“Being a Sheep”
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness[b]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[c]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[d] goodness and mercy[e] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell[f] in the house of the Lord
“Being His Sheep”. That’s not exactly a popular title for everybody. It could have political overtones to it I suppose, it doesn’t, that’s not the thought here. We want to speak about it in a biblical sense, Psalm 23. There are examples all around us of animals used to convey a message. I was at work just yesterday, I walked into the bathroom at hospital, right off the med-surg unit, looked on a sink and there’s a little card that says “wash your paws”. And it’s got a cute small yellow kitten giving us this message as he licks his paws. I thought about licking my paws but I thought that would be just gross, that wouldn’t go well. And the nurses would look at me really strange, that wasn’t gonna work. But it was there to remind us to wash your hands before we go back to patient care. Also while in the surgery room, a song was playing, “I want to fly like an eagle to the sea”, by the Steve Miller Band. They’re literally all around us. There are cows trying to get us to eat chicken. There’s a gecko who articulately and subtly sells us insurance. You know the Bible frequently uses animals even insects to convey to us its truth. Proverbs, chapter six, verse six says, Go to the ant, O sluggard. It encourages us not to be lazy. Also in Proverbs 26:17 he says, One who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who grabs a dog by the ear. This isn’t a nice dog, like my dog. I can grab her ears and nothing will happen. But if you grab a vicious dog by the ears, what’s going to happen? You get bit, it’s certain it’s gonna happen. There are literally hundreds of examples in Scripture, particularly domesticated animals are used. Why would that be? It’s because it was an agrarian or farming society, they understood farm life. So in Psalm 23, what’s our example? Sheep. Now let’s talk about sheep for a minute. Are sheep loners? Not usually right, they’re usually in a flock? Are they smart? Not so much. Are they tough? Ever heard anyone say, I’ll bring my attack sheep? Not ever. They’re weak and defenseless. Do they have a good sense of direction? I can relate to them in that, I get lost easily. They wander off and they can’t find their way back. They really need a shepherd, they need direction and guidance. But they’re remarkable animals in some ways, especially in their ability to follow.
Let me share this story with you written a long time ago. Thousands of sheep and many shepherds are together. Porter says this, The shepherds lead their flocks forth from the gates to the city. They were in full view and we watch them and listen to them. Thousands of sheep were there, grouped in dense, confused masses. The shepherd stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each Shepherd taking a different path, uttering as he advanced a shrill peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken by some internal convulsion. Then points stuck out in the direction taken by the shepherds. They became longer and longer until the confused masses were resolved into long living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, but it was still amazing. It was perhaps one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of the beautiful passage in John chapter 10. The sheep herd the shepherds voice and he calls his own sheet by name and he leads them out. The sheep follow him because they know His voice and a stranger they will not follow but will flee from him. For they know not the voice of strangers, John 10:3-5.
So turn with me to Psalm 23. Before I read this, pastors made note about already. It isn’t rocket science to note where Psalm 23 occurs in the Bible. It occurs after Psalm 22. What did we talk about in Psalm 22? Jesus death and sacrifice for us on the cross. Spurgeon has this to say about that. It’s only after we’ve read “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” that we come to the “Lord is my shepherd”. We must, by experience, know the value of blood shedding, His sacrifice for us, and see the sword awakened against the shepherd before we shall be truly able to know the sweetness of the good shepherds care. Let’s read together Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell on the house of the Lord forever.”
