Skip Heitzig - Safe and Sound (Psalm 23)
Father, we're grateful for your care for us, your love for us, and we celebrate that in this Psalm. I just pray that we would push aside all distractions and thoughts of what this week is going to bring us or might bring us, and we would meditate, Lord, upon the truths that are discovered in this epic Psalm. You know the lives and the experiences of every one of us who are gathered. And, honestly, we need your touch. We trust you, in Jesus' name, amen.
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever".
Of all of the 150 expressions we call the Psalms, there is no Psalm that is more quoted, recited, memorized, inscribed on cards than the Twenty-third Psalm. It is without question of all of the Old Testament passages of Scripture the most famous Old Testament passage. Everybody knows it. Even unbelievers know this passage. Augustine called it the "martyrs' hymn," because so many Christian martyrs recited Psalm 23 and they went to their deaths as they were tortured for Christ. Abraham Lincoln often referred to this Psalm during his deep days of depression during the Civil War. George W. Bush recited it to a nation that was weary and wondering after September 11, 2001. For three, get this, 3000 years, that's how long ago it was written, this Psalm has brought comfort to millions of God's people. It is a Psalm that a child can grasp; it's that simple. But it's the kind of a Psalm that a theologian could drown in; it's that deep.
It was Alexander Maclaren the great Scottish expositor who said: "The world could spare many a book better than this sunny little Psalm. It has dried many tears and supplied the mold into which many hearts have poured their peaceful faith". But it is my belief that Psalm 23 is misunderstood, at least, misapplied. Because when do you typically hear Psalm 23, at what? Funerals. It's inscribed in crematoriums and cemeteries and funeral homes. "The Lord is my shepherd". It's on sympathy cards. And that is because there's a little phrase in verse 4 that says, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," and so it is included at times of physical death. But this is a Psalm that has way more to do with life than it does with death. It's the Psalmist's relationship to the living God in his own life. That's why he says, "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life".
A Miami doctor said, and I agree with him: "The Twenty-third Psalm has been enshrined on a marble pedestal for far too long. We need to take it down and break it up and use it". And that's what we want to do today as we have this little devotional, this meditation on Psalm 23. It's time for us to take these truths off of sympathy cards and inscribe them on our own hearts. Now, Psalm 23 has been called the "Shepherds' Psalm" for obvious reasons. But if you look a little more closely at the Psalm, you'll discover that it's not just about sheep and a shepherd; it covers much more. Allow me to explain. When you open up in verse 1, it speaks about the Lord in the third person: he is this and he is that. When you come to verse 4, there's a change to the first person. David now speaks directly to God, not as much as a shepherd as to a friend. It's personal. Then in verse 5 there's another change. We go from outside, outdoors, the valley, the field, to inside the tent, or, if you will, the home.
So the first part of the Psalm is in the field, the second part of the Psalm is in the valley, and the third part is in the tent. So I want to look at this Psalm in three parts: as a shepherd, God gives us direction; as a friend, God gives us protection; and, as a host, God gives us provision. Let's begin with the first, the shepherd. "The Lord is my shepherd," writes David, "I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake". As a shepherd, God gives us direction. Now, I don't know what your high school was like, but you guys remember FFA? FFA, Future Farmers of America? Was anybody in FFA? Okay, a few of you. Unless you are in FFA, Psalm 23 makes no sense so us. In fact, most of us don't even know a shepherd. And it's not like one of the normal occupations that we have in our society. It's not your ordinary occupation. But David himself was a shepherd in Bethlehem. He came from a family of shepherds. And we know that David was out keeping his sheep as he was selected to be the next king of Israel.
The idea of God being our shepherd is one of the most, without a doubt, beautiful and comforting metaphors in all of the Bible. One of my favorite verses of Scripture, it speaks to this, is Isaiah, chapter 40, that declares, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young". So the picture is the care that a shepherd gives to his sheep. And certainly Psalm 23 implies care. We have a shepherd who takes care of us, his sheep. I don't know if you know this or not, you probably do, but sheep do not take care of themselves very well. Sheep will die unless they have a shepherd who will take care of them. They require more meticulous care and attention than any other form of livestock, and so it's no surprise that the Bible over 200 times refers to us as sheep, because of the tendency that sheep have. For example, Isaiah 53, "All we like sheep have", what? "We've gone astray. We have all gone our own way". That's what sheep do.
