd-King through Jesus so that his name is known and glorified by all and how we live.

GOD THE COMPANION (VERSE 4)

Verse four moves from a more distant view of God to a God who is present.  God has moved from a shepherd at the front of his flock to a companion beside his sheep (singular), he is walking right with them at the hardest part of the journey (a part to be expected):  The essence of the verse is clear that God is with us, providing and guiding in every part of the journey that is life, whether its the springtime moments where we sleep and know no needs; or, when we find ourselves in the valley of deadly shadows. God is there.  Gods presence goes with his Sheep no matter where they find themselves on the journey of life and he works on their behalf.

There is some confusion around the exact translation here of phrase in the first part of this verse: “Dark Valley” (NIV) or “Valley of the shadow of death” (ESV) it comes from the rendering of the Hebrew Word ṣalmāwet: A word that is often used in the metaphorical sense where death is a picture of darkness.  However, the same word can also be read as ṣēl māwet which gives the more traditional understanding of the “valley of the shadow of death.” The cultural tradition of this psalm in relation to use at funerals has sometimes limited the teaching of this Psalm. However, with either rendering the modus is clear, God is present in the toughest of situations and they are to expect as part of our journey of faith with Jesus Christ. The psalmist makes it clear where we should find confidence and comfort in the midst of trouble through the known presence of God. We see how we can have faith in the worst of all situations through the returning to the shepherd metaphor by means of metonymy of the rod and staff: being the instruments a shepherd uses in defence of his heard and to goad the sheep in the right direction.

GOD THE HEAVENLY HOST (VERSES 5-6)

VERSE 5: THE BEST HOST

The second half of this psalm shifts the image of God from one of the working Shepard to a royal host, This is not just a God who supplies the basic necessities of life of his children – Emotionally, Physically, Medically and Socially. This is an  abundant Host as we draw into an even deeper and more intimidate metaphor of God, as a host who generously treats the Psalmist as his Guest: Preparing the finest of food for him; anointing him with the best oils to clean off the dirt and dust; and, filling his cup to overflowing.  All while offering him protection from his enemies.

Within Jewish culture to have a meal with someone was to enter into a relationship with them, so this abundant banquet shows the depth of the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd.  Yet, this is not a meal set in the luxury of peace, because for the first time we have the mention of enemies.  Nonetheless, the Psalmist shows confidence because he knows that he has the protection of his host who through his presence and Provision demonstrate to the enemy who’s side he is on.  The side of those who place their trust in him through Christ.  The overflowing cup reminds us of just how generous God and the blessing he provides through salvation. and is the opposition to the cup of Judgement, where the wrath of God is poured out.

Finally, it is a scene similar to that of Proverbs 9:1-6 when Lady Wisdom prepare the table for someone who has chosen to follow her way, thus here we see the Image of dinning with the host as a culmination of having followed the right path and trusted in the way of the shepherd.  This is the ultimate act of trust regardless of circumstance knowing that God is a host who will not let any harm come to you.

VERSE 6: GODS SHEEPDOGS 

Psalm 23 shows us God as Shepherd, a God who directs and leads us, who provides all that we need and who is right with us in the darkness moments of the journey; A god who is an abundant host who we can trust to provide lavishly for us and protect us even when our enemies are near.  Now, Finally, we see in verse six we the personification of the covenantal attributes of God his goodness (tōb) and love/loyalty (Hesed) will pursue the person who places their trust in God through Christ all of their lives. Like the sheepdogs of the Shepherd-King, the Love and Goodness of God follow his sheep all their lives barking at their heels to keep them on the right path.

Within the light of the new convent, Gods love and kindness will not just pursue us until the end of our days but all of our days we are with him in eternity. This is the Shepherd Kings who direction and protection not only can we trust while we are on this earth, but we will know, trust and love all of our days in eternity with him.

CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION

God is for God

A Short Psalm and a familiar Psalm, one that you have probably heard read at most funerals, it is so much more than a funeral Psalm. It is a psalm that first and foremost reminds us of the Goodness of God through the use of Shepherd Imagery: God is the ultimate good Shepherd, the one who will provide for and meet all of his sheep’s needs.

Additionally, he is the generous host, who provides abundantly and offers protection and he is the God whose love and faithfulness pursue us all the days of our lives.  This is a Psalm that reminds us of the Ultimate truth of the universe: God is most concerned with his own Glory (Verse 1 & 3) Everything God does he does for the sake of his own name, which is the best thing for us.  That means God works in and directs the life of his sheep so that Glory is brought to his name and people want to know more about him.

For us as Christians who follow Jesus (The Lamb of God) that means that God walks ahead of us in the good times, stands with us using his rod and staff in the dark times so that at all times we live to his Glory, thus there is a moral expectation of those who claim to be in Christ to live differently to the world around them.

God is with us

The Second wonderful truth from this passage is the knowledge of the presence of God in all we face as followers of Jesus. Psalm 23 is an example Poem of the importance of the centre to the bigger meaning, thus, everything in this wonderful passage pins to the phrase we translate as “For You are With me.”God is ever abiding and presence in all that we do and face. One Commentator goes as far to suggest that we could render the Psalm as such:

“The LORD is my shepherd

for you are with me

I shall not want

for you are with me

 He makes me lie down in green pastures

for you are with me 

He leads me beside still waters

for you are with me

He restores my soul

for you are with me

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake

for you are with me

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

for you are with me

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies

for you are with me

You anoint my head with oil

for you are with me

My cup overflows

for you are with me

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life

for you are with me

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever

for you are with me.”

God is always with those who are with him, the presence of God is not lacking, he meets all of our needs whether we are in the spring of life where times are Good or we are walking through the valley of deadly shadows, he is the God who defends us from the attacks of the enemy with his rod and prods us ever forward with his staff. he is the God who’s protection and providence we will know and trust even in the face of our enemies because with God on our side who can be against us.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd 

In John Chapter 10 Jesus pronounces “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I hope as you read this Psalm your mind is drawn to the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ. He who is the Ultimate Shepherd we can trust.  Throughout the Old Testament The role and responsibility of our earthly leaders are described in terms of the role of the shepherd, more often the image is used as a judgement against the fallings of the kings of Israel and her other earthly leaders.  Yet there is one man, the God-man in whom we can place our trust: Jesus, he is the only shepherd king who will fulfil the duties that are required of him as he lays down his life for his sheep.  This is a Psalm with Christological Implications that points to Jesus and challenges you to ask your self-do you actually know him.  The truth is that too many people have taken false comfort from this Psalm, they want to believe that in death or the darkest moments that God is their Shepherd, but in life they have not listened to or walked the way of Christ. None of the guidance or blessing we see wonderfully described through this Psalm come to us apart from Christ and being in him.  If you do not belong to Jesus, God is not your shepherd.

There are many passages that add to this imagery, EZEKIEL 34, Matthew 25 (which we read this morning), where we see one heard full of Sheep and Goats, eventually, the goats are separated out from the sheep even though they think they are as they sheep, they are not.  The question is are you a sheep or a goat?

There are two simple tests for knowledge of Christ:

  1. Do you Listen to his voice through his word? Jesus said in John Chapter 10:27 “My Sheep hear my voice.”
  2. Do you want to live a life to the Glory of God through the power of the Holy Spirit?  Jesus says again in verse 27 “They Follow Me.”

If you do Trust and Love him then Psalm 23 is for you and how God through Christ will be present with you in all things a guiding and directing.  So know and pray this wonderful Psalm in the fullness of its Majesty.

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