Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd
By James Bell of Southside Baptist Church
Preached at Grace Baptist Church on February 10, 2002
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Note: This message was originally delivered as a sermon.
The oral style has been preserved.
In thinking about today's sermon, I was going through several scriptures, and the passage that encouraged my heart was Psalm 23. This passage is very familiar to us. But I trust the Spirit of God will encourage our hearts. Let's look at this Psalm, the Psalm of our Shepherd, Psalm 23,
THE Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in 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 thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth 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. (KJV)
Father, we ask for the ministry of the Spirit of God upon every heart. And for this we give thanks in Jesus' name. Amen.
GREEN PASTURES AND STILL WATERS
The body of Christ.
An old saint was almost right when he paraphrased and said, "The Lord is my shepherd, He's all I need."
You say, "Almost?"
I only say, "Almost," because Jesus teaches us that we need each other, in the Body of Christ, and that much of Him, we only get through the supply of the Spirit that comes through each other, as we are built up through that which every joint supplies. (Ephesians 4:16)
He is all we need, but He has ordained that we critically need brothers and sisters, through whom He communicates Himself.
We supremely need this close communion. The whole picture of the shepherd and the sheep that we find here in Psalm 23 reveals to us, that as sheep of the Good Shepherd, we supremely need close communion with our Good Shepherd.
Why? Because close communion cultivated with our Good Shepherd today, will be translated into great trust in Him for whatever comes tomorrow. It's easy to trust Him when there are green pastures and still waters. But life is often lived in other places.
For example, in the history of the Scottish Covenanters there was a man named Richard Cameron. They hacked his head and hands off and threw them into a sack. They proceeded to take the sack to a prison, where Richard's godly father was being held for the gospel's sake. They proceeded to open the sack and take out his head and his hands, saying to the old man, "Do you recognize these?"
The father said, "I know them; I know them. They are my dear son's."
He held them in his hands, and he kissed his lifeless cheek. Then the aged Cameron said, "It is the Lord. Good is the will of the Lord who cannot wrong me or mine, but has made His goodness and mercy to follow me all the days of my life."
Close communion leads to great trust.
I submit that great trust comes out of a life of close communion. For example, for Joseph to say, "It is God who brought me here," that confession came out of a lifetime of trusting God, which, no doubt, was first of all cultivated in the green pastures and beside the still waters.
But I submit that it is also common to squander the opportunity that is ours beside the still waters.
We know not what tomorrow brings. Therefore, cling close. Cultivate communion with Christ. Make sure your focus is beyond this life. For if in this present hour your life is blessed with health and freedom and wealth, you are in danger of forgetting God. If in this present moment, your life is focussed on the here-and-now and you're suffering and you have reversal, persecution, and untimely deaths, you are in danger of cursing God, like Job's wife.
It is so critical that you and I stay close to the Good Shepherd. And when we do, as we look at verse 2, we shall find rest and refreshment.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters."
Rest and Refreshment
Close communion neglected.
But you know, the reality is you and I are often restless, are we not. Is that not a sign that we have squandered away provision? It is said that sheep only rest when they are well fed. Similarly, you and I only rest emotionally, spiritually, when we are well fed.
When we find ourselves troubled, fearful, and confused, is it not because we have wondered away from the pastures of the Shepherd? Or we have looked at the manna and turned up our nose and wanted something more, something different. No wonder we are restless and confused.
There is a danger, as Paul says to Timothy, about being ever learning but never coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is not necessarily that the Bible is closed; we can have it open a lot and still not be feeding in his pastures. Do not equate mere Bible reading, do not equate mere Bible study and mere Bible knowledge with sitting close to Him at his feet.
Encouraging one another to find rest and refreshment in Christ.
