Psalm 23 ~ "Credit Where Credit Is Due"
My dorm mates in university used to joke about me. If someone was trying to find me, the people who knew me best would laugh. “Ryan’s either in class, at work, or taking a nap,” they would say. For a period of time, I was struggling with great sadness and anxiety. Sleep was my escape from the pressures of the world. I was safe in my dreams. So I slept a lot. With two small children, I don’t get much sleep these days; not for 4 and ½ years now. What’s interesting is how some times it can be just the opposite. In the stressful times, when you finally lie down to rest, your mind can also race through all of your worries and fears, your mistakes from the day. You’re tired so you often don’t have the brainpower to work through the these thoughts properly, so your mind just gets stuck racing faster and faster becoming more and more irrational as you become more and more tired without the relief of sleep.
Now contrast this with the wise words of King Solomon from Ecclesiastes 5:12, “Sweet is the sleep of a labourer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” Whether we fall into the upper, the upper-middle, the lower-middle, or lower class, we often only evaluate our wealth compared to those immediately surrounding us. It’s very easy to forget just how extraordinarily wealthy we are in this country. We have many blessings. The danger comes when we allow ourselves to be unaware of our wealth. And getting caught up in the ups and downs of daily life we find ourselves, even though we’re hard working Christians, we still find ourselves with the restless and worrisome full stomach of the rich. Of course we know our wealth is no sin in itself. It depends on where our heart is finding its nourishment. The man who carries his own burdens to protect his own kingdom will find no rest. The man who pours himself our in faithful labor, no matter how wealthy he is, if he is content to serve and trust his Lord, will find peace and contentment.
Turn with me to Psalm 23, which will be our text this evening. [READ PSALM 23]. In the first 3 verses we see 4 things that God does as the shepherd. I’ll get into this a bit more in a moment, but for now take note that God is not the universal shepherd. A shepherd takes care of HIS Sheep, not the wolves, not the bandits, but HIS sheep. Those who follow His voice and are part of His flock. The first two things we see that God does for His sheep is to make them lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters. In the pastures and still waters we see that God gives us what we need. And not only does He give us what we need, but He gives us what is good.
How do we understand this? In our wealth, it's easy to say “Yes, I have all I need, and I have good things.” But what about the seasons when we can’t seem to catch a break, when we can’t pay our bills, or fix the car, or the heater,or we can't get the surgery we need, or even a diagnoses for the pain we've been suffering for so long. What do we think about our shepherd when we are surrounded by tragedy and hopeless situations and people? What do we think about this shepherd when we seem to have great need and not much good? It’s hard not to believe then that we have barren land and rough waters, if any.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 11:20 [READ Matt. 11:20-24]. Jesus here is discussing the unrepentant inhabitants of 3 cities. First he addresses the hardness of Chorazin and Bethsaida. He compares them to the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The prophet Ezekiel prophesied about the destruction of Tyre and Sidon. Capernaum is compared to the infamously wicked city of Sodom. In both cases we see conditional statements. If Tyre and Sidon had seen what you have seen. If even Sodom had heard and witnessed the things done for you. IF they had had that opportunity, THEN they Would Have Repented. What we see here is an example of God’s perfect foreknowledge. Not only does He know what will happen, but He knows what would have happened if people had made different decisions.
But again, we might be tempted to think that maybe God doesn’t really lead to green pastures and still waters. Maybe it's just another song. Maybe God treated David this way but it isn't necessarily His nature? If it were true, wouldn’t He have done what was best for the people in those cities? Shouldn’t God have sent Jesus to Sodom to bring about their repentance? But I’ll ask a few questions to challenge that notion. For whom does everything exist? By whom does every thing exist? Is God obligated make His will subservient to the desires of the people whom He created; the same people who rejected Him? No. We exist by God, for God. Acts 17:27-28 tells us this; “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.” Just because things are different and unequal, does not mean they are not fair. The Holy and Just God has given us ALL opportunities to understand and repent. In this we see the sovereign God doing not what is best for the individual, but what is best for His entire creation. This helps us understand the often misunderstood verse of Romans 8:28; “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” We see that God has been sovereignly working throughout time. He used obedience and even our disobedience to perfectly orchestrate His plan, which is the ultimate good for His sheep whom He has been seeking after in every age. And if salvation and eternal reconciliation is the greatest good and the ultimate purpose of God’s plan, then it is extremely naïve and short sighted to think that the good and the needs that God provides us with are merely physical pleasures and temporary joy. He is after our eternal joy. God gives His sheep what they need and what is good.
