The Lord is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
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 your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 16th July 2017 at All Saints’ Church, Lindfield, West Sussex.

What is the link between Clint Eastwood, George W Bush and Eminem? They’ve all referenced Psalm 23 in their work – in a film, in a speech and in a song respectively. These aren’t the only well-known figures who have quoted from Psalm 23. Coolio, Tupac and Kanye West have all included words from this Psalm in their songs, as have Fall Out Boy, Jay-Z, Hollywood Undead, Megadeth, Marilyn Manson, U2, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Duke Ellington amongst many others. It’s been set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Schubert, Ralph Vaughn Williams to name just a few. The Psalm was read in the film Titanic and at Whitney Houston’s memorial service.

Clearly there’s something about this Psalm that resonates through the ages and with people of all faiths or of no faith. It’s certainly one of the best-known texts in the Bible.

But how well do we really know this Psalm? There’s a danger with well-known texts that, precisely because we know them so well we cease to reflect on the words and the meaning behind them.

This evening I would like to share three points relating to the Psalm. I’ve picked out three reasons why, like David, we might like to declare that the Lord God is our shepherd. These reasons are:

  • Firstly, when we make God the shepherd of our lives, he provides for us;
  • Secondly, God restores us;
  • Thirdly, God guides and protects us.

On to our first point, then, God provides for us.

I’m no fan of shopping. I tried to avoid it as much as I can. Sometimes I feel inspired, however, and brave the shops. Within minutes of arriving however, I feel like I lose the will to live, and end up retreating into Costa for a caramel latte. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love online shopping. Even here I’ve been let down a couple of times recently. I ordered some goggles recently from Wiggle with next day delivery, and it took them an age to turn up. Similarly, I ordered some T-shirts from Fat Face, also with next day delivery, and they eventually arrived several days later. First world problems, I know, but I did find the experience infuriating.

Luckily, David knew that he had a much more reliable source than Wiggle or Fat Face to provide him with all his needs. In Psalm 23 he makes it clear that he trusts God completely to provide him with all his needs.

He declares right at the outset that the Lord is his shepherd. He has made a personal decision to allow God take on the role of a shepherd in his life, whilst he adopted the role of a sheep, making himself entirely dependent on God. He had complete trust that God would provide him with all that he needs, declaring, “I shall not want.”

As the shepherd of his father’s flock, David knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to provide for his sheep. Without their shepherd, David’s sheep would have died.
David understood that God fulfils the same role for his people. David trusted God to take care of all of his needs.

Living in a materialistic society it is not easy for us to echo David’s words and proclaim “I shall not want.” We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is always something that we want.

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t. But God provides for us according to our needs, not according to our greed.

David returns to this theme in the second half of verse five, when he says, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

David understands that God is not a miserly provider, but the most generous benefactor.

It was common at this time for a host to anoint a distinguished guest’s head with oil on arrival at their home. David knew that, despite his lowly position, each day of his life he is treated by God as an honoured guest, his head anointed personally by his Lord.

David follows this up by saying that the cup his Lord gives him is overflowing. Here’s an image of the abundant generosity of God. God holds nothing back from his people but graciously provides us with all that we need – and more. His goodness literally overflows.

David is clear that God’s generous provision is something that never leaves him. In verse 6 of Psalm 23 he says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

David understands that God bestows good things on him all day, every day. Not a day goes by when God does not provide for David in abundance. Similarly, David understands that he is never separated from God’s mercy.

If we understand that God’s goodness and mercy follows us all day, every day, then we have every reason to be thankful. Why not take the opportunity for a few minutes each day to think about all the good things that God has given you? If we consciously adopt a more thankful attitude then the world will seem a much more pleasant place. Our gratitude will be apparent to all whom we encounter too, serving as an amazing witness.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust God to provide for us in abundance? Can we join David and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

On to our second point, God restores us.

I’ve just had a lovely week. The school where I teach has the builders in and so we were forced to finish early for the summer holidays. Consequently I’ve spent the last week on the beach with my wife, Claire, and children, Daniel and Lily. We’ve had a lovely time, and I feel well rested. A good rest was exactly what I needed after an incredibly busy and stressful term at school.

