BREAKTHROUGH IN CONFIDENCE

 

Week of January 27, 2008

 

Bible Verses:  Psalm 23:1-6.

 

Biblical Truth: Our confidence in God deepens as we trust Him to guide us, comfort us, and keep us secure in Him.

 

Confident in the Good Shepherd’s Guidance:  Psalm 23:1-3.

 

[1]  The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. [2]  He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. [3]  He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.     [NASU]

 

[1]  The word Lord is the English translation of the great Old Testament personal name (Yahweh) for God, first disclosed to Moses at the burning bush and then repeated more than four thousand times in the Old Testament. The name literally means “I am who I am.” It is an inexhaustible name, like its bearer. Chiefly, it refers to God’s timelessness, on the one hand, and to His self-sufficiency, on the other. Self-sufficiency means that God needs nothing. He needs no wisdom from anyone else; He has all wisdom in Himself. He needs no power; He is all-powerful. He does not need to be worshiped or helped or served. Nor is He accountable to anyone. He answers only to Himself. Timelessness means that God is always the same in these eternal traits or attributes. He was like this yesterday; he will be like this tomorrow. He will be unchanged and unchangeable forever. He is the great “I am.” On the other side of this amazing combination of ideas in verse 1 is the word shepherd. In Israel a shepherd’s work was considered the lowest of all works. If a family needed a shepherd, it was always the youngest son, like David, who got this unpleasant assignment. Shepherds had to live with the sheep twenty-four hours a day, and the task of caring for them was unending. Day and night, summer and winter, in fair weather and foul, they labored to nourish, guide, and protect the sheep. Who in his right mind would choose to be a shepherd? Yet Jehovah has chosen to be our shepherd, David says. The great God of the universe has stooped to take just such care of you and me. And we must remember that the same metaphor was taken up by Jesus and applied to Himself, thus identifying Himself with Jehovah, on the one hand, and assuming the task of being the shepherd of His people, on the other. I shall not want. Left to themselves, sheep lack everything. They are the most helpless animals. But if we belong to the one who is self-sufficient, inexhaustible, and utterly unchanged by time, we will lack nothing. He is sufficient for all things and will provide for us. What is it that those in the care of the good shepherd shall not lack? Verses 2-6 are an answer to that question.

 

[2] We will not lack rest. Causing the flock to lie down rather than simply feed suggests ample provision. It implies that they have eaten, are satisfied, and have no need to move on to look for further grass; this pasture will provide the next meal, too. Lying down after feeding also hints at security. It is interesting that the psalm begins at this point. We might expect it to begin with motion, with some kind of activity either by the shepherd or the sheep. But strikingly, it begins with rest. It is a reminder that the Christian life also begins with resting (or trusting) in God or Christ. Along the way there will in time be many things for us to do. But we begin by resting in Him who has done everything for us. Are you resting in Christ? Have you found Jesus to be the perfect provider of all your many needs?

 

[3]  We will not lack life. The Lord provides for life by restoring our soul. Further we will not lack guidance. The Lord also provides guidance. Guiding is the act of a powerful but caring party toward a weaker and needy party, just as the Lord took Israel through the wilderness and into the promised land. Sheep are foolish creatures. One aspect of their foolishness is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. They can have a good shepherd who has brought them to the best grazing lands near an abundant supply of water, and they will still wander away to where the fields are barren and the water undrinkable. They are creatures of habit. They may be brought to good grazing land by their shepherd, but, having found it, they may keep on grazing until every blade of grass and every root is eaten; the fields are ruined, and they themselves are impoverished. No other class of livestock requires more careful handling than do sheep. Therefore, a shepherd who will move them from field to field yet always keep them near an abundant supply of water is essential for their welfare.

 

The Lord guides us in paths of righteousness (or in right paths). These are not merely right paths in the sense of paths that lead to the right places, the places with grass and water. Although, in the context of the shepherd theme, these paths are certainly the way of provision and safety that the Shepherd chooses for His sheep. But, in a spiritual sense, these “right paths” could be seen as having both doctrinal and practical meanings which would emphasize the right relationship that exists between God (Shepherd) and His people (sheep). The Shepherd will guide His sheep to believe and understand the “right” biblical truths about God and His way of salvation for His people. In addition, He will lead His people along the right paths of obedient behavior that is pleasing to our God. The Old Testament word for righteousness is a broad term and can include all of these meanings.

 

These are righteous paths because they are consistent with the divine shepherd’s faithfulness to His character as the Good Shepherd which is the meaning of for His name’s sake. Name points to the identity of the person. Thus to know, acknowledge, or praise the name is to know, acknowledge, or praise the person. Acting for the sake of the name implies acting in accordance with who the person truly is. For His name’s sake in verse 3 thus emphasizes that Yahweh, as the Shepherd, is a God characterized by faithfulness to His promises or word. David is saying that the Great Shepherd makes, leads, restores, guides because these actions are consistent with His name, with who the Lord is. God always acts in a manner that is consistent with His character. No matter where the Lord leads us, we can be assured that they are the “right paths” for us, even if they are through the valley of the shadow of death.

