One Happy Sheep-Part One
One Happy Sheep-Part OnePsalm 23:1-3
Sunday, June 13, 2005
Pastor Randy Smith
"There is no inspired title to this Psalm, and none is needed, for it records no special events, and needs no other key than that which every Christian may find in his own (heart)" (Spurgeon)
"This is the pearl of Psalms whose soft and pure radiance delights every eye" (Spurgeon).
"This Psalm is the most beloved and most used Psalm in the whole book. Perhaps there are more expositions of it in existence than of any other Psalm. The saints of God have always delighted in it" (Gaebelein).
"This Psalm expresses confidence in God's goodness - in this life and in the life to come. The personal way in which the psalmist speaks of God, the imagery of God's soothing guidance, and the ensuring confidence in God have all been factors in making this one of the most charming and beloved of the Psalms. The universal appeal of this psalm lies in the comfort it gives to those who have confronted the most difficult periods of life" (VanGemeren).
"(This Psalm is) probably the most familiar passage there is in the Word of God. No portion in writing of any time or of any work has been so widely circulated" (McGee).
I'm sure if I opened the floor for comments, each one of you could provide your own endorsement of this Psalm. No doubt most of you have heard it at a funeral. Many of you have it memorized. And potentially all of you have been ministered to at some point in your life by the comforting and encouraging words recorded in this Psalm 23.
According to the inscription, David was the author of this Psalm. Although we often think of David as the great king of Israel, we must not forget that his career began working in the fields as a humble shepherd, a caretaker of the sheep.
Our family has been reading through 1 Samuel. This past week we read the story in which the prophet came to the home of Jesse to anoint the new king of Israel. After seven of his sons were rejected by the Lord, Samuel called for the youngest, David. Where was he? While the others were in the house, David (according to Scripture) was out "tending the sheep" (1 Sam. 16:11). From the beginning, God wanted the man with the shepherd's heart.
Whether David wrote this Psalm while he was currently attending the sheep or years later when he became king and recalled the memories from his former occupation, Psalm 23 depicts the ultimate Shepherd's heart for His flock. The Psalm uses vivid shepherd imagery to describe God's love for His children. In the same way a good shepherd cares for his sheep, God cares for His flock, Christians, people often referred to in the Bible as sheep.
I plan to preach this Psalm from the perspective of a shepherd. Since I know nothing about this occupation myself, I have consulted others with greater expertise, possibly none more than Phillip Keller through his excellent book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. I will be referring to him often.
And although we are all familiar with this Psalm, I invite you over the duration of three Sundays to see this familiar Psalm afresh and receive God's Word with an open heart. I pray our Lord; the Good Shepherd Himself will teach you something new so you can add to the testimony as to how Psalm 23 has ministered to your life.
1. WHO HE IS
Let's begin with the first point: "Who is He?"
Sinclair Ferguson, in a book I just completed said, "We tend to be a generation of Christians who major on minor matters but do not seem to possess the true measure of the gospel in the knowledge of God. We do not really know God. At best we know about Him" (Grow in Grace, by permission of Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA. 1989, p. 41).
I couldn't agree with him any more. Many Christians have settled for the good to the negation of the best. There is a place for doctrinal and lifestyle convictions, but they are intended to be a means to a greater end. We were created and recreated for one primary purpose: Knowing God! Therefore, our goal this morning is not to become more acquainted with the Shepherd's Psalm. On the contrary, our goal this morning is to become more acquainted with the Shepherd Himself!
David was such a man. In the first verse of this Psalm he exclaimed, "The Lord is my shepherd" (emphasis added).
Now, if the Lord was David's shepherd, it naturally implies that David was a sheep. And like any shepherd will tell you, sheep are very distinctive in their disposition. They are noted for their mob instincts, fears, timidity, stubbornness, stupidity, defenselessness, and perverse habits (Keller, 7).
Do you see a humbling comparison to us humans? Is it not rather appropriate that we so often in the Bible are referred to as sheep? Can we not agree with Isaiah 53:6? "All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way." Can we not feel the compassionate heart of Christ as he viewed in agony the multitudes "distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd" (Mt. 9:36)?