Today, let us help one another to live in His presence, graze in His word, heed His voice, and find refreshment. Let us not do this merely in solo: we are told this again and again. One of the most beautiful places we find this is in Colossians 3:16,Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
That's the privilege and the blessing of every sheep that's in His pasture, in His fold. What a tragedy to think only in terms of such an occasion if a pastor or an elder or a teacher is standing in front of you. It is a privilege of God, bestowed upon every believer, that you are a believer priest. Indeed, you have all, not a small portion, but all of the Holy Ghost, the Master Teacher, dwelling within you. It is the will of God for you to drink deeply at the well, not only to take what the Lord's servants help to unfold, but that which you learn in the quiet time, that which you share with each other, and that which you use to help each other, there in those green pastures and still waters.
As you may know, this word tells us some fifty plus times in the New Testament that there are certain things we are to do, one for another -- to love one another, pray for one another, submit to one another, admonish one another, encourage one another, and on it goes, some fifty times, telling us that being a part of the body of Christ, being sheep in his pasture, is not a passive thing. Instead, being joined to a local church means that there is something very significant for every saint to be doing.
You are God's bloodstream: He flows through you to someone that can be touched by you, someone that can't be touched by anyone else the way they can be touched by you. The Good Shepherd is up to that.
Green pastures, still waters, rest and refreshment, but not in solo: rather as his body of sheep.
Grace and Guidance.
Finding lost sheep.
And in verse 3 he gives us grace and guidance. "He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake." He restores the soul of the lost person with the miracle of new birth. "All we like sheep have gone astray," and Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost. And He does it through those whom He has already made sheep.
Lost sheep don't find their way home: they have to be sought. You gather as a body of believers, and you go out into that world where you live and where you work. There you will have opportunities to interact with wolves. And it's the will of God; that's where he likes to send sheep. Don't forget that you once were a wolf.
God sent some sheep out, and through the miracle of new birth, you became a sheep. God wants to use you in that way, as He gives grace and guidance. What a calling to be co-laborers with God: we plant; we water; God gives the increase.
Divine grace, grace alone, can bring a lost sheep home. Within His great grace God has ordained, He commands that his sheep labor for and seek after those who will become His sheep.
You say, "That's why we have elders."
Well, they have their part. There are people that they can touch, people unique to their world and gifts, but there are lost sheep, there are wolves, if you will, in your world.
There, God has you.
You say, "How will I recognize potential sheep?"
Just look for sinners. God has really simplified this thing; just look for sinners. You don't have to worry about elect; just look for sinners. And you can tell any sinner that God loves sinners. He died for sinners. And you plant and water and trust God for the increase.
The church bell.
Here is a great story of the Shepherd's saving grace. One evening, an old woman, very poor and lame, heard the church bell for the service. She'd never been to church before. She probably had heard that church bell many times. But wonder of wonders, on this occasion, on hearing the church bell, she got up and went to the church service. Let me pause here.
As far as I know you don't have a bell. But there is something that is a gift and a calling that you can do. And as you do it unto the Lord, you just don't know when God is going to bless it. It was the ringing of a church bell. Somebody who had been ringing that church bell, possibly, for many years, maybe an old man, ringing it one more time. Maybe it was a young lad, thrilled with getting to ring it, not knowing that as we plant and as we water, God in His sovereign and wonderful and mysterious ways is always up to something.
So she goes, and she sits down, and the pastor is preaching on the parable of the lost sheep. It's joyful news to her.
She begins to talk to herself, within herself: "What! Be I then a sinner? Yes, surely I be. What, be I just like a lost sheep? Aye, I'm surely as one of them. And be there a shepherd searching about for me? Will he find me? Be I worth his while, a savior for a poor thing like me? Ah, tis wonderful loving!"
Those were her musings as she hobbled back, leaning on her crutches, to her dark cellar. A short time later, the pastor received a message that the old woman was dying and earnestly desired to see him. The moment the pastor walked in, she brightened up and strengthened up and said, "That's the man who told me about lost sheep; I want to know more."
So the pastor sat down and told her more about Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, and about the sheep that was found.
"Yes," she said, "Found, found, found, I have been found," and as she passed from this earthly life, her last words were, "Found, found, found."1
The grandest times that you'll ever have on the way to heaven are when you, as God's children, encourage one another along the way with glorious talk about the Shepherd, about lost sheep found, and about lame sheep healed.
