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I wonder if you’ve ever found life hard? Some people have been dealt a really difficult hand of cards. Life doesn’t seem to work; everything seems a struggle. Russell Brand, who I do not agree with most of what he says, made an insightful tweet when he said, “Society is collapsing and people are starting to recognise that the reason they feel like they’re mentally ill is that they’re living in a system that’s not designed to suit the human spirit.” In other words, human beings aren’t designed for modern life. It’s not just on an individual level; as a nation, Covid 19 Pandemic raised the level of difficulty in our lives. In recent days, in Ukraine, millions are caught up in a senseless war.
The 21st century Christian life is becoming difficult for us. Places of work can be difficult for faithful Christians. We are being increasingly marginalised for being a Christian. Afghanistan is number one on the Open Doors watch list of persecuted churched. It says, ‘With the Taliban in power, it has never been more dangerous to be a secret Afghan believer.’ For persecuted Christians in places such as North Korea, South Sudan, Somalia, life often hangs by a thread.
If you don’t believe in the God of the Bible, know Him personally through Jesus Christ, then your source of help will be different to Christians. You may look at self-help or book a holiday. These might help in some way. However, in many ways, these might only be good for a short-term solution. The Christian, in contrast, has Psalm 23. What a refuge this is in a time of trouble. The Christian has the person Psalm 23 talks about. Not anything, in all the world, not even death itself, can shake the shelter that this person provides.
Psalm 23 is very well known. The words are familiar, but are the truths equally known? Psalm 23 is a psalm of confidence. There’s lots of imagery, lots of comforting pictures being painted: green pastures, quiet waters, a cheering banqueting table, but our greatest focus should be on the great person mentioned here. He is pictured firstly as a shepherd, then a host.
Apparently, the ten million sheep in this country account for ½ of the entire UK flock. A quad-biking, whistle-blowing shepherd today is very different from the shepherds of the Ancient Middle East. However, whether ancient or modern, the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is the same. They are totally dependent on the shepherd for food, water and protection. Without the shepherd, the sheep would not last long. It was in this sense that ancient near-eastern societies saw their own kings. It was not uncommon for them to be referred to as shepherds of their people. The kings would shepherd their people by ruling justly and wisely. It is very interesting that David, the shepherd turned king, saw God as his own king and shepherd.
The picture we get of God here is fantastic. He is a protecting God, He is a caring God, He is a sacrificial God, He is a providing God. He is not distant. Here, David is speaking of the Lord in such a personal way. Here is a God, even though He transcends the universe, has dealings with David on an individual level.
At the start of the Psalm, God is called the Lord, or Yahweh. This is the name He gives when He passes in front of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:6). Here is a God who is a covenant-making God who maintains love to thousands and forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin. Here is a God who is not leaving the nation of Israel to their own devices, to die out in the desert. He is shepherding them to the Promised Land.
The Lord is my shepherd. Here, I think, is another level of relationship – God is not just the God of Israel, but here is a God who deals with individuals. David goes on to say, ‘I shall not be in want.’ The result of God’s care for him is he has everything he needs.
Verses 3 and 4 expand on God’s care for His sheep.
“He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, 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.”
God acts. He proves it by what He does. Do you see how complete God’s provision is? In these pastures the sheep would have food, water and rest. In the pastures and watering holes sheep would not need to move to have what they need to be sustained.
‘He restores my soul.’ This is not only physical rest but spiritual rest too. In his life, God is leading David along straight paths. The idea of ‘Paths of righteousness’ continue that picture of ease. In his life, God is leading David along right paths, straight paths, not crooked ones. The language of covenant – that agreement, that relationship between God and Man – comes again through that phrase, ‘For His Name’s sake.’ God has bound Himself to His people and to the individuals who are part of God’s people (Exodus 3:12). What is fabulous is that God’s care for David is not limited to the green pastures but also to dark valleys too. The shadowy ravines – even there – there is a close relationship between David and His Lord.
‘Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.’ The shepherd would have had that rod to fight off predators. It was also divine protection and sustenance, and also divine disciple. What amazing trust in the Lord. It begs the question, ‘What about us?’ Think how much light we have with New Testament scriptures. John 10 – the shepherd being spoken of here is Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). Do you believe that He lay down His life for you? Do you know Him? If so, then Psalm 23 is for you!
Have you noticed in John 10, before that great statement, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10b). The life of the Christian is the best life. Jesus really is all that you and I will ever need. Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) Wow! What a statement! When we know Jesus, nothing in the world can get close to Him. There really is no-one like Jesus.