The Lord is my shepherd, verse one, notice out of the gate that the infinite God boughs low to become a shepherd, condescension. This is Jehovah, ruler of the universe, becoming our caretaker, becoming a sheep sitter. There’s condescension in this passage on every side, except one. That’s not here but we’ll talk about it later. The only non condescending thing is the goat. They don’t bow down very well. David wrote this. He was a shepherd, he has good understanding of what this means. But he doesn’t speak of himself here as a shepherd. But he speaks of God as the shepherd and David as a sheep. David, who was the king’s surrounded with riches and honors and armies and power, but put all aside to be a sheep. Are you in this scenario? Yes, we are the sheep as well, aren’t we? Well, at least we hope you’re a sheep, we pray you’re a sheep. All who have trusted in Jesus Christ, in his shed blood, for him dying in their place to forgive their sins and listening to him and following him, all those are sheep. Jesus tells us about a parable in the final judgment, Matthew 25:31, where all the people of the world are divided, sheep on the right and goats on the left. The sheep represent believers, God’s people. And goats are people who are lost and condemned to hell. Calvin says this, God is a shepherd only to those who, touched with a sense of their own weakness and poverty, a sheep, they feel their need for his protection. They willingly abide in the flock and surrender themselves to be governed by him. David, who was a king, he had power and riches. Nevertheless, he frankly confessed himself to be a poor sheep that he might have God as his shepherd. The Lord is MY shepherd. Spurgeon says the sweetest word of all is the word my. He does not say the Lord is the shepherd of the world at large, leads for the multitude as his flock. But that the Lord is MY shepherd. If he be a shepherd to no one else, he is a shepherd to me. He cares for me. He watches over me and preserves me. Do you know him like that? Is he your Shepherd? We are under the pastoral care of Jehovah. I shall not want. When you’re taken care of by Jehovah, you have no need of want. No matter what comes, no matter what famine or hardship or disaster comes into your life, no matter how dark it gets, I shall not want because I have an attentive shepherd who loves me, deeply cares about my welfare. So how do you become a sheep? We talked about that earlier. It’s trusting him with your life. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, You’re not your own. You are bought with a price. Jesus said in John 10:11, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, Isaiah 53:7. There’s the shepherd, being slaughtered as a sheep, hard to understand. He has purchased us by His blood, he is our owner. We sang in the first song, we are not our own. We are not our own. He is our master. Yes, He is. All this to say we do our best when we’re in a position of dependence and humility. That’s true of believers.
That’s this picture of the sheep. We will see how good it can be with the Good Shepherd. But I’ll tell you, it’s bad with somebody who is a terrible shepherd, who doesn’t care. We see that in the Bible. It’s in John 10:12-13. Jesus speaks of a hired hand who does not own the sheep. He sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away. Why does he run? He doesn’t care about the sheep. I read a book. I’ve always wanted to read this book and got an opportunity with this message. I read most of it. It’s a shepherd looks at Psalm 23. Here’s what Philip Keller says in that book. The tenant, the lazy sheepmen on the farm next to my first ranch was the most indifferent manager I had ever met. He was not concerned about the condition of his sheep. His land was neglected. He gave little or no time to his flock, letting them pretty much forage on their own, as best they could, both summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars and rustlers. Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures. Every winter there was a shortage of nourishing hay and wholesome grain to feed the hungry ewes. Shelter to safeguard and protect the suffering sheep from storms and blizzards was scanty and inadequate. They had only polluted and muddy water to drink, and their thin weak disease condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see them standing at the fence huddled sadly in little groups. To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent. He simply didn’t care. What if his sheep did want green grass, fresh water, shade, safety and shelter from storms? He didn’t care. What if they did want relief from wounds, bruises, disease and parasites? He ignore their needs. He couldn’t care less. They were headed for the slaughterhouse. A picture of the hatred of humanity, of Satan, a tyrannical owner. And Satan owns people around us every day. This is a picture of the loss who do not know a good shepherd, they suffer under sin and Satan’s cruelty. Their lives are filled with wants. But for us who know the care of a good shepherd, I can say, I shall not want.
Verse two, He makes me lie down in green pastures. What are green pastures? It’s food for the sheep. And our spiritual food is what? It’s reading the Word, spending time in the word, meditating on the Word, memorizing the Word, we feed on it. It’s always fresh, rich in nourishment for our souls, and there is a rest. In this world do you get tired of all the junk that goes on in this world? And there’s a rest, as we come to Scripture, for our exhausted souls. There’s no fear of biting bare ground here. The truths of the gospel are sweet and filling. God graciously gives us an understanding of his truth. We should pray as we approach the Bible for his help. Please give me insight. Give me help to understand your word. Help me to see you there. Help me to see what you’d have me to do. He leads me beside still waters. Sheep seem to do well with slow running streams. But there’s a risk if you go along a raging river, if you’re a sheep and you try to get a drink, of being swept away, there goes another one. Peaceful waters, they speak to us of the Holy Spirit. He ministers to our soul. He reveals truth, he teaches us, refreshes us and cleanses our souls from sin and encourages us in the adversities of this life. Jeremiah said, about the rejection of God’s living water, “My people have…forsaken me, the fountain of living water and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that hold no water”, Jeremiah 2:13. It’s a compelling picture and we see it around us too. An accurate portrayal of broken lives, shattered hopes, barren souls that are dried up and parched and full of dust of despair. Come to Jesus who alone provides living waters. verse