The mighty saving grace of God for the lost! Our Lord's restoration starts with recreation, with new life. But remember, sheep don't find their way home. They have to be sought.
Would you like to see the fellowship factor of this church explode? Go home and read the first chapter of Philippians and look at all the times that Paul talks about the gospel and about having fellowship with one another in the gospel.
Restoring wandering sheep.
You say, "But is there a restoring grace for that sheep from the Good Shepherd? I'm already one of his sheep, and I've wandered out of the way."
Do you ever identify with the hymn writer:Prone to wander, oh how I feel it,
Prone to leave the God (the Shepherd) I love.
Have you strayed, maybe, this week? You feel like you're not even worthy to be sitting here. When we stray, as a saint of God, what does the Shepherd say, what does He do?
Does He say, "I delivered him or her from death and hell and placed them in good pasture, but they wandered out of the way, again; I'm just going to abandon them"?
No, He never abandons. Oh, He may chasten. And He will. According to Hebrews 12:5-11, we're not illegitimates; we're His children. And all those who are his children, He loves and He'll bring back.
We've had the awesome responsibility on a few occasions to be involved in that process as a body of believers. On such occasions I was reminded of how in the Old Testament, an individual sin led to a congregational confession. On one occasion, God was methodically going through tribes and individuals, ultimately going to finger a man who had stolen goods and hidden them under his tent, Achan. But before that process went on, Israel suffered defeat in battle, leaving Joshua, the man of God, wondering, "God, where are you? What has happened?"
God responded, "There's sin in the camp," leading to a congregational confession, "We have sinned."
Church discipline is always a time when we humbly come before the mercy seat of God, with the deep, profound awareness that we have sinned.
It's the same spirit that we find in Daniel when he's praying. Daniel is about the only man standing, walking with God in those days. But when you read Daniel chapter 9 you find him saying, "Oh God, we have sinned."
God will lead us in paths of righteousness for His name's sake. He'll take corrective action to bring us back because He loves us.
God sends us, in a spirit of humility, at times, to go directly to a brother or sister, and considering ourselves also, lest we stumble, going in a spirit of meekness, we call our brother or our sister back, close to the Shepherd.
Courage and Comfort
Thou art with me.
In verse four, the Good Shepherd gives courage and comfort. "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me."
You'll notice that in the first three verses, the Psalmist is giving personal testimony about the Good Shepherd. He uses the pronoun "He, He, He," over and over again.
But now he begins to talk to the Good Shepherd. In the first verses are all these wonderful things that I'm testifying that the Good Shepherd has done for me. But now the Psalmist turns his attention to the Shepherd, Himself.
"Thou art with me." I have comfort and courage because Thou art with me.
I hope this story will somehow give us something of the awesome significance of the confession of the Psalmist, and that it's your confession this morning. Sadly, many people do not have a sound confession of faith in Jesus.
Some years ago a man by the name of Kenneth Opperman was granted an interview with Pope Paul VI. During the course of the interview, Opperman asked the Pope if he had been saved, and the Pontiff related some mystical experience he had as a boy. It was not much to go on, but at least there was a start for the conversation. So Mr. Opperman rephrased the question: "Sir, when you die will you go to heaven."
The Pope answered in a most revealing way, "Ah Mr. Opperman, you have asked a very hard question."
It certainly was a hard question, for if somehow he could have answered yes, he would have demolished the Catholic Church right then and there. Because, you see, the Catholic Church does not believe that people can die and go to heaven. Their dogma is that they die and go to Purgatory.
But then the Pope brightened. He said, "Mr. Opperman, when I die I shall have seven hundred million Roman Catholics praying for my soul."2
Oh what darkness pervades the earth! But you know, there are a lot of people who have a different version that is just as damning. They feel quite assured because, after all, they're Baptists. We're not just Baptists, we're Reformed Baptists: we got it right. Or I do this or I do that.