Back in 2005 in Eastern Turkey there were 1,500 sheep gathered together in one spot. There were several flocks with several shepherds who all got together, put their flocks in one place, while the shepherds went off and ate breakfast together. Apparently, nobody was watching the sheep. Suddenly one little sheep had an idea; and that is, "I'm going to jump over that cliff". And he did. And, apparently, all the other sheep thought that sheep knew where he was going. So 400 of them followed him before they finally found out that 400 sheep had died going over a cliff. The estimated loss was $74,000. Really, I mean, I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They lost that much money. In fact, get this, the only time in the Bible that sheep are ever seen in a favorable light is when they are under the care of a good shepherd.
Now, David was a shepherd, and so when he writes this, he's not doing this as an insult to himself or to those of us who are his readers, but in elation that God is his shepherd. It's like a kid bragging about his father: "Look at who my dad is". Here's David saying, "Look at who my shepherd is. Look at who my owner, my manager is. The Lord is my shepherd". How many of you own pets? Let me see a show of hands. How many of you own pets? Okay. Some of you need to own pets if that's all. So have you ever known a dog owner that you may not say it to them, but you think these thoughts: "They should not own that dog. That poor little dog never gets out, never gets taken for a walk, never gets groomed, just sort of runs around in the backyard and barks, barks, barks all day long"? And you think, "They should not own that dog".
But then there's the other end of the spectrum where you have the obsessive dog owner. They get little sweaters for their dogs and little shoes for their dogs and they're primped and proper. And they, like Paris Hilton carries her dog everywhere she goes. And you go, "Oh, that is, like, so crazy. That is so overboard". Right? However, if you were a dog, and you could choose which owner to have, the first one or the second one, you know you would take number two. You'll take Paris Hilton any day over the dog who never gets out. And here is David saying, "Hey, hey, hey. My manager, my owner is the Lord himself". These are bragging rights for David. The other day I read an article. "The National Science Foundation has committed to spending $10 million to build robots for children. They call them 'personal trainers for children,' in their words, 'to influence their behavior and their eating habits.' These are technological shepherds they're inventing. They plan to introduce them into homes, deploy them into schools to teach children English, and to encourage kids to exercise".
Last time I checked those were called parents and those were called teachers. And I don't want a robot as a shepherd for my children or for me or for my grandchildren, I want parents and teachers who are pointing their way to the Lord like David did, saying, "The Lord is my shepherd". It implies care; God will care for you. It also implies guidance. You know, sheep, they do not navigate very well. "All of us like sheep have gone astray". They do that very easily. Finding their way back home, not a chance. I have a pretty smart little dog I've told you about. I've bragged about my little dog. And we took our dog out, not even at our house, we put the dog in the car, drove it to a different neighborhood, got out, walked around by the river. And the dog ran away and got lost. An hour later our dog was waiting back at our car, in a foreign neighborhood, but had enough sense to navigate all the way back to where he got out of the car, one smart dog. A sheep will never do that.
There are birds that can navigate around the world; a sheep will never do that. Salmon know how to get upstream to spawn; a sheep will never do that. I saw in Israel one time a flock of sheep gathered by a well. I thought they were just drinking out of the well. And I got closer to photograph it, and I noticed that all these sheep had their little heads smashed into the fur, the bodies of other sheep, just sort of like hiding. Their little tails were sticking out in a circle. And the poor shepherd had to break them up with his staff just to be able to lead them. That's the nature of sheep. But the nature of shepherd is to guide. So you'll notice twice in our Psalm, once in verse 2 and the other in verse 3, it says: "He leads me beside the still waters; He leads me in paths of righteousness".
If there's one thing in this Psalm that ought to set your mind at ease, it's this: you have a personal guide. You know, I speak to a lot of Christians and have for a lot of years, and one of the common questions that we have is: "How do I find the Lord's will for my life? How do I get direction for my life? I want guidance for my life". And what they expect, I think, to hear from me is sort of a one, two, three, A, B, C, formula for how to determine God's will: "If you memorize this Scripture and take this step and counsel with this person, bingo! You'll find God's will every time". And I think we're so hung up with guidance that we forget we have the Guide living in us. We want direction when God is saying, "Hey, I, the Director will live inside of you".
Now if you were traveling to a foreign city like New York City, would you rather have a complicated set of instructions to get you around town, or how about this? What if a local resident said, "Yo, let me get in the car witcha. I'll show you my town". You go, "Yeah, I want that guy". You've got that guy. You have the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, "When the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth". I know sometimes we wonder, "Well, how's that going to work? Is he going to give me an impression in my heart? Am I going to have to memorize the Scripture? Is it going to be through the counsel of others"? Answer: Yes, all of the above. Relax a little bit, you're just a sheep. Leave that to the Guide, the Director. He leads. He guides. His second phrase: "I shall not want". "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want".