Verse 3. He restores my soul. Restore means here “to turn back”. He turns back my soul. The shepherd takes his crook, puts it around the neck of the sheep, and turns back His soul. God corrects His sheep. Let’s look at the correction that God gave to the writer of this Psalm, David. David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof. He doesn’t look away. He lusts after her. In his lust, he goes after her and commits adultery. In his deceit he tries to manipulate Bathsheba’s husband who was too integritable to fall into David’s scheme. So in David’s fear, he ordered the army to betray Uriah in battle; murder. If my son, or anyone I knew did this, I don’t think I would have any patience. I would demand punishment. And God is just, but He corrected David. Turn with me to Psalm 51. Here we see David’s reaction to God’s correction. Just look at verse 1 and 17. Verse 1 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” And now verse 17 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart , O God, you will not despise.” Even though God would be justified to slaughter His sheep in their wickedness, He lovingly shows patience and mercy to bring us back to humility and right standing with Him. He gives us what we need. He gives us what is good. He corrects us.
Second half of verse 3 “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” I encourage you to make a conscious effort to attend each Tennet Talk. Each class has a full one year curriculum so it will take you at least five years. But it is so necessary. Old Testament with John Marlow, there is such a richness and beauty there. Consider some of the events of Genesis. Consider them with the knowledge that the sovereign all-knowing God was working to reveal His plan in time. Cain is filled with jealousy and rage for His brother Abel. God reminds Cain that Abel didn’t steal God’s favour, but that Cain was responsible for his own wrong doing. God also gave a gracious warning that sin was crouching at the door and it’s desire was for him. Cain gave into sin and it consumed him.
Later, still in chapter four, we see sin progress from Cain’s complacency to an exulting in sin. Lamech, noted for having 2 wives sings a song that boasts if Cain’s revenge was seven-fold, that his own was seventy-sevenfold. Next we see that sin has almost completely overtaken the world in the time of Noah. Every intention was only evil continually. Noah alone found favour. God intervenes and starts anew with Noah and his family.
Next, at the Tower of Babel, the people were following the same predictable course of sin and seeking their own desires, but God intervenes again and scatters them. Even though they sinned, He used their sin in a manner to still achieve His plan for man to have dominion over the earth. Then we have Abraham. A man and his wife who could have no children, but God makes a covenant to make a nation, to be God’s people, through whom God would bless and save the world. Sin is chaotically predictable, but we can walk through the entire Old Testament to see God intervening with corrections, slowly teaching us what His true desire is. As He reveals, we see more and more fully the beautiful majesty, goodness, and glory of our God. His plan is to save us. He leads us in righteousness for His names sake. This is not conceited. His glory of His name is the perfect and eternal joy for His sheep. It is our salvation and the fullness of relationship with God. The glory of His name is our ultimate good! God provides our true needs. He gives us good things. He corrects us. He teaches us.
Now that we’ve looked at some of the broader activities of the shepherd, let's go back to the opening statement in verse 1.”The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We must not forget what we’re reading. We so often approach the Psalms as little stand alone short stories. The psalms are songs. If you are someone who truly appreciates the beauty of music, then it’s very unlikely that the radio is your only source of music. Radio is great, but on the radio, you only hear hit singles. At most, you might hear two or three songs from one album of any artist. However, if you were to listen to the entire album, you will often find that instead of one or two good songs, you have an album which tells a beautiful story. We must not approach the Psalms as hit singles on the radio, but look at the entirety of the album.
On Palm Sunday we looked at Psalm 22. We looked at the heart wrenching prophecy of the misery endured in the heart and mind of Christ on the cross. He was forsaken that we might be forgiven. The psalm ended with the hope and promise that glory of Christ’s sacrifice would be proclaimed. The powerful last words were “He has done it”. It is finished. Christ paid our price. He has done it!This isn’t a myth. It happened. It isn’t one instalment of the price. He paid it in full! He has done it! The very next words come in Psalm 23. “The LORD is my shepherd”. All of the beauty and hope and peace that we see in Psalm 23, all of it, is established on the essential truth that Christ has paid the full price of sin! It is in Psalm 22 that we see the fullest argument to actually submit and identify God as our shepherd. It’s because He alone is worthy of leading us. We can trust Him to do these functions of the Shepherd because He already proved it on the cross. He gives us our greatest needs, to be saved and made new. He give us good things, makes us part of His body and plan and sanctifies us. He corrects us and leads us further and further into living in the joys of being like Him.
As I’ve already said, He is not the universal shepherd who give everyone what they want. If we see by faith the fullness of what He did for us on the cross; if we submit through faith to be led by Him and follow him, then He is our personal shepherd, our protector and provider. To say that the Lord is my shepherd should not be some empty remark we make to encourage ourselves and justify our own desires because God will will bless every action as if he’s some sort of magic genie. To say that the Lord is my shepherd is to say that we are not our own. It is to say that we need a protector, a provider, one to lovingly put the crook around our neck and teach us what is good. It is to know the voice of our shepherd and trust Him.
The word used for want means I shall not lack. God truly gives us what we need. It’s ok for us to desire things and have things. Making God our shepherd doesn't mean we’ll be millionaires and it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be hobos. He gives us what we need.
Verse 4 “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.” The struggles and dangers of this life are real. This verse, referring to the shadow of death, does not imply that danger is all an illusion. In the dark narrow valley, in the times when death and destruction is so close that it casts its dark shadow over us in imminence, this song reminds us of the bigger picture. We know we will face death one day. Death is real. Psalm 16 looks forward to the cross with hope “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” This is the same sentiment from Psalm 22 which we now have the luxury of looking back at to see fulfillment; “He has done it.” Death is not the end, and we can trust our shepherd even unto our end, even when destruction is breathing its gloating cries at the back of our neck.
Notice also the use of pronouns. The have shifted from talking about God, to speaking to God. The knowledge of God is meant to lead us into deeper relationship and reliance on Him. In the darkest hour, indeed in every hour, we know God is with us, caring for us.
Notice what comforts David in the face of destruction… It's the rod and staff of the shepherd. The rod was for discipline, and the staff was for correction. The shepherd protects us by discipline and correction. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Hebrews 12:6 We have to retrain our mind here. We read of green pastures and still waters and hope for a big mansion with a nice pool. Discipline is convicting. It speaks to our mistakes, our guilt. It hurts. But it’s good. The green pastures of God don’t refer to the thickness of our wallet, but condition of our souls.
Verse 5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;” It is not enough to say that God blesses us and condemns our enemies here. Our sinful hearts can easily distort it. We are not the foolish child gloating in the school yard that we got a chocolate pudding cup in our lunch while the bully spilled his lunch. Pastor Voddie Baucham offers a helpful illustration for understanding this verse. A son watches his parents hustle and bustle in an unusual manner one afternoon. Mother is baking bread, as usual, put she's in a hurry. She doesn’t let it rise. It's flat and dense. Father kills the lamb and does the strangest thing. He brushes the blood on the doorpost. What looked to be a feast has turned into a strange meal with bitter herbs. Huddled together, the son asks what is going on. Across the land he hears great cries and weeping. The father explains that the lamb took the son’s place. The angel of death has passed over them. A bittersweet meal, rejoicing salvation and mourning the price that was paid on our behalf. This is the humble manner of the feast that God prepares for us.
“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In our continual reflection of the cross, we realize our blessing. We certainly have not just enough to get by, but our cup overflows. We could never realize and comprehend the degree to which God has blessed us. Blessing refers not to our comfort in this life, but the immeasurable and underserved love and mercy poured out on us. We are blessed not because of our car or clothes, but because God is our Shepherd.
Verse 6 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Follow here means pursue. Goodness and mercy aren't lagging behind us, far away. They are chasing us down. We’re poor stupid sheep. We sin again and again. We have a constant need for mercy. We dwell in God’s house, in His grace, in His fellowship, because He keeps us there.
This past week I went down to Maple Ridge with Bryce and Pastor Al for our denomination’s annual meeting. Al nor myself have had much opportunity to sit down and talk with Bryce up to that point. So we had a lot of conversations about our lives and just getting to know each other. As I shared my life’s story, a certain song lingered in the back of my head. It’s not hymn. It’s an old country song. The chorus from that song says this; “Daddy’s hands were soft and kind when I was crying. Daddy’s hands were hard as steel when I had done wrong. Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle, but I’ve come to understand that there was always love in Daddy’s hands.” As I shared the ups and downs and interesting things of my life. These words played over and over, reminding me that in every uncertain and difficult moment, I was held in the Father’s hands. My could have been more comfortable, but it would not be as good. A lot of things were simply the pain of my own sin or the sins of others, but God still used it to lead me to reliance of Him.
And as I think about my past, it’s almost impossible to remember cattle. Cattle was our business, our food of choice, my sister’s pets, cattle was a big part of my life. And every couple of years, we would go the fair and rodeo. You could see same amazing animals there. Beautiful animals without blemish, bred for years for the greatest quality of offspring. And do you know what’s interesting. Out of all the years, all the rodeos, all the livestock shows, all the farms and dairies I’ve been on and worked at, out of the thousands and thousands of animal I’ve seen, I remember just a few animals with any detail. The animal may have earned a prize, but the honour and the glory always, always, always went to the farmer. How fitting it is that we are but sheep. We do not, and are not supposed to receive the gory. We foolishly want it and fight for it, but it belongs to God. All of the credit and glory for the quality of the sheep goes to Shepherd. The sheep just eat and drink and follow the voice of the Shepherd. He does the work. Psalm 23 reminds us of our place in light of the cross. Oh what peace it is for us to truly understand and say the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.