Oh how precious is the great gospel of the Good Shepherd: "Thou art with me."
Jesus is enough.
For all of life and for all of eternity, Jesus is enough. This little Psalm, this incredible Psalm, takes you through all the experiences of life and right into eternity. Jesus paid it all, and He is enough. What incredible comfort!Man of sorrows, what a name
For the Son of God who came,
Ruined sinners to reclaim,
Hallelujah, what a Savior.
Jesus, the high name over all,
In hell or earth or sky,
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.
With this reality, there is comfort and courage.
What are you facing? He goes with you through the valley of the shadow of death. He's good in life; He's good in death; He's good through death; He takes you through to the other side.
Rest and refreshment, grace and guidance, courage and comfort. In verse 5, protection and blessing.
Protection and Blessing
Protection in war.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over." Protection and blessing.
I usually don't have this many stories in a message. But these are good, and I couldn't resist them. This is one of the most incredible accounts, and I hope it will encourage your heart.
It happened on December 24, 1875. Ira D. Sankey -- ever heard of him -- a gospel singer who often traveled with D. L. Moody was on this night traveling by steam boat up the Delaware river. Mr. Sankey was asked to sing, and it was his intention, being December 24th, to sing a carol of Christ's birth. But somehow he was driven to sing what some have referred to as the Shepherd's song. We know it as "Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us." When Sankey had finished singing it seemed that every heart was touched, and a few moments later a fellow with a rough, weather beaten face came up to Mr. Sankey and asked, "Sir, did you ever serve in the Union army?"
"Why, yes sir I did, beginning spring of 1860."
"Sir, can you remember if you were on guard duty on a particular bright, moonlit night, in 1862?"
Surprised, Sankey said, "Why yes I was; I remember that evening."
"Well, I remember it too," said the stranger, "But I was not in the Union army as you were. I was in the Confederate army. And on that night, I was well hidden in the bushes, and I had you in my sights. And I thought to myself, 'This man will never see the light of day.' My musket was aimed, my finger was on the trigger, you were seconds away from eternity, when all of a sudden, in that instant, you raised your eyes toward heaven, and you began to sing. And I've always loved music. And so I said to myself, 'I shall let him sing his song to the end; I can shoot him afterwards.' But the song you sang that night was the song I just heard you sing. I heard the words perfectly.
"'We are thine, do thou befriend us, be the guardian of our way.'
"Those words stirred great memories in my heart. I began to think of my childhood and of my god-fearing mother. Many, many times she sang that song to me. But she died all too soon. Otherwise, maybe my life would have been different. So when you had finished singing that song, it was impossible for me to take aim at you again. I thought to myself, 'The Lord who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be a great and mighty God.' And my arm, of its own accord, fell limply at its side. Since that time I've wandered far. When I saw you, just now, standing there praying, and as on that other occasion, you began to sing, I recognized you. My heart was touched afresh with that song. Now I wish you would help me find a cure for my sin-sick soul."
Deeply moved, Ira Sankey threw his arms around the man who had been his enemy in war, and who was surely ready to kill him, except for the Shepherd's intervention. And the two men knelt down and, as it were, went to the manger of Bethlehem and to the Christ of Calvary and the empty tomb, and there the stranger came into the saving care of Jesus, the great shepherd of His sheep.3
My friends, in a thousand ways that we may never know, He keeps us, He protects us, He blesses His own, to make us a blessing to others. May my heart listen carefully, and may yours.
Protection during grief.
Be careful to praise God in the midst of everyday duty: you never know who's watching and listening. There he was on guard duty that night, and because his life was one of being close to the Shepherd, a song burst forth unto Him. Unknown to him, in the bushes was a man with his musket aimed at his heart. Be careful to praise God in the midst of everyday duty: you just never know who's watching and listening. It might save your life and their soul. And know this: if a sovereign God allows someone to pull the trigger, and sorrow of some sort rips into your heart and your life, guard your heart; stay close. The Lord gave; the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord. There are probably more people watching now than ever.
