The question in life is not, “Will we go through difficult times?” The question in life is, “How will we go through difficult times?” You are going to have them, I’m going to have them. Some of you have been through them, you’ll have more. Some haven’t had any real bad times, fasten your seatbelt, they’ll come.
It’s a fallen world. See, the question is, will we go through them alone? Will we go with a stiff upper lip, you know, act like it’s okay? Will we be crushed under their weight? Will we give up in despair? Will we go into denial like so many people do when it gets tough? Will we become bitter and resentful toward God, other people? Or will we just pretend to protect others? Or, here’s the last option, will we experience the peace and the power of God in ways beyond our wildest dreams?
See, that’s God’s desire. In a crisis, He knows it’s a fallen world, good things happen to good people, bad things happen to good people.
We’re going to turn to, probably, the most classic portion, most well-known portion of Scripture in all the world. I’ve been involved in four funerals in the last four weeks and three of the four funerals read this Psalm, the 23rd Psalm.
But before we look at it, please do me one favor, okay? Don’t get into that, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful? What nice poetry. Doesn’t it have a cute message?” It’s one of those things that is so familiar, if you’re not careful, you’ll just kind of nod your head and say, “Oh, yes, the Lord is my shepherd.” He’s your shepherd but what’s it mean? And what’s it really mean for Him to show up when you go through the most difficult time, when you need Him the most?
With that in mind, turn the page with me and let’s look at the 23rd Psalm. And as we do, I want to just read it through and ask you to listen with new ears. In fact, here’s the way to listen with new ears.
I want you, in the whiteboard of your mind, to pull out a grease pen and say, “If I had to jot on the whiteboard the biggest thing that could come up as a crisis in my life right now, what would it be?”
And you’re thinking, “Well, I really don’t have one.” Good for you. Don’t make one up. Maybe it’s someone you know that has a crisis. Put that up there and think through this way.
Or maybe there’s a relationship that’s crisis, or maybe there’s something in the future that you see brewing, or maybe it’s something with one of your kids, or maybe it’s financial. Or maybe the biggest crisis you have is your job. I don’t know what it is but I want you to listen to what I’m about to read with that crisis in view, rather than as this flowing piece of poetry you’ve heard, probably for years.
It says, “The Lord,” Yahweh, or Jehovah, it’s His great covenant name, “is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me by quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
“Even 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,” God, “prepare a table before me in the presence of Your enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Now, this is written in a metaphor. A sheep and a shepherd. And that is really great but let me, show of hands, how many people have ever shepherded sheep? We got a major problem here.
Two hundred times in the Bible, we are referred to, as believers, as sheep. The last time I’ve been close to a sheep was at a petting zoo with one of my kids. Translation, I don’t know anything about sheep.
What I want you to know, when a Hebrew person heard this for the first time, three thousand years ago, it meant things to them, they had pictures come to their mind, there was an understanding about who God was that we can’t grasp unless we get a picture of what a sheep is and who a shepherd is.
So, let me just do a little background work before we jump in. Sheep have some interesting characteristics. Don’t take this personally but they’re very slow, they’re defenseless, they are stupid, among the dumbest animals. Like I said, don’t take it personally.
They are easily frightened. I mean, they don’t even growl. When they are in danger, they don’t growl. They don’t have any defense. Danger, sheep, they die. That’s what happens.
They are not very clean, you know, unlike cats, some of you don’t like cats but at least they’re clean. They’re licking themselves all the time. Sheep are just dirty and smelly and they pick up parasites easily.
They can’t find, are you ready, what kind of animal is this? It’s like God has this, they cannot find food or water on their own. I mean, deer know where food is, rabbits can find water. Sheep, left to themselves, they’ll stay in one place, eat it until they eat all the roots and ruin the land, and unless someone guides or leads them, they’ll die.
They are so easily frightened that if there is a stream with water that has any sound to it, they will not go over to a stream and stick their head in to get life-giving water because they’re afraid of the sound. That’s why a good shepherd will often dam up a stream and create a hole or a quiet place where he can lead and guide the sheep where they can get to drink.
Now, there are some parallels here. Now, before you get a little defensive and thinking, “I’m a little offended that the Bible refers to me like that,” in light of, let me give you other contrast here.
The shepherd was the lowliest job on the Hebrew totem pole. The youngest son, you know, like when you came up and in my house you gotta do the garbage, right?
