You Asked for It Part 2
The Lord is My Shepherd
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
August 8, 2004

 

Main Passage: Psalm 23:1-6 (NLT)

 

Psalm 23. It’s one of the best-known passages in all the Bible. Many of us learned it as children and it continues to be popular today. You see it on plaques on the wall, you hear it at funerals, you even receive parodies of it in emails. Here’s one I received about a week ago…
 

MY APPETITE IS MY SHEPHERD (POUND 23)

My appetite is my shepherd; I always want.
It maketh me sit down and stuff myself.
It leadeth me to my refrigerator repeatedly.
It leadeth me in the path of Burger King for a Whopper.
It destroyeth my shape.
Yea, though I knoweth I gaineth, I will not stop eating
For the food tasteth so good.
The ice cream and the cookies, they comfort me.
When the table is spread before me, it exciteth me
For I knoweth that I sooneth shall dig in.
As I filleth my plate continuously,
My clothes runneth smaller.
Surely bulges and pudgies shall follow me all the days of my life And I shall be "pleasingly plump" forever.
 

Most everyone is familiar with Psalm 23. Even if they don’t realize where it came from, most people have heard it. Let me give you some background for it. Psalm 23 was written by King David during a particularly difficult period in his life. His own son, Absalom, had rebelled against him and seized control of Israel. So David fled Jerusalem with his life in jeopardy, and he was hunted and hounded for a number of months (see 2 Samuel 15-18). And it was during this time that David wrote his most famous Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Of course, David had worked for his father as a shepherd while he was growing up. So when he sat down to write a song about what he was experiencing, he wrote in the terms of a shepherd.

Now, I’ve never been a shepherd. But then, you already knew that. (There’s no pulling the wool over your eyes.) In fact, I dare say that none of you even know a real shepherd, much less are familiar with what a shepherd’s life is really like. It’s just not a very common occupation in our society. And so I think we have a tendency to lose a bit of the meaning that David intended when he wrote these words.

Since I don’t really know much about shepherding, much of what I will be sharing with you this morning comes from a book by Philip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Keller himself grew up in East Africa where he was surrounded by sheep-herders similar to those in the Middle East. Plus, as a young man he spent eight years of his own life as a sheep owner and sheep rancher. So the insights that he is able to bring into the subject will, I think, help us to understand what David probably felt as he wrote the words, "The Lord is my shepherd."

This Psalm is only six verses long, and really it’s one verse with five more verses explaining that verse. In the NIV, it begins…

Psalm 23:1 (NIV)
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

That’s the key verse in this Psalm, and it contains the key word. Any guesses of which word I’m talking about? “MY.” “The Lord is “MY Shepherd.”

It’s not, “The Lord is A Shepherd.” Just one of many. If He’s only “a” shepherd, that means you have other shepherds, too. Your job, your family, your retirement fund…
It’s not, “The Lord is THE Shepherd,” either. That would mean that He’s the one and only, and that’s fine. But it makes no indication that He’s personal. He may be “the” Shepherd but have no connection to you personally.
It’s not even, “The Lord is OUR Shepherd.” That would imply that perhaps He takes a greater interest in some more than others. He may not care about you personally, but He cares for the whole flock.
No, it’s “The Lord is MY Shepherd.” I belong to Him and no other. He cares for me, and I am identified with Him.

One of the nasty tasks that a Shepherd has is to mark each sheep as his own. Kind of like branding a cow, only different. Typically, this would involve cutting a notch in the ear. The sheep would literally be earmarked for that shepherd. And will forever be identified as belonging to him.

In his book, I Shall Not Want, Robert Ketchum tells about a Sunday school teacher who asked her group of children if any of them could quote the entire twenty-third Psalm. A little four-and-a-half-year-old girl was among those who raised their hands. A bit skeptical, the teacher asked if she could really quote the entire psalm. So the little girl stood up, faced the class, made a little bow, and said: "The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want." Then she bowed again and sat down. She may have overlooked a few verses, but I think that little girl captured David’s heart in Psalm 23.

