Saturday 18 July 2015

This morning I want to turn with you to Psalm 23.

Written over 3,000 years ago it is still the most known passage in the Bible by believers, non believers and part believers. I have taken hundreds of funerals over the last forty years and I could count on my fingers the number of times this psalm has not been either said or sung. Whilst it is so popular at funerals, it is not meant for death, but rather life, and sometime is more appropriately used at weddings.

The psalm was written by David, the greatest name in Jewish history and their greatest king. When he wrote it he had been overthrown from his throne temporarily by his own son, and had to flee to the wilderness. He never lost trust and faith in God, and was confident of the Lord’s care.

Drawing on his boyhood experience of tending sheep, he pictured himself as a sheep and God as the shepherd, and applied the imagery of both to his human situation.

Although widely used now, most people do not think about, or understand, what it is saying. It is especially helpful to anyone passing through an emotional experience, or personal crisis.

Of course many people don’t feel they need any help, certainly not spiritually, and think they can solver their own problems, not David, nor anyone who has come to know the Lord.

A shepherd in Eastern terms was rather different to what we know as a shepherd; it was a 24 hours job, and as there were not the fields for the sheep to graze in, it meant the shepherd had to walk the sheep many miles to find pasture, and so a close relationship existed between sheep and shepherd, with the sheep being known by name.

It was a dangerous occupation, for the shepherd had to protect the sheep from wild animals roaming, and those trying to steal sheep.

David begins with the word, ‘The LORD is my shepherd’. The original word used was Jehovah, the one true God, the God of the Bible, the God of Israel. Other faiths have their own gods, but in the Judeo/Christian belief there is only one God.

He is the shepherd. I shall not want. If God is our shepherd we shall not want. This does not mean we shall be provided with riches or luxuries, but He will provide what we need. He is claiming a close relationship, and Christianity is a personal relationship which we now have between us and Jesus Christ, for all who accept His death on the Cross was their forgiveness. If we trust God we will lack for nothing; God wants us to depend on Him and feel we need Him.

David then sets out the way our needs are met. He makes me lie down in green pastures beside still waters. The shepherd will know where there are such pastures and will guide the sheep to them where they can eat and drink. Sheep cannot drink from running water so need somewhere where there is still water.

The sheep are pictured being led to an idyllic spot where they will be fed, for the shepherd will have gone ahead to make sure that is the right place. This reminds me of being in the Scottish Highlands with sheep resting on the side of a Loch.

As we feed upon the word of God we see the Lord Jesus there. We draw upon him and our inner man is satisfied. Jesus told His disciples, ‘this is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.’

The second thing the Good Shepherd does is to give direction in life: He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake. The path the sheep would take would in fact be a narrow, well-worn trail. The shepherd knows the trails. He has been there before, and the sheep trust him.

The sheep would be led along a narrow track and be guided by the shepherd so they did not stray. God wants us to guide us, and directs us the road to take. Jesus said the road was narrow and only few would take it. This is because sacrifices must be made; a certain way of life led according to biblical teaching, and restraint of undesirable passions. It is so easy in this secular world to be led astray.

Yea thought I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear not evil for thy rod and staff they comfort me. The third thing David says that a good shepherd does is to provide protection:

The shepherd would lead his sheep back home at evening. As they go down through a narrow gorge it would be dark and dangerous. The sheep, because they are so timid and defenceless, would be frightened by their experience. But they trust the shepherd, and therefore they are at ease.

Sometimes we may be frightened by the evil we see in the world, horrified by the moral depths we see people partaking in, and wonder if the Lord has left the world to its own devices. But God says he never leaves us and is always there. Therefore we have no reason to fear.

‘Your rod and staff they comfort me’. The rod was a heavy wooden club with a knob on the end, which was used to drive off wild animals. It was never used on the sheep, but was a heavy instrument used to protect the sheep from other wild animals. The staff was a slender pole with a little crook on the end. It was used to aid the sheep. The crook could be hooked around the leg of a sheep to pull him from harm. Or it could be used as an instrument to direct, and occasionally to discipline the sheep, with taps on the side of the body.

When we go wandering away he doesn't come with a big club, like a caring father He corrects and shows us how to act righteously. Like sheep we can go astray if left to our own devices, so the heavenly shepherd keeps us on the right path.

In Verses 5 and 6 David changes the tone moving God from the good shepherd to the generous welcoming host.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The Lord spreads a sumptuous meal before him, a great banquet, in the presence of his enemies. This embraces all the benefits David has used before. That God feeds and provides, leads and protects.

In the East it was customary to anoint a guest to make them look and smell nice, so they would place perfumed oil over the head and smooth it down. A drink would be poured out in such a way that the wine would overflow the cup so the host would be seen to be giving all he could.

The psalm ends with David his life continuing with God. David says that God's goodness and mercy shall follow him, for the rest of his life and then after death will live in God’s house in the next life. He looks forward to spending all his days in the house of the Lord where he will always have a home.

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