Nearly everybody that I have spoken with from church, either in person, or on the phone, gave me the distinct impression that they were weary. We’re weary of isolation and quarantine. Weary of bad news and of depressing reports. Weary of sickness and death. Weary of injustice, and murder, and riots, and all the rest. Weary of sin.
You probably feel this too. This is a wearying time in the life of God’s people. I thought that it would be encouraging and edifying for us to spend some time in the 23rd psalm, one of the sweetest parts of all of scripture. When I get weary and feel assaulted by the ploys of the evil one, I find myself often drawn back to this Psalm.
So, over the next three weeks we’ll be working our way through these wonderful verses, in the hope that we’d all be encouraged, have our faith strengthened, and have our eyes fixed again on our good shepherd.
Let’s read Psalm 23, and I’ll be focusing mainly on verse 1 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[f] in the house of the Lord
Let’s begin by looking at the identity of the shepherd in verse one. The identity of the shepherd. David tells us that the Lord is his shepherd, and we need to make sure exactly who he is talking about. Significantly for us, he doesn’t just use the word for God. He doesn’t say God is my shepherd, Elohimis my shepherd, although he certainly could have. And that helps clarify. The name that he uses here, the word that is translated LORD, probably in all capital letters in your bible, is the covenantal name for God, Yahweh. And that’s important.
We can’t just interpret any other name for a god in here. We can’t say that god generically is our shepherd, or Baal is our shepherd, or Allah is our shepherd, or the sense of the Divine is our shepherd. It is the God of the nation of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is our Shepherd. And that’s big. Why is that important?
Because the name of God reveals to us important aspects of God’s nature and character, which impact our knowledge of this one that is shepherding us.
If you remember back to Exodus 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush, God calls Moses to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Moses asks God, “What do I say if the people ask me, ‘who sent you? What is his name?’” And God responds with the name that we pronounce Yahweh, which we struggle to translate into English. Some translations say it means, “I am that I am” or “I am who I am” or even “I am that which I am.” We don’t have single words that can adequately translate the fullness bound up in the name of God. But, the name does give us a good picture of several aspects of God’s being, which help comfort us.
The name of God tells us that God is eternal. He has no beginning or end. Nothing gave birth to him, or gave rise to him, and nothing can outlast him. Further, He necessarily exists, and is not contingent upon any others. Unlike me and you, whose being is contingent upon food and sleep and health, God is necessarily existent. I am that I am. His being is not limited upon being fed, or getting enough sleep, or having good health. He has always and will always exist. There is nothing upstream of God which could fail that would impact God downstream. He is the fountainhead, the source, the Alpha, the beginning, and the originator. And if we press that further, it means that all things outside of God, are necessarily contingent upon him. If he is the beginning, then all that exists depends upon him.
So, God is eternal, God is not contingent upon anything or anyone else, and we can also know from his name, that God is unchanging. God is not acted upon by any other thing, and he has no need to change. He is immutable, theologians say. He’s not evolving to get better, and even if he could, that would mean that he wasn’t perfect before. He doesn’t grow, he doesn’t improve, he is that he is.
All of that, and more, is packed into his name. That is the Lord that David is saying is his shepherd here in our text. Yahweh is his shepherd. Which is good news for the sheep. This shepherd is eternal, all powerful, all knowing, all seeing, all good, ever merciful and ever just, overflowing with steadfast love, unchanging, never-resting, never-defeated, his plans are never thwarted, his ends are never corrupted, his goals are always achieved, and his enemies are always defeated. That’s the God that David is saying is his shepherd. That’s good news.
But the bible reveals even more about our God. If you’ve noticed carefully, so far in this sermon I’ve not said anything about Yahweh that a Jew couldn’t affirm. But we’re Christians, and we are to read all of the bible Christianly. Yahweh further reveals to us about his nature in the New Testament.
Jesus Christ comes, and he says to the Pharisees in John chapter 8, when asked about his identity, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Seems like a strange statement to us, like a mad man who was simply proclaiming that he was around even before Abraham many many hundreds of years before. But that’s not what he was doing, and it’s not how the Pharisees understood it. They knew what he was saying. He was taking for himself the holy and revered name of God himself, and was therefore putting himself on par with Yahweh, the God whose name the Pharisees didn’t even want to utter. How do we know that the Pharisees understood this? Because they immediately picked up rocks to stone him. You don’t try to stone a crazy man. You stone a blasphemer; and that’s what they were trying to do.
