One Happy Sheep-Part Two
One Happy Sheep-Part TwoPsalm 23:4-5
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Pastor Randy Smith
Linda Anderson in a 1989 edition of Our Daily Bread recalled watching her three-year-old daughter climb into her daddy's lap and exclaim with a satisfied smile, "This is my safe place!"
After some reflection on that scene she wrote:
"Dads, husbands, YOU are the 'safe place.' You are our protector and provider. And when you gather us for a time with God, we need a safe place. A safe place, not a lecture. A safe place, not a sermon. A very human dad (and) husband who simply cares about God and us. We don't need or even want a "spiritual giant." We just want you. And we need a gathering time where it's safe to say to each other, 'How are you and the Lord getting along?' 'How can we pray today?' We need a safe place to cry, laugh, sing, rejoice, challenge, share, and sometimes not to share and have it be okay. We need a time with you that's relaxed - unstiff, when we can pray honestly, in simple sentences, from our hearts. Unfixed. Unrigid. Unroutine. Unshackled. We need a place where irregular opinions are respected, and where God has the last word. We need a gentleman leader, not a general. Gracious. Relaxed. Human. (One) who exhibits not infallible authority, but a thirst for God. …(We need) a family shepherd."
As I was thinking about the celebration of Father's Day today and the exposition of Psalm 23 that we began last week, I quickly discovered an interesting correlation between the two. Psalm 23, the beloved Psalm packed with truth about the benevolence of our heavenly Father provides great application regarding the role of the earthly father. Just a God is our ultimate Shepherd; dads have been entrusted with the awesome responsibility to be undershepherds for their families. Therefore, many of the principles that describe the Good Shepherd in heaven should also describe the good father in the home.
When we consider the great Shepherd's Psalm, we uncover similar characteristics that should identify us dads. David Blackenhorn said, "A good father does these basic things: provides for his family, protects his family, and gives spiritual and moral guidance." Likewise, in his book Seven Secrets of Effective Fathers, Ken Cranfield concluded dads:
Are committed to their children.
Know their children.
Are consistent in their attitudes and behavior.
Protect and Provide for their children.
Love their children's mother.
Are active listeners to their children.
Spiritually equip their children.
Again, most of this sounds very similar to the ways God shepherds His church.
So as we continue our study in this marvelous Psalm, a Psalm written over 30 centuries ago, yet it touches lives as if it were written yesterday, let us focus on the sufficiency and goodness of our heavenly Shepherd. But in a secondary way, may every dad in this auditorium apply these wonderful truths to his own life as he seeks to be a faithful shepherd to his family.
By way of review, last week we covered the first two verses of this Psalm. We learned how David joyfully boasted that the Lord was his Shepherd. David gladly accepted the fact that he was a sheep in need of guidance and protection and provision. He admitted over and over in the Psalms how he struggled with fear and helplessness and pride. David needed a Shepherd and he rejoiced that his Shepherd was none other than almighty Jehovah. "The Lord," said David in verse 1, "is my Shepherd."
And because the Lord was his Shepherd, he could conclude in verse 1 by saying, "I shall not want."
David experienced the One who intimately cared for His sheep. The One who knew all of their needs and provided only the best care and attention (Psm. 84:11). Unlike the sheep that are forever looking over the fence for greener pastures, David was satisfied. He was content knowing that his Shepherd loved him dearly, a Shepherd that would prove His love eventually by laying His life down for the flock (Jn. 10:11). As it says in Romans 8:32, "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" With God as David's Shepherd, the man had no wants.
And since David trusted His Shepherd in this manner, he was able, as verse 2 says to "lie down in green pastures." He was free from the fear, competition and irritation that both sheep and humans continually encounter. He was able to rest. In the absence of worry and anxiety, he found the peace we all so desperately desire under the care of his Master.
Additionally, David said in the conclusion of verse 2, "He leads me beside quiet waters." David knew that his Shepherd led him to the most refreshing waters for his soul - The crystal-clear, revitalizing, quiet waters of the Shepherd Himself. David found this thirst slaked in drinking deeply from the character of God.
Now as we turn our attention to the new material, I would like to separate verses 3 and 4 into two categories. Verse 3 gives us assurance from our Shepherd and verse 4 gives us comfort from our Shepherd.
