Please read Psalm 23 in the New Century Version.
In twenty-seven years of preaching, I have never preached Psalm 23 on a Sunday morning. I’ve used it for several funeral messages, a typical practice among pastors. When you think about it, it’s odd that the most familiar passage in the Bible goes unnoticed in the church, but is more often used for memorial services of folk who never set foot in one!
What inspired me to do this series was a booklet published by Radio Bible Class Ministries. They send out samples of their booklets from time to time, hoping pastors will want to order multiple copies for use in their ministries. The booklet itself was just OK, but the picture on the front cover was what caught my attention. It is a landscape photo dominated by a large leafy shade tree on the right, green grass in the foreground and in the background, a crystal-clear lake reflecting more trees. Part of the landscape are the sheep. They are grazing in a gentle Spring sun, content to have grass under their feet and water nearby.
On several occasions I have used this photograph as a focal point for meditation, imagining myself into the quiet and tranquil scene that is depicted. I pay attention to nothing other than the photo and step into it by means of imagination, to find rest and renewal in the calm space that is displayed there. It is a perfect one thousand word illustration of the 23rd Psalm. It’s a place I love to visit, a place to meet the Lord and dwell with Him.
So it seemed good and appropriate to share what I’d received from the picture by turning to the words that give them meaning. I’ve learned a lot, but more important, felt nurtured by the Good Shepherd Himself. I pray all of you will have a similar experience.
When I return from that meadow, my mind gets into gear. I wonder why are sheep a commonly used biblical metaphor of the people of God? Reading in the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words gave me a new insight into this matter. Based on what I read there, I’d say there are two parts to the answer to this question:
One – sheep were the most common domesticated animal of that time. Even people who weren’t very wealthy could afford sheep. So sheep were widely known. The best teaching relies on the most universal experiences to communicate truth. In His parables, Jesus was a master of this.
Two – in Bible times, domesticated animals were often the basis of wealth. The animal provided food and shelter as well as income for their owners. Every part of the animal was used to create wealth and/or what was needed to survive. Sheep were precious and shepherds were among the most dedicated workers, both for humanitarian reasons and for simple profit. This implies the great value that God places on His people.
I am not afraid, even in dark valleys.
Bible translations differ slightly from one another, which is why I’ve used several different ones to examine this Psalm. Psalm 23:4 is an example of how different translations approach idioms with differing results. So, which is it – “a very dark valley” or “the valley of the shadow of death?”
The phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” is part of what makes this psalm the one most often requested and used for funerals. Shepherds of David’s day would have to lead their flocks through ravines whose steep slopes would block out the light. Perhaps the sheep found this disturbing. It is a universal human experience that troubles and uncertainty are two sides of the same phenomena.
In his commentary, Matthew Henry observed that it is the shadow of death, not death itself. The threat has no substance, is it only the shadow of something substantial. That’s a mature and comforting thought, isn’t it? And an apt description of most of the things we worry about. Most of the things that worry us never come to pass. They are shadow, nothing more. Their threat is empty.
The phrase “a very dark valley” may be preferable because it is applicable to a greater variety of troubles. In the original language, it is clear that the valley is dark. Death may be what the author intends for the imagery of darkness, but that’s not one of the words on the page. Darkness is a common biblical symbol for evil, ignorance, death, and uncertainty. It is often set as a counter-point to the light, which is symbolic of godliness, knowledge, life, and wisdom.
Either way, you translate it, the point is that we don’t need to be intimidated or afraid. Remember verse three; the Great Shepherd is leading us down the “right path.” Just because the path takes us through a “dark valley” does not mean that it is no longer the right path. In our human nature, we experience trials as uncertainty. We doubt that God is either good or powerful or both, because we don’t see the purpose of all this pain. Doubt is another word for the uncertainty we’ve been talking about. They are not evil unless they continue to be unresolved or are resolved in a way that denies the truth.
However, Revelation 22:15 lists the kinds of vile sinners who will be left outside the New Jerusalem after Jesus comes again. The list includes the vices you’d expect, but an unexpected one, one that has challenged me ever since I read it for the first time: “cowardly.” Most of us would consider cowardice a failing, but few would take it seriously enough to regard it as a sin, let alone something that keeps us out of heaven. Just the same, there it is. I think cowardice is a sin because it means we’re being fearful though the Great Shepherd is right beside us. It betrays a lack of faith and conviction. Think about it – with Jesus Christ leading us and walking alongside us, what business do we have being afraid?
