We began studying Psalm 23 last week (see Part 1) by looking at the first two verses, specifically focusing on the picture of the Lord as our shepherd, and the truths indicated by that language. We noted that the text doesn’t merely say that God is our Shepherd; it says that Yahweh, the eternal, self-sufficient God of Israel is our shepherd. And we also noted that the New Testament further fills out how Jesus is specifically called our Good shepherd.
We saw from the gospel of John that Jesus is the good shepherd in three ways. First, he knows his sheep. He intimately knows his sheep, with all their problems and foibles, and yet he still loves them and makes them part of his flock. Second, he feeds his sheep. He feeds his sheep by giving them the heavenly and spiritual food of his own body and blood, he gives them the nourishment of his life for theirs and his death in place of theirs. And third, Jesus cares for his sheep. He cares for them by guiding them, directing them, providing for them, and laying his own life down for them. Jesus really is our good shepherd.
Today we will continue to look at the Lord as our Shepherd, how he restores us when we are turned over by sin, and how his fear-scattering presence in the midst of dark valleys can turn the evil of valleys into instruments of our good.
Let’s read Psalm 23, and I’ll be focusing mainly on verses 3-4 today:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
The first thing that I’d like for us to notice today is the good shepherd’s restoration. The good Shepherd’s restoration. Beginning with verse 3, our text says that the Lord our shepherd “Restores my soul.” We could even translate it, “He restores or refreshes my life.” It’s a wonderful statement, but you might be asking David, if your Lord is such a wonderful shepherd, then why do any of this sheep need restoring in the first place? Could God’s shepherding be so negligent or haphazard that any of his flock might get into such a position of distress as to need restoration?
Well, the bible makes it clear that members of the Lord’s flock often get themselves into distressing situations. The author of this psalm knows very well the feeling of being a sheep that feels cut off from the shepherd. In Psalm 42 David cries out, “why are you cast down oh my soul and why are you in turmoil within me?” David knew what it was to be a disturbed sheep who felt far from his shepherd.
Significantly for our theme today, Phillip Keller, who wrote the classic work “A shepherd’s look at the 23rd psalm,” teaches us that the English phrase “cast down” sheep, or a “cast sheep” is actually shepherd’s language for a sheep that has been turned over on its own back and can’t right itself, can’t flip back over on its own. Imagine the pathetic picture: a sheep flipped over, waving its legs around, frantically struggling to right itself but it just can’t figure it out. Not only is such a scene a little comical, it’s also tragic, because if the shepherd doesn’t arrive soon, the sheep will die. He needs to be flipped over, he needs to be restored to proper status and balance, if the sheep is going to live and thrive.
There’s a warning there for us. You see these sheep get into such dangerous situations of being cast down for several common reasons. Sometimes it is because the sheep is looking for the soft spot, the most comfortable hollow, the easiest places to lay down. Or Sometimes, if the sheep has too much wool, it can cause it to be unable to roll over. The wool can be overgrown, full of mud and debris, making it easy to topple over and need to be restored. Or, if the sheep is too fat, it can make it easy for it to be cast down. Fat sheep are less productive, less agile, and therefore more prone to getting stuck on their own backs.
How many of us can relate to such sheep? Perhaps you are tempted for the most comfortable and cozy places? Seeking to nestle down in the most relaxed positions. We can think that we have made it, spiritually, and we can just coast. We don’t want to do anything too strenuous for God or his Kingdom. We want to know where the easiest spot is so that we can sit there and not be bothered. Until we find ourselves toppled over.
Or we’re like the overly-woolen sheep whose wool is caked and matted with much debris, we’ve collected all sorts of worldly habits and baggage, sinful patterns that we’ve been carrying for so long we don’t even remember what it is like to be without them, and before long, the extra weight has us turned over and we’re helpless.
