“The Lord Is My Shepherd” Psalm 23 January 2, 2011
SI: Please open your Bibles to Psalm 23.
We finished Philippians last Sunday.
And it’s usually my practice to alternate between the Old and New Testament.
So with that in mind, I’m beginning a series of sermons on the book of Psalms
that will take us through the winter and right up to Easter.
The Psalms have a special place in the hearts of believers because here is no other
book in the Bible that expresses so well the inner life of our walk with God.
There are 150 Psalms. I’m not going to preach all of them,
but I’ve chosen a number of the best-known and most-loved favorites.
So where do we start? 150 Psalms. Let’s start with the best-loved Psalm of all.
Listen to the word of God.
INTRO: In seminary, I had a class on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Being a class full of future Presbyterian ministers, we were eating it up.
This was red meat. Pure Reformed theology.
We were studying chapter 18, which is on the doctrine of assurance.
It’s a great chapter and the class discussion was very animated.
And then at the end of class our professor Dr. Calhoun said:
“Gentlemen, this is a profound statement of theology. It is very helpful.
But when you are at a person’s bedside,
do not read Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 18, read the 23rd Psalm.”
That was probably the most important thing I learned in seminary!
How many times, how many countless times through the ages, has Psalm 23
been read at a sickbed, or at a graveside, or through the watches of the night,
and brought comfort and clarity to believers?
I read this week the story a pastor told of visiting a hospital room where a man
lay in a coma. The doctor said, He can’t hear you. He can’t communicate.
The pastor took the man’s hand and began to recite the 23rd Psalm.
And as he got half way through, the man’s lips began to move.
His eyes didn’t open, he didn’t acknowledge anyone in the room,
but his lips started moving, and then he began speaking audibly the final verses.
After that he relapsed and never recovered.
The Psalm was imprinted so deeply on his heart,
that it was even deeper than the coma in which he had sunk.
Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the 19th century,
wrote a commentary on the Psalms called the Treasury of David.
In it he says that if the Psalms were birds, Psalm 23 is the nightingale.
It sings to believers through the night like no other, and welcomes the dawn.
Let me read you one more statement about it from a minister of an earlier time.
His language is a little over the top for our tastes today, but his words are good.
This is what he says about the 23rd Psalm:
It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It has comforted the noble host of the poor. It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed. It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, the captives in dungeons, the widows in their needs, and the orphans in their loneliness.
What is it about this little Psalm that is so wonderful? Why does it move us so?
We believe all Scripture is inspired. It’s all the word of God and all profitable.
But some parts are more profitable than others. And this is one of them. Why?
That’s a worthy question for those of us who love the Bible.
And it’s an especially important question for our study of the Psalms.
Psalm 23 gives us a window into the power of the Psalms.
If we want to tap into this great book of the Bible
then we need to know what makes it tick.
We need to know the source of its power.
Why does it move us?
And then we need to take that answer, and use it to nurture
our responses so that they become even deeper and more heart-felt.
Three points. Three things that not only make the 23rd Psalm great,
but give us a key to the greatness of the book of Psalms.
1. It gives voice to your soul
2. It sanctifies your imagination
3. It leads you to Christ
MP#1 The 23rd Psalm gives voice to your soul
It expresses your thoughts and longings with words that resonate with your spirit.
It enables you to say—Yes, Lord. This is what is going on inside of me.
The church father Athanasius who died in 373 AD once wrote a letter to a young
Christian, urging him to spend extra time meditating on the Psalms. He said:
“Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful
for instruction . . . but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure . . .
Among all the books, the Psalter has a very special grace . . . “
So what is that special grace of the book of Psalms? Here’s what he says it is:
“within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human
soul. It is like a picture in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and
consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.”
What Athanasius meant, and what he goes on to explain, is that other books
of the Bible tell you to pray and repent and praise and obey God and trust God,
but the Psalms show you all of those things and what they really look like
in a believing heart, and how they can be expressed in your own heart.