The Apostle Paul put it plainly in Romans 8:31; “If God is with us, no one can defeat us.” A life of fear is not a life lived in God’s presence; that’s a sign of being on the wrong path.
The source of my courage is the presence of My Shepherd.
“Because you are with me” is David’s explanation for his other-worldly calm. It really is that simple.
We’ve already noted that the presence of darkness is NOT a proof that we’ve left the right path. Instead, the continued presence of the Shepherd is proof that we are still on the right path. The Shepherd will not lead us in the wrong way and will not join us if we choose to go the wrong way. In Exodus 3:12 God promised, “I will be with you.” This is one of God’s many promises to be with His sheeple.
But David chooses curious symbols of the encouraging nature of the shepherd’s presence; the “rod” and “staff” that he carried. What are His “rod and walking stick” and why should those things comfort us?
The “rod” is a weapon; it is a club used to defend the sheep against predators. It was a shorter, more stout piece of wood; envision a policeman’s club or night stick. It was often made of oak wood and had a knob on the end of it. Into this knob, nails were sometimes driven so as to make a better weapon. It was useful for protection; no shepherd would leave home without it. It was possibly the rod that David used to protect his sheep from the lion and bear (see I Samuel 17:34-36).
Shepherds of David’s day also used the rod as a ranged weapon. With nothing better to do, they would practice long hours throwing it and achieved great speed and accuracy in this use of the weapon. It was not just thrown at predators – if a sheep got to wandering, the rod would whistle through the air and strike the ground ahead of or beside the sheep, to startle it back to where it belonged.
The rod was also used to count the sheep. The shepherd would hold the rod aloft, having dipped the knob in paint or dye. As the sheep passed before him single file, they passed beneath the shepherd’s rod. This allowed him a chance to check their health and every tenth sheep was touched by the rod. This application of the dye or paint marked the tenth sheep as a tithe; it belonged to God. This is what the prophet Ezekiel meant when he wrote, “I will count you like sheep, and I will bring you into line with my agreement.” (Ezekiel 20:37; see also Leviticus 27:32)
The scepter which ancient kings carried had its origin in the shepherd’s rod, as kings were considered to be shepherds of their people. From simple origins, a symbol of earthly power and authority was created.
The “walking stick” or staff could also be used as a weapon, but was crafted to be used on the sheep, to gently guide them on the right path. It was a longer piece of wood, designed to reach the sheep and to support the shepherd as he walked alongside them. It sometimes had a crook at the end of it. The shepherd used his staff as we might use a cane or walking stick; it served both the shepherd and the sheep.
Throughout the ages, the rod has been seen as a symbol of the word of God, the Bible, and the staff as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Both of these were comforting because, in addition to the shepherd’s presence (v. 4a), these tools of his trade, these weapons of defense symbolize the protection and guidance of the shepherd (v. 4b). The beauty of this promise is that it is both God’s protection and His presence that sustain His sheeple.
One of the things I’ve learned about sheep through researching these sermons is that the sheep genuinely love the shepherd. They want to be near him and respond to their name and the shepherd’s unique call when they hear it. I guess I’ve always had such a dim view of sheep that I thought of the relationship being very one-sided. But ideally, the shepherd loves the sheep and they love the shepherd in return. This detail is so essential in defining what is a real relationship with God. God always loves us more, but we are to love Him and desire His company in return.
A husband went to see the doctor for a checkup. Afterward, the doctor asked the man’s wife to come into his office that he might tell her about her husband’s condition. When she got in the office she asked the doctor what was wrong.
He said, “Well ma’am, your husband has a very rare disease. Unless you start cooking him three meals a day, giving him a massage everyday, and take off his shoes for him everyday he is going to die!” After the woman heard this news she left the office and proceeded to drive her husband home.
While riding home the husband could see a look of concern on his wife’s face so he said, “Honey why are you so upset, what did the doctor tell you?” The woman said to her husband, “Honey, the doctor said you are going to die!”
Obviously, that is NOT the attitude of the Good Shepherd, who cares so much he lays down his life for His sheeple (read John 10:14-15). It is because He has that attitude that He uses the rod and staff to lead us through life’s sunny days and the cloudy ones too. The sudden darkness of the valley is not to be mistaken for His absence or apathy; He still leads us on the right path.
I encourage you to discard fear. To cast aside anxiety. To trust in the Shepherd instead. It is a better way to life.
Some information retrieved from <http://www.baptistbiblebelievers.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=qDQAYzDf0WM%3d&tabid=232&mid=762>.