Now I've discovered that not everyone who says that first part can actually say with honesty the second part. "The Lord is my shepherd," but not everybody can say, "I shall not want". We live in a society filled with discontentment. We're always looking at what other sheep are eating. "Hey that guy has greener pastures than I have. Lord, I trust you like they do. I serve you like they do. How come their pasture looks so much better than my pasture? It's greener over there". "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want". There's a great little book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller. Some of you have seen it. It's an old book. It's the musings of an actual shepherd who was raised in East Africa, later on became a shepherd by occupation in Canada who raised sheep for a living before he became a lay pastor.
And he said, "I remember in my flock there was one particular little ewe lamb, a female sheep, who was beautiful, beautiful constitution, beautifully formed body, but always discontented". He called this sheep a "fence crawler," because no matter what pasture he led his sheep into, and he said, "My pastures were the greenest pastures in the area. I had this one little sheep who would always move to the edge and sort of look out to see what's over there". He eventually called her "Miss Gad-about," because she was always gadding about looking for other pastures. I wonder if God doesn't have some sheep like that who are disgruntled, who are always complaining.
And may I be quick to add that a complaining sheep is a disgrace to the shepherd, because a complaining sheep reflects the kind of care that that sheep thinks the shepherd is giving him or her, or not giving him or her. And imagine how unbelievers feel when they look at complaining sheep's lives. You're trying to win people to Christ and you're always complaining and moaning, you know what they're thinking? "I don't want to follow your Shepherd. He doesn't take very good care of you, or so it seems, because you don't ever seem happy with him". "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want". Contentment does not come from what we have; contentment comes from whom we have. And if the Lord is your shepherd, you ought to be able to declare firmly and confidently, "I shall not want". As a shepherd, he gives us direction.
There's a second principle I want to discuss with you; and that is, as a friend, he gives us protection. You'll notice the pronoun change in verse 4 from speaking about "he" and" his" in the third person, he speaks now directly to the Lord. "Yea, 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". Now immediately this tells me that life is not always going to be about "green pastures" and "still waters". There's going to be some "valleys" that I walk through. And I know we don't like that. We hate valleys. I don't meet many people who go, "Oh, good. I'm in a valley right now. It's dark down here. Praise the Lord"!
I think knowing the Shepherd we should be able to say that, but typically we go, "Lord, please, get me out of this valley. Just get me out of this valley. Just deliver me from this valley. Just carry me from mountain peak to mountain peak to mountain peak, in Jesus' name, hallelujah". But there are going to be some valleys. Shepherds will lead sheep down into the valleys. Over in the Middle East where this scene takes place, when it gets really, really hot outside, like it is these days, shepherds will move their sheep down into the ravines. They call them the "wadis". And sheep hate it. Sheep don't have great eyesight and they hate walking downwards into a shadowed, dark ravine. But the reason that the shepherd brings his sheep down there is because it's cooler down there, and that's where the streams of water are running, at the bottom of the ravine.
In other words, sometimes the darkest valleys are pathways to the greenest pastures. The sheep don't know that. They go, "Oh, this is scary. Oh, I hate these valleys". Just wait, it's going to be cool down there, and it's going to be beautiful and refreshing. Now, I've met many a believer who has testified to the fact that though they're going through a difficult time in their life and it's the trial of a lifetime, so to speak, that's where they meet the Lord, they have direct contact with God and his comfort in a way they've never experienced before. So, you'll have some valleys. Verse 4 also tells me that you'll have some dark valleys, what David calls "the valley of the shadow of death".
Now this is why it's recited at funerals, because of that phrase. But it doesn't necessarily refer to physical dying. The Hebrew word is figurative of gloom or calamity. Here's a guy who isn't dying; here's a guy who's living but experiencing a dark valley, the valley of what he calls "the shadow of death". But let me say this: even when you do come to an end of your life and you do die, it's going to be okay. Death is sort of like going into a valley. When you approach that time to die, it feels dark. It feels like you're going down. Your movement is limited. Your breathing is course. It seems so dark, but you're not going to say there, you're going to come out of the valley. "Though I go through the valley of the shadow of death," not "live forever in the valley". And then you awake and you have arisen on the other side in pure light. It's like walking through a valley.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon used to say, "Death is not the house, it's just the porch". It's just leading you somewhere. And notice it does not say, "the valley of death," but "the valley of the shadow of death". Can a shadow hurt you? Can a shadow of a dog bite you? Can the shadow of a sword or a knife cut you? "The valley of the shadow of death" cannot destroy you. The substance of death or the "sting" of death, as Paul said, has been removed; only the shadow remains. That's why David says, "I will fear no evil". The other thing this tells me in verse 4 is that you can find comfort in the valleys. For he notices: "I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me".
