The Shepherd on the Path – Psalm 23

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Psalm 23:1-3

INTRODUCTION: We are starting a brief three-week series Psalm 23 today, and I am so excited. The Twenty-Third Psalm is one of the best-loved and most well-known sections in the entire Bible. David wrote these words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit more than 3,000 years ago, and these six verses have brought untold comfort to first Jewish and then Christian believers for centuries since. And I believe they are more important than ever for us to hear today, because so many in our time have lost their way and are in desperate need of a shepherd. (Read Psalm 23)

Why is this Psalm so well-loved? I believe it is because instinctively we all know that we need a shepherd. We all need someone to guide us through this labyrinth called life. We read in the gospel of Matthew that “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) That is a telling image for our time. People have let go of God, and as a result they lack purpose and direction in their lives. Psalm 23 reminds us that God stands ready to be our shepherd if we will only let him. God is not a distant God who winds up the universe and lets it go. God is close to us and cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

In this Psalm David, who is himself a shepherd, describes the LORD as his own personal shepherd. And because he has the Lord for his shepherd, he does not lack anything he needs.

We will be looking at this Psalm in three parts over the next three weeks. Today we will look at “The Shepherd on the Path” from verses 1-3. Next week we will look at “The Shepherd in the Valley” from verse 4. And then finally we will look at “The Shepherd at Home” from verses 5-6.

So, we begin today with the shepherd on the path, the shepherd who guides us through the pathway of this life.

I. The Identity of the Shepherd

And first of all I want to focus on the identity of the shepherd in Psalm 23. Who is this shepherd who guides David down the path, who walks with David through the valley, who welcomes David into his home?

    A. The LORD as the Shepherd of Israel (Genesis 49:24)

In verse one David identifies him as the LORD – “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1) You may notice in your Bible that the word “LORD” there is in all capital letters. This is because there are two different words for Lord in the Old Testament. There is “Adonai” which means “Lord or Master.” Adonai is translated Lord with a capital L but lower-case -ord. And then there is the name “Yahweh,” which is translated with all capital letters. Yahweh is God’s personal, covenant name that he revealed to Moses at the burning bush when he told Moses, “I am who I am.”

So who is the shepherd in Psalm 23? He is the LORD. He is Yahweh, the Creator God, God Almighty, God Most High, the One True and Living God who makes and keeps his covenant with his people.

God is called a shepherd elsewhere in Scripture, too. In Genesis 49:24, he is called “the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.” And in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy he leads his people Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land as a shepherd leads his sheep.

    B. The Messiah as the Shepherd to Come (Isaiah 40:10-11; Ezekiel 34:11-15)

Old Testament prophecy revealed that Yahweh was not only a shepherd, but that he would also one day come as a shepherd for his people. Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of the LORD as a shepherd in Isaiah 40: “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:10-11)

Ezekiel also prophesied of a coming shepherd in Ezekiel 34: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.” (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

These prophecies were recognized as pointing forward to the Messiah who would come as a shepherd king to rule over and take care of his people.

    C. Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4)

So it is really no surprise when Jesus arrived and identified himself as a shepherd. In John 10:11: Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) Jesus was drawing on a rich tradition of shepherd imagery from the Old Testament, including Psalm 23 and these prophecies of Messiah. Of course Jesus added a new element to the picture, that of the good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is also called the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).

So who is the shepherd in Psalm 23? He is the Lord, he is God, he is Yahweh. But in the light of the New Testament, we can also identify him as our Lord Jesus, the promised Messiah who laid down his life for his sheep on the cross.

II. A Personal Relationship with the Shepherd

Now that God would condescend to be a shepherd is a wonderful truth, but there is another aspect of verse one that makes this Psalm infinitely sweeter to us. And that is that little word “my.” The Lord is not only a shepherd, but he is “my” shepherd. That speaks of a closeness and a personal relationship with the shepherd. And that makes all the difference in the world. You can have a personal relationship with God as your shepherd.

    A. The shepherd knows his sheep intimately. (John 10:14-15)

The shepherd knows his sheep intimately. A shepherd is different from someone who simply raises cattle on a ranch. The shepherd knows each of his sheep individually and develops a close relationship with them. He knows their habits, he knows their weaknesses, and he knows their strengths. He is there when the sheep is born, he is there when the sheep is ill, he is there when the sheep wanders away, and he is there to bring the sheep back into the fold. He often gives each sheep a name based on the sheep’s personality and special circumstances.

