Everything can change in a moment, our world, or the world as we have known it. In the last two weeks our homes, towns, churches and nations have experienced change on a scale not seen in a generation. Even just a few weeks ago if you had of suggested to anyone the course of action that would unfold they would have called you a doomsday prophet. Yet, here we are all at home, with nowhere to go on a Sunday Morning. The Church, for the first time in centuries, has not been able to gather in the UK. Yet, we are still Church, and what a fantastic witness it was to the world around us on Sunday morning that instead of doing nothing. So many churches stepped into the unknown in terms of technology and the internet to tend to their people. It was so encouraging to see churches steaming, people sharing and joining in and the body of Christ being the body of Christ regardless of location. Some things have changed, and yet our God remains the same, and we hold to the truth and foundation that today he is still on his throne; even as the foundations of the world dissipate, the Church of Christ remains firm in the mission of Christ. Amazing, that even as we seek social distant and minimise the spread of a deadly virus that technology enables us to continue in that call to be light and share the good news of Jesus. God is always at work and in control of all things.
I find it no random act that one of the set readings for today in the common lectionary was Psalm 23. That great Psalm of comfort and assurance of God’s presence regardless of the stage of life we are in. The perfect Psalm for an unprecedented time (forgive me). A Psalm that assures us that no matter what we face this day, whether the known or unknown we can know for sure that God is facing it with us. A psalm that calls us too looks to God, as our world walks through the darkest of valley. A Psalm that reminds us that as Christians what should set us apart in uncertain times – the sure hope of God in Christ. A psalm that if you will allow I will share a few thoughts on.
Psalm 23:1-6 (CSB)
1 The LORD is my Shepherd; I have what I need.
2 He lets me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters.
3 He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD as long as I live.
Shepherd: A Powerful Image
In the last few years, I have had the privilege of travelling through ministry links to Eastern Africa; particularly Kenya and Tanzania. The main langue there is Swahili after a few weeks of offending people trying to speak it badly I began to get used to some words and phrases, you would hear in everyday conversation. Now, being there on a Christian mission trip, most of our contact was within the Church, meaning most of the words we heard where “Christian” in some way. One word that became familiar was “Mchungaji,” it was used to address clergy. I even somehow managed to get called “Mchungaji” when I was in Tanzania when people realised that I would be going for Training within the Church of Ireland. After a few weeks in Tanzania, we were out at one of the local projects we had been supporting. I love trying to speak a new language – even though I am not very good at it – I think it helps to settle in and to understand a culture. As we were out in this isolated and rural area, meeting new people; I asked someone who we been chatting with what they worked as he responded:
“I work as a Mchungaji.”
Now, I was standing with the local minister, so when this stranger used the same word to describe himself, I wasn’t sure what he meant. I wondered if he was the minister of another Church or a Curate, or trying to be funny. As he stood there with his animals, he did not fit the mould of what clergy looked like there! Later, in conversation with my a friend there, I was reminded of the beauty and power of any language. I learned the dual meaning of Mchungaji at that moment, not only does it mean ‘Pastor’ it also means ‘Shepherd;’ one who might be out with animals, caring for them and protecting them.
An Image in Context
For those of us in the UK, we all have an image of the Shepherd in our minds. We understand something of the work that goes into looking after animals. Yet, it is probably not a helpful image when it comes to grasping the picture that David is building here as he writes this Psalm. For us, shepherding is not a matter of life and death. For us, animals do not represent our economic or social security or wealth. Thus, see this Psalm through different eyes, Imagine that you are a shepherd in rural Africa, where your livestock is your economic security and life. Where their health means health to your family, and their safety means the ability to feed and look after those whom you love most. Think of the level of commitment you would have to the job and the responsibility, it is not that you are looking after someone else’s sheep to make them some profit. You are looking after your sheep so that you – and your family – can live. This is the level of concern and commitment that is being presented to us today. He is the Shepherd who will walk his sheep to green pastures, and through dark valleys. He is the Shepherd who will lay down his life to protect his sheep. He is the Shepherd who is with us in the dark valley of covid-19, and all of the fall out that comes with it – worries for our health, worries for family and friends, economic shocks, social disorder, and social isolation. In this chaos, we can and must hold fast to the truth that there is a God who not only cares for us but draws near to us and walks with us through the darkest of valleys. Psalm 23 shows us the attributes of God, the Shepherd King. So let’s set aside any misconceptions, let’s hear this Psalm anew, not as a funeral Psalm. But one that must be heard today of all days, when the Church needs to know God afresh and learn again to depend on him.
INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
Psalm 23 is a song of confidence in Yahweh, one that oozes confidence in the “who” of God. It is written not as some philosophical expression around the supposed nature of God, but as a deceleration of Love and trust form someone who is in the midst of difficulty and knows the closeness of God. How do we know? Verse five, David is not mentioning metaphorical enemies; he is writing in what may be for him an unprecedented time. Declaring to us that in those times we cannot prepare for, in which we struggle to know who to trust and where to look: We must look to and trust in God. It is a psalm of relationship,
We usually hear this read when someone is close to death, 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.” This is great and so useful, yet recent study of this beautiful song of Praise has again broadened its appeal.
REMEMBER THE STRUCTURE
An important thing to remember as we get stuck into this Psalm is that it is a Hebrew poem, which is written in a way where their structure aids their meaning and teaching. Often the centre point is essential. 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.
GOD AS THE ULTIMATE SHEPHERD (VERSES 1-4)
Verse One: THE FOUNDATION OF ASSURANCE
Psalm 23 begins with a declaration of assurance like no others, a centring for the reader (regardless of their circumstance) and a reminder before the journey with the Shepperd begins: to whom our assurance belongs and to where we must look. “The Lord.” In green fields, we owe it to The Lord, In Dark valleys, we seek The Lord; in the depth of a global crisis it is the Lord in whom we can trust, and to whom we must look for answers. So let’s be clear, from the start, God is not some distant deity in the sky: he is intensely close to those whom he Shepherds. Right now, in whatever we find ourselves facing, we must face it knowing that God is right there with us. He is the one to whom we can look too and trust because at all times he is close. The Psalmist got this! Note the emphatic “my” here: a declaration of the relationship between God, and this King. Not a subservient relationship, nor an economic one, not a fearful one – an intimate one!
Everything else that follows in this Psalm flows from that intimacy. It is an intimacy made alive by the casting of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep as the model. This is the most intimate metaphor used of God used throughout the whole book of Psalms: King, Deliver, Rock, Shield, and Tower. All great names that help us to understand 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 defender, physician and guide. He is everything to the sheep as God is everything to those who are with him. For me personally, I find it even more powerful because it shows the weight of intimacy. Sheep love their Shepherd – yes, that is not in much doubt; yet, I do not ever think a sheep can comprehend the lengths that a Good shepherd would go to for it, the risk he may take to his own life to protect the sheep. Nor even can the sheep grasp the value that the Shepherd places on it, the sheep simply rests in the knowledge that the Shepherd is there, and the assurance that he always will be. We are the sheep, limited in our understanding of God and all that he is in character, and all that he will do for us.
When we consider the metaphor of Shepherd within its broader cultural understanding, it adds to it even more to the Image of God as Shepherd. 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. We see this used in the Old Testament, but often the image is employed negatively. In Ezekiel 34 the kings are portrayed as Bad shepherds who would lead their sheep astray, 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 is a declaration of confidence that God is the Ultimate and excellent Shepherd-king in contrast to the leaders of this world. Whereas the Shepherd of the world will profit from their sheep, the Good Shepherd (God) will give his all for his own. 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
If you wanted to know what Bliss would like for a sheep, Verse two probably describes the ultimate Sheepish-life. As they walk with their Shepherd and find no want on their walk from lush grass to a safe watering source. It is a beautiful picture of serenity and calmness. An image that is added to when you recall the often inhospitable climate of Israel. There is a great little book on this Psalm: ‘A Shepherd looks at Psalm 23’ by Philip Keller, if you get a chance grab and it and read it! I love what he highlights:
”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.”
What an image of a relationship with God! What a picture of knowing God, and what it is to be with him in terms of bounty for us – full satisfaction, if only we will claim it. Thus, what this short verse portrays is nothing short of a miracle: a truly satisfied sheep. Verse two tells us, is that this is the perfect Shepherd because he provides for all the needs of his sheep, he is so committed to his craft and the care of his flock that he considers and meets all their needs: Emotionally, Physically, Medically and Socially.