Or we’re like the overweight sheep. We’re spiritually sluggish, full of a diet of over-indulgence, unable to pray for more than ten seconds at a time without distraction, can’t remember the last time we had a consistent time with God. We’ve been blessed by green pastures thus far, but the green pastures have tempted us to forget the lean times, and rely upon the pastures themselves rather than the shepherd that has brought us here.
It could be these or a hundred different sins, but each of us has experienced what it is to be a sheep in need of restoration. We’ve chosen to ignore our shepherd, we’ve followed our sinful desires and passions, and we’ve ended up flipped over and helpless. That’s what Adam did in the garden, He let his guard down and didn’t rebuke the serpent and his lies, and he flipped himself and all of humanity over into helplessness, and eventual death. That’s what Israel did in the promised land, when they got fat and lethargic, and didn’t do what God called them do to, and they got flipped out of the promised land into exile and judgment. And that’s what we’ve all done. We’ve laid down in the coziest spots, let our wool get overgrown and caked with sin, and we’ve grown fat from over-indulgence of our fleshly desires. We’re stuck, unable to restore ourselves, unable to get back on our feet.
But the good news for us is that the Lord is our good shepherd. Jesus tells us in Luke 15 the parable of the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the helpless sheep. Jesus says, ““What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’.”
Did you hear those words, not only does he go after the lost sheep, that’s me and you, but when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders REJOICING. Jesus doesn’t come after us in an angry rant, grab us by the collar and snatch us back to the flock, giving us an earful the whole time. He’s not the kind of shepherd that will berate us and make a terrible example of us. He seeks us out. He hunts for us. He goes to us where we are, he rights us, and he carries us back rejoicing.
That’s the picture of what Christ has done for his people. He’s sought us out, rather than left us to die. He’s come to us, being born of a woman, having the fullness of frail human nature, living the sinless life that we should have lived, and died for us in our place. He’s been flipped into the grave so that we might be restored to life. That’s the good news of the gospel.
And that’s the shepherd that David was worshipping. The restoring shepherd. Do you have him as your shepherd? If you do, then praise him like psalmist who said in psalm 56:13, “You have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.” If he’s restored you, then praise him, and walk before him in the light of life, the paths of righteousness in which he leads us for his name’s sake. Don’t wander again into the dark paths of sin. Stay in his righteous path, singing his praises, and worship our restoring God.
And if you don’t have him as your shepherd, then won’t you come to him? What better shepherd could you wish for? He is meek and lowly, and rejoices when a lost sheep comes home. He’ll carry you when you cannot walk, he’ll restore you when you are lost and helpless, and he will be your shepherd forever. Believe in this good shepherd, hear of Jesus’s work on behalf of his flock, and trust that he really is the Good shepherd that lays down his life for, and thereby restores, the sheep of his flock.
Next, I’d like to move onto verse 4 and see how we can be fearless in the valleys. Fearlessness in the valleys of life. Verse 4 says,
“4 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.
Shepherds often have to drive their flocks through valleys, especially as the seasons change, to get to fresh pastures and good water. And these valleys can be scary times. Dark, craggy ravines that threaten your footing and provide much less line of sight to see dangers; thorny thickets where predators can hide; and the darkness can seem to last longer down in a valley, where the sunlight is obscured by the mountains around you.
Let’s think a little bit about these valleys. Sometimes we can be given the false impression that the Christian life is experienced moving from one mountain top to another, and in one sense that is true. We often have lives that are punctuated with experiences of God’s grace that are so pleasant and soul-satisfying that it might be described as a mountain top experience. But what we too often forget is that mountains are all separated by valleys. To get to higher ground, you have to start down in the lower.