Jesus said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (John 10:14-15) There is no deeper relationship in the world than the relationship between the members of the Trinity. The three persons of the trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – have existed as one God in perfect harmony for all of eternity. And yet Jesus dares to model his relationship with his sheep after his own relationship with the Father, the deepest, most intimate relationship imaginable.

    B. The sheep know the shepherd. (John 10:3-4)

But this is not a one-way relationship. Not only does the shepherd know his sheep. The sheep know the shepherd. That’s what Jesus said: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (John 10:14) Jesus also said, “The sheep listen to [the shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out … he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:3-4)

Each shepherd in the Middle East develops a distinctive call that his sheep immediately recognize. So when two shepherds and their flocks cross paths with each other, there is no problem. The shepherd keeps calling out to his sheep, and the flocks may mingle momentarily, but the sheep know their shepherd’s voice, and so the flocks eventually separate with each set of sheep happily following after their master’s voice.

This is the beauty of Psalm 23. The Lord is not simply a shepherd. He is my shepherd. I know him, and he knows me. This is the beauty of Christianity. Christianity is not about a set of rules or regulations. It is about enjoying a personal relationship with your God and Creator through his Son Jesus Christ. The shepherd knows his sheep. And the sheep know their shepherd.

III. The Provision of the Shepherd – He provides for all your needs.

We have looked at the identity of the shepherd, we have looked at a personal relationship with the shepherd. And lastly today, I want to look at the provision of the shepherd.

The shepherd’s provision is summed up in verse one when David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1) The two statements go together. You can’t have one without the other, and once you have one the other comes with it. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. Unless the Lord is my shepherd, I shall be in want. If I am not in want, it is because the Lord is my shepherd. And if I am in want, then the Lord is not my shepherd.

Because when it comes right down to it, the Lord himself is the real provision that I need. He is the one thing necessary, and if I have him as my shepherd, then I lack nothing. Give me Jesus, and I will be satisfied.

And yet along with Jesus, God in his grace gives us all good things. Psalm 84:11 says, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” (Psalm 84:11) God does not withhold anything good from those who walk with him. This means if you are walking with the Lord and you don’t have something, then either it is not good or it is not good for you to have it at this time. We sometimes wonder why God has not answered our prayers. We need to trust his wisdom and understand that God is often accomplishing a greater good in the withholding than he would by the giving.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1) This is the shepherd’s provision. When Jesus undertakes to be your shepherd, he promises to provide for all your needs. And this is beautifully illustrated for us in verses 2-3:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

    A. He provides for your physical needs (Psalm 23:2a)

First of all, he provides for your physical needs. This is illustrated for us by the green pastures: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” (Psalm 23:2a) “Green” here is the word for new grass. These aren’t just any pastures. The good shepherd leads the sheep to good grazing pasture, rich and fresh and green, full of nutrients, beauty and life. God wants to make your life beautiful, and he has promised to supply all your needs through his glorious riches in Christ. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

Notice that the shepherd makes the sheep “lie down” (a word that literally means “to stretch yourself out”) in the green pastures. Phillip Keller in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, shares how sheep do not lie down naturally on their own. From his experience he notes four things that must take place before a sheep will lie down and rest. The sheep must be free of fear from predators, free of tension within the flock, free of flies or parasites, and free from hunger. He then goes on to demonstrate how the good shepherd calms their fears, brings unity to the flock, treats the animals for insects, and leads them to good pastures. Jesus does the same thing for us, meeting all our needs, making it possible for us to lie down in green pastures.

    B. He provides rest and peace in an anxious world (Psalm 23:2b)

Secondly, he provides peace and rest in an anxious world. This is illustrated for us by the quiet waters: “He leads me beside quiet waters.” (Psalm 23:2b) or you may know the translation “still waters.” Either way, it’s a word that means a place of quietness and rest.