Other scriptures speak of Jesus the Shepherd, such as Isaiah 40:11,
“He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young.”
He tends His sheep. He gathers them. Notice the verbs. This isn’t sentimental rubbish. This person is also the sovereign Lord, who comes in power. He knows exactly how to deal with His sheep, which is why life with Jesus has soul restoring green pastures and quiet waters. Therefore, for the Christian, they are not floundering around in the darkness. Even when death is close by, they fear no evil because Jesus is with them. Do you love Jesus more than anything else in this world? Life is hard, it really is. But hold onto Him, knowing that He is holding onto you.
This Psalm just gets better and better as you go through it. If you thought that the metaphor for the Lord as the shepherd was a rich image, then how about the picture painted in verses 5 and 6 of the host?
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.”
I wonder if, as evangelical Christians, we’ve forgotten that David’s experience of His Lord was like being at a banqueting table? For David, with his God, he was having the time of his life. What is our experience of our Lord? Is life with our Lord like being at a feast or a lavish celebration, or is it rather dull and dour, a kind of spiritual drudgery? David is a guest at the Lord’s table. He is an honoured guest, having his head anointed with oil.
The table is prepared in the presence of David’s enemies. It suggests that the Lord has brought before David his own enemies, his vanquished enemies, to watch in envy as he sits down to his meal. What a lavish banquet this is. His cup overflows, blessings are piled on David’s life. He is receiving more than enough on his life. David has God Himself. For David it is only the Lord who truly satisfies. It fills him to bursting. Is it possible for it to get better for David? Yes! It does. It’s not a temporary measure,
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Quite a statement! God’s overflowing blessings to David will follow him all the days of his life. It will never leave him alone. It gets better again. It’s one thing to go for a meal, but another to stay for ever, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David’s confidence swells up to eternal life. The blessings never end.
Compared to the Christian, David, along with all Old Testament believers of Hebrews 11, only saw from a distance, what we have. David’s experience of his Lord is multiplied to us this side of Calvary. We also are invited to a table. We are also given a cup that overflows. We also are going to an eternal hope.
At the table of the Lord’s Supper, we are continuing that Last Supper that Jesus had with His closest friends. As the disciples reclined with Jesus at the table in such an intimate setting, we too, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, do something similar. We are celebrating the fact that Jesus’ substitutional death on the cross was so effective, so powerful, so complete, that the dividing wall between a sinful man and a holy God was completely knocked down. In faith we can step into the Holy of Holies and enjoy an intimate relationship with the one true and living God.
We can know God as our friend. In a way, it’s almost as if we are feasting with Him in the presence of our vanquished enemies. You know, Christians, we have vanquished enemies? We have three of them: sin, death and hell. Our sins, not in part, but the whole, are nailed to His cross, and we bear them no more. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, o my soul! Death, the grave, have no victory, no sting because Jesus lives in the power of an endless life. He has broken the power of death once and for all. For the Christian, there is no fear of hell. Jesus has already told us in John 14, ‘Don’t let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in Him.’ In His Father’s house there are many rooms and right now, He is preparing a place for us. That is where we’re heading.
Does the Christians cup overflow? Yes! Why should it surprise us at what the Lord has done? Perhaps because we’ve normalised the blessings that we have received. Perhaps we’ve become used to the fact that we’re saved? It’s a terrible thing but it’s easy to do.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you ever sit down and think about what you are and what you have? Does it not make us absolutely in awe? We’re saved! We’ve been washed, we’ve been sanctified, we’ve been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God, and now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is all of Him. It’s all Jesus’ work, which means whatever accusation Satan throws at me, nothing will ever change my standing before God. Which is why the Christian can sing with David,
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
In Christ, God’s treatment of His own is constant: goodness and love, goodness and love, goodness and love to the end. Remember, the Christian has been adopted into God’s family. If you’re in the family, you never have to leave. When this passing world is done, we will continue to live in the house of the Lord forever. Hallelujah!
I absolutely love 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” This is just spectacular. Of course, our cup overflows. This Psalm is the experience of those who can truly say that the Lord is my shepherd.
If you’re not a Christian here, do you want the Lord to be your shepherd? Do you want Him to be with you through the valley of the shadow of death? Do you want your cup to overflow? Do you want God’s goodness and love to pursue you all the days of your life? Do you want to dwell in the house of the Lord forever? You can have it all! Amen.