“The Lord is MY Shepherd; I shall not be in want.” I have everything I need. I belong to Him, and He is mine. What else do I need?” The idea throughout the Psalm is that we are completely content in the shepherd’s care and there is nothing else that we desire. It’s amazing to read these words when you realize they were written by a King who had just been chased off his thrown by his son and was now on the run for his life. Yet David was able to say with complete clarity and confidence, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”

This morning, we’re going to explore that picture that David paints of God as our shepherd. In your Sunrise Update you will find some notes you can use to follow along with the message and fill in the blanks. What I want to do over the next 20 minutes or so is identify seven ways in which God operates as our Shepherd today.

 

How God is My Shepherd:

 

1. He provides care and nurture.

Let me tell you what a good shepherd is like. He loves his sheep. For him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing his sheep contented, well fed, safe and flourishing in his care. That’s what his life is all about, and he gives everything he has to it.

He goes to a great deal of trouble to provide them with the finest grazing, ample winter feed and clean water. He provides shelter from the storms and protection from the enemies, diseases, and parasites to which sheep are vulnerable.

From early dawn till late at night the good shepherd is alert to the welfare of his flock. He gets up early in the morning and goes out first thing to look over his flock. He examines the sheep to see if they are fit and content and able to be on their feet. He can tell if they have been injured during the night, whether they are ill or require some special attention.

Throughout the day he looks over his flock to make sure everything is all right. Even at night, he sleeps with "one eye and both ears open", ready at the least sign of trouble to protect his sheep. He provides all the care and nurture they need.

Psalm 23:2 (NIV)
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

According to Keller, in order for sheep to lie down they must be free from four things:
 

To rest peacefully, sheep need to be free from…

  1. Fear

    They must not feel like they are vulnerable to attack. If they feel there’s even a hint of danger, they won’t lie down.
     
  2. Tension

    There must be no tension between members of the flock.
     
  3. Aggravation

    They must not be aggravated with flies or parasites. That will make them restless and maybe even frantic.
     
  4. Hunger

    Who wants to go to sleep on an empty stomach, right?
     


God is our Shepherd. So He provides basic care for us, His Sheep. He makes it possible for us to relax because our basic needs are taken care of. The next part of the verse says…

Psalm 23:2 (NIV)
He leads me beside quiet waters…

Something you need to realize is that Sheep are timid animals. They won’t even drink from a running stream. It frightens them. Problem is, they will also dehydrate quickly and need to drink. So if there are no other options, they’ll find a muddy puddle or pothole someplace and start drinking from that, even though they may catch a disease from them. Remember Rudy on Survivor: All Stars? He drank stagnant water even though he was warned about the dangers of parasites that would flourish there and risked catching some deadly disease.

So it’s important that a shepherd find quiet but safe water. If he can’t find it, he’ll make it by building a dam. As a shepherd cares for the needs of his sheep, God cares for us and our needs. He provides care and nurture for you and for me.

 

2. He provides strength and stability.

I think there’s a reason we’re referred to as sheep. That’s because sheep are among the dumbest animals on the face of the earth. They’re always wandering off or getting into trouble. They get tangled up in bushes, walk off the side of cliffs, and fall into crevices they can’t escape from. A jackrabbit could cause a flock to stampede. They’re not the brightest of animals.

Remember that old commercial, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”? Well, sometimes that happens to sheep. They fall down, turn over on their back and can’t get up again. And this happens quite frequently. When it happens, all the sheep can do is lie on its back, with its feet flailing frantically in the air. Sometimes it will bleat, but usually it will just kick. And without help, the sheep will be stuck like that and will either be attacked by predators or will starve to death. So if the shepherd counts his sheep and notices that there’s one missing, his first thought will be that it has fallen over and he must find it and put it on its feet again. This is what David may have been referring to when he wrote…

Psalm 23:3 (NIV)
He restores my soul.

Many times when this happens, a shepherd will search for hours for a single sheep, only to find it on its back, lying helpless. He will turn the sheep over on its side, rub its legs to restore circulation, then lift it to its feet. He will restore its soul. And after a while the sheep will stumble and stagger off, and eventually walk steadily and surely again.

The verse goes on to say…

Psalm 23:3 (NIV)
He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Because sheep are so prone to accident, the shepherd has to make sure that the pathways are safe… that they’re right. And as he does this the sheep learn to trust their shepherd. They’ll follow Him because they know they can have confidence in His decisions.