We live such busy, fast-paced lives, full of tension and strife. A lot of us live on the edge with little or no margin, and anxiety can become a way of life. Jesus offers you a better way. When you follow him as shepherd, he leads you beside quiet waters. He slows you down, he helps you focus on what’s important, and he gives you his peace. Oh how we need a shepherd to lead us through these crazy times. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and he will lead you to the resting place, to that oasis of peace in the midst of a crazy and anxious world.

    C. He provides correction and renewal when you fall (Psalm 23:3a)

Jesus provides for your physical needs, he provides rest and peace in an anxious world, and thirdly, he provides correction and renewal when you fall. Psalm 23:3: “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) That word “restore” is a word that speaks of refreshing and renewal.

Phillip Keller in his book tells how as a shepherd one of the greatest dangers for his sheep was when a sheep became “cast” or “cast down.” This is an old English term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot not get back up again. If the shepherd does not find and restore the sheep, especially on a hot or sunny day, the cast sheep can die within a matter of hours.

We all fall at times – “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” We are cast down in our souls, and oh how we need the shepherd to come and restore us. Please know when you fall down, Jesus doesn’t abandon you. He doesn’t leave you alone. Rather he comes to you to restore you. If you have fallen in sin, he disciplines and corrects you as needed. If you are cast down by sadness in life, he looks to renew you.
When King David sinned against God, he knew he needed restoration. And so he prayed:

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:10-12)

Psalm 51 is such a beautiful prayer of repentance. What a comfort to know that when you fall and can’t get back up again, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who comes looking for you, who restores your soul, who provides correction and renewal when you fall.

    D. He provides guidance for your life (Psalm 23:3b)

Jesus provides for your physical needs, he provides rest and peace in an anxious world, he provides correction and renewal when you fall, and finally, he provides guidance for your life. Psalms 23:3: “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3b)

Sheep are pretty much helpless when it comes to finding their way on their own, and they are notorious for going off the wrong way. Left to themselves they would never find the green pastures and quiet waters that David speaks of in this Psalm.

We are the same way. We need God’s guidance. There are so many wrong paths out there, so many ways to bring damage to your life and to the lives of people you love. We all need someone to show us the right way to go. Jesus is the good shepherd, and he will show you the right way. We cannot be happy unless we are holy, and we cannot be holy unless we let God guide us in paths of righteousness.

And notice why God does this. David says, “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3b) That may seem a little odd to you at first. Doesn’t God guide me just because he loves me? Well, yes, God does guide you because he loves you, but not just because he loves you. He guides you in paths of righteousness because it brings him glory. It’s the same thing Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) God guides you in righteous paths so that you may follow. And when you do follow, it brings him glory. We glorify God best when we live a life that is pleasing to him.

What is the message of these first three verses in Psalm 23? The Lord provides for you as a shepherd provides for his sheep. Jesus provides for your physical needs, he provides rest and peace in an anxious world, he provides correction and renewal when you fall, and finally, he provides the guidance you need for your life.

Application Questions:

In closing today, I would like to ask you two questions.

1) Who is your shepherd?

First of all, who is your shepherd? Who is guiding you through life? Who are you following? Phillip Keller shares about the man who shepherded the fields next to his. This man was not a good shepherd. He did not take good care of his sheep, he did not treat their illnesses, he did not provide good pasture for them. Keller shares how the neighbor’s sheep would look longingly through the fence at the good pastures on the other side where his own sheep were grazing, well-fed and cared for.

The well-being of the sheep depends entirely on their shepherd. So who is your shepherd? What kind of pasture are they providing for you? There is no shepherd like the Lord Jesus. He is the good shepherd who laid down his life for you that you might have life. Are you following him?

2) Where is your pasture?

And then secondly, where is your pasture? Where have you been feeding lately? Perhaps Jesus is your shepherd, but you have wandered from the flock. Maybe it’s been a long time since you have known green pastures or quiet waters. You are a cast sheep, and you need to be restored. Know that Jesus loves you, he comes to you, and he will restore your soul. Will you let him do that today?

You see this is the beautiful message of Psalm 23. You are not left alone to fend for yourself in this world. You have a shepherd who loves you, who cares for you, who provides for you, who guides you, who protects you, who watches over you at all times. Jesus is the good shepherd. All you need to do is follow him.

© Ray Fowler

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