David is now speaking of the equipment that a shepherd carries. There's two pieces of equipment every shepherd would carry: a staff, a staff is the crook; and a rod, the rod is the club. So the staff or the crook is for directing sheep. The club or the rod is for protecting sheep. It was a little club that hung from the belt of a shepherd and often had nails in it. It was for one purpose; and that is, to beat up wolves. And you can imagine a little sheep looking up at is shepherd and seeing that weapon hanging from his side, going, "I'm comforted by that. I know that if this predator comes my way, I've got the kind of a shepherd who will give me protection".
In the New Testament we have already read in First Peter, Peter describes Satan as "a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour". But you need to know that that lion cannot get to you until he goes through your Shepherd. And if he allows any exposure at all to you, it will be very calculated for your own growth. He just won't let you at his disposal. That should be very, very comforting to you, because I know, again, a lot of believers it's always, "The devil's this," and "The devil's there," and "The devil did that". Okay, great. Don't worry about him. You have a Shepherd who will protect you. If you remember, in the New Testament Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd," and then he talked about his sheep and calling their names and they hear his voice and they follow him. But then Jesus said, "I am the door to the sheepfold".
And let me just explain what that is. It kind of lends itself to understanding the meaning of this passage. In ancient times when they would bring sheep out to the countryside, they would place them in these little sheepfolds, sheep pens, which are like low-lying walls with an opening, a narrow opening with no door. And a traveler was over in the Middle East and the tour guide brought him out to see the shepherd. And the shepherd said, "My sheep get inside this at night and they're perfectly safe". He goes, "Wait, wait, wait. There's no door". And the shepherd said, "That's because I am the door. I lie at night and sleep in front of the opening of this sheep enclosure. And no sheep can get out unless he goes over my body. And no wolf or predator can come in unless he goes over my body".
Remember the old expression, "Over my dead body"!? So Satan might say, "Hey, I want to rip that Christian apart". "Over my body! You can't get to that person unless I give you some kind of clearance for my purpose and for that sheep's growth". So this speaks of protection; as a friend, he gives us protection. As a shepherd, he gives us direction; as a friend, he gives us protection; and here's the third, and we close on this: as a host, he gives us provision. Verse 5, again, in the first person: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; and my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever". Please notice in verse 5 we have a change of metaphor, a change of picture. We're not dealing with sheep and a shepherd any longer. We're now inside the tent being the guest to someone who is being the host and lavishly giving us a meal. Unless you're prepared to think of little sheep sitting around a little table drinking coffee, which is a ridiculous thought, understand that the metaphor has changed.
Now we're dealing with God, not as a shepherd, but God as a host who lavishes upon us what the Middle East is so famous for; and that is, hospitality. One time I was in the city of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. I was with a few guys from our church. We were doing a little film of the area. My son was there. And this guy comes out of the house. Never met him before. And he goes, "Hi". We said, "Hi," and we talked. His name was Tony. He was a Palestinian Arab living in Nazareth. He invited us into his home. He gave us coffee, gave us tea, wanted to give us food, which he did. Then asked us to stay through the night and have a huge meal with his family. We were unable to do that, but I just thought, "Here's a perfect stranger inviting perfect strangers into his house willing to give us everything he's got".
Amazing hospitality. That's the picture that is drawn here. In ancient times when you went into somebody's tent as a visitor, there was a protocol. First of all, they would give you the common kiss three times: on one cheek, the other cheek, and then back to the first cheek. Then the servant would remove your sandals and wash your feet. Then they would place oil on your face, on your head, a scented olive oil to refresh you after the burning sun. Then they would give you a glass of wine with honey, a very sweet mixture to bring you refreshment. Then they would spread a rug before you and they would serve you a meal. Lavish provision is the idea.
Notice that David says, "my cup runs over". Can't you just picture the host just pouring, pouring, and the guest going, "No, no. That's enough. That's enough, really". He just kind of keeps pouring over and over. Sometimes I play a little joke on my friends, you know, we're sitting at lunch and I have water. And they say, "Hey, can I have some more water"? And I just sort of keep pouring and keep pouring and keep pouring till it just overflows onto the table and looks like they made a mess. I know, it's an adolescent thing to do, but what can I say? God isn't playing a joke on his guests. The idea is that "You are just so abundant in your provision and your love for me, Lord, my cup runs over". And then you'll notice it's followed by "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me". That's a declaration of the future based on the past. "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life".
