The Lord is My Shepherd
Topic: Expository Scripture: Psalm 23:1–23:1
I am wearing a tie tonight. It contains my sermon title, my sermon text, and my sermon theme – all in one sentence and all written on my necktie. So if I lose my train of thought or forget what I am supposed to say, or even lose my notes, I can just look down at my necktie. The Lord is my shepherd.
Psalm 23 is one of the best known and best loved passages of Scripture in the Bible. People who know almost nothing else about Scripture will recognize the words of Psalm 23. It is read and quoted and loved by countless people. It is a passage that is frequently read to bring comfort at funeral services, and quoted on condolence cards. It is a passage that many people have committed to memory. (Tell about soldier in Iraq with the Psalm written on his helmet.)
Now, I’ll be very honest with you. As a preacher, I am always rather hesitant to approach Scriptures that are very familiar. It is intimidating to take on such texts, because I wonder what I can add to bring fresh insight and not just mouth cliches and restate the obvious. That explains why I’d been preaching for over 25 years before I attempted to preach from this Psalm. When I finally did, however, I found it to be wonderfully refreshing. I fell in love with this psalm as so many have done over the years.
Typically, I preach from one of the more contemporary versions of the Bible, but I memorized Psalm 23 many years ago from the KJV, so that is just the way it comes back to me – so that will be the text from which I quote it in these messages.
The psalm begins with a bold, extravagant boast. The LORD is my shepherd. We are going to spend this whole message this evening on just that one phrase.
I want to lead us in reflecting on this truth by emphasizing the different parts of that statement.
The LORD is my shepherd.
From the ancient Hebrew text, we know that this is the special, memorial name of God. It is the name Yahweh. This was the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. Remember in that passage, Moses asked a question. “When I go to the Israelites and tell them that God has sent me to deliver you, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ how shall I answer them?”
God responded, “I am who I am. Tell them ‘Yahweh (I AM) has sent me to you.’” This God, the eternal “I AM”, the covenant keeping God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the one whom the psalmist is referring to as he pens the words of this psalm.
What kind of God is he? His name reveals that he is eternal and changeless. But there is another psalm that gives us a rich exposition of his character. Turn with me to Psalm 121. (in NIV)
This psalm does not specifically use the language of shepherds and sheep. But listen as it describes the character of God and see if these are not qualities you might want in a shepherd.
I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, My help comes from Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth. He is the Creator! The Creator of heaven and earth is my Shepherd!
The psalmist continues:
He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Does that sound like a good trait in a shepherd?
The LORD (Yahweh) watches over you – the LORD (Yahweh) is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD (Yahweh) will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the LORD (Yahweh) will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
Now here is my point. This One, this God, this Yahweh who created heaven and earth; this Yahweh who never slumbers nor sleeps, this Yahweh who promises to watch over me and shade me and keep from all harm; this Yahweh is my shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd
To grasp the impact of this statement, we need to look at the inscription at the beginning of the Psalm, identifying the writer of this Psalm. It is David. Why is that important? Remember when Samuel came to anoint a new king for Israel, and Jesse called all his sons together, and each one passed before Samuel, and each time the Lord said, “No, it’s not this one.” Until all the sons had passed, and Samuel looked around and said: “Is that all? Don’t you have any more sons?” What did Jesse say? “Well, there is one more, the youngest and he is out …” Doing what?” “…tending the sheep.”
David spent his youth as a shepherd, caring for his father’s sheep. When he wrote these words, “Yahweh is my shepherd,” he was drawing on a rich vein of his own personal experience.
Not only that. When David became king, the people came to David and confirmed to him their conviction: “The LORD has appointed you to be our shepherd.” (2 Samuel 5:2) So David spent his early life as a shepherd to sheep. He spent his adult life as a shepherd to a nation, the people of Israel. From both of these experiences he can write with deep personal insight and experience:
The Lord is my shepherd. In meditating on this truth, I want to dig a little deeper into the metaphor. First of all, if we want to understand this claim in all its power and impact, we must understand it from within the context in which it was written. We must build our understanding of the shepherd and his role from the model of a shepherd in Israel in the Biblical time period.
We have had the privilege of taking a couple of holidays in Scotland. One of the things we saw there was lots and lots of sheep. Almost everywhere we went, there were pastures and hills covered with sheep. But in all the time we spent there, I only remember seeing one shepherd. He was using a dog to move his sheep from his pasture up onto the hillside. All the rest of the time we saw the sheep they were on their own, unsupervised, grazing and otherwise minding their own business.
Now, I am not casting aspersions on the work ethic of Scotland’s shepherds, or accusing them of neglecting their sheep. What I am saying is that caring for sheep in Scotland is a very different picture from that of caring for sheep in the land of Israel. In Scotland, most fields and pastures are fenced or walled to keep the sheep from wandering. Grass is plentiful, water is abundant, there are very few natural predators left to trouble the sheep. And at least in modern times, sheep stealing is not a big problem. So it is quite appropriate to leave the sheep alone in the field for long periods of time.
But Psalm 23 was written by David. David didn’t live in Scotland! So to understand what King David of Israel meant when he said: “The Lord is my shepherd,” we must recreate the shepherd’s role as he practiced it as a boy on the hills near Bethlehem.
The first thing, of course, that governs the shepherding practices in any region, is the climate, the terrain, the general topography of the area. Israel is a mixed bag geographically. It has some fertile plains, river valleys, lush areas. But it also has large areas that are rugged, mountainous and dry. And it has large areas that are arid desert.