But this was the rescue mission of Christ, right? He would be their Shepherd. He would take them to rest in green pastures and to drink beside quiet waters. He would restore their soul and lead them in the paths of righteousness. He would be their Protector, Comforter and Provider. He would purchase them, care for them and claim them to be His very own for all eternity.
Absolutely, but it wouldn't be that easy. The sheep would enjoy these blessings only at the expense of the Shepherd Himself. He would have to bear their iniquities. He would have to die in their place and drink the wrath of God they deserve. In John 10 Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep" (Jn. 10:10).
Psalm 23 is commonly called the Psalm of the Good Shepherd. But we could never sing Psalm 23 if Jesus did not experience the Messianic prophesies of the prior one, Psalm 22, commonly known as the Psalm of the Cross. In order for us to experience a grand relationship with the living God, our Savior would need to bear our sins and be rejected by the Father.
We pull these words right off the lips of Christ a thousand years before the actual crucifixion itself. Look with me at Psalm 22. Verse 1-"My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" Verses 6-8- "But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. All who see me sneer at me; they separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, 'Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.'" Verses 16-18- "For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."
To put is succinctly: In Psalm 22 Christ is the Savior. In Psalm 23 He is the Satisfier. In Psalm 22 Christ is the foundation. In Psalm 23 He is the manifestation. In Psalm 22 Christ dies. In Psalm 23 He lives. In Psalm 22 Christ gives His life for the sheep. In Psalm 23 He gives His love for the sheep. Psalm 22 speaks of the past. Psalm 23 speaks of the present (adapted from McGee, Thru the Bible, 711).
Because of Christ and His work on the cross, human beings have the opportunity to have a relationship with the living God. He is no longer some distant deity nor is He seeking to dispense His anger on those who have violated His holiness. We like David can now enter the presence of God and say, The Lord is my (not 'a' or 'the' or but 'my') shepherd" (Psm. 23:1). What other religion on the planet offers this kind of intimacy with their god? And thirteen more times in this short Psalm, David will refer to himself by way of personal pronouns in regard to his intimate relationship with his personal Lord.
Who is the Lord? He is the One who holds the galaxies in the palm of His hand. The One who is sovereign over the entire cosmos. The One whose presence is inescapable. The One who knows the innermost thoughts of every mind. The One who wove us together in our mother's womb. The One who died for my sins on a cross. This Lord, says David, has condescended to be my shepherd. And if we desire salvation and satisfaction in life, we must embrace Him through faith and repentance as our personal Shepherd too.
David knew his Shepherd and boasted in their relationship. Keller said, "(David) knew from firsthand experience that the lot in life of any particular sheep depended on the type of man who owned it. Some men were gentle, kind, intelligent, brave and selfless in their devotion to their stock. Under one man sheep would struggle, starve and suffer endless hardship. In another's care they would flourish and thrive contently" (p. 4).
Because David understood and experienced his Shepherd as One who intimately cares for His flock, he felt content under his Shepherd's supervision. Who could care for him any better than the One who created him? Therefore David concluded verse 1 by concluding, "I shall not want." To the delight of any sheepherder, David found satisfaction under the care of his Good Shepherd.
But… In order to understand this clause, we need to separate "needs" from "wants." There are many things we may want, but there are only a few things we really need.
If all we want is a faster car or a greater wardrobe or heightened abilities or better health, we will never be satisfied, because once we get these desires there is always the potential to desire more. Furthermore, God has never promised to meet these wants for us.
However, if we consider our needs, we realize the Good Shepherd is always faithful to meet every one. We need certain necessities to survive. Jesus said if we "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to (us)" (Mt. 6:33). We need our sins forgiven. Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." We need grace. According to 2 Corinthians 12:9 God said, "My grace is sufficient for you." I can continue, but I will allow the Apostle Peter to conclude. "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3a). Or consider Paul's comments, "And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:19). The Good Shepherd has provided all we need. We understand that and do not want.
Our Shepherd "will go to no end of trouble and labor to supply (his sheep) with the finest grazing, the richest pasturage, ample winter feed and clean water. He will spare Himself no pains to provide shelter from storms, protection from ruthless enemies and the disease and parasites to which sheep are so susceptible" (Keller, 19). Do you know why? "(Because) He is the owner who delights in His flock. For Him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing His sheep contented, well fed, safe and flourishing under His care" (Keller, 18).