Each of us has felt what these valleys feel like. We experience different valleys, different terrain, but the temptations within the valleys are the same. When the trials of valleys come, when the pressure is applied, we can respond in similar ways. We can seek out some sort of fleshly escape, some sort of indulgence to try and medicate our fear: maybe alcohol, or food, or entertainment, or sensuality. Anything to get my mind off of the valley. Or sometimes in the valleys we can get angry, and blame it on the other sheep around us: “It’s all their fault. I wouldn’t be here if they had just listened to me and done what I said.” Maybe we get jealous: “I sure wish I was in their valley over there. It sure looks a lot easier to travel than mine. I don’t deserve this valley. I didn’t do anything.” Or maybe you’re the kind of sheep who gets worried: “What if this valley goes on forever? What if I can’t get back to work, or if we can’t pay all the bills, or if the sickness gets worse, or the report comes back negative?”
In stress, in times of valleys, we’re all like sheep. We’re tempted to get confused, fidgety, restless, anxious, even reckless. We fear because we can’t seek our shepherd out in front of us. We can’t feel him, and we don’t think we can hear his voice anymore. And we’re terrified.
But David faithfully proclaims that we don’t have to fear the valley’s because the shepherd is with us. We have our Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” He’s with us on the mountain tops, and especially in the valleys. He’s with us when we’re really growing in holiness and our wool is sparkling white, and he’s with us when we’ve soiled ourselves in the sinful mud of this world again. He’s with us when we feel his nearness beating within our chest, and he’s with us whenever we feel cold and distant from him. He’s with us when we’re faithful in prayer and we are following closely on the heels of our shepherd, and he’s with us when we’ve neglected him far too long, and fallen behind, and feel distant from our shepherd.
Poor and fragile sheep like us need to remember that we don’t merely have a good shepherd who is over there, a shepherd who is outside of us. We must remember that our good shepherd is with us because he IS IN US. Every believer is promised and granted the presence of God’s very own Holy Spirit to reside within us, to seal us for the day of reckoning, to guide us into paths of righteousness, to restore and confirm us into his sheep fold, to remind us that we’ve been adopted and brought into God’s very own household, that’s why he’s called the Spirit of Adoption in Romans. He helps us to pray when we know not what to pray. He helps us to choose right, when we’re tempted by evil. He helps us to sense God’s good pleasure when his smiling providences are upon us. And he sustains us through the dark trials of valleys, so that we can hold on and be held on to until the very end.
In fact, because God is with us, not only do we not have to fear any evil, but the valleys become transformed. The valleys actually work for our good. The godliest saints you know will probably tell you that the times of darkest valleys in their lives have been the most fruitful for their souls. God often lays beneath the valley floor a gold mine of spiritual lessons, if we would but take the time to reflect, and dig a little.
Let me explain some of the ways that evil situations like valleys can be mysteriously used by our good shepherd for our good. Some of these are adapted from Puritan Thomas Watson in his little book “All Things for Good.” I highly encourage you to read it. He gives you scores of reasons how all things can work for your good. I’ll just give you 9 ways that God can use the evil of valleys for our good.
1. Because our shepherd is with us, valleys work for our good by reminding us what sin remains in us. Valleys can teach us what sin is. Valleys can serve our good because they have a profitable way of revealing what remaining corruption lingers in our hearts. How often have we been tempted to think we’re really growing in holiness, only to have our tongue get us in trouble again because we overworked and were hungry? Or how many of us get a little grumpy when we’re not able to sleep? Or maybe you get short with people when your rushed and running late? Whatever the external circumstances, stressful valleys often become opportunities for us to be reminded of our remaining sinfulness, which should work for our good.
2. Secondly, if valleys can help show us what sin remains, they also can teach us the bitterness of such sin. If we see that our own sin has brought us low, then we can again be reminded of how vigorously sin should be avoided. God is good to remind us often how bitter sin is, that we might redouble our efforts to avoid such bitterness of soul. Tasting the bitter herbs of the forbidden pasture is a good warning for sheep that begin to wander off again.
3. Third, valleys work for the good of God’s sheep by Conforming us to Christ. Christ was a man of sorrows, a man acquainted with grief. He bled. He wept. “His head was crowned with thorns, and do we think our would be crowned with roses?” It is good to be like Christ. He was brought low, and made to drink the bitter cup. We too are sometimes made to be low, to die on our own crosses, to make ourselves nothing for the sake of the kingdom, and when we’re made to go through such humbling circumstances, we’re being made more like Christ. Watson says that valleys like affliction are the medicine which God uses to carry off our spiritual diseases, and thereby our shepherd can use Valleys to conform us more to Christ.
