(c) Copyright 2005 Rev. Bill Versteeg
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall
not be in want.
Before I begin reflecting with you on this Psalm, let me draw your attention to the basic structure of the Psalm with this overhead. I know that for some of us it might be difficult to read, but notice that the Psalm basic is formed out of 7 verses that from what in Hebrew poetry is called a Chiasm, there is thematic symmetry in the poetry. Another way of picturing it would be that the first and last verses form the outside of a circle, and the closer you get to the center of the poem is the closer you get to the center of the circle which is the heart of the poem. And so the heart of this Psalm is our response to its key themes:
“Even though I walk
The whole reason for this structure, the whole reason for our faith in this picture depends on the verses that are on the outside edge - we can respond in faith and trust, even in the most difficult times because the Lord is my Shepherd. Because the LORD is my shepherd, surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. This mornings message will focus on the first foundational words of this Psalm, the LORD is my shepherd.
In this entire Psalm, there are basically two main characters - the Shepherd and the Sheep. And I am sure that you have noticed that the scriptures again and again characterize us as sheep.
What is it about us that would make David call us sheep? Well, the truth is - sheep are a lot like us. David knew from experience that sheep were some of the most dependant domesticated animals that a farmer could own. And the fundamental truth behind this Psalm is that like sheep, we need someone to take care of us.
For example: Like sheep, we tend to be attracted to things that are dangerous for us. Sheep just don’t have a clue what water to drink from, quiet waters could be very dangerous. We need to be led along safe paths, right paths because wrong paths could take our lives. Like sheep, we tend to be clueless, sometimes downright stupid with the decisions we make in our lives. It is not without reason that Isaiah said
There are journeys that sheep in the middle east must take as they go from pasture to pasture that can be difficult and filled with predators. There are journeys in our lives that are filled with the shadows of death itself. Like sheep, we need someone to protect us, guide us, lead us and comfort us through those very hard times.
Anyone who has watched any National Geographic Safari show knows all to well that in the East and in Africa, where the plains grow grass in abundance near water, there is not better place for predators to attack. For a sheep, the watchful eye of a shepherd was absolutely necessary.
Sheep that are not cared for tend to get sick, parasites infect their bowels, flies get into their wounds and infect them, their wool falls out, they become weak and vulnerable to predators from amoebas to lions. The only way their health is maintained is if they have a shepherd taking care of them.
But not just any shepherd and so this Psalm begins with the confession: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” David, with all his shepherding experience is pointing out that of all the shepherds who could lead people, his shepherd is the LORD, and if you noticed the text we read, you noticed that the LORD is in capital letters. Now you are familiar with your scriptures, then you know that when our translations capitalize the word LORD, the original word behind it was Jahweh. The reason it is translated Lord is out of respect for the Jewish tradition of not saying Jahweh’s name lest it be said or taken in vain, so they replaced the name with Adonai or Lord. David is referring to JAHWEH, the I am who I am, the covenant God of Israel. Jahweh, the God who made the entire universe, who holds the whole world in his hands, who shaped the mountains and knows what goes on in the depths of the earth, who controls the seasons and moves history - the LORD is My Shepherd. Jahweh, who had proven himself flawlessly faithful, who in a changing world is unchanging, whose purposes remain constant, whose character remains true, the LORD is My Shepherd. Jahweh, whose love is from ever lasting to ever lasting, whose love for his people, for me will never change, the LORD is my shepherd.
David knew that the love of his Lord, his Shepherd was profound. David would sing that his shepherd’s love was better than life itself. David, himself a shepherd knew how important it was to have a shepherd who would put his life at risk to protect the sheep, after all, David himself had taken down a lion and a bear to protect the sheep. The love of Jesus, our good shepherd is clearly pictured in John 10.
Jesus in John 10 makes the claim that he is the good shepherd of Psalm 23, and in the process of making the claim, he is telling his disciples that he is JAHWEH, he is the faithful covenant God and he loves his own with such an unfailing love that he will give his life for the sheep.
11 “I am the
good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12
The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees
the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf
attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a
hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. That is the quality, the love of a good Shepherd that causes his sheep to prosper. The LORD is my shepherd...
When we read this Psalm it has a sense of boast about it, it has a sense of joy about it, a sense of wonder and celebration - it starts with these words - The LORD Jahweh is my shepherd. One of the best ways to picture this Psalm is to imagine two sheep have a conversation through a fence line. One the well fed lean and healthy sheep says to the other.
The Lord is my Shepherd - he loves me even more than he loves himself, he is willing to lay down his life for me. There is no better shepherd, he gets up early in the morning and works till late in the night, he makes sure that I am safe, in dangerous pathways, he is right there to lead me, he makes sure that good food is always available in plenty, he makes sure my water trough is full, when I make stupid decisions and go down wrong paths, he is quick to chase after me rather than letting me get eaten. He takes care of my wounds, he keeps me from eating parasites. And when the day is over, he leads me back to the safety of the sheep pen and lays down his body in the gateway so that no one can come in. I could not have it better. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would say that he never slumbers nor sleeps, he watches over my coming and going both now and forever more.
The sheep on the other side of the
fence does not look near that healthy. And I know that if I
left up this slide for the concluding portion of this sermon, you
wouldn’t hear much of what I have to say, so we are going to
put up a different and real picture of a sick sheep.
How many people in this world know all to well the experience of being sheep without a shepherd or sheep without a loving shepherd? Their lives are driven by needing to take care of themselves. They gather possessions thinking that by possessions they have security. They hoard what they make thinking that their securities will give them protection in the future when their world falls apart. They lay awake at night worrying about the stock market. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring, whether cancer will strike, a loved one will have an accident, global warming will cause disaster, a criminal will disrupt their lives or terrorists will finally be successful. Without a shepherd, we are by desperation driven to take care of ourselves. And the securities that we do have are fragile at the best and themselves self centered, looking out for themselves rather than us. Anyone who has dealt with the fine print of insurance policies knows that all to well.
The boast of a flock is to boast about its shepherd. And this is our joy, we, the sheep of God’s flock celebrate that we have a shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep like no other shepherd would. The Lord is taking care of me and that covers all my concerns.
The question we have to ask is who has the right to make this boast? The Lord is my shepherd. After all, certainly half the world knows this psalm. Muslims know it. Christians know it. Hardly a funeral goes by without someone comfortingly reading it. Is “The Lord is my Shepherd” everybody’s claim?
Only those who belong to the good shepherd can make the claim. So many people are calling us to follow them, to follow their way of thinking, their way of believing, and they promise us riches and happiness, but there is only one who has proven his worthiness to be our shepherd, the one who was willing to lay down his life to protect the pen of sheep - Jesus.
We belong to a different master. And when we have heard his call to come and follow him, when we have responded in our lives - I will follow wherever he leads, then we become his, he marks us for life as his own, with the Holy Spirit he brings upon us the gracious realization of his love and we discover, we boast that the grass is greener on our side of the fence because we taste and see it every day.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.