An interesting phrase in this verse is “… for His name’s sake.” It’s interesting because the shepherd’s reputation was important. Often, a person would buy a sheep without ever seeing it based solely on the shepherd’s reputation. So the shepherd knew that the choices he made had consequences. He had to choose the paths wisely or it would damage his reputation.

Let me tell you, you can trust God. You can depend on Him. You can have confidence in His leadership. His reputation is on the line. His reputation depends on it.

 

3. He provides protection.

Sheep face all kinds of dangers… floods, avalanches, rock slides, mud slides, poisonous plants, predators… and it’s up to the shepherd to protect the sheep from all these dangers.

Psalm 23:4 (NIV)
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…

I watched Open Range recently starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. In the movie, the main characters are open range cattlemen, meaning they bring their cattle to one area of the plains, stay there for a while, and then move on when the cattle has eaten most of the vegetation.

Shepherding is like that. The sheep eat, and they eat, and they eat. If they stayed in the same pasture, they would eat every blade of grass and turn the pasture into a desert wasteland. They would completely exhaust their food supply and then starve. So a shepherd needs to lead the sheep from one pasture to the next in order to provide a continual source of food. Sometimes this kind of move would be fairly simple. Other times, it might mean they have to move through some rather dangerous terrain or even through a dark valley. But to get to the lush plateaus, to get to the mountaintop, sometimes you have to go through the valley.

God may lead you through a dark valley in your life, but that’s because it’s necessary to get you to where you want to be. He led the Hebrews through the wilderness to get them to the Promised Land, and He may need to lead you through a wilderness, too. But you can trust Him.

Psalm 23:4 (NIV)
...I will fear no evil, for You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

For a shepherd, the rod was the main weapon of defense. Each rod was hand carved to fit the shepherd’s grip. Sometimes, the rid would have a nail sticking out of the end of it. The shepherd would take that rod and practice throwing it for months, until they could throw it with remarkable speed and accuracy. It was their primary means of defense, and could be quite lethal. Even today, handguns are often referred to as “rods”.

A number of years ago I read about how the Alberta Department of Pest Control had been experimenting with a special type of sheep collar designed to protect the sheep from it’s enemies. The collar was made of leather and covered with sheep skin to blend with the sheep’s wool. Between this leather collar and the sheep’s skin was a rubber tube containing a repellant. When a coyote attacks, it typically goes straight for the neck. So if a coyote were to attack a sheep wearing this type of collar, it would puncture the rubber tube and leave the sheep alone.

When David was a shepherd to his sheep, he wouldn’t have had such a collar available to him. So his rod was what the sheep would have depended upon for safety. If the shepherd was leading the sheep through a valley and suddenly the sheep were attacked by wild dogs, then the shepherd would throw his rod at the dogs killing some and driving the others away.

So the rod was used for defense. It was also used to gently discipline and correct wayward sheep. It was used for training. It was used by the shepherd to look over and count his sheep.

Our rod today is the Bible. It teaches us and corrects us. It protects and defends us. God uses it to guide us and direct us.

Paul wrote about the Word of God as a weapon, too. He wrote in Ephesians…

Ephesians 6:17 (NLT)
Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

 

4. He provides encouragement and direction.

David wrote,

Psalm 23:4 (NIV)
…Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

We’ve talked about the rod. How about the staff? Well, while the rod was used against predators, the staff was used for the care and management of the sheep. It was a symbol of concern and comfort for the sheep.

The staff could be used by the shepherd to give gentle pats of encouragement on the back of the sheep. If a sheep needed to jump over a small crevice, then the shepherd could use his staff to encourage them to go for it. He could use it to steer the flock in the right direction. Sheep do, after all, have a tendency to wander off and get lost.

Isaiah 53:6 (NLT)
All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God's paths to follow our own.

So the staff was used to guide the sheep in the right direction. Sometimes the shepherd would walk along with the sheep, using the staff to provide contact. Just as if they were holding hands.

The staff could also be used to bring all the sheep together, forming them into a community. The shepherd would use the staff to give them a sense of identity with the flock.

The staff could be used in other ways, too. Say a newborn lamb wandered away. If the shepherd picked up the lamb and returned it to the mother, then the mother would reject the lamb because it would carry the scent of someone else. So the shepherd would use the staff to return the sheep to the mother, instead.

The shepherd would use his staff when examining the sheep for defects or injuries. Even the shyer, more timid sheep that liked to keep its distance could be brought close with the staff.