John Calvin echoed Athanasius.
He called the Psalms, “The Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.”
You’ve seen an anatomy book like Gray’s Anatomy.
It has descriptions and illustrations of all the parts and systems of the body. Calvin explains:
“There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in
a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts,
hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men
are wont to be agitated. . . . all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into
Don’t you love that last phrase: “All the lurking places are discovered.”
Do you have any lurking places in your soul?
The Holy Spirit, through the Psalms, brings them out into the light
so that the Lord can deal with them.
Calvin also says:
“There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising
God . . . The psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to passion
in exalting with praises the glory of His name.”
The Psalms give voice to our praises.
Here is where we get the basic language of worship and a passion to worship.
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to study several of David’s Psalms.
Some of them tell us the circumstances surrounding them.
They say at the beginning: David wrote this when running from Saul.
David wrote this after his adultery with Bathsheba. And that’s helpful.
This Psalm doesn’t tell us that.
And some people have liked to imagine that David wrote this when he was
a shepherd boy. Out in the fields with the sheep, with his harp.
Picking out a tune, singing to the Lord. That’s an attractive image.
But is that really when he wrote it?
Are these the words of a young believer still wet behind the ears?
No, these are the words of a man who has experienced life.
David speaks of dark valleys and enemies all around.
He’s looking back to his early days.
He’s reminiscing about on the Lord’s guidance and provision
He’s looking ahead to heaven, as Christians do more often as years pass.
And by the miracle of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—
this poem is not only the work of a man, but the Word of God.
And as the Word of God, it gives voice to the believer’s soul.
One evening this past week I was visiting Dick McCarty.
Most of you know Dick. He is Becky Lewis’s father. He’s 90 years old.
Dick was trying to tell us a story about a relative, but he kept getting confused
and mixing up the name with someone else, and forgetting details.
And after he had tried several times he seemed to be frustrated so I said:
Dick, let me read you some Scripture. Knowing I was preaching on Psalm 23
this Sunday I opened my Bible and read it to him.
When I had finished, I asked Dick how I could pray for him.
He paused for a long time, and I wondered if he was still confused.
But then he said with a clear voice:
“Pray that I will go home and be with Christ.”
And I knew that that last verse had given voice to his soul.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”
Not—I’m tired and want to die. Lot’s of people say that. I want to go home.
Now, here’s my application for you. Be open, be soft to the voice of God
in our study of the Psalms. Allow the lurking places to be discovered.
Are you troubled by negative emotions toward God or the hand he’s dealt you?
Have you not been able to express and put to rest anger,
disappointment, fears, loneliness. Does some sin have a hold on you.
Promise the Lord, that you will answer yes, in your soul when he speaks.
What a good Sunday to do that. This first Sunday of the year.
A new year’s resolution.
Lord, I will listen to you speak, starting with our study of Psalms.
The power of the Psalms is that they give voice to the deepest feelings
of the believers soul. Bring them into the light so Lord can deal with them.
MP#1 The 23rd Psalm sanctifies your imagination
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside the still waters.
What do you picture when you hear those words?
One reason this Psalm is so powerful is that it stirs your imagination.
You imagine a shepherd and sheep and grass and a clear stream.
You imagine a scene of peace and rest. Cool, refreshing.
You could read this to little children and they would see it.
And this goes for the rest of the Psalm—it’s packed full of words and phrases
that stir the imagination—the valley of the shadow of death,
the rod and staff, the table spread, the overflowing cup.
Those are all such vivid images.
Here’s what I mean by a sanctified imagination.
Those word pictures enable you to see your own walk with Christ.
You see yourself as a sheep—prone to wander, not very smart.
You see Christ as the good shepherd—knowing what you need when you don’t.
You interpret the seasons of your life, not just as good times and bad times,
but as dark valleys and green meadows where the Shepherd leads you.