This Shepherd is deeply invested in and cares for his sheep. It’s almost parental love, in the same way, we expect a parent to love and provide for their children. This Shepherd acts towards his 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
A proper understanding of V2 helps to grasp the sudden shift in the tone of the Psalm. The firmness we see in this next section is not a different aspect of the Shepherd, no it is merely an extension of his goodness. So loving in the Shepherd that he acts.” He Restores my soul” is open to some interpretation: It could be concerning the wondering sheep being brought back to the fold, akin to Isaiah 49:5, Psalm 60:1. Ezekiel 34 uses the same verb where the intransitive sense is repentance or conversion through a sense of sinfulness based on reflection against the law. (See Psalm 19:1)
Regardless of the proper understanding of this phrase, the point is clear; The goodness of the Shepherd is not just his meeting of needs, it is also in his guidance and direction. He can be trusted to lead. Under the New Covenant, we are still lead by God, – regardless of circumstance – through the reading and teaching of his word, which means that we enjoy and find delight in spending time in Gods word and Church. His Word is the lush grass that we feast on, it is the water that refreshes us, and it is also the hand that guides and corrects us. The word of God restores our soul when we come to it.
Personally, I find the second half of this verse confusing. But the principle is clear: God is the Shepherd who guides his sheep along the best path, and Biblically speaking “path” is a metaphor for life and the progression of time. Thus, there are two potential paths in life:
- The Righteous Path that God’s elect walks through Christ. The way that leads to the fullness of life.
- The crooked path that leads to death and judgment and eternal separation:
Why Does God Shepherd?
What we have seen so far is a beautiful picture of who God is and a wonderful picture of the grace and abundance we come to see the beauty of a relationship with God through the work of Christ. Yet, I often find myself wondering – why? If God is real, then why would He bother creating this world, and then take on the hassle of dealing with all our rebellion. Psalm 23 tells us why, and it is not that complicated as we see the motive clause at the end of the 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. As God works in us, he does so to bring honour to his name, so that those outside the flock might see him in us and be drawn to him.
GOD THE COMPANION (VERSE 4)
As the Psalm moves forward, our view changes somewhat, moving from a birds-eye look to a first-person perspective. In Verse four, we see fully how present God is. He has moved from a shepherd guiding from the front to one who walks beside his sheep (singular), he is walking right with them at the hardest part of the journey (a piece to be expected). It’s a beautiful thought, is it not? In the Good times – God is there, yet, in the worst times, God is right there, when we are in the ditch, he is down there with us! God is with us, providing and guiding in every part of the journey that is life! Gods presence goes with his sheep no matter where they find themselves on the journey of life, and he works on their behalf.
Across the English translations of the bible you will see different phrasing of 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.” Our cultural tradition of this Psalm as we have said often sees it read at funerals and nothing else! However, with a proper understanding and a user of either rendering the trust and application of this Psalm increases for us. Both readings apple in the same way: When we truly walk with God, he is present and there with us regardless of where we are. I love the honesty in this Psalm that we see David in the valley and God with him, it is a reminder to us that difficulty is to be expected, especially if we are disciples of Christ.
Thus, the Psalmist makes it clear where we should find confidence and comfort amid trouble through the known presence of God. It means that for us today, in this stressful season of isolation and worry over covid-19 and all that comes with it, we can trust and know that God is present. The assurance of Gods presence is added by a return to the shepherd metaphor in Verse four using the 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: A Host Like No Other
The final section of Psalm 23 shifts the Image of God from one of the working Shepard to a royal host, an abundant host as we. We are now drawn into an even deeper and more intimidate metaphor of God, as a host who generously treats the PsalmistPsalmist 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 PsalmistPsalmist shows confidence because he knows that he has the protection of his host who through his presence and Provision demonstrate to the enemy whose 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 of 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 dining with host as a culmination of having followed the right path and trusted in the direction 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: Goodness and Love
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 darkest moments of the journey; A god who is an abundant host who we can trust to provide richly for us and protect us even when our enemies are near. Finally, in verse six, we see the personification of the covenantal attributes of God: his goodness (tōb) and love/loyalty (Hesed). They 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
This is A Psalm first and foremost reminds us of the Goodness of God through that wonderful Shepherd Imagery: God is the ultimate good Shepherd, the one who will provide, protect, care and guide. He is also the generous host who provides abundantly and offers protection, and he is the God who’s love and faithfulness pursue us all the days of our lives. In summary, God is all we need.