4. Fourth, valleys can work for our good because they make way for our comfort. Valleys leave us in need of consolation, of comforting. If we only had to walk on streets of gold in the mid-day sunshine in this life, then we’d know nothing of God’s comfort, of our shepherd’s tenderness, and of his merciful consolation. If it were not for times like psalm 42, where David cried out for God to help his cast down soul, then David would not have occasion to praise God for his comforting nearness, like he does in psalm 23. Valleys provide the occasion for God to be not only our creator, but our faithful sustainer. Not only for us to view him as our king, but as our high priest that can sympathize with us, relieve us of our woes, and comfort us by his presence and care. Valleys provide space in our lives for our Good Shepherd to comfort us.
5. Fifth, valleys can work for our good because they make us to prize God’s presence even more. Some valleys make us feel like God has abandoned us, like God has deserted us. He will, on occasion, withdraw our sense of his Holy Spirit’s presence, and we can be tempted to believe that we’re all alone. God withholds his manifestations of his favor, and it seems like he has veiled his face from us. When we walk through such valleys, we’re then moved to value God’s sweet presence even more, and to chase after it and guard it, and to cling to it with greater zeal. When we’ve felt bereft of him, we’ll fight all the harder to keep him near. God has no better way to make us value his love than by withdrawing the sense of it for a little while.
Additionally, if it were not for these temporary valleys of desertion, then we’d have no idea what Jesus was feeling when he said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But, having tasted a little bit of this feeling of desertion, God grants us a little taste of what Christ has gone through for the sake of his people, further stoking the fires of our love for Christ. God uses the valleys of desertion for our good, because feeling a temporary absence of his company keeps us from taking for granted his holy presence, which we’d be tempted to do if that’s all we’ve ever experienced. Valleys teach us to prize God’s presence.
6. Sixth, valleys can work for our good by making us better able to comfort others. This is a very evident one. Some of you have been through terrible, terrible valleys. You’ve seen things and experienced things and felt things that you would never wish upon anyone else. And God has brought you through it. He has comforted you in the valley, and has been with you through it all. And the bible says that one of the reasons that he comforts you through affliction is so that you can be ready to comfort others.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
One of the best things for people to hear when they go through a tough trial is that they are not alone. You’re not alone. In fact, one of the ways that God shepherds his people, that he comforts his people, is by using other sheep in your lives. God will work his comfort into your heart through the means of other sheep that have been through the valley before.
Other people have gone through this, and God has been faithful to comfort and preserve them, and he will bring you through this. And when you are able to bring personal testimony to this valley, all the better. You may have gone through a bitter valley earlier in life, and have been wondering for years why God let that happen. Well, one reason might just be so that you can help guide someone through the same valley. Your experience in the valley is just what has made you an expert guide for others that are coming behind you. God turns your valleys into your good by comforting you so that you can comfort others.
7. Seventh, valleys work for our good because they loosen our hearts from the love of this world. God uses valleys loosen our hearts from the love of this world. Valleys can have the effect of rearranging our priorities. One minute we’re worried about soccer practice, and the grocery list, and the transmission going out on the van. And then you get the call. You hear the news. You get the diagnosis. Whatever the valley is, it rocks you, but in God’s goodness, it causes you to take a step back and evaluate what is really important. Some of you can attest to this. You were really focused on something, really pursuing something, really devoted to something other than God, and then God in his goodness led you into a valley so that you’d recognize what is really important.
The valley creates the opportunity for you to consider your soul and its relation to God. Sometimes it is a near death experience, or the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship, or the crushing of some dream you had been chasing. Whatever the valley, IF it causes you to look to God and evaluate things according to his standard, then that valley has been for your good, and you can even thank God for his work through it. Valleys can loosen our hearts from the love of this world.