Well, as you get out of my house it keeps getting bumped down to the youngest kid. Annie gets garbage.
When you were in a Hebrew family, the lowest job was you gotta watch the sheep. You had to protect them, you had to lead them, you had a rod. It was an instrument that you would stick in your belt and it was to kill wild animals. And they got where they could, literally, swing and throw that thing where, bam, I mean, they were good. They could knock a sheep out. Or, I mean, the attackers, the predators of the sheep. They could probably knock a few sheep out too.
And then they had that staff. You know? The big crook thing? They would carry the staff and the sheep, being dumb and they’d get in thorn bushes and they always, they wander away and they use those to lift them up with the crook and pull them out of ravines and now and then give them a little rap on the rear end to say, “Hey, we’re not doing that.”
In fact, if a sheep was a real wanderer, the shepherd would, literally, go and break its leg on purpose knowing that the sheep was going to end up in danger and die. Then take that little sheep, put it over his neck, and build a relationship with it.
And when the leg healed, then he would put a little bell around it and it was called the bell sheep. And then that sheep would stay next to the shepherd and as the other sheep would hear that, they would follow along with that.
Now, in light of that, notice the very first line before we get any farther. It says, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” There’s a lot of names for God. This is Yahweh or Jehovah. This is the name He gave Abraham. Literally, it is I Am That I Am. It’s the Transcendent One. It’s the biggest picture of God we can get our arms around.
“I am before all else, I am self-existent, I am self-sufficient, I am holy, I am above, I have unlimited resources, I am outside of time, I am eternal. Yahweh.” But notice then the contrast. That Lord is not the shepherd. “Is my Shepherd.” It may be, for the Hebrew mind, the most intimate, personal term ever given to God in the Old Testament because they understood the kind of relationship. They understood that a shepherd provides and protects and cares for and understands and nourishes and loves. And it’s a lowly job. It’s a serving job.
And so here you have, in the first line, God’s transcendence, His bigness His greatness, His power, and His imminence, His tenderness, His personalness.
And so what you see is, yeah, sheep are very vulnerable but they’re also very valuable. A Hebrew home was sustained by, what did you eat? Sheep meat. Lamb chops. What did you, how did you, how did you make money? You shear the sheep.
So, what you have is an animal that’s very, very vulnerable and an animal that’s very, very valuable. And compared to the almighty transcendence of God, we are like sheep. In light of eternity, in light of making good decisions and living rightly, we’re as dumb as a sheep. We’re as vulnerable as a sheep but to God, we’re valuable. Highly esteemed.
And notice here also the pronoun “my.” If you get bored go home and pull out a pen and circle all the first person personal pronouns: My, my, my, I, I, I, me, me, me. This isn’t a God who is way out there. This is a God who intricately, intimately cares about you and about me. And so for the Hebrew mind, that’s what it meant to be the Shepherd.
By way of structure, the last thing before we jump in, notice that there are three statements here, three statements that are in the future tense and everything else is in the present tense.
There’s, “I shall not be in want,” there is, “I will fear no evil,” and there is, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord.” They’re statements of confidence. David has been through it, he understands who God is, he’s been in danger, he’s been in a crisis, and somewhere along the line the Spirit of God has revealed to David the secret of having unshakable confidence, even in the midst of the most devastating crisis.
When you have cancer you can say, “I will fear no evil.” When there is financial problems on the horizon you can say, “I shall not be in want.” When you feel insecure and afraid you can say, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Now, what I want to do in the next few minutes together is let’s look at this Psalm and figure out David’s secrets. Why could he say that? What did he know about God? And it’s all right there in Psalm 23.
So, the first statement of absolute confidence, he says, “I shall not be in want,” why? “because the shepherd provides all my needs.” That’s the key word. David said, “I’m not going to be uptight. I know I’m not going to be in want because the Shepherd, my Shepherd, the all-knowing, the all-powerful Shepherd, He will provide. He is going to take care of all my needs.”
And if you have a pen, pull it out, I want to give you three key words and I’ll develop it from the text. Under it, write a number one and write the word “physical.” Under that write a number two; write the word “psychological/emotional.” Under that write the word “spiritual.”
And what you’re going to see in the first three verses is that God, the almighty, powerful God is committed to meeting your physical needs, your psychological or emotional needs, and He’s committed to your spiritual needs.