This is a Psalm that reminds us of the foundational truth of the Christian faith: God is most concerned with his own Glory (Verse 1 & 3) everything God does he does for the sake of his own name. That is good for us because what is right for God is suitable for his children. That means God works in and directs the life of his sheep so that his name is honoured and people want to know more of him.
For the faithful follower of 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. There is a moral expectation for the Christian to live differently to the world around them.
God is with us
The Second beautiful truth from this passage is the knowledge of the presence of God in all we face as followers of Jesus. Be it covid-19, or anything else that the world can throw at us. God is there! Remember the centre being important in Hebrew poetry? Well, the centre of this wonderful is “For You are With me.” Everything in Psalm 23 flows from that foundation: God is ever-abiding and presence in all that we do and face. In whatever we are facing: covid, the loss of a loved one, in good times, or just the mundane normality of – God is there.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd
As we draw to a close, I want us to jump away from Psalm 23 for a few minutes to John Chapter 10 where Jesus pronounces “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” As you read this Psalm and reflect on the wonder of what God offers to us, I hope and pray that you are drawn to Jesus. I hope that in the Great Shepherd of the Lord, you realise that he has come! As God incarnate.
Jesus came to find his sheep, to lead them to green pastures, to show them the fountain of life, to guide them through the darkest valleys and to go to the cross for them so that he could host them abundantly at their table. Jesus Christ is the who is the Ultimate Shepherd, the one in whom can trust. As mentioned, in the Old Testament, the role and responsibility of earthly leaders are presented in the imagery of shepherding. Mostly in judgement against the failings of human 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 Psalm points to Jesus and challenges you to ask yourself do you actually know him. The worrying truth for me is that 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; Then in life and all its normality they want nothing to do with God. This is a comforting and assuring Psalm, especially during these difficult days of covid-19 and isolation. Yet, it is only genuinely comforting if we receive the real comfort that has been offered to us – Jesus. Otherwise, these are words spoken to another and no ourselves. Then the Lord to be our Shepherd we must be his sheep, and to be his sheep is to walk the way of Christ. There are two roads, the one with Christ and the one without him – which one are you walking? 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.
Many passages add to this (Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25) 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 sheep, they are not. The question is, are you a sheep or a goat? There are two simple questions to consider to help you answer this:
- Jesus said in John Chapter 10:27 “My Sheep hear my voice. Are you able to recognise the sound of the Lord amid the chorus of the world?
- Secondly, in 10:27, Jesus adds: “They Follow Me.” Thus, we must question our living one that follows Christs living? Do we seek to live in a way that brings glory to God (“For his name’s sake”) As his sheep, we not only look to the Shepherd, we start to look like him. Especially in the dark valleys, that during crises like Covid-19 such is our heart and longing that we make God known. The question then is, are we living like him, not in our power but through the power of the Holy Spirit?
The world as we have known it has changed beyond recognition: shops are shut, borders are closing, families are shut inform one another. We walk down the street and worry that the person coughing in front of us is going to infect us with covid-19, then we worry about who might be at risk form us. We are worried about our jobs, homes, loved ones, we are cut off from families and friends and all that we took for granted: Mcdonalds, Church, Small groups. The world has changed, but God has not! He is still on his throne, still ruling and directing all things for His purpose and glory, and if we do not have that truth, then I am not sure what we can hold to amid crises. King Jesus is forever by outsides as the Great and Good Shepherd, and the great host. My prayer and hope in this unprecedented time (a world being overused) is that you turn to the perfect God who cares for you and calls you. It is not that in now turning to Christ all will be well, and our worries fade. But in him, we have one who we can trust, who will guide us by his word and example. 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 beautiful Psalm in the fullness of its Majesty.