Let's remember that David wrote this Psalm from the perspective of a Palestinian sheepherder, being a shepherd once himself. Therefore I plan to continue to use the shepherding imagery that he has left us in this Psalm to speak of God, the Good Shepherd Himself and the spiritual care He provides for His flock, the church. And since my experience with sheep does not extend beyond a petting zoo, I will utilize the expertise of professional shepherds, possibly none more than Phillip Keller through his excellent book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.
1. ASSURANCE FROM THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Let's begin in verse 3 with "Assurance from the Good Shepherd." In this verse David continues to mention the ways God has provided for his care.
He restores My Soul (3a)
In the beginning of verse 3 he said, "He restores my soul."
Sheep are notorious for getting themselves in trouble. They are stubborn and very independent. Like humans, often what they think is for their best turns out to be the very thing that causes them their greatest harm. Much of their pain is self-inflicted because they refuse to submit to their shepherd. Whether it be eating poisonous plants or drinking from polluted watering holes or wandering off to become easy prey for predators, any shepherd will tell you that sheep because of their obstinate nature, need to be restored often.
Therefore, a good shepherd is forever counting his sheep to make sure the entire flock is in tack. If he loves his flock he often finds himself leaving the others to retrieve the one in peril. Do you remember the words of Jesus? "What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray" (Mt. 18:12-13).
The shepherd is in grave concern the moment he discovers a sheep is missing from his flock. He knows the multiple threats that exist. And time is of the essence if he wishes to bring the wayward animal back to the flock alive. The search is agonizing, but as Jesus said, the retrieval and restoration is a time for rejoicing. For the sake of his reputation and the safety of the animal, a good shepherd is always engaged in this restoring process.
In the same way, we humans have a tremendous propensity to wander from our Shepherd. As we grow in Christ these departures are less frequent, but more noticeable and painful. I can remember one of our elders recently telling me about the tears that well up in his eyes every time he sings those memorable words - that song that we sang this morning: "O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter; bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above (Robert Robinson, Come Thou Font of Every Blessing).
Possibly the greatest evidence of salvation, the greatest evidence that we belong to God's flock, is our desire to hear the voice of the Shepherd, delight in following it and passion to remain close to His side. But even the greatest of the saints is prone at times to follow his flesh and leave the God he loves. A departure, though brief, often times causes great consequences to his welfare and great damage to his relationship with the Shepherd Himself.
On our own we will get ourselves into further trouble. Often we are even unaware of the dangers. But we have a Shepherd who will seek us out when we wander and bring us back to Himself. He will leave the ninety-nine and search after the one. If I can switch the metaphors, He is the "Hound of Heaven." This is an indication of His love for us. This is an indication that we belong to His flock.
Sometimes He will use a text of Scripture that we have read or memorized or heard in a sermon or received from another person graciously bringing it to our consideration (Psm. 19:7a). Other times He may use a circumstance to get our attention. But mark this beloved, in His love and compassion for the lost sheep of His flock, He will do whatever it takes to restore one of His beloved sheep to the safety of His pasture.
Some physical sheep live in such utter discontent, they are forever wandering, forever looking for a hole in the fence to depart from their shepherd's oversight. Though they think they are acting in their best interests, little are they aware of the sharp cliffs or the pack of coyotes that are waiting to destroy their lives. I've been told that shepherds will actually take their clubs and break a sheep's leg to prevent further wandering and teach the animal a lesson. Though this sounds cruel, the action is really for the sheep's good.
In the same way, the Bible says, "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:6). In His tender rebuke and compassionate correction, our Lord does what is necessary to restore His wayward sheep. The Psalmist said, "In faithfulness You have afflicted me" (Psm. 119:75b). He does this because He is a good Shepherd who wants nothing but the very best for His flock. The Bible says, "He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness" (Heb. 12:10). And what can be better than sharing in the holiness of God!
David, the author of Psalm 23, understood firsthand the restoring arm of God. The man who fell into adultery and then premeditated murder was convicted of his sin and brought back into perfect fellowship with His Savior. David experienced it all: The dejection, the defeat, the frustration, the temptation and the hopelessness. But through the midst of it all, he also experienced the God who is able to "restore to (him) the joy of (His) salvation" (Psm. 51:12). David experienced the healing hand and not the blucher's knife, the loving Shepherd who calls us back when we stumble, not for slaughter, but for restoration.