Since God, for His own reputation and love for His flock, provides for their every need, it is therefore an offense to Him when His sheep exercise covetousness, greed, jealousy or anxiety. All of these sins express a distrust in our Shepherd, assuming there are richer rewards in another shepherd's pasture and implying our Shepherd has been neglectful.
On the contrary, God's sheep see His bountiful provisions to meet their all needs. They believe He gives the finest security, guidance, protection and nourishment. They trust Him. They thank Him. They are content with His care. They lack nothing. They do not want.
Psalm 34:9-10, "O fear the Lord, you His saints; for to those who fear Him there is no want. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing."
2. WHAT HE DOES
We have just covered who the Good Shepherd is and the conclusion based on His provision. Now let us turn to the specific provisions themselves. We go from "Who He Is" to "What He Does."
He Makes Me Lie Down in Green Pastures (2a)
First, according to verse 2, the Psalmist said, "He makes me lie down in green pastures."
Sheep, like humans, are restless creatures. They are prone to worry and fidget. They are easily agitated. They need just the right conditions (four in particular) to be at peace (Keller, 23).
First, sheep need to be free of fear. They are well aware of the threats posed to them from dogs, coyotes, cougars or bears. Since they are defenseless (slow runners, dull teeth, no camouflage), their only recourse is to worry.
Humans are no different. Life is full of dangers and we know it. Each day opens a curtain to unknown risks and threats. We are defenseless also as much (if not all) of this is beyond our control. Our only recourse is to worry.
I'll always remember seeing that young boy lying dead in the gutter, surrounded by a mob in Daytona Beach - Spring Break, 1986. An evening of drinking came to an abrupt end when he darted across the busy main street without seeing the oncoming truck. One thought I could not get off my mind - I knew within moments his parents would receive a phone call that would forever change their lives.
What or who can prepare us for something like that? What or who can remove our worst fear - the fear of the unknown? Psalm 23 tells us we have a Shepherd who is able to give us the confidence and hope we need in life. He has already proved His love by laying His life down for us. And this loving Shepherd has affirmed us that He is in control. He will protect us. He will cause all things to work together for our good. We have His Word on that! We can trust Him and lie down in peace, free from all our fears.
In order to "lie down," sheep also need to be free from friction with other sheep. They are prone to experience rivalries and have cruel competition within the flock. They establish amongst themselves what shepherds call a "butting order." In the midst of these rivalries, it is easy for them to become edgy and restless.
Humans follow in like suit. We have our own "pecking order." We fight for our power and our rights and defend our will at all costs. We have no difficulty stepping on another if it means achieving our own ends. We are blind to our own faults, but able to magnify the faults of another. I've personally seen people raise petty jealousies into vehement strife and bitterness.
Yet the Good Shepherd is able to make a difference in the sheep's behavior. In His presence all competition ceases and all rivalries dissipate. When we fix our gaze upon Him we are able to love others as He loves us. We are able to do what is most pleasing in His sight. We are able to become less so that He and others will become greater. We exchange fighting for resting.
Third, in order for sheep to lie down, they must be free from flies and parasites (nasal flies, bot flies, warble flies and ticks). Sheep are known to stamp their feet and shake their heads to find relief from these aggravating pests.
We humans also have no problem being "bugged" by the little things that can easily irritate our lives. They get under our skin and do their damage - the petty frustrations like a traffic jam or a bad hair day or a sore tooth or a flat tire or a lost car key or a child's temper tantrum or an uncontrollable pimple or an unfaithful co-worker. We all face considerable opportunities throughout the day to be weighed down and lose our joy. These little pests can become ferocious beasts very quickly. Often it is manifested in sleepless nights, ulcers, fatigue, restlessness and frustration.
Yet our Good Shepherd in the Person of the Holy Spirit brings to us the very presence of Christ, the "Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6). We are reminded that He is with us always (Mt. 28:20). And with Him we receive quietness, serenity, strength and calmness.
Finally, in order for sheep to lie down, they must be well fed and well watered. Keller said, "A hungry, ill-fed sheep is ever on its feet, on the move, searching for another scanty mouthful of forage to try and satisfy is gnawing hunger. Such sheep are not contented, they do not thrive, they are no use to themselves nor to their owners. They languish and lack vigor and vitality" (Keller, 35).
