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The Shepherd Psalm

Psalm 23

One of the most well loved psalms is Psalm 23. In it we see God as our Great Shepherd and we are the sheep of His flock. We city dwelleers are not well versed in shepherding sheep. The only flock I have seen in Indianapolis was at Military Park at Irish Fest. Perhaps we can learn something more about the Lord and about shepherds as we dig into this Psalm.

Psalm 23 was written by David. He is known for being the King of Israel and leading the country into a golden age of prosperity. He is especially known for his faith in God. His story begins when he was a young boy. The Lord God ordered the prophet Samuel to go to David’s father’s house to anoint Israel’s new king. Previously, God chose Saul as king but he was not faithful and his unfaithfulness led to God selecting a new king. But David had a problem. Even though God selected him and Samuel anointed him king, Saul was still in power. David was recognized by Saul when he killed the Philistine champion, Goliath. This gave him access to the king’s palace. He was good at playing the ten-string lyre and when Saul was in a bad mood his playing calmed the king. David became a soldier and leader in Saul’s military. But he was so successful that King Saul was jealous and wanted to kill him. Eventually, Saul was killed in battle and David was able to gain support from the people and leaders and became King of Israel. His path to kingship was a long and difficult struggle. David knew adversity but he persevered.

David begins this psalm with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” When King David was young he was a shepherd who took care of his father’s flocks. David knew the job of a shepherd and he knew sheep. In a pastoral society, sheep were an important animal and a family’s wealth was recognized by the number of sheep they possessed. In saying, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he is acknowledging that God is the Great Shepherd and by implication that we are God’s sheep. He recognizes that as the sheep follow their shepherd they would lack for nothing. Shepherds made certain the sheep were well fed and watered and that they were protected from predators and injury. They also protected sheep from their own foolishness.

David continues, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right path for his name’s sake.” Shepherds are in charge of the sheep. Unlike modern shepherds who walk behind the flock, ancient shepherds walked ahead of the flock leading them. The Judean wilderness is a difficult place to raise sheep. Shepherds had to move the flock after they had grazed in an area. The image David gives is a gentle pastoral one of green pastures and quiet clean waters where the shepherd takes total care of the flock. And David is acknowledging that God is directing his steps along the path that God has chosen for him.

We now move into an interesting verse: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.” This is a poetic transition point from fresh green grass and cool waters to the scary place, the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of deepest darkness. The Hebrew word here translated is only one word, and it is the strongest Hebrew word for darkness. It is the place of nightmares. Valleys are dangerous places. In Utah there are some valleys that quickly fill with water and people have been swept away and drowned in them. The rain may fall miles away and slowly get to the canyon and the hikers will not realize it until too late. Judean valleys are dangerous places. Predators, like wolves, lions and bears, might be seeking a meal of a tender sheep. Rockslides might come down and kill or injure the animals.

Domestic sheep are vulnerable creatures. They cannot survive without a shepherd. One expert wrote, “It is hard to think of any animal more helpless than a sheep. They cannot blend in and hide, they can’t outrun anything, they cannot bite or claw or outsmart anything. When a predator attacks, they just stand there and die. If not for the shepherds, sheep would very quickly become extinct.” A couple of weeks ago I found a video on YouTube on how to save a sheep’s life. When sheep fall on their backs, they are unable to get up and will soon die. They need a shepherd to guide them back on four feet. After watching the video, I think I could get an upside down sheep right side up. You know, even a turtle can turn over if it is on its back. The point is that sheep need a shepherd, and we as God’s sheep need the Great Shepherd. We like to think of ourselves as invulnerable but we are actually quite vulnerable. The recent Pandemic revealed how vulnerable we are. And we humans are foolish critters who make bad decisions that sometimes lead to death. We need the Great Shepherd.

When one is in the valley of deepest darkness, almost instinctually we become afraid and perhaps panic. One of the dangers of getting lost is getting overwhelmed by fear. When we are afraid we tend to make bad decisions. And getting into a situation where fear comes up creates even more fear. Have you ever been in a fearful situation? If you have, you know what I am talking about. David writes, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil…” Why does he fear no evil? W. E. B. Griffin wrote an interesting series of novels called The Brotherhood of War. In one of those novels, an officer was giving advice about dealing with fear. He said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I’m the meanest so-and-so in the valley.” Nope, that’s not what gave David courage. Indeed David was a tough seasoned warrior but being a warrior did not give him what he needed to walk through the valley of the deepest darkness with courage.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Who is the you David writes about? Is it his battle buddies? Is it his sword and armor? No, he fears no evil because God, the Great Shepherd, is leading him. The source of his courage is the presence of the Lord who is with him during the most difficult times. To get fear under control and have courage we need a shepherd who has scouted the path and knows what is ahead. We need a shepherd who knows the right trail to follow. We need someone who has traversed that territory and knows it like the back of his hand.

We need not fear because we know we are not camping out in the valley of deepest darkness. We are not setting up our tents in the valley of the shadow of death. We need not fear because the Great Shepherd is with us and he is equipped to deal with anything that comes our way. In addition, he is leading us through the valley to green pastures and cool waters. We can choose to follow the Great Shepherd or choose to live in fear. We cannot do both.

Following the Great Shepherd means just that. We follow. We don’t follow our own noses and walk off somewhere. We stay on the right path. We stay on the trail. And walking through the darkest valley is a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. A wise man taught me that one of the keys to success is putting one foot in front of the other. Following the Great Shepherd takes perseverance, one foot in front of the other. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister who led England through a difficult war wrote: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” We get the courage to continue by following the Great Shepherd not only in the good times but through the dark valleys.

Isaiah writes about fear. Through the prophet, God spoke to the people of Israel, “But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze (Isaiah 43:1-2).” We can deal with our fears when we listen to the comforting words of the Lord and trust him. Jesus often said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Sometimes God uses those dark days in our lives to bring us to greater faith and trust in Him. In life, pain is inevitable. Jesus tells us: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” Yes, in this world we will have tribulation. I know it is difficult to deal with the troubles of life. However, it is more difficult to deal with life’s troubles without the presence and power of the Great Shepherd. During difficult times, it is good to turn to the Lord in prayer and let those times be occasions of deeper faith and trust in him. The worst thing we can do during difficult times is getting caught up in fear.

The shepherds had tools to protect themselves and the herd. They had rods and staffs. The rods were two foot wooden clubs used to defend the flock against wild animals. The staff is the classic shepherd’s staff and is used to untangle sheep caught in a bush or pull them out of a hole. The staff was also used to prod sheep in the right direction. The Great Shepherd has given us tools to for our journey. At all times we have prayer that puts us in contact with the Lord. We have the Scriptures of the New and Old Testaments to know about God and know what he is calling us to. And we have our brothers and sisters in Christ who can help us along the way when we feel overwhelmed. Use these tools regularly.

David proclaimed, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” God gave David victory over his enemies so that he could celebrate. David also acknowledges God’s abundance and his favor to His people. God’s generosity is magnificent and David proclaims that generosity by saying, “…My cup overflows.”

He ends the psalm with a strong statement of faith in God: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Dwelling means to reside or settle down and be at home. There is nothing like home. The word, home, draws us to a place of comfort. As God’s people we are part of His family. We are a part of His household. We are a part of His flock. Home is being in the presence of the Lord.

Let me leave you with Jesus’ encouraging words about his presence among us. He said: “And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20b).” The Risen Lord is present with us to help us during all times in life both the joyful and the difficult.

A Sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS RET.


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