Sunday, 29 April 2007

The psalm of the sheep

I have spent the last few days preparing a sermon which I'm giving tomorrow at my church in Lancaster, Moorlands Evangelical Church. I have been given the privilege of speaking on one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament, Psalm 23.

It's been quite a challenge putting the sermon together. This has partly been because the psalm is so famous - and because so often it is used merely as a form of escapism or nostalgia. Yet that is most definitely not what David is talking about - he speaks both of 'the valley of the shadow of death' and of 'enemies'. So what does the psalm mean when David says, 'The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want'?

The first thing to notice is that David describes the LORD as 'my Shepherd'. Both of these words are crucial. Firstly, the LORD is my Shepherd. Although often God deals more with nations and corporate Israel in the OT, David can trust God as his personal Shepherd. Secondly, the LORD
is my Shepherd. This one of the most intimate names given to the LORD in all of the psalms. It indicates complete trust and reliance on the LORD, the same as an individual sheep in the Middle East relies on the provision from its shepherd.

The rest of the psalm shows David's complete confidence in the LORD as his shepherd. The LORD is my Shepherd, therefore I shall not want. All of the rest of the psalm flows from the convictions that David has with the LORD as his personal Shepherd.

Verse 2 speak not of material gain but of the spiritual nourishment that David receives from the LORD. The LORD's provision for individual is, says David, similar to the provision of Canaan for the people of Israel (the language of verse 2 mirrors language used to describe the Promised Land elsewhere in the OT) and provides spiritual contentment and fulfilment. Not only that, but the LORD's guidance (verse 3) is an amazing relief. The believer does not have to wonder what the best way of living is, but trusts the LORD and the guidance and restoration he provides through his Word (see Psalm 19:7-9).

Nor will the LORD abandon his people. Even in the 'darkest valleys', the believer can be confident of the LORD's ongoing care for individual people. Even when we struggle to believe that God is shepherding us, he is still there, and ready with his staff and rod.

The LORD's shepherding in the past gives David the confidence that he will continue to shepherd him well into the future. As verse 6 puts it, 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever'. The consummation of the LORD's shepherding will be a relationship that starts now and goes on with him forever.

If you are like me, you are a cynic. And we need to be shown that the LORD really is as trustworthy as the psalm makes out. Well, for people like us, there are two gems.

The first is in verse 3. There’s a line there that’s very easy to skip over: ‘He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.’ Here is the LORD's primary motive in shepherding us: his motive is ‘for his name’s sake.’ His motive is to display the honour of his name, to show how wonderful he is. And, as Piper puts it, 'there is nothing that better displays God’s honour, his character, his glory, his all-sufficiency, than to overflow in goodness and mercy toward needy, sheep-like people – just like you and me'. The LORD's own glory, the honour of his name, hangs on how he shepherds us. And so when we find ourselves in situations wondering whether God is trustworthy, we can remind ourselves with this truth: God has staked his own glory on how he shepherds us. I do not think that when we get to heaven we'll look back and think that the LORD has done an average job in shepherding us! Surely then we will be able to reflect on the amazing way in which God has guided and shepherded us. And that is a great reassurance and spur to trusting him in the situations we find ourselves in now.

Secondly, Jesus takes up the image in John 10. I'm sure that Jesus had Psalm 23 in mind in at least part of his 'Good Shepherd' discourse. And the amazing thing that has struck me this week is that Jesus' actions for his sheep ('The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep' - verse 11) both allow the possibility of a relationship with the LORD at all, and also proves the ultimate trustworthiness of the Shepherd. He has met our deepest needs, and so we can trust him in any situation we find ourselves in now.

NB: I found very few sermons that I consider handled the text well on Psalm 23, which were faithful to Biblical theology and also looked for how the psalm points forward to Jesus. One outstanding talk, however, is Don Carson on Psalm 23.

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