I have no doubt that I’m not the only one here who often finds life just too fast paced. Many of us have lifestyles that are often very busy. Whether we spend our day preparing for exams, looking after our families, or working every hour under the sun, it sometimes feels like we simply do not have the time to rest.

In Psalm 23, David presents us with a vision of peace. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. David knew when shepherding his father’s flock that he needed to ensure that he gave his sheep time to rest. Without sufficient rest, David knew his sheep would become stressed and distressed, which could have a serious impact on their health, and the health of the wider flock.

David understood that his shepherd, the Lord, looked out for him in a similar way, ensuring that he found sufficient time to rest and recover from the busyness of his own life.

If like David we make God the shepherd of our lives, if we dedicate our lives to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that God will show us peace.

The rest that David knew he received from God was not limited to just physical and mental rest. David trusted that God would provide him with spiritual rest that “restores his soul,” as he wrote in verse 3. This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

If we want to find true peace, then that can be found only in one place – through a relationship with God. True peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour.

Jesus promised this kind of rest to his followers when he said “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is recorded in chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel.
It’s interesting the wording that David uses in verse 2. He doesn’t say that God occasionally suggests that he might like to take a break, or even that God tells him to take a break. No, he says that God makes him lie down in green pastures. David implies that God is active in making him take a break. Perhaps there are times when God intervenes in our lives in order to make us stop.

If we wish to join David in declaring that the Lord is our shepherd, perhaps we should reflect on this element of the Psalm. Perhaps we should consciously find opportunities to take rest in order that we might better understand the peace of God. Ultimately we have to trust in God’s goodness as our shepherd, not in our own strength.

David trusted that God would restore him and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and restore our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”
Let’s move on to our third point, which is, that God guides and protects us.

I’m a big fan of Sat-Navs. I’m just about old enough to remember big, old fashioned road atlases. When I first learnt to drive, if I was going on a long journey I used to consult the road atlas in advance, and then write out road numbers and junction numbers on Post-It notes to fix to the dashboard of my car. Sat-Navs have certainly made life much easier. They can sometimes go wrong, though. When I was on a driving holiday in Arizona with my friend Clive we had two Sat-Navs running just to ensure we didn’t get lost. But somehow we still ended up completely stranded in the middle of a desert. We drove past those rather creepy swinging signs you sometimes see used to illustrate impending disaster in films. We passed road signs that had been shot to pieces. Then we eventually got our big four by four stuck firmly into deep sand. It turned out that both of our Sat-Navs were pretty useless!

David certainly knew a great deal about deserts, and I’m sure he must have got lost once or twice. He knew that in God he had a reliable guide, however. He states in verse 3, “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. David understood that the right paths through the journey of his life were those that bring glory to God.

We can learn a great deal from David here. Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. It can be a real struggle at times to know which way we should head in life, particularly when we reflect on potentially life changing decisions. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

If we put our trust in God as our shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. Our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, since these are what Jesus described as the greatest commandments. If we factor these into the decisions that we make, as well as dwelling on God’s word, and spending time in prayer, then God will provide us with the direction that we so desperately seek.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings into straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

Of course, sometimes these paths will take us into places where we would rather not be. David knows that the path that he follows through life will take him into dark places. He says in verse 4, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

For David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life journey will take dark turns. He does not say, “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

In our busy, stressful world, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.
David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, God would be with him still. He trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

If we trust God as our shepherd, we need never fear anything that life might throw at us, because he will never abandon us. He remains with us at all times, whether we find ourselves in a period of great joy, a period of great sadness, or a low period of depression. Just as a shepherd would never abandon or turn his back on his sheep, our faithful God will never leave us.

Of course, it is precisely when we hit those dark periods of life that we might feel utterly abandoned; by our friends, by our families, even by God. Yet David is absolutely clear that God is always with him. Scripture is clear that God will never abandon us. We might need the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help us to see this, but God will never abandon us, he doesn’t ever abandon us, he is always with us. God has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

God is also fully equipped to protect and guide us. The shepherd in the Psalm has a rod which he uses to deal with any threats that the sheep might encounter. He also has a staff which he uses to gently prod and guide his flock in the right direction.