Verse three, He restores my soul. More than any other livestock, sheep are prone to wander. They have a terrible sense of direction, so frequently, they can’t find their way back. Some sheep even get in the habit of wandering off over and over again. They are convinced that the grass is greener, even though it may not be, on the other side of the fence. And they can even encourage others to wander away. Sometimes one of these rebels even has to be put down to protect the flock. We see that in Scripture, 1 Corinthians 11, where we saw believers who were becoming drunk at the Lord’s table, glutinous at the Lord’s table. They wouldn’t listen and they continued in that. And they were asleep, it says, they fell asleep. That means that they died. They were taken out by God because of their disobedience. I believe they were sheep. I think they were just wayward sheep. Fortunately, God is merciful to the majority of wanderers, he goes after them and he brings them home. Do you ever wander? You know, I do. And I think we fight a battle here that’s not going to end in this lifetime. Galatians tells us that in chapter five, a battle between the flesh and the spirit. It’s there every day of our lives. And we’re going to wander. But the blessed hope is that he doesn’t leave us alone. He comes after us, doesn’t he? There’s a hymn that many of you would know, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love”. We all wonder at times, and fortunately he comes after us. Luke 15:1-7, speaks about the lost sheep. And he leaves the 99 and he goes after the one. He puts it on his shoulders. And you might wonder at this point, what’s going to happen. Is he ticked off at that sheep? No. Is he going to throw the sheep-like professional wrestling move and throw that sheep? He doesn’t do that. It says he rejoices, he celebrates the return of this lost one home. That’s God’s heart toward the wayward, right. That’s the prodigal son. He has a party for his son. He’s so excited. He invites all his neighbors because this my son who was lost and dead is now found. God is all over that. It’s his heart. He loves them. He wants them back home. Even if sheep are sick or weak, he nurses them back, gives them special care. Isaiah 40:11-12 says, He will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them close to his heart and gently lead those with young. He restores my soul. The words restoring the soul literally means to make new, to recover.
Since sheep stray, they need to be on the right path. They have directional needs, God meets that need, Tony Evans says. You know, I think I have directional needs too. He leads me along the right paths, verse three. Sheep are prone to wander and become lost. They need guidance. Many of our cars have navigational systems, you may have Google Maps on your phone. If you deviate from the best route to reach your destination, in fact even if you’re not making a mistake but you just want lunch, what happens as you turn off the route? The system talks to you! It says, turn right. It’s a little annoying, isn’t it? Sometimes, it’s there for a purpose and thank God for it when we need it. And it’s handy, but it’s a bit annoying at times. But God, through His Word and His Spirit, leads us along the right path and he reroutes us when we foolishly become wayward. Does your conscious ever pick you when you’re going the wrong way? It’s like it’s say, What are you doing? Notice the reason he wants to go the right way. Look at the last four words of verse three. What does that say? For his name’s sake. He’s by nature, holy and righteous. And as we return, we go his way. We talked about that in a song this morning too, going his way. And what a longing there is to go his way forever, like to do it right, always right. I want that. But we don’t, we’re not there, we’re not perfect here. For his name’s sake. That’s where we need to be. It’s the best place for sheep, to stick close to the master. He keeps you from wandering. But also, it’s good to be near the master isn’t it. It’s a good place to be in. I mean, it’s like a happy place. It’s pleasant to be close to him.
Verse four, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Certainly these verses are used often. We hear them most commonly at funerals. That’s where people use this passage. How certain is death for us if Jesus doesn’t return? It is absolutely, certain. As Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment”. But verse four is a huge help to us, especially people who struggle with fear. And certainly all of us have some element of fear of death. Spurgeon says this, This unspeakably delightful verse has been sung on many a dying bed, and has helped to make the dark valley bright. Every word in it has a wealth of meaning. Even though I walk, as if the believer did not quickened his pace when he came to die, but calmly walked with God. To walk indicates the steady advance of a soul which knows its road, knows it’s end, resolves to follow the path, feels quite safe, and therefore perfectly calm and composed. Observe that it is not walking in the valley but through the valley. We go through the dark tunnel of death and emerge in the light of immortality. We do not die. But we sleep, and we wake in glory. Death is not the house but the porch. Not the goal but the passage to it. Dying is called a valley. The storm breaks on the mountain, but the valley is the place of quietness. And thus often the last days of the Christian are the most peaceful of his whole career. The mountain is bleak and bear but the valley is rich with golden sheaves, and many a saint has reaped more joy and knowledge, when he came to die than ever he did while he lived. And then it is not the valley of death, but the valley of the shadow of death, for death in its substance, has been removed for the believer, and only the shadow of it remains. Someone has said that when there is a shadow, there must be light somewhere. And so there is. Death stands by the side of the highway, in which we have to travel, and the light of heaven shining upon him throws a shadow across our path. Let us then rejoice that there is a light beyond. Nobody is afraid of a shadow. For a shadow cannot stop a man’s progress for a moment. The shadow of a dog cannot bite. The shadow will the sword cannot kill. The shadow of death cannot destroy us. I will fear no evil. Death is the greatest evil, the greatest fear.