Jesus, the perfect son of God, is one with God, sharing fully in the divine nature, and thus, is fully and truly Yahweh. Jesus is our Shepherd, and he even tells us as much two chapters later in John, when He says “I am the Good Shepherd.” The writer of Hebrews uses the same language in Hebrews 13:20, when he writes in his benediction, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.” Jesus is our great shepherd. Jesus leads us beside still waters, he restores our souls, he leads us in paths of righteousness, he is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, his rod and his staff comfort us, he prepares a table before us, he anoints our heads with oil, he follows us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in his house, forever.
Who is our shepherd? It is Yahweh, It is Jesus, our good shepherd.
Next, we’ve looked at the identity of our shepherd, now I’d like to spend most of the rest of our time looking at the work of our shepherd. The work of our shepherd.
The bible talks about several relationships in our lives in terms of shepherding. Pastors are called shepherds over the flocks of individual congregations. Pastors are under-shepherds, or even sheep dogs, as William Still has called us, who use God’s word to point the attention of the sheep back to the Great Shepherd, Jesus. Husbands are under-shepherds of their little flock, their family, and their work is to point their families back to the great shepherd. Indeed, even the word husband, or husbandry, has been used in the past to describe the care of animals, of flocks.
Shepherds have a vital role to play, an important work to do if they are to be faithful in maintaining their flocks. Shepherds have to, first, know their sheep. They have to know they’re abilities, their temperaments, the likelihood of them wandering off and getting lost, or getting stuck in the thorny bushes. They have to know how much and what kind of nourishment the sheep need, and what kind of things are good for them, and what kinds of things aren’t. The shepherd has to know the enemies of the sheep, what kind of dangers there are, and where the threats lie. Further, the shepherd has to know the land, and where the sheep ought to be taken, and where they ought to avoid. All of this knowledge is crucial if they are to care well for the flock. A shepherd has to know his sheep, and the condition of his flock, if he is to be a faithful shepherd.
Next, a shepherd can’t merely stop with knowing his sheep, but he must do the work of feeding the flock. The sheep need to be taken to where there is plenty of nourishing grass, and they need to be steered from the plants that can make them sick, or poison them. They need constant tending, they need to be moved, from one place to another, so that they can have a steady supply of good food. They also need to be watered. They must be led often back to safe, clean drinking water. A faithful shepherd must faithfully feed his flock.
Third, he not only knows and feeds his flock, a faithful shepherd cares for his sheep. He takes care for their safety. He protects them from threats by constantly watching over the flock. His eyes dart to and fro in order to detect the first sign of danger, like predators. Additionally, he protects his flock by keeping them from thorny thickets. Sheep can be notoriously hard-headed, and will get themselves stuck up on a rocky ledge, or down in a briar patch, and they’ll be helpless and vulnerable to attack. A shepherd has to care for his flock by often extricating his sheep from such dangerous situations.
Further, he cares for the health of the flock. He not only makes sure their diet is proper, but he cares for them when they are sick. Gives them whatever is needful for them to recover. He makes sure that whatever supplies are required are there in the appropriate supply.
So, a shepherd must know his sheep, feed his sheep, and care for his sheep, in order for him to be a good shepherd.
Brothers and sisters, I want us to be encouraged this morning by remembering again how Jesus is our good shepherd.
First, remember that Jesus knows his sheep. Jesus knows his sheep. Jesus says in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know then, and they follow me.” And I know them, he said. Jesus knows us inside and out. He knows what kind of sheep we are. He knows what kind of trouble we’ve gotten in. He knows the sinful and foolish things we have done, and what kind of mess we’ve made of our lives, what kind of evil thoughts we’ve had, what kind of selfish actions we’ve done. He knows. He knows how we often covet the greener grass of another shepherd’s field. How we nip and bite at the other sheep. He knows.
And the good news for his sheep is that, even with all this intimate knowledge of all of our sinful past, we are still his sheep. We’re his sheep not because we’re the best sheep, not because we’re the most well behaved, not because we follow him the closest, listen to him the best, or produce for him the finest wool. We’re his sheep because he has chosen to put us in his flock.
Our good shepherd picks for himself the broken, the dirty, the sickly sheep of this world, and places them in his flock. He chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, Paul says, which means he chooses the sheep that nobody would want, and he makes them part of his prized flock.
Even more than that, he picks these foolish and sickly sheep, knowing them completely. He knows that they will be tempted to wander off, how they will be tempted to go back again to the polluted and contaminated streams of this world, and yet he still chose them. He isn’t surpised. He isn’t short-tempered. He is a patient shepherd. He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast-love. He’s Yawheh. He’s Jesus Christ, and he’s our good shepherd that knows us.
Further, like we said above, a good shepherd not only knows his flock, but he also is faithful to feed his flock. As I mentioned before, sheep can tend to be hard-headed. We can be stubborn. We can think we know what is best. Just like a sheep that thinks that green stuff over there looks best, even though that green stuff might make it sick, we too can think that we know best, and we know what we need to be fed.