If we make Jesus the shepherd of our lives, then we too can draw great comfort from his presence as our protector and guide.

As a shepherd, David knew that there might be times when leading his sheep when he would be forced to put his life on the line to protect his flock. Whilst looking after his father’s sheep, David had to fight off lions and bears.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for those who follow him. He said, as recorded in John 10, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. To save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

David knew that God would guide and protect him, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we trust that Jesus will guide and protect us and declare, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Psalm 23 may just be six short verses, but I have found it to be an incredibly rich source of inspiration, instruction and guidance. I have hardly been able to scratch the surface of its depth this evening. I hope, however, that David’s words have inspired you to consider the extent to which you know that leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in your own lives. I hope that having seen how the Shepherd God provides for us, restores us, and protects and guides us, you have been challenged to become more sheep-like in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Darkest Valley

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Canyon in Death Valley

Canyon in Death Valley National Park. Image by Simon Lucas.

A few years ago I found myself in a job that I hated. The bleakness of my situation drove me into despair and depression. At the time it felt almost as if I was in a tunnel, unable to see the light at either end. I felt like there were enemies all around me, plotting my downfall. I had no idea how to escape from that truly horrible situation. Of course, the reality of human life is that at some point most, if not all of us, will experience times like this. It might be that we find ourselves, like I did, stuck in a job that we don’t like, or in a bad relationship, or battling addictions or facing an uncertain economic future. Whatever the nature of our circumstances, the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

It is times like this that the Psalmist points us to in this famous verse from the Psalm. David describes these times as a ‘valley’. When we’re in that valley the temptation might be to cower away in the corner, hoping that the end will come to us. Hiding can seem like the best solution.

That logic is flawed, however. What point is there in hiding in a dark valley? What we need to do instead is march on with confidence, battling through the troubles and difficulties, realising that sooner or later we will reach the light once more.

The Psalmist once again inspires us with hope and confidence. Even when we are in that deep, dark valley, God is still with us. He is walking alongside us, and what’s more, he is equipped to tackle any threats that come our way. No matter what circumstances jump out at us, no matter what enemies, God is equipped with a rod and a staff, and is well prepared to defend us. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing that can threaten us when we walk with God; he is, after all, the supreme power of the universe! We can draw comfort from God’s presence, and the understanding that he will protect us against any evil that might come our way.

David said in Psalm 23 that he fears no evil for God is with him. Jesus is not only with us, but he paid the ultimate price and died to protect us from evil, and to ensure that we have a bright future ahead of us in heaven when we die.

David trusted that God would protect him at the darkest times of his life, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God lead us through our dark times and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

For more material on Psalm 23 and full details of my book, ‘The Shepherd God,’ check out the Shepherd God pages on this site.

As featured on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ on Friday 17th April 2015.

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He guides me in paths of righteousness

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3(b)

Image source: broraz.com.

Image source: broraz.com.

Sat-navs are fantastic gadgets. Just pop in the post code of the location you wish to get to, and it’ll take you there. That’s the theory, anyway. A couple of years ago I found myself driving through Arizona. I was on a fairly busy interstate when my sat-nav told me to turn off, which I duly did. Very quickly I found myself lost in the midst of a vast desert, whereupon my sat-nav decided it no longer knew where I was or where I wanted to be. I was well and truly lost, and it took me some time to find my way back onto a major road.

There are times in our lives when we feel lost. We feel like we have pulled into a desert with no clear exit and simply don’t know where to go. Maybe we’re stuck in a job that we don’t like, but can’t see a way out, or we’re in an unhealthy relationship, or we simply want some guidance about where to go next. Where do we turn?

Well we might feel uncertain of the direction our lives should be heading in, but God our Father has a clear vision. He has a way marked out for all us, a path that will be pleasing, and that will best serve his and our needs. When we feel lost, we just need to trust that God knows what he is doing, trust that he will lead us, and pray that he will guide us.

If we let God guide us, that worry that inhabits us about whether we are doing the right thing will diminish, because we can rely on God’s encouragement. We can also draw comfort from the fact that the paths that he leads us down are “paths of righteousness,” paths that will help us to shape our lives to be more like Jesus. By following the paths that God has marked out for us, we will be blessed. And, when the time comes, that path will lead us to God’s eternal kingdom.