Why would he say that? He would say that because that's been the track record. "You have taken care of me and protected me and directed me and taken care of me all through my life. I am now sure that in the future you're going to do the same". He's not saying, "I declare by faith that my life will be painless from now on". After all, he's eating "in the presence of enemies". He's got some enemies. But though his enemies pursue him, what David is saying is, "I know that goodness and mercy will also chase after me all the days of my life, because it's always been that way. I'm making a declaration of my future based upon the past". This folks, this is a statement of choice. This is a statement of faith. It's, forgive the analogy, but in the words of Winnie the Pooh the famous theologian: "It's the choice to be Tigger and not Eeyore".
Some people have just chosen to be Eeyore. They're just always, it's always bad. It's not, "my cup runneth over," it's, "my cup leaketh under". But then there are those who say, "No. I'm making a stand, by faith, to declare based upon who God is, what he has promised, and where he has taken me: 'Surely goodness and mercy will follow all the days of my life.'" That's a choice to be like Tigger and not like Eeyore. Our trouble is that so often we write our sorrows in the marble, and we write our mercies in the dust. Not David, not David. "My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life". Do you know the Shepherd?
There was once a famous actor that was invited to a social gathering. People were so excited to have this actor there. He was known for his ability to portray characters and say lines in a way that was unparalleled. So that night at dinner people were asking him to recite famous lines of different literary works. There was a minister who was also at that dinner. And he said, "I'd like you to recite Psalm 23 for the audience". And the actor said, "I'd love to do that, under one condition, that after I'm done you come and recite Psalm 23". Pastor said, "You're on".
So the actor, as you would expect, in typical eloquence like a thespian would, rising of his voice and the falling of his voice, just said it perfectly. And afterwards people gave him a cheering round of applause that lasted for several moments. Afterwards the pastor got up. He was older, his voice was a little rougher, his eloquence was not perfect, but he recited Psalm 23, and after he did, there was not a dry eye in the audience. Everyone was in tears. And after dinner they asked the actor, "What made the difference"? The actor said, "I know the Psalm, he knows the Shepherd".
We all know the Psalm, everybody knows this Psalm, but do you know the Shepherd? Do you know his direction in your life? Do you know his protection in your life? Do you feel and experience his provision in your life? Can you say, "The Lord is my personal shepherd; I shall not want"? And it could be, could be that you're just in a little bit of a rut today.
Did you know that one of the common problems that sheep have is called being cast, C-A-S-T. Shepherds will refer to a "cast sheep". This is a sheep who wanders from the fold, gets out on his own, "All us like sheep have gone astray", and wants to just sort of lie down in a comfortable position, in a little depression in the ground, and just sorts of lies there, kicks back. And what happens is the sheep turns over just a little too much and its legs are kind of sticking out, and then tries to shift and get out of it, its legs sticking up like this. And the sheep cannot for the life of it get back on its feet. Gases build up inside the abdomen cutting off the circulation, and the sheep will die unless the shepherd finds it and restores it.
Verse 3, "He restores my soul," means brings me back. Maybe you sort of feel like a cast sheep. You just want to get in a little comfortable zone and now your legs are sticking straight up. You've wandered just a little too far, and you need God's goodness and mercy now, let alone following you all the days of your life. Then you make that decision, like David, to say, "The Lord is my shepherd. I'm coming back to his care, back to his fold". Because here's the catch: all the things about God as a shepherd will never be true unless you let him be the shepherd of your life. You have to come into his fold by an act of your own will in cooperating with his call.
Father, we want to close this message today, this little devotional, meditation upon this Psalm by acknowledging that not only are you the shepherd, you are not only the Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, as it's called in Scripture, but that you are our shepherd. You're my shepherd, and because of that I really have no needs. You know what I need. You take care of me. You look over the wool and you pick out the parasites and you make sure we're standing strong. And even though it's dark and we can't see where we're going and it's painful, you're really bringing us to a place of refreshment, a place of growth, and a place of understanding and trust in the goodness of your motivation behind all that you allow us to go through. And even when we feel attacked by the enemy, we realize, Lord that the enemy can only go so far. And you've given us all the tools to resist the devil, so that he will flee from us. So, Lord, I pray that we would take comfort in seeing your staff for directing, and then looking up and seeing your rod, the club, for protecting. And so, Father, finally, as a declaration we say that surely goodness and mercy will indeed follow, pursue, chase after us all the days of our lives, when one day passing through the valley we will wake up in the light and dwell in the house of the Lord forever, in Jesus' name, amen.