The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still water;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Psalm 23:1-3 ESV
Finally…it’s here. His Own Heart Ministries has been excited for some time about this year’s seasons of Lent and Easter; we’ve hardly been able to contain ourselves.
The whole thing began a few weeks back when a sign in the window of my favorite LifeWay Christian Store caught my eye during a daytrip to Hickory, North Carolina. On a crimson background, the sign proclaims in large white letters that My Redeemer Lives. Granted, followers of Christ carry with us 24/7 the life-altering news that our Redeemer indeed does live, and that news gives cause for celebration, well, 24/7.
But somehow, seeing those three words scrawled across this sign on that day touched my heart deeply, so we’ve been counting the days to the onset of Lent 2019. And finally…
Or it will be here – officially speaking – on March 6; Wednesday of this week, in other words.
The 40 days of each year’s Lenten season never cease to mark an exciting time here on the blog as we generally run a series of posts that pertain to spiritual preparation for Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection. We’re prayerfully shaking things up a bit for 2019 by – get this – running three mini-series that will eventually come together as one complete series set to culminate on April 21st, which is Resurrection/Easter Sunday.
Beginning today and moving steadily through the seven Sundays that follow, each careful step we take will – hopefully, prayerfully – relentlessly etch into each of our hearts, souls and minds some vastly empowering truths regarding our lives when Christ is Shepherd of them. Namely, we’ll see that:
- Jesus is the perfect Provider; He provides for our being.
- Jesus is the perfect Protector; He defines and defends His flock.
- Jesus is the perfect Promise; He delivers on His Word at any cost.
Watch for the theories above to click together as the following topics unfold:
- The LORD is my Shepherd: Are You Pulling the Wool?
- The LORD is my Shepherd: What Does That Make Me??
- The LORD is My Shepherd: Oh No He DIDN’T!?!?!
So, would you jump with me into our first topic? Great! By the way, if you’re a believer – yes– the LORD is your Shepherd, and – no– I’m not pulling the wool over your eyes. Stick around and see the proof for yourself.
Let’s begin by carefully reading together the ESV translation of David’s words in Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters,
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
Because today’s post deals specifically with the first three verses of the psalm, that passage is highlighted for you in bold italics. Before we delve into the heart of the passage, however, we need to give special attention to its first independent clause in order to feel the spiritual weight of the rest of the psalm.
The LORD is my shepherd…
When you read those five opening words of Psalm 23, does anything about the phrase stand out to you or raise your curiosity?
See that second word, LORD? It’s no accident that the four letters comprising that specific subject in that specific phrase are capitalized. The reality is that the Hebrew word for God is one of a kind – so unique, in fact – that we don’t have an English word to match it.
The Hebrew word is YHWH – the name God gave to Himself early on in the Old Testament. Because vowel patterns appear and function differently in Hebrew than they do in English, you see only consonants in the name as it formally translates. The word, however, is pronounced Yah-way – spelled Yahweh – but traditionally is rendered LORD in English translations of Scripture.
As recounted in Exodus 7-12, the name YHWH came to be like so: during Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God performed the unmatched wonders of what we know as the ten plagues against Egypt. You know…water to blood; swarms of frogs; gnats; wild animals; pestilence; boils; massive hail; locust; darkness; and finally the Passover that took the life of every firstborn in Egyptian households.
Each of these miracles – followed by the parting of the Red Sea – caused two major effects. They attacked the supposed gods of the culture who were said to have control over the things God brought about, and they demonstrated God’s sovereign ability to exercise power over nature.
Are you with me so far? Good. Now, prior to all these happenings, God had instructed Moses to go and ask the Pharaoh of Egypt to free the Israelites from captivity. An understandably reluctant Moses makes excuses but finally gives in with what was likely an exasperated fine then; what do I tell Pharaoh when he asks who sent me?
To which God replies, Tell him YHWH, [literally] I AM, sent you.
This revelation of God always leaves me feeling the proverbial flutter of butterflies inside. The I AM: name above all names with no beginning and no ending…ever existing, never ceasing and the only God who truly does in fact exist!
The Jews held this revelation of God’s name in such high reverence that anytime they read their Bibles – from that day to this one – they don’t pronounce YHWH audibly. Instead, they say “Lord” which in Hebrew is Adonai (Ahd-o-nigh). When you see LORD capitalized in English translations of Scripture, then, the writers want you to understand that the true Hebrew word behind it is YHWH as opposed to Adonai.
So when we circle back to the opening clause of today’s passage, the phrase in its truest form reads thus: The I AM is my shepherd. That’s a bit ironic because the status of a shepherd comes with lowly means; it’s a low-wage, low-status job that most people avoid if at all possible. Imagine equating the great I AM with the likes of a lowly shepherd.
Sounds almost degrading, doesn’t it?
And yet that’s exactly what David is doing in Psalm 23.
And God lets him do it. Because the truth is that David – and the rest of us – require a Savior mighty enough to save and willing enough to get His robe muddy in the process. The job description calls for a deliberately personal touch. And while I won’t know this side of Heaven, I have a feeling that David knew and embraced this truth. Watch his use of possessive pronouns as he describes not who the shepherd is, but who my shepherd is. My brings in overtones of affection, of love, of adoration. In doing so, David spells out the fact that God has an up-close-and-personal role in his life. The two share an intimate connection – the same connection God wants to share with you and me.