 

Confident in the Good Shepherd’s Comfort:  Psalm 23:4-5.

 

[4]  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I 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 have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.     [NASU]

 

[4]  We will not lack safety. This verse is often used to comfort those who are dying, and it is not wrongly used in this way. God is certainly a source of comfort in a person’s dying moments. However, this verse primarily speaks of the shepherd’s ability to protect his sheep in moments of danger. The picture is of the seasonal passage from the lowlands, where sheep spend the winter, through the valleys to the high pastures, where they go in summer. The valleys are places of rich pasture and much water, but they are also places of danger. Wild animals lurk in the broken canyon walls. Sudden storms may sweep along the valley floors. There may be floods. It is important to note that the valley of the shadow of death is as much God’s right path for us as the green pastures which lie beside quiet waters. That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character. Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to it? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties. The second person pronoun “you” replaces the third person pronoun “he” at this point. We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.

 

Having the Lord with us is not merely a feeling. It does not signify mere presence but also action [e.g., Isaiah 41:10]. This presence expresses itself by aggressive action to defeat enemies and thus protect the one to whom Yahweh is committed. So the shepherd’s presence makes itself felt by means of rod and staff. A rod is the object with which the Davidic ruler is to break up the nations [Psalm 2:9], with which Yahweh punishes Judah [Isaiah 10:5], and with which a man might strike his servant so hard that he kills him [Exodus 21:20]. The shepherd would carry one attached to his belt as the weapon with which to attack animals and thus protect the sheep. His staff is the cane on which he might lean for support, though it is also the means by which a shepherd might keep the sheep in order and knock down olives for them to eat. The two objects thus comfort the sheep in different ways. Comfort sometimes suggests emotional encouragement and sometimes action that changes a situation, and both would be relevant in this context.

 

[5]  We will not lack provision. This psalm also mentions the shepherd’s provision for the physical needs of the flock. If we will allow God to lead us where He will, we will find that a table has been prepared for us, our heads have been anointed with purest oil, and our cups have been filled to overflowing with the wine of true joy.

 

Confident in the Good Shepherd’s Security:  Psalm 23:6.

 

[6]  Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever     [NASU]

 

What the shepherding and the hospitality, the provision and the protection means is that goodness and lovingkindness (the Hebrew word “hesed”) will always be pursuing us. The word translated follow consistently means something more energetic than merely following someone. The verb thus carries two encouraging implications. One is that if wild animals/enemies pursue us, goodness and lovingkindness also pursue us. The other is that goodness and lovingkindness follow us with energy. The personification of these aspects of God compares with the prayer in 43:3 for God’s light and truthfulness to be sent out to lead us to God’s house. There, too, the context is the pressure of enemies persecuting the suppliant. In the present context the implication will be that it is here in God’s house that the suppliant enjoys the hospitality described in verse 5. Chronologically, then, verse 6 does not follow verse 5. It rather describes Yahweh’s care from a different angle. The implication will be that these personified attributes of Yahweh – and thus Yahweh in person as the good and loving one – will indeed make sure that we get to Yahweh’s house, and do so in order that we may stay there. Or rather, they imply that goodness and lovingkindness will keep doing that, for they imply that we will keep needing to be chased in this way. Being in danger of not finding provision or of being attacked by enemies is not a once-for-all experience for people who belong to Yahweh. It is a recurrent one. But so is being chased by His goodness and lovingkindness which then enables us to dwell with Yahweh. Throughout our life the Lord will ensure this. Dwell in the house of the Lord forever may possibly be understood figuratively to refer to the continuous dwelling in the realm of Yahweh’s provision and protection.

 

Theological Implications. Although Psalm 23 has become associated with death and funerals, it is actually a psalm about living, one that puts daily activities, such as eating, drinking, and seeking security, in a radically God-centered perspective. The life of a member of God’s people is lived between unfettered enjoyment of the presence of God and two aspects of the precariousness of life. One is uncertainty over whether we will have food to eat and water to drink (which represent material needs). The other is the experience of hostility from other people. The implicit background of this psalm of trust is thus the reality explicitly reflected in many prayer psalms, that food and water are known to fail and enemies to threaten. The psalm invites God’s people into a declaration of trust that is extraordinarily courageous. For, even when it appears that Yahweh is not providing or protecting us, we are called to keep trusting that the Lord is our shepherd, holding on to God’s word and promise. Then we will find that God acts on our behalf with fierce tenderness, wielding rod and staff for us. And if God is for us, who is against us? [Romans 8:31].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What is David teaching us about God by comparing Him to a shepherd? What is David teaching us about ourselves by comparing us to sheep?

 

2.         If Yahweh is our shepherd, what does David say we will not lack?

 

3.         What does for His name’s sake mean? How does this truth increase our trust in our Shepherd?

 

4.         Why does David switch from the third person pronoun “he” to the second person pronoun “you” in verse 4? What comfort does this give you in the difficulties of life?

 

5.         What are the theological implications of this psalm?

 

References:

Psalms 1-41, James Montgomery Boice, Baker.

Psalms, Volume 1, John Goldingay, Baker.