He Guides Me in Paths of Righteousness (3b)
Second, David said in verse 3 that "(God) guides (him) in the paths of righteousness."
No other class of livestock requires more careful handling and more detailed direction than sheep. For example, a shepherd is dominated by the need to decide where he must next take his flock. For the sake of the pasture (overgrazing, rutting, erosion) and the sake of the flock, sheep must be led to just the right places. This calls for a shepherd that is loving, wise and diligent.
We as humans have many paths we can choose. Each day confronts us with hundreds of decisions that can affect the outcome of our lives. How can we know which path to tread? Who will guide us along the correct path once we have made the right decision?
After all, we are sheep. And like sheep we are stiff-necked, stubborn, self-willed, proud and self-sufficient. We turn to our own ways (Isa. 53:6) deliberately and repeatedly often to our own disadvantage. We fail to deny ourselves and submit to the leadership of another. We think we know what is right, yet the counsel of Proverbs warns us "its end is the way of death" (Pr. 14:12). What or who will save us (Keller, 65f)?
Again we must turn to the Good Shepherd (Psm. 24:4-5). He takes great pleasure in leading us. Since He is "the way" (Jn. 14:6), He knows the paths that are to our best advantage. He keeps us off the "crooked paths" (Pr. 2:15) and guides us on the "paths of righteousness" (according to verse 3). These are His paths. They are the right paths. They are the paths of righteous living. And they are the paths that take us directly to the abundant life He promised (Jn. 10:10).
Why does God take great care to lead us? Why does He lead us through circumstances, conscience, wise counsel, inner burdens from the Spirit, and most directly through the Scriptures (Psm. 119:105)? The answer is found in the conclusion of verse 3. Ultimately, God's leads us "for His name's sake." His holy reputation is at stake in the way we live our lives.
Imagine being a rancher and looking over at your neighbor's flock. To your dismay you see some infested with burrs and parasites. Others are drinking water contaminated with manure and urine. Some are fighting, some are seeking to leave the pasture and some are ridden with disease and sickness. What would you think of your fellow shepherd?
Do you see, beloved, how important it is for us to live for the glory of our Shepherd? Do you see how important it is for us to desire righteous living? For what will the world say when they peek into our pasture and observe us fighting or not spending time together or not telling others about Jesus or not serving our Master or not rejoicing? What will they say about our Shepherd? By grace He leads us on the paths of righteousness to the destination of His glory.
My friends, we cannot be stubborn sheep! We must fully submit to our Shepherd's guidance found in the Scriptures for our joy in choosing the right paths, but also for the honor of His reputation, for "His name's sake" as the Psalm says!
3. COMFORT FROM THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Let's move from the assurance from the Good Shepherd to the comfort from the Good Shepherd. In verses 4-6 the Psalm takes a twist. We will see David get even more personal as he describes his relationship by speaking directly now to the Shepherd Himself. In verse 4 he said, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil" (stop right there).
Sheep often graze throughout the year in two different places. In the winter months they spend their time on the "home ranch." But once the warm weather arrives, shepherds will take their flocks on long "drives" to the remote alpine meadows above the timberline. (This was probably where David was when Samuel came to his home to anoint him king (1 Sam. 16:11).
Though there are many ways to ascend to the "high country," shepherds will tell you that none are better than through the valleys. For the valleys promise the gentlest grade, the most watered routes and the richest feed (Keller, 78). Yet despite these benefits, the valleys also pose many dangers for the shepherd and his flock. Floods, avalanches, cliffs, poisonous plants and wild animals all dominate the valleys. It is a place of darkness and danger.
So often in the Christian life we want the "mountaintop" experience without having to pass through the valleys to get there. Unfortunately we fail to realize that it is often during the trials that we experience our best growth and most intimate fellowship with our Shepherd. That which we so often wish to avoid can provide the greatest blessing. God promised us the best life, but He never said it would be a smooth life. As a matter of fact He said, "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33b).