In fact, look at it. He says, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. You see, sheep don’t go to the best grass on their own. And notice the little word, “He makes me.”
He will take you to places where you get physically nourished. And notice it goes on to say, “He leads me by quiet waters.” Now, if you know anything about sheep is they will not lie down in grass, they will not graze freely, and they will not go where there is calmness unless there is no friction between the sheep, unless there is no sense of danger on the outside, and there is no friction or problem with parasites within.
In other words, there has to be a meeting of needs, there has to be something happen in the life of physical sheep before they can lie down. And these things blend together, these metaphors: Green, lush pastures; quiet waters; restores our soul; leads us in paths of righteousness.
It’s not just one is the physical, other is psychological, the other is spiritual. They blend together but you can see, as he gives us this picture, he says to us, “God will meet your needs.”
Now, He doesn’t meet your wants and He doesn’t necessarily meet your agendas. I think Marty, as she shared her testimony about breast cancer, her prayer was, “Hey, God! I have a great plan. I found out I have breast cancer, I found out it’s very rare, I’m very afraid. Heal me completely and I’ll go all over the world and tell people about how great You are.”
Now, that’s what we pray and you know what? We should pray that way. And God chooses at times to answer in miraculous ways.
And other times, He takes us through the process. But her testimony is in the midst of all that, there was green pasture. There were quiet waters. There was sustenance, not only to her physical body but the next line, “He restores my soul.”
The word “restore” there, literally, can mean “repent” or even “to be converted.” The word for “soul” in Greek it’s “psyche,” we get our word “psychology” and in Hebrew often it means the whole person or the self.
Literally, the idea is God restores us. He takes our deepest needs, our deepest hurts and He restores. He puts it back together. He gives grace. He holds you up almost with, like, an invisible hand. And then he goes on to say, the spiritual issues. “He guides me, He gives direction.” Where? “In paths of righteousness,” or, literally, the right path.
What’s right? What’s wrong? What’s true? What decision should you make? Who should you marry? What job? Should you get involved in this, or not?
David is saying, “Look, there is a Shepherd. He’s all-knowing, He’s all-powerful, and He loves you, and He wants you to know He will meet every need. Not on your terms, not by your agenda, but He promises to meet your physical, psychological, and spiritual needs all the days of your life.”
Now, He can do that if you let Him be your Shepherd. The other option is you can say, “You know something? I’m a pretty big sheep. I think I’ll go graze where I think I’ll be fulfilled. I think I’ll go hang out with other sheep or other animals where I think it’ll be fun. I think I’ll go to water and places and make decisions on my terms.”
And what do we know if a physical sheep does that? They got big problems. See, the biggest problems in our lives are not because God is mean, God is bad, and He doesn’t really care about us. The biggest problems in our lives are down deep in my heart I’m a very proud, arrogant person and I want to be both the sheep and I want to be my own shepherd.
See, grace always flows toward humility and humility is something hard for human sheep to swallow, to admit our need. And that’s what David does here. He recognizes, “Hey, we’re all sheep,” and he recognizes every sheep needs a shepherd.
But that’s not all, in fact, let me give you a New Testament promise to jot down. And you say, “Well that’s good for them.” Philippians 4:19, jot that in the corner. The apostle Paul writes to regular people like you and me.
“But my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” What is true then, I just want you to know, it’s true now. So, I don’t know what’s on the whiteboard of your mind, what your crisis is. I don’t know what the need is.
But I want to tell you this, here’s a promise from God: You bring your life underneath the leadership of the Shepherd and He’ll meet your needs. Maybe not your way, maybe not in your time, He may do a lot in you before He does something through you, but He promises He’ll meet you.
The second thing is he’s not afraid of evil. It’s a statement of confidence. He says, “I shall not be in want,” he knows, when David looks at the future he says, “I’m not uptight about the future. I’m not going to be in want.” But then he makes this radical statement. He says, “I will fear no evil.”
“I’m not going to fear the evil of a fallen world, I’m not going to fear the evil of the enemy, I’m not going to fear the evil of my own flesh. I will fear no evil.” Why? Well, look at the text. “Because the Shepherd protects me from all evil.”
He says when you understand God as a shepherd He not only is a provider, He is the protector. Notice, he goes on to say, verse 4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” - why? “… for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”