You even think that way: You think, I’m going through a valley now.
You experience humbling and confusing times and you somehow understand
that you made it through because of his rod and staff.
What Psalm 23 does so powerfully, is that it gives you images and language
to understand and describe your relationship with God.
And the more deeply those images become imbedded in your heart,
the more healthy and realistic will be your faith.
A number of years ago Philip Yancey wrote a book, Disappointment with God.
He wrote the book because of his discussions with a young man who became
a Christian expecting certain things from God, but then he got disappointed.
He lost his health and his fiancee and some other important things,
and decided following Christ was not what it was cracked up to be,
so he abandoned the faith.
And in the book Yancey tells stories of other people like that
who came into Christianity expecting wonderful things
from a relationship with God, but left disappointed.
Some of them had left the faith completely.
Others stayed but their faith felt like an empty shell.
One of Yancey’s observations was that a big problem for many of these
people was the language they used to talk about God. They didn’t use
biblical language, they used the language of popular American Christianity. .
The phrase most of them used was “having a personal relationship with God.”
We all use that phrase. I say it. But it’s not in the Bible.
There’s nothing wrong with it per se. It’s helpful as far as it goes.
But if the only way, or even the main way, you talk about your experience with God
is “having a personal relationship” with him, it can lead to disappointment
Here’s why. What we experience day to day with God feels very different
from what we experience and expect from other personal relationships.
We can’t see God. We can’t hear God talk audibly.
Our prayers are not very often conversational, they feel like monologues.
And even though we believe God does things in our lives,
the things he does usually aren’t very clear.
Sometimes we ask God for things and the very opposite happens.
Yancey says that many people who are disappointed with God say:
What kind of a personal relationship is that?
The nature and experience of God in our lives is so mysterious that the Bible
uses images to help us understand it. It uses word pictures to help us grasp it.
In the Psalms we read of God being a strong rock shading us from sun and storm,
a fortress and shield protecting us from the enemy,
the wings of a mother bird covering her young.
None of those are the whole picture, but each one gives us a deeper insight
into who God is and what it means to be his redeemed people.
The more vivid they become in your sanctified imagination,
the more realistic your faith is going to be.
The more you will understand what it means to know God and walk with him.
The more accurately you will be able to see and interpret the things that
happen in your life as the acts of the Lord.
Those of you who were here last Sunday—those 50 of you who braved elements—
will remember the quote I read from Colt McCoy after injured in last year’s
national championship game.
A reporter asked what it was like to sit on the sidelines for his last game
in a Longhorn uniform, the greatest game of his college career.
Won’t read his whole statement again, just what he said at the end:
I always give God the glory, I’d never question why things happen the way they do.
God is in control of my life and if nothing else I know I’m standing on The Rock.”
Do you see where his sanctified imagination took him?
To picture of Christ as the Rock, the unmoving foundation of his life.
That’s found throughout the Bible, but it’s in the Psalms over 20 times.
It gave him a way of interpreting and talking about something very disappointing.
How strong is your sanctified imagination?
What biblical images of God and Christ and salvation and the Christian life,
are your strength and comfort? How do you talk about the Lord to your kids?
How do you think about and describe the things you are going through?
I hope that if nothing else, our study of the Psalms
will stir our imaginations with pictures of the greatness of our God.
Certainly one of the best-loved of images of all is the Lord as our Shepherd.
That’s one of the reasons Psalm 23 is a favorite of so many people.
There is a great comfort knowing that I’m a sheep and Jesus is my shepherd.
Brings us to the third point.
MP#3 The 23rd Psalm leads you to Christ
I told you at the beginning one of the great lessons I learned in seminary.
Let me tell you another one. This was from my preaching professor, Dr. Chapell.
He used to say: Every passage of Scripture tells us one of two things—
your need for salvation or God’s provision of salvation.
In other words, every passage points you to Christ by showing you your need,
or it points you to Christ by showing you his goodness and provision.