There’s such a thing as a dying grace. I’ve heard Steve Brown speak about this. People that have been ministered to and they have a dying grace as they go through that last time before they exit the earth. It comes best when we walk with the shepherd. Right? That’s what we see here, he is with me. I have the opportunity to pray with many people who are walking near the valley of the shadow of death. People who have cancer, severe illness, some that are dying. I try to include this thought in every prayer, that God would be with them in the process. You know, that’s not always true, that he’s going to be with them, if they’re unbelievers. It’s just not so. But I long and I pray for them that they be drawn to him in the process. That they lean on him, that they trust him, that they would come to see Jesus and their need of him, confess their sins and trust Him as their Savior. There’s nothing greater to combat fear than this thought of his presence. Joshua 1:9, when God commands his people saying to be strong and courageous. How? How can that be? How can you be strong and courageous? There was fierce opposition, there was fear of death. But Joshua says, the Lord your God will be with you. Wherever you go, God’s presence makes all the difference.
Verse four, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. The rod is kind of a club. The staff is kind of a hard curved stick. But they comfort me. That’s kind of a strange statement. Let’s explore that. Keller says this, I used to watch the native lads who were having competitions to see who could throw his rod with the greatest accuracy across the greatest distance. The effectiveness of these crude clubs in the hands of skilled shepherds was a thrill to watch. The rod was in fact an extension of the owners own right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power and his authority in any serious situation. The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. And it was furthermore the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insistent on wandering away. If a shepherd saw a sheep wandering on its own or approaching poisonous weeds or growing to close the danger of one sort or another, the club would come whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch. The rod is useful in daily care of each individual sheep. The shepherd uses the rod at times to open the fleece and inspect the animal for injury or parasites. It’s a searching process. You know, God does that for us as well. It’s a comfort for the sheep to know that, that there’s a caring, loving shepherd who inspects them, Psalm 139:23-24 says, Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting. There will be no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. Wow, I kind of thought there’d be a collective groan on that one. Ha, ha.
Finally, the shepherd’s rod is an instrument of protection both for he and his sheep when they’re in danger. It’s used both for defense and a deterrent against anything that would attack. The rod conveys the concept of authority and power and defense, while the staff speaks more of long suffering and kindness. There’s three different areas of sheep management that the staff is use for. It’s used when you’re drawing sheep together, into a close relationship. The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they become separated. But in precisely the same way, the staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old. And he draws them close to himself for examination. It works for the timid sheep, who needs to be drawn close to the shepherd. The staff is also used to guide the sheep. Again and again, I’ve seen a shepherd use his staff to guide a sheep gently onto a new path or through some gate or along some dangerous route. It’s not used to beat the beast. But pressure is applied to guide the sheep and the way the owner wants it to go. In our walk with God, we’re told explicitly by Christ himself that it would be His Spirit who would be sent to guide us and lead us into all truth, John 16:13. So the staff in this sense is represented by the Holy Spirit. The same gracious spirit takes the truth of the Word of God and makes it plain to our hearts and gives us spiritual understanding. It is he who gently and tenderly but persistently says to us, This is the way walk in it. Even though the rod and the staff may bring pain or discomfort, we know they are directed by our loving Shepherd, who is omniscient and all wise and who knows what is best for us, completely, better than we know ourselves. They comfort me. They are a comfort to you, as well.
Verse five, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. God graciously provides a table for us while enemies press in. All who will follow Jesus will suffer opposition, will suffer persecution. There is a calm in the middle of the storm. As we trust Jehovah, he grants us peace even in the conflict. He anoints my head with oil, which speaks of love and respect. In the New Testament, in Luke chapter seven, Jesus comes to the house of Simon. And there’s a lady there that weeps and wipes his feet with her hair. And as he’s talking to Simon later, he brings out Simon’s neglect. He says, when I came to your house, he didn’t anoint my head with oil. And that was the expectation of the day. It’s a custom in the east to do this, to show them respect, you would have anointing oil that you would provide for them. For David, he’s been anointed before. Do you remember when David is anointed? When he’s with Samuel and he’s chosen and the anointing oil is poured over his head and he becomes the king of Israel. And it says at that time, the Holy Spirit came on him and it remained for his entire life.
