The Shelter of God’s Presence

 

Week of December 7, 2014

 

Bible Verses:  Psalm 23:1-6.

 

The Point:  God is with me no matter what I am facing.

 

The Good Shepherd:  Psalm 23:1-6.

 

[1]  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 forever.  [ESV]

 

Introduction:  Main Idea: David describes the Lord’s loving care for His own people as a shepherd’s devotion for his flock and a host’s provisions for his guests. In verses 1-4 the psalmist represents his relationship to God as a sheep to his shepherd, not lacking any rest, guidance, or safety. Then in verses 5-6, the psalmist represents his relationship to God as guest to a gracious host, not lacking any provision, goodness, or eternal blessing. Life Application: The sufficiency of Christ in the life of any believer is astounding, a matter of great comfort and encouragement. Whenever a person has Christ in his life, he has everything he needs because Christ is everything. Christ is able to meet every need. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Creator and sustainer of all, the infinite God who can meet whatever needs we may have. This is the central theme of this psalm, which is a source of grace to every believer. Because of the indwelling of Christ in believers’ lives, they will never lack anything they truly need within the will of God. Christ is their peace and protection in every situation, their guard and guide in all they do. What a blessing it is for every believer, pictured here as a weak sheep and weary traveler, to know that Christ, the Good Shepherd and gracious host, is sufficient to meet every need. Christ is the full source and abundant supply for meeting every need we have.”  [Lawson, pp. 124-131].

 

[1-6]  “The psalm is a masterpiece throughout. But if ever a psalm could stand almost on a single line, it is this one: The Lord is my shepherd. What an amazing juxtaposition of ideas! The word Lord is the English translation of the great Old Testament personal name for God, first disclosed to Moses at the burning bush, as told in Exodus 3, and then repeated more than four thousand times in the pages of the Old Testament. The name, Yahweh, 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 is the word shepherd. In Israel, as in other ancient societies, 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 Yahweh 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. This is an Old Testament statement, of course. But Christians can hardly forget that the metaphor was also taken up by Jesus and applied to Himself, thus identifying Himself with Yahweh, on the one hand, and assuming the task of being the shepherd of His people, on the other [see John 10:2-4,11-12,14-16]. It is not only the first half of the first line that is important, however. The second half is important too. It says, I shall not want, that is, I shall lack nothing. This statement goes with the first half. 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. I shall not lack rest. This is because He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still water [2]. 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 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? Jesus said, Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest [Matt. 11:28]. I shall not lack life. This is because He restores my soul [3]. In Hebrew idiom the words restores my soul can mean ‘brings me to repentance’. But since the word translated soul is actually ‘life’, and since the metaphor here is that of shepherding, the words probably mean ‘the Lord restores me to physical health (or salvation)’. I shall not lack guidance. This is because the Lord leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake [3]. Sheep are foolish creatures. In fact, they are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. They can have a good shepherd who can have 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. Paths of righteousness refers to the way of righteousness. We stray by sinning, but God leads us into upright moral paths. Isaiah said, All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all [53:6]. I shall not lack safety. This is because 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 [4]. 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. Since the sun does not shine into the valley very well, there really are shadows which at any moment may become shadows of death. 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 still 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. Many commentators on Psalm 23 have noticed that 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. I shall not lack provision. The twenty-third psalm also mentions the shepherd’s provision for the physical needs of the flock, saying, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows [5]. Some commentators think this represents a change in the psalm’s basic image, passing now from that of a shepherd guiding his sheep to that of a householder welcoming a guest to his table. This may be, particularly since the poem ends with the psalmist dwelling in the house of the Lord forever [6]. But on the other hand, this could refer to the shepherd’s preparation of the high tablelands where the sheep graze in summer. A good shepherd will prepare these before the sheep arrive, removing physical hazards, destroying poisonous plants, and driving predators away. In biblical imagery oil and wine also speak of joy and prosperity, since olives and grapes take time to grow and oil and wine require time to prepare. In periods of domestic turmoil or war these tasks were not performed. Moreover, oil and wine were highly valued in the dry, barren lands of the Near East. In Palestine, where the sun shines fiercely most of the year and the temperatures continually soar up into the hundreds, the skin becomes cracked and broken and throats become parched. Oil soothes the skin, particularly the face. Wine clears the throat. When a guest arrived at the home of a friend, hospitality demanded the provision of oil and wine so the ravages of travel might be overcome. 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. I shall not lack a heavenly home. The twenty-third psalm portrays life as a pilgrimage, and in the final verse the psalmist rightly comes to life’s goal, which is God’s house. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. To have a sure home was always a desire of the nomadic people who occupied the area of the Near East bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the great Arabian desert. Our sure home is the place the Lord Himself, our Good Shepherd, has gone to prepare for us.”  [Boice, pp. 206-212].

 

 “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. 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 people into a declaration of trust that is both extraordinarily courageous and coldly rational. The Lord, after all, is the Good Shepherd. This fact promises them provision and protection, comfort in all of life’s temptations, assaults, distress, and afflictions. Even when it appears that the Lord is not providing for His sheep, this psalm invites people to keep trusting that the Lord is our shepherd, holding on to God’s word and promise. They will then find that God acts on their behalf with fierce tenderness, wielding rod and staff for them.”  [Goldingay, pp. 353-354].

 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What is the meaning and significance of God’s name: Lord or Yahweh?

 

2.         What was the responsibility of the shepherd in Biblical times? What are the characteristics of sheep? How are God’s children like sheep in need of a Good Shepherd?

 

3.         What does it mean for your spiritual life that God is your Shepherd? Look at the seven action verbs that are used with the Lord in this psalm: makes, leads, restores, leads, comfort, prepare, and anoint. Read John 10:1-18. What does Jesus, the Good Shepherd, do for His sheep?

 

4.         According to Boice, what are the six things God’s children do not lack because God is our Shepherd? Think about the comfort and assurance these six promises bring to your Christian walk. When attacked by fears and doubts, learn to trust in these promises.

 

References:

Psalms, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, volume 1, John Goldingay, Baker.

Psalms 1-75, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.

Psalms, Willem VanGemeren, EBC, Zondervan.