8. Eighth, God uses valleys for the good of his sheep to drive them to prayer. God uses valleys drive us to prayer. Some valleys come in the form of temptation, and if that valley causes us to cry out to God, then that valley has been used for our good. Other valleys reveal to us our actual inability and weaknesses: maybe through sickness, or our impotence to change a situation or restore a broken relationship, and those exposed weaknesses and inabilities become the occasion for us to cry out to the only one who is actually able to bring about the desired change. If that’s what happens, then whatever the valley was, God has used it for our good to drive us back to communion and prayer with him.
9. Ninth, God can use valleys for good by your example in them. Christian experience and especially Church history is replete with examples of Godly saints who persevered well in the midst of terrible trials.
a. In the early church, Ignatius of Antioch was marched in chains to Rome to be executed for his faith, and his example of faithful testimony even in the valley of immanent death was a powerful example of courage for the fledging little Christian movement.
b. Another church father named Athanasius was exiled 5 times, and yet he never gave in to the temptation to renounce or modify the biblical trinitarian doctrine articulated by the Council of Nicaea in 325, thus illustrating to us the importance of biblical and doctrinal fidelity at all costs, even in valleys.
c. Martin Luther had to hide away in a German tower for a whole year, which could have been soul rending, but instead he used his time to translate the New Testament into German so that the common people could read God’s word for themselves for the first time. His example of diligence, even amidst terrible valley is worthy of our emulation.
d. Jonathan Edwards was unjustly fired from his congregation in Massachusetts, but because of his love for his people, he agreed to keep on preaching to the same congregation for well over another year, being an example for us of how not to let bitterness overtake your soul while in a valley.
e. Numerous others suffered terrible medical problems throughout their lives: Spurgeon battled severe gout and depression, John Calvin had kidney stones and intestinal problems so bad that by the end of his life he could not even leave his bed to go preach, and his helpers had to come carry him and prop him up on the pulpit. Spurgeon and Calvin show us how a faithful man of God ought to continue to serve the church, even through the terrible valley of physical affliction.
f. I’m sure in your own lives you have seen believers suffer so well during terrible valleys that you can’t help but be encouraged. I’ve often sat by the side of a saint under a terrible load and noticed their godly demeanor in the midst of it, and said to myself, “I want to have that kind of faith. I want to be joyful in the midst of suffering, and fervent in the mists of pain. I want to be concerned with others like they are. I want to be considerate, and encouraging, and thoughtful like them.”
Have you known someone like that? And have you said something similar about wanting to be like them? Well, God has used their tough valley for our good so that we would have a living picture of what godliness under trial looks like, and so that we might emulate them when we go through valleys.
Those were 9 ways that God can use your valleys for your own good and for the good of the church.
I’ll close this morning with a final plea to those here that do not have the lord as your shepherd. You see, the bible speaks in places of the whole world being a flock that is divided into the sheep and the goats. Some goats fancy themselves to be sheep: they prance around like the sheep, they go to church like the sheep, they give their money like sheep, they even try to sound like sheep. But at root, they are still goats.
And goats go through this world and the valley of the shadow of death with an entirely different experience than the one I’ve described above experienced by the sheep. The valleys of this world that the goats go through are merely a slight foretaste of the future punishment and affliction that will come at the end. Christ says he will come and will separate the sheep from the goats. He will send the goats to an eternal, terrible place of punishment.
Don’t wait any longer. Hear of his tender shepherding, how he transforms valleys into seasons of sweetness, how he promises his presence in the midst of the darkness, and how he guides with his staff, because if you refuse to accept his offer, then you will feel the rod of his displeasure forever.
And believers, be encouraged that the worst possible valleys of this life are far less than we deserve, far slighter than we perceive, and are far surpassed by the weight of glory that God is preparing for us in his presence.
Benediction: Hebrews 13:20-21
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, he quip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”