Sure the valleys of life are frightening, but as we march through them, we can be at peace. Look with me at the wonderful promises of verse 4.
Notice that the verse says we "walk" through these valleys. Walking denotes a steady advancement, a forward progression. When we are scared we run, but when we are calm we walk. Though facing danger on every side we press on composed. We only temporarily pass through the valley, assured of our protection and destination on the other side.
Also, the gully is called, "The valley of the shadow of death." It is not "The valley of death" - now that would spell gloom and doom! It is only the valley of the shadow of death. Despite its ferocious appearance, we must remember that it is only a shadow. We must not be like the silly sheep that are afraid of their own shadow (which is the origin of that saying I've been told). Shepherds will tell you how sheep will literally jump over their own shadow! But as Spurgeon said, "A dog's shadow can't bite you, a sword's shadow can't kill you and death's shadow can't destroy you" (Spurgeon, Treasury of David, 355). These dangers are but harmless shadows to the Christian.
Furthermore for the Christian's comfort, any shadow indicates the presence of light somewhere. And God is our Light during these dark times. In verse 4 David said, "I will fear no evil, for You are with me." In the midst of these dark trials we must remember the promise of Jesus, "And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20). Fear is the most subtle expression of distrust. We must remember that our Shepherd is with us and knows the best way to care for His sheep. We can fear no evil as we walk through this valley by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
Finally in verse 4, David found great comfort in the Lord's rod and staff while walking through the valleys of life.
The rod was used by shepherds as a main weapon of defense. It was thrown to drive out predators and correct wayward sheep. The rod speaks of God's power and sovereignty.
The staff was used by shepherds to care and manage the flock. It was employed to draw sheep to each other and to the shepherd for intimate fellowship. It was also used to direct the sheep along the right paths through gentle prodding. Keller recalls times he has seen a shepherd actually holding his staff against the side of a sheep so they are "in touch." He said they walk along this way almost as if they were "hand-in-hand" (Keller, 94-95). The staff speaks of God's comfort and guidance.
Though all of us, like David, walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Psalm 23 gives us ample assurance that we can fear no evil because of the powerful arm (rod) and the compassionate guidance (staff) of our Good Shepherd working all things for our good (Rom. 8:28). His rod and His staff comfort us. And even when we face that ultimate valley, death itself, we can realize that it is only a shadow. It can scare us but it is unable to do us any harm.
I remember hearing that story about a dad and his son going for a drive. Immediately the son screamed out, "Dad, there is a bee in the car!" The young boy was terrified so the father reached out his hand and was able to catch the insect. The son was relieved, but soon felt threatened when the dad to his surprise released the bee. The boy exclaimed, "Dad, why did you let him go?" The father opened his hand to reveal the stinger imbedded in his palm. "My son," he said, "I took away the sting. The bee can no longer do you any harm."
That sounds an awful lot like 1 Corinthians 15. "'Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:54b-57).
Because of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross, death has been conquered. Jesus took the sting for us. It is no longer than grim enemy. For those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and repented from their sins, it is only a mere shadow, a killer bee that has lost its sting. It can scare us all it wants, but its shadow is unable to do us any harm.
We can sing with Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21). We do not need to fear our final destination; on the contrary, we can actually anticipate the arrival into our heavenly home!
Keller said, "For the child of God, death is not the end but merely the door into a higher and more exalted life of intimate contact with Christ. Death is but the dark valley opening out into an eternity of delight with God. It is not something to fear, but an experience through which one passes on the path to a more perfect life" (Keller, 76-77). As we already learned, the valley is only a temporary pathway to lead us to greener pastures.
And we don't even need to fear the state of dying, something often worse than death itself. For we know our Good Shepherd is with us every step of the way. He will be with us during this time (Psalm. 23:4). Oh the saints who on their deathbed have found great comfort in Psalm 23. I've personally seen many with more joy in their dying moments than they ever knew in their living years.
A shepherd's care can either make it or break it for a flock. Just as a father's care can either make it or break it for a family. May our dads faithfully shepherd their family the way God faithfully shepherds His church.
And may we draw great encouragement from Psalm 23 -that we have a Shepherd that restores us when we go astray and comforts us when we walk through the trials of life.