Our staff today is the Holy Spirit. He watches over us and keeps us in the fold. The New Testament refers to Him as our Counsellor and Comforter. He provides the encouragement and direction that we need from day to day.

 

5. He provides peace and safety.

Psalm 23:5 (NIV)
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

This has always seemed like a strange verse to me. I mean, we’ve been talking about a Shepherd and His sheep, and suddenly we’re sitting at a table having dinner? I tried to picture this…

[PowerPoint – sheep at table, #1 movie villain of all time Darth Vader, Wiley Coyote]

Okay, that’s not actually the picture this verse paints. You see, in many languages the word “table” refers to high plateaus or tablelands where sheep ranges are found.

A shepherd may plan to bring his sheep to a plateau for them to graze and feed, but before he brings the sheep to that table… to that plateau… he makes a trip there himself. He wants to determine the best area of the plateau, distribute needed salt and minerals, clean out any watering holes, and detect any poisonous plants that may be in the area. There’s a record of one shepherd who lost 300 sheep because he failed to do this.

The shepherd will also survey the area for potential predators. He wants to make sure that any predators won’t have the opportunity to run out, cause a stampede, and kill many of the flock. The shepherd’s alertness and attention to detail can save the sheep from being slaughtered. He provides peace and safety. God provides that for us.

 

6. He provides healing.

Psalm 23:5 (NIV)
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Here’s where the discussion gets a little, well, gross. You see, there are all kinds of insects that can pester animals in the summertime. Warble flies, bot flies, heel flies, deer flies, gnats, and a host of others. The Nose Fly is particularly annoying. If they’re able, they will deposit their eggs on the damp, mucous membrane of the sheep’s nose. Then, within a few days these eggs hatch and worm-like larvae [pron. Lar-vee] appear. These larvae work their way up the nostril and into the head where it burrows into the flesh causing intense irritation and inflammation.

How do you think the sheep deal with this? Much like you and I deal with irritations and frustrations… they beat their head against the wall. Or against a rock. Or against the ground. Whatever they can find. The danger is they can cut themselves, blind themselves, even kill themselves. Plus, the irritation of the flies flying around their head can cause a sheep to run and hide and stay in hiding. It can even cause them to stop milking, and potentially stunt their growth.

The good news is that there is an ointment that can be used by the shepherd to repel these flies. And when shepherds use this ointment, they notice an immediate change in behaviour. Suddenly the sheep are able to feed quietly and rest peacefully. The ointment drives away the infestation.

Plus, summer is Scabies time. A sheep can catch scabies (a contagious itch caused by parasitic mites) and it can spread through the flock in no time. This, too, can be cured with ointment.

Oh, and there’s one other reason to anoint a sheep with oil. In autumn, rams become mature and begin to fight for their mates. We get spring fever, it appears they get autumn fever. Anyway, a shepherd may apply oil or grease to the heads of the rams so that when they charge at each other they glance off to the side with little damage done except to their pride. They just stand their feeling confused and a little stupid.

How many of us find ourselves butting heads? How many of us fight with each other to get what we want? God wants for us to live in peace, and he provides the grace and patience we need to live in unity, peace, and love.

 

7. He provides confident assurance.

Psalm 23:6 (NIV)
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The sheep realize their position with the shepherd. They count on their shepherd. They know that their shepherd is never going to leave them at the mercy of predators, will never lead them down the wrong path, and will never abandon them in some valley. And the sheep are perfectly content with their shepherd. There is nothing they are left wanting. They have a confident assurance in their shepherd, just like you and I can have in our Shepherd… a confident assurance for eternity.

 

I think I would be negligent this morning if we read through this Psalm and failed to look at how Jesus referred to Himself in the New Testament.

Jesus said,

John 10:11-15, 27-29 (NLT)
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will leave the sheep because they aren't his and he isn't their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he is merely hired and has no real concern for the sheep.
"I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep…
“My sheep recognize my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. So no one can take them from me.”

I read a story this week, and I don’t know if it’s a true story or not. Either way, I believe it does convey some truth. It was about a famous actor was the guest of honour at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favourite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher’s voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied "I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd."

Do you know the Shepherd this morning? If not, I want you to know you can. And He would welcome you with open arms.

 

 

 

 

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