We forget that we have a good shepherd. We forget that the Lord is our shepherd, and that we shall not want. We forget that he knows us, better than we know ourselves, and that he knows what we need, and where we need to Go, and what we need to eat.
We get frustrated, because we see other sheep eating greener grass than us, and we get angry and jealous. Why do they always seem to get the good stuff, and I’m stuck with old, dry hay? Why do they always get to go to the prettier pastures, drink from the cleaner streams, and lay down on the quiet meadows, while I seem to be sitting over here, unwashed, unshorn, and eating stubble? This isn’t fair.
And in our disgruntled pouting, we begin to wander off, to try and feed ourselves. We try to fill our bellies with all sorts of weeds. Weeds that taste sweet at first. These weeds are plentiful, they’re colorful, they’re tasty, not like the boring food that our mean shepherd feeds us. But before long, we find out that these weeds do not satisfy. No matter how much we eat, we’re never full, and the more we eat, the more our stomachs churn within us. We get sick. We try to feed our souls with ambition and success, or by craving attention and sensuality, or with self-righteous gossip and dissention, or with greed and possessions. Whatever the weed is, we’ve all tasted it, and we’ve learned that weeds can never satisfy and end up making us feel sick.
I’m sure you’ve tasted it. Maybe you’re tasting it right now? Maybe you’ve been nibbling on some forbidden weeds and you’ve just started to taste its sourness. Or maybe you’ve been chowing down on toxic weeds for years, and you’re desperate for something to satisfy your cravings without making you feel sick?
Dear ones, I want to encourage us by remembering that Jesus Christ is a faithful shepherd who feeds his flock.
In John 6, Jesus proclaims to the crowd, “I am the bread of life whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He goes on to say, “47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.””
Christ has perfectly provided all the food that we could ever need. His food is a heavenly food, a spiritual food. It is a food that can never perish, a food that can never spoil, a food that is ever-satisfying. His food is the sacrificial death that he died in the place of his people, plus the perfect life of righteousness that he lived before God. His life was everything that should do but don’t, and his death was everything that his flock deserved, but didn’t get.
What shepherd would do such a thing? What shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep? Our good shepherd would, that’s who.
He can make us lie down in GREEN pastures, because he has already crossed the barren desert of the grave. Jesus can lead us beside STILL waters, because he has already calmed the raging waters of death. He can restore our souls because he has felt the anguish of death in his own soul. He has put his flesh in the place that we deserved on the cross, and we’ve been given the right to eternal life that HE earned. He has died, so that we might have life. He has felt the grief of the grave, so that we might have green pastures. He has fed his sheep, at the cost of his own life, so that we foolish sheep might have a perfect diet of heavenly bread.
When we realize the great love with which he loves his sheep, the great cost that he paid in our place, and the great security we have with him as our shepherd, it stirs us again with love for our great shepherd. Don’t you want to stick near to such a shepherd? Don’t you want to linger in his arms, and eat only of HIS good food? Turn away again from the sickly filth of this world and the weeds of sin, and run again to your great shepherd. Believe in his word and his life, trust in his promises and hear again of his great love. Run from the weeds of this age, that can never satisfy and will always turn to bitterness. Christ is our great shepherd, who has perfectly provided the food we need.
Third, Christ not only knows his sheep, and feeds his sheep. Christ also is a good shepherd that cares for his sheep. Christ cares for his sheep.
Sheep can be fairly easy to watch over when things are going well. When everybody is in the fenced in pasture, and the skies are blue, and the grass is green, and the stream is full. But, when things aren’t so perfect, the sheep can get anxious. They can get rowdy, rambunctious, they can begin to bleat and bite, they can run off, ignore the shepherd, charge at the sheep dogs, and get themselves in trouble.
We’ve not so different. When this world gets rough, when the skies get dark and the thunder gets close. When we look around and don’t see our shepherd, when we don’t feel him near to us, we’re tempted to panic. We don’t feel God’s presence, we forget his promises, we get like Peter, more focused on the waves than on our savior, and we begin to sink.
We’re listening to the lies of Satan, those flaming darts which say, “He’s not YOUR shepherd, he’s forgotten about you, he’s not good to you any more, you must not be part of his flock.” Satan tempts you to strike out on your own. “You can do it. You can be your own shepherd. You can feed yourself, you can find your own pastures, you can find your own still waters, you don’t need your soul restored, your soul is fine. He’s abandoned you, good riddance. You never needed him anyway.”
Do you hear all those lies? They all come with a hiss, and they all echo that first damnable lie from the Garden: “Has God really said?” Satan wants you to forget what God has said, to ignore what God has promised, and to forsake what God’s provided for you.