If you’re feeling lost, pray today that God will guide you along those paths of righteousness. If you think you know the way, pray anyway that God will reassure you, and continue to lead you along his paths. And pray that, one day, when the time comes, those paths will lead us to heaven.

David trusted that God would guide him through his life, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us along the right paths of life and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

For more material on Psalm 23 and full details of my book, ‘The Shepherd God,’ check out the Shepherd God pages on this site.

As featured on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ on Thursday 16th April 2015.

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He makes me lie down in green pastures

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters.

Psalm 23:2

When I’m tired and stressed, I like to head up to Reigate Hill on the North Downs near where I live. The views across the Weald to the South Downs are awesome. It makes me feel just a little less stressed and a little more normal just to sit there and relax.

When I’m really busy at work and feeling very stressed, however, it seems there’s no time to do anything but work. I’m sure you’ve been in a similar position and know for yourself that when you get in this position home life suffers and you find yourself being irritable with those who love you, and not making time for your friends. You even find yourself cutting yourself off from God, and not making time for Bible study and prayer.

God knows what is best for us, though, and if we let him, he will take care of us. He wants to lead us, shepherd-like, beside quiet waters. He wants us to lie down in green pastures. If we accept him as our shepherd and follow him like sheep, this will be a painless experience. There are times, though, when we refuse his leadership, when we think that we know better than he does, and we wander away from him. When we do this we can expect a slightly more abrupt leadership, however. He can make us lie down in green pastures of peace. This can feel as if a carpet is being pulled out from underneath us. There are times, though, when God has to show us that actually, he does know best. We have to trust in him, and realise that, as our creator, he knows better than anyone what we need.

If we allow God to lead us, he will help us to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life. He will take us by the hand and lead us on that relaxing and restorative walk beside quiet waters to the green pastures that he has prepared for us.

Listen carefully to God today. Do you need to stop? Are you neglecting him, your family or your friends through working too hard? Stop and lie down in those green pastures now, otherwise you might find yourself being stopped, since God loves you and knows best!

David trusted that God would bring him peace in his life, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

For more material on Psalm 23 and full details of my book, ‘The Shepherd God,’ check out the Shepherd God pages on this site.

As featured on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ on Tuesday 14th April 2015.

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The Lord is my shepherd

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

Psalm 23:1

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Christ the Good Shepherd

I’m slightly afraid to admit this on the radio, but I am a gadget fiend. Whenever a new product comes out, I find myself desperately wanting to buy one. I begin rationalising and convince myself that it’s not simply a case of wanting a new toy, but actually needing it. My life would be so much simpler if only I could have the latest gadget. I know I’m not alone in my feelings. This is, after all, how a capitalist marketplace works. We’re conditioned to want more, to desire better, and hang the expense.

Psalm 23 has proven to be a revelation in my life in recent years, so much so that I found myself writing a book about it. It’s a Psalm that we think we all know. Perhaps because it is so familiar to us, we don’t really think about its words.

‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ the Psalmist David begins. He himself had spent his early years tending his father’s flock, so he would have known exactly what it meant to be a shepherd. David knew that the most crucial role of a shepherd is to look after the material needs of his sheep. His sheep would be totally dependent on him for food and water. Without the shepherd, the sheep would surely die, since they would be unable to find food for themselves.

This is the image that David had of God: there was no doubt in his mind that God fulfils the same role for his people. He knew that God looked after him as he looked after his sheep. He trusted God to take care of all of his material needs. He believed this to the extent that he could say with confidence, “I lack nothing.” He knew that all he needed would be provided to him by God.

Sometimes our desire for more material goods can actually make our lives more uncomfortable. We work long hours, we try to gain promotions, we neglect our families, we can even abandon God.

Perhaps rather than falling into the trap of materialism we should strive to be more sheep-like, trusting in God to provide for our needs, and finding contentment in what he has already graciously given us, rather than constantly striving for more and more.

David trusted that God would provide all that he needed, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to provide our needs and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

For more material on Psalm 23 and full details of my book, ‘The Shepherd God,’ check out the Shepherd God pages on this site.

As featured on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ on Monday 13th April 2015.

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