As I mentioned earlier, we too are wired to be discontent unless we receive the essentials we need to survive. We will go the extreme to find air, water, food and shelter.
Yet like any good shepherd, our Good Shepherd goes to the extreme to provide these essentials in our lives to make us lie down with contentment. As Paul said in 1 Timothy 6, "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:8). And from a spiritual perspective, our Shepherd allows us to feed upon Him (Jn. 6:51), the Living Word, to nourish our souls.
Jesus said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture" (Jn. 10:9). The living God calls us to His flock and supplies us with the green pastures of contentment. His care for us is beyond comprehension. As a matter of fact, He sees to it Himself. The verse says, "He makes me lie down in green pastures" (emphasis added). He enables us to perceive His rich promises and bountiful blessings. Because He laid His life down for us, we can lie down in His green pastures of contentment, rest and serenity. We picture a flock of sheep after being well-watered and well-fed, lying down in a beautiful sun-lit grassy meadow. What a peaceful and serene picture is drawn in our imagination.
He Leads Me Beside Quiet Waters (2b)
Second (and we need to pick up our pace), still in verse 2, "He leads me beside quiet waters."
Sheep, though they often live in arid climates, are very dependent on water. Often their water comes from one of three sources: The dew on the grass, deep wells or natural springs and streams.
As the Psalm indicates, the Good Shepherd will lead His flock beside quiet waters. In the last verse we saw how the Good Shepherd made us lie down, stressing His sufficiency. Now in this verse we see how He takes us to the best provisions for our needs, stressing His leadership. "He leads (us) beside quiet waters." And how does He lead us? Not by driving us, but rather through the gentle prodding of His love (Jn. 10:4).
Simply put, God knows what is best for our souls. He knows where we will find the most refreshing waters. He desires to lead His flock there with diligence. And that source for drinking is none other than Himself. He knows we will be most content when we drink deeply from Him (Jn. 6:53).
Yet as stubborn sheep, we have a tremendous tendency to ignore the Shepherd and try to satisfy our thirst on our own. I'm sure we have all dabbled in a few of these worldly watering holes for satisfaction: Drugs, alcohol, sex, travel, sports, social activities, hobbies, service projects, education, careers and the list continues.
I am not saying all of these activities are evil. Some in fact are rather wonderful gifts from the Lord. However none of them were created to satisfy our hearts. As Augustine said, "You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You." Often to our own ruin we neglect the crystal-clear, revitalizing, thirst-quenching, quiet waters of God and settle for polluted potholes.
Considering this self-destructive tendency, Keller said, "(This reminds) me very much of a bunch of sheep I watched one day which were being led down to a magnificent mountain stream. The snow-fed waters were flowing pure and clear and crystal clean between lovely banks of trees. But on the way several stubborn ewes and their lambs stopped, instead, to drink from small, dirty, muddy pools beside the trail. The water was filthy and polluted not only with the churned up mud from the passing sheep but even with the manure and urine of previous flocks that had passed that way. Still these stubborn sheep were quite sure it was the best drink obtainable" (Keller, 47).
Remember Jesus when He cried, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink" (Jn. 7:37b)? The One who is the epitome of righteousness said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Mt. 5:6). If we wish to see our hearts satisfied, we must drink deeply from the quiet waters of Jesus Christ. And our Shepherd is more than willing to lead us there.
Who is He? He is the Good Shepherd. What does He do? He provides satisfaction. Can you affirm these basis truths of the Christian faith deep down in your heart? Can you personalize this Psalm like David? Is He your Shepherd and is He your Satisfier?
There were many ways to identify the owner of a sheep, but the most common and the most foolproof was to have the shepherd call the sheep by name. A good shepherd is intimately acquainted with his sheep. He takes great pride and goes to great extremes to see that they are cared for in the best possible way. His sheep respect him. They love him. And they follow his voice when He calls.
In the same way our Good Shepherd said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (Jn. 10:27). If we belong to Him we should know His voice and delight in coming when He calls.
It is humbling, but true, that God refers to us as sheep. However it is wonderful to know that we are not left without a Good Shepherd that cares for our every need. We have One who is acquainted with us, calls us by name (Jn. 10:3) and leads us to the pastures of contentment. We have no wants because the living God is our Shepherd.