Draw upon the grace of God. The Christian life is an incredible miracle to where, simultaneously, your heart can be bleeding at a depth unknown to anybody and lifting praise to God. For Jesus, our Good Shepherd, was anointed with the "oil of gladness" above all, and yet He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Jesus prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, anoints my head with oil, my cup runs over.
Goodness and Glory
Hope of future grace.
And in verse 6, lastly, the good Shepherd not only gives rest and refreshment, grace and guidance, courage and comfort, protection and blessing; but He gives goodness and glory.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." We're His sheep, on the straight and narrow way, headed home -- we're not home yet -- headed home.
He's before us -- the Shepherd goes before His sheep -- and His goodness and mercy is following us. All through life, all the way home to heaven, the good Shepherd surrounds His sheep.
I have paraphrased a piece that was written by someone of many hundred years ago. It is a call for you to rest and rejoice and to be bold, because:You have the power of the Shepherd to guide,
The might of the Shepherd to uphold,
The wisdom of the Shepherd to teach,
The eye of the Shepherd to watch over you,
The ear of the Shepherd to hear you.
You have the word of the Shepherd to speak to you,
The hand of the Shepherd to protect you.
The way of the Shepherd lies before you.
The shield of the Shepherd shelters you,
And the host of the Shepherd defends you.
The Shepherd is with you; the Shepherd is before you.
The Shepherd is behind you; the Shepherd is within you.
The Shepherd beneath you, the Shepherd above you,
The Shepherd at your right, and the Shepherd at your left.
The Shepherd in breadth and in length and in height and in your heart.
And one day you'll see him face to face.
You're headed home. Right now you are on a journey. On that journey, sometimes it's still waters and green pastures. Sometimes we look around and we think other people get all the still waters and green pastures, and we get more than our share of enemies and of shadows and of valleys and death and suffering and trial. I don't know how to figure any of that out.
But the Psalm tells us, here, that in all of that, the Good Shepherd is there. Strong on behalf of his children, He will never leave you nor forsake you.
My friends, in view of these mercies, I beseech you, to present your bodies as living sacrifices unto Him.
And if you're a lost soul, here today, I remind you that all we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord hath laid on Jesus the iniquity (the sin) of us all. Jesus is here today seeking and saving sinners. Flee to Him; cry out to Him, "Oh God, be merciful unto me a sinner."
And dear sheep of the Good Shepherd, with Christ as your Shepherd, oh my friends, get close to Him and have a fresh anointing of rest and refreshment, grace and guidance, comfort and courage, blessing and protection, goodness and mercy, and glory to come.
Therefore, be bold: be strong in the Lord. Do not grow weary in well doing, for in due time you shall reap, if ye faint not.
And again, in view of these mercies, I beseech you -- I beseech my own heart -- in view of these great mercies, let us present our bodies, our souls, and our spirits, as sacrifices unto him.
Closing Prayer:Father, the great comfort in our hearts is that You know the joys and the heartaches and the fears and the doubts and the waywardness and the failings. For those who are lost, oh Father, by your great and mighty Holy Spirit, bring home the Word of God in a particular fashion to every heart, according to the need. And we'll give you all the praise and the honor and the glory, for it is in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.FOOTNOTES:
1 The old woman hearing the church bell....Two Hundred and Eighty Titles and Symbols of Christ, by James Large,Baker Book House, 1959, pages 381-382
2 Kenneth Opperman interviewing the Pope....Exploring the Psalms, Vol. 1, by John Phillips Loizeaux Brothers, 1988, page 178
3 The Ira D. Sankey story....Great Preaching on Christmas (I cannot find my copy.....but I think it was published by The Sword of the Lord.... with sermons from lots of different folk....the page numbers are 192-193
Note: The headings for each verse -- Rest and Refreshment; Grace and Guidance; Courage and Comfort; Protection and Blessing; and Goodness and Glory -- were written on the margin of my Bible. I do not know where I obtained them.