My cup runs over. There’s abundance which goes beyond the common necessities of life here. This is the luxury This is the cream, the frosting, the gravy, the marrow. The good stuff. Over and above, our soul gets grace that’s abundant. When we were on vacation, I was sitting there and looking at the 23 people in our vacation house and eight little kids and it just did my soul good to look around at that. It’s like, I don’t know, you feel very blessed. You had times like that? David was the king. He received tribute money. He received other revenues from the kingdom. He was provided for but yet he gives thanks to God as though he was destitute here. Overwhelming, thankfulness because he sees himself as a poor destitute sheep. You know, we should do that. No matter how great our blessing, we should be thankful to God for it. What do we have that we have not been given? What’s the answer to that? What do we have that we have not been given? Nothing, zero. There is nothing! It is all from him. We owe it all to him.
Verse six says, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. You know, verse four was a really incredible verse. We can fear no evil. But this is even a greater truth. These twin truths go with us like protective angels. They go with us wherever we go, whatever we encounter, on the bleak days and the bright days, his goodness supplies our needs. And his mercy blots out our sins. And they follow us all our days. I’d like to share with you a comment by a guy you may not have heard of before named John Owen. If you studied the reformation, you learned that in England, John Owen would be similar to Martin Luther in Germany, or Calvin in Geneva. He was a great reformer. He was very intellectual. And he used a lot of big words. So I’ll try to cut out some of the stuff. But bear with me as I share this and take it from this perspective. We know very little about Owens family life. But we know that he was a father, he had 11 children, and none of his children reached adulthood, they all died. There was one that reached into their 20s, and they died in their 20s. And then he buried his wife, so he’s acquainted with death very well. Piper said, Owen averaged a child dying every three years of his adult married life. The Psalmist expresses an exceeding confidence in the midst of inexpressible troubles and pressures. Owen knew that inexpressible trouble and pressure and heartache, he supposes himself walking through the valley of the shadow of death. And as death is the worst of evils, and comprehensive of them all. So the shadow of death is the most dismal and dark representation of those evils to the soul, and the valley of that shadow, the most dreadful bottom and depth of that representation. Even in that condition, in such distress, wherein I am, to my own and the eyes of others, hopeless, helpless, gone and lost. I will fear no evil. That’s a noble resolution, if there be sufficient foundation for it, if it not be accounted rash or groundless confidence, but true spiritual courage. It is because the Lord is with me. But alas, what if the Lord should now forsake you in this condition and give you over to the power of your enemies and suffer you by the strength of your temptations to fall utterly from him? What if that were possible, God were to give you over and you would die and be headed for hell, surely then you would be swallowed up forever, the waters would go over your soul and you must forever lie down in the shades of death. So that brings you to a pretty low place, a pretty downer place, right? Here’s the verse. Yes, says Owen, but I have assurance to the contrary, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Even in the darkest of my days, he promises us.
We shall dwell on the house of the Lord forever. David’s final perspective has no thoughts of earthly treasure. He focuses on eternity. Jesus said, “In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to myself, that where I am you will be also”, John 14:2-3. He wants us to be with him in his house forever and ever and ever. I want to read Revelation 21:1-4, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. And the sea was no more. And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Notice Jesus had gone to prepare a place for us. And the New Jerusalem is coming down. “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people. And God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
I’ll close with this thought from Tony Evans. He says, Submit to the great shepherd of the sheep, Hebrews 13:20. That’s our Lord Jesus Christ, submit yourself to him. He lays down his life for his sheep, John 10:11. And through his wounds, we are healed, 1 Peter 2:24. If you’ve gone astray, returned to him, 1 Peter 2:25, because he knows his sheep, and they know him, John 10:14. He will welcome you. Let’s pray. Lord, we’re thankful that we’re lowly sheep. We pray if there’s any here who don’t know that, that you would draw them to yourself, that you’d enlighten their heart, that you bring them to know you. We’re thankful for these truths. We’re thankful that you are a good shepherd that so provides for our souls in a blessed way. It blessed us in so many ways. God, you take good care of us. We’re thankful for that. Help us to love you and serve you and not to wander but to stick close to you. We thank you in Jesus name, amen.