Don’t do it. Don’t give in. There is a reason why the six verses of this psalm are probably the most memorized 6 verses in the bible. When you don’t sense the presence of our shepherd, recite to yourself this Psalm:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness[b]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[c]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.”
Christ is our shepherd. He cares for his sheep. Remember the words of our savior. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He says later in John 10, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me,[a] is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
We’re perfectly protected by our good shepherd. There is nothing left for us to do. When we feel like we’ve wandered off, out of the sight of our shepherd, and we no longer feel his presence, remind yourself that Christ’s sheep are secure. No one can snatch them away. No sin can remove you from his flock. You are HIS sheep, anointed by HIS own Spirit of adoption, not because of your faithfulness as a sheep, but because Christ is the faithful shepherd that has laid down his life for his sheep.
Linger upon these sweet promises, remind yourself often of these truths. When your green pastures have turned into the valley of the shadow of death, we can have bold assurance, because our shepherd has been here before. He knows what we’re walking through, he can sympathize with us. He’s not driving us from behind, barking orders at us and whacking us with a stick. Rather, he’s leading us from the front, calling us with his gentle voice, the voice we all know and love, and he’s guiding us down the necessary path, a path that leads to our eternal joy in his presence.
Christ is our good shepherd who leads us, guides us, protects us, and who cares for us.
I want to close with a final reflection upon what might be the most important part of this verse: it’s the two little letters in the word MY. The lord is MY shepherd. This psalm is written by David, who has the lord as my shepherd. And I have preached it thus far offering promises to all of Christ’s sheep. But, some of you cannot read this psalm in such a way. IF you have not Christ as your shepherd, then this psalm should terrify you.
Let’s read this psalm again, but read it as if the Lord is not your shepherd:
The Lord is not my shepherd; I shall have want.
No one is here to make me lie down in green pastures. I have no guide and the waters are raging. Who will restore my soul?
I’m left to guess which are the paths of righteousness, and I do it on my own.
When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will quiver in fear for the evil that comes upon me; I am alone; your rod and your staff terrify me.
You prepare a grave before me in the presence all; you cover my head with a burial shroud; my cup has run dry.
Surely wickedness and cruelty will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall die alone, in the grave, forever.
Dear ones, if you have not the Lord as your shepherd, then know that you will have him as your judge. He knows you inside and out, warts and all, and he knows how you’ve broken his law, how you’ve ignored his offers, and how you’ve rejected his mercy. Don’t wait any longer, come to him today. His offer of forgiveness and acceptance stands for any that would come to him. He’s the good shepherd that delights in restoring weak and broken sheep. Don’t wait until you’ve washed yourself and cleaned yourself up. Look to him today, believe in his promises, forsake the filth of this world, and come graze in his pasture of goodness. He is a good shepherd.
And for us believers, I’ll close with one final encouragement. It’s an extended illustration, or a picture, from an old missionary, about the truth of this psalm, and the different kinds of sheep in the Lord’s flock. He writes:
Come down to the river: there is something ahead worth seeing. Yon shepherd is about to lead his flock across; and as our Lord says of the good shepherd—you observe that he goes before, and the sheep follow.
Not all in the same manner, however. Some sheep enter boldly, and come straight across. These are the loved ones of the flock, who keep hard by the footsteps of the shepherd, whether strolling through green meadows by the still waters, feeding upon the mountains, or resting at noon beneath the shadow of great rocks. And now other sheep enter, but in doubt and alarm. Far from their guide, they miss the crossing, and are carried down the river, some more, some less; and yet, one by one, they all struggle over and make good their landing.
Now, notice those little lambs. They refuse to enter, and must be driven into the stream by the shepherd’s dog… Poor things! How they leap, and plunge, and bleat in terror! That weak one yonder will be swept quite away, and perish in the sea.
But no; the shepherd himself leaps into the stream, lifts it into his bosom, and bears it trembling to the shore. All safely over, how happy they appear! The lambs frisk and gambol about in high spirits, while the older ones gather round their faithful guide, and look up to him in subdued but expressive thankfulness.
Now, can you watch such a scene, and not think of that Shepherd who leads Israel like a flock; and of another river, which all his sheep must cross?
He, too, goes before, and, as in the case of this flock, they who keep near him “fear no evil.” They hear his sweet voice saying from Isaiah 43:2, ‘“‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”’ With eye fastened on him, they scarcely see the stream, or feel its cold and threatening waves.
Regardless of which of the sheep you most resemble, either the faithful ones with eyes fixed on the Shepherd, or the trembling little lamb that needs be carried by the shepherd, remember that all of his flock make it across the river, and that he leads us only through valley’s that he’s already travelled.
 Slightly modified from: W.M. Thompson, quoted in Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, commentary on Psalm 23.