The power of this passage is that it does both.
It shows you your need for Christ with one of the most vivid images—
it say that you are a sheep. There is no domestic creature more needy than sheep.
Sheep don’t know what they need, they don’t know where to find it.
They are defenseless, dumb creatures.
I ran across this news story on the internet while preparing for this sermon.
This is a real story. You can Google it yourself. The date is July 8, 2005.
ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP)
First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported Friday.
In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a white pile. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher, cushioning the fall, the daily newspaper Aksam reported.
“There’s nothing we can do. They’re all wasted,” Nevzat Bayhan, a member of one of 26 families whose sheep were grazing together in the herd, was quoted as saying.
The estimated loss to families in the town of Gevas, located in Van province in eastern Turkey, is close to 100,000 Turkish lira, which is equal to roughly $73,000. This is a significant amount of money in a country where average GDP per person is around $2,700.
Remember how your mother used to say:
If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?
The biblical answer is Yes, mother. And that’s why I need Jesus.
Of course as born again people we have renewed minds and consciences.
We know what is right and wrong and Lord expects us to think and obey.
But the point is that in many of the paths of life, we don’t know what we need.
We pray for one thing, and think we have to have it or life isn’t worth living.
And that would really be the worst thing for us.
How does Paul put it: We do not know how we ought to pray.
The 23rd Psalm reminds us that every day we need Jesus—
for guidance, for provision, for protection.
We need him to take us safely home.
And that’s exactly what he does.
Not only does this Psalm show us our need.
It shows us Christ’s mighty provision.
There is so much here, we can’t even scratch the surface—but just one thing.
Look where the Good Shepherd guides us.
He guides us to green pastures and still waters.
Jesus knows when we need spiritual refreshment.
He takes us to those seasons of peace through his word and Spirit.
I’m sure all of us could look at peaceful seasons and say the Lord led me here.
He also leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
That means he leads us not just to seasons of rest, but seasons of work.
Times in our lives when he’s doing things in us.
Giving us challenges to obey and grow. Hard work. Righteous living.
Following our callings. Loving our neighbor.
That’s easy to understand. We will often say. The Lord is working on me now.
I’m facing some challenges and growing.
But notice where he also leads: Through the valley of the shadow of death.
David is not referring only to physical death—perhaps a life-threatening illness.
He’s talking about everything in our lives that feels liked death—
every betrayal, every loss, every sorrow and crushing grief.
The Lord, my shepherd, even leads me through those places.
It’s part of his good plan for me to experience at times suffering and sorrow.
That’s hard. We would never choose that. Why would he do that?
He’s the shepherd and we’re the sheep. And he has his reasons.
And if you ever doubt the Lord’s goodness in the dark valleys.
Just follow this shepherd theme through the Scriptures until you come to John 10.
Christ himself is speaking and he says:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own accord.”
The Lord will not lead you any place where he has not gone himself.
And because he has passed through suffering and sorrow, you can too.
And it will not destroy you, it will be redemptive.
You will come out in time into a spacious place of green grass and sunshine.
And even in the midst of your troubles, there is a table of communion spread,
and the promise of a home in heaven.
I have a college friend who told me that when he was a boy he was very fearful.
He was not just fearful of the stuff of everyday life,
he was afraid that he was lost. He was afraid he was going to hell.
One night he told his dad. His father opened the Bible, not to Psalm 23 but
to a passage based on Psalm 23, John 10. And he read to his son the words
of Christ describing himself as the good Shepherd laying down his life for sheep.
Friend said that his father closed the Bible and said to him:
You are one of Jesus’ little lambs.
He will take care of you and take you safely home to heaven.
And that thought of Christ comforted and animated my friend for the rest of his life.
As we study the Psalms in coming weeks, the worship songs of Israel,
pray that you will encounter Jesus Christ. Come to church expecting him.
And he will meet you and guide you in every season of life.