It’s an humbling, knee-bending experience, this acknowledgement of God as a shepherd. For starters, it essentially calls for my admission that I’m not the smartest animal to come from Noah’s ark. Any shepherd will tell you that a sheep is arguably one of the dumbest animals on earth. He’s a cute and furry creature, but when you get down to business he can’t do anything for himself; she’s prone to all kinds of dangers which can easily lead to her own death and a plethora of headaches for her shepherd.
Cuteness and furriness aside, the rest of that definition pretty well describes me…especially the part about leading to headaches. You too? Oh well. Let’s just leave that there and have a look at how our I AM – as a shepherd – provides for us and the rest of His flock.
The first complete sentence of Psalm 23 reads The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. I recently heard a pastor state that everybody today seems to want something; more of this, bigger this, better that. And it’s true: grass always looks greener somewhere besides where we are. Author Paul Tripp brings the truth to a grim reality with his observation that the things that disappoint us the most, show us what we treasure most.
In Psalm 23:1, David is expressing the simple spiritual truth that if we treasure God the most and trust him above all, our souls will never be in want. In Psalm 34:10, he likewise states that those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. And make no mistake, my friend, if there is a thesis to Psalm 23, we’re staring it in the face right here in this first verse: David is going to take us through physical needs, spiritual needs, and eternal needs. He’s going to suggest to us that with God as our shepherd, we will not lack in any of these areas.
Let’s first look, for example, at the physical needs he mentions: green pastures, still waters, food, drink. These are things David knew well. The youngest of eight brothers, David makes his debut in God’s story in 1 Samuel 16 when Samuel is looking for Saul’s successor as king of Israel.
Up to this point – and for a good bit afterward – David spent years taking care of sheep. He knew shepherding as well as he knew how to walk or talk or breathe. He knew, for example, that sheep can’t be driven, they have to be led. The shepherd has to walk in front of them and the sheep follow. The shepherd names every one of the sheep, usually from a very young age and calls them by name. They come to him and follow as he leads the way.
But the job calls for a certain amount of patience and compassion because – not unlike humans – sheep don’t always conform to the directions of their leader. They tend to want to cut their own paths as they mosey along, going where they want and doing what they want; at times it’s a challenge to focus their attention in the direction the shepherd knows they need to go.
Is this sounding uncomfortably familiar to anyone other than me?
The reason we should follow the voice of God our Shepherd is as logical as can be. Listen to someone who’s seen this drama play out time and time again. At the end of the day, we’re left with the fact that only this Shepherd can lead us to those figurative green pastures and still waters, the nourishment for which our physical, emotional and spiritual beings so desperately long.
It’s as simple as that.
Consider also what we covered earlier: the blunt fact is that, bless their hearts, sheep just aren’t smart creatures. I don’t know any other way to say it. They have to be led to fresh pastures for food because they if they stay in one place they will just keep eating until the grass is gone, and when the grass is gone they’ll start eating the dirt and eventually die.
Let’s do some serious soul-searching here: what things am I grazing on – what things are you grazing on – that our Shepherd wants to lead us away from so that we can eat the spiritual food He knows will nourish, satisfy and not destroy us? All we have to do is follow His lead.
Water. You guessed it. Sheep have to be led there, too. They can’t find it on their own, but they’ll die without it. And the fact that they’re deathly afraid of running water further complicates matters. The shepherd has to find a place where the water is not moving; in a pinch where this isn’t possible, he’ll either hold water in his cupped hand or use a bowl for the sheep to drink from. That’s why David so specifically states that he’s led by still water in verse 2.
Tenderly, compassionately, our Shepherd refreshes us by figuratively keeping us hydrated. He lets us drink from His hand when the waters of life move too fast and paralyze us with dread and fear.
A shepherd also has to exercise wisdom when moving his flocks from place to place. Often in the Middle East of David’s day, shepherds had to lead sheep through a lot of mountain and hill country, along narrow ridges and ravines in order to get to food and water. But a shepherd would never take the sheep on too treacherous of a path because – unlike goats and other animals – sheep have great difficulty navigating rugged terrain.They tend to slip and fall or sustain life-threatening injuries. Did you know that sometimes a sheep will fall over and end up on her back? When that happens, the sheep simply cannot get up. If your back is weak like mine, you see the value of the shepherd being there to lift the sheep up back onto its feet.
The lifting of a helpless sheep – or a weak back – brings us to the final point of this week’s post: God’s incomparable willingness to provide spiritual healing and restoration for the soul of each person of His flock. Whether you’re weak or tired or just plain worn out, whether you’re bruised or battered or feel just plain beaten by life itself, whether you’re stuck on a proverbial hamster wheel where sin and pain and suffering run rampant, please hear what I’m about to say and take it straight to your heart.
When you truly accept His grace and mercy, sincerely give Him your life and commit to turning from sin, God will restore your soul. Truth is, He’s the only One who can; any other effort toward healing leaves you worse off than you were in the first place.
Commit to following your Shepherd. And true to His trade, your Shepherd can and will take care of you, even if it means carrying you on his back until you’re strong enough to walk on wobbly legs again. He’s there. He’s waiting. For you What a sweetly secure word-picture that thought conjures in my mind.
David most likely reflects on tough times in his own life as he pens verse 3, perhaps recalling how Yahweh has picked him up, restored his soul, led him through safe passages and placed him back on paths of righteousness when he fell.
Don’t doubt for a second that the Shepherd does the same for us – when we fall or even fail but honestly repent and turn away from the sin that distracted us to begin with, He picks us up. Carries us if need be. So take heart if