So, in this mixture of terrain and climate, where were the sheep taken to graze? It was interesting to do some background reading, and discover that there was a long history of tension in the lands of the Bible between shepherds and farmers. Grazing sheep and growing crops are not a good combination! I discovered a number of references in the ancient literature clearly spelling out where shepherds were allowed to graze their flocks. And it was not in the fertile, green plains or river valleys. These areas were reserved for the growing of food crops which needed a steady supply of water. The sheep were relegated to the wilderness, the marginal areas in the hills, where rain was sporadic and grazing often difficult to find.
We know that this was David’s experience. Do you remember the story when David came up to visit his brothers who were in the army of Israel, facing the armies of the Philistines and their giant, Goliath? David came to bring food to his brothers, and began asking questions. And his brother Eliab became angry. He sarcastically challenged David, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert?”
You see, the area in which David shepherded his sheep was characterized as a desert, a wilderness area, where water and pasture were scarce and hard to find.
Why am I making such a point of this? I am trying to drive home the picture that would have been in David’s mind as he penned these words: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is not a picture of beautiful, white fluffy sheep, dotted around a rich, green pasture and a shepherd who checked on them at the end of the day. It is a picture of a solitary shepherd, leading a smallish flock of sheep. He is leading them past and away from the settled areas; the richer, more fertile farming areas. He is leading them up into the hills, to the marginal areas on the edges of the wilderness. He is leading them into areas where they will surely perish without the constant attention and care and forethought of the shepherd. He is taking them where these sheep will be utterly dependent for their very lives upon the daily, hourly presence of the careful shepherd.
That is why the identity and character of the shepherd is of paramount importance. The life of the sheep depends on him. Is he up to the task? Can he be trusted? Yahweh, the eternal, changeless God, who never slumbers or sleeps: this God is my shepherd.
There is one more point to my sermon; one more word to emphasize in this glorious opening statement.
The LORD is my shepherd.
One of the common metaphors in the OT refers to God as Israel’s shepherd. If this is what David had in mind, he could well have written: Yahweh is Our Shepherd. This would have been absolutely true and wonderfully reassuring in its own right. But David goes further than that. He uses the first person singular form of possession, and he does so throughout this Psalm. Yahweh is MY shepherd. This is a very personal relationship between me as an individual and Yahweh, the eternal God of the universe. He is my shepherd. This is a bold, even extravagant boast. Yahweh is my shepherd.
This was David’s confidence, based on God’s promises and his own experience through life. It is interesting to note that David was not the only one to use the analogy of the shepherd in describing God’s care. I’d like you to turn in your Bibles to Genesis 28 (NIV).
It is the story of Jacob fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau. He has left his home. He is fleeing into an unknown future. He finds himself at night, far from any human settlement. He lies down to sleep with a stone for his pillow. During the night, God appears to him in a dream, and makes him some dramatic promises. I just want to pick out one of them in v. 15: I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
That is a wonderful promise. It sounds like a shepherd talking, doesn’t it? “I will be with you. I will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back.” Those are the tasks of the shepherd.
Jacob wakes up, recognizes God’s presence, worships and makes a vow to the Lord. Look at verses 20-22: If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD (Yahweh) will be my God.
This was a very significant moment in Jacob’s life. It was a choice that the God of his father was now his God. “Yahweh will be my God. Yahweh is my shepherd.” It is a choice that every one of us must make. Because this is a personal relationship, it also must ultimately come down to a personal choice.
To trust and follow the Shepherd is a choice we have to make. Jacob faced that choice as a young man, alone in the wilderness. We must make the same choice. Yes, the Lord is a shepherd. But can you say with confidence: “The Lord is MY shepherd”? To make this very personal claim we must make a personal choice, to put our faith in him, to respond to his love and to submit to his care.
Now, Jacob’s story is a long and convoluted one. But I am intrigued by a statement he makes at the very close of his life. He is about to die. He calls Joseph and his two sons to bless them. Look at his words in Genesis 48:15: Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,”
“The God who has been my shepherd.” At the end of his life Jacob is able to look back and trace the shepherd’s hand. “He has been with me, all my life to this day.”
I find that very reassuring coming from a man like Jacob. If you know his story, you know he was a bit of a rascal. He was a schemer, a man who had trouble trusting God, a man who often tried to take things into his own hands. Yet the Shepherd never gave up on him. He was always there, caring for him, providing for him, delivering him from harm every step of the way. That gives me hope, because I know I often forget to trust the Shepherd. I fret, I worry, I often scheme and try to find my own solutions to life’s problems. It gives me comfort to know that God never gave up on Jacob. He continued to guide and care for him every day of his life.
The Lord is my shepherd. Is that your testimony this evening?
There is a story about a little boy in Sunday School. He was assigned the task of memorizing the 23rd Psalm to recite in the end of the year Sunday School program. He worked hard to memorize it until he had it word perfect. He was excited. The big day came. He waited back stage for his turn to come. Finally his teacher thrust him out on to the stage and in front of the microphone. But when he saw all the people looking expectantly up at him, he was struck by a paralyzing case of stage fright. He was like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. His mind went blank. He stood there…and he stood there. Finally, in a blind panic he blurted out the only words that would come to his mind: “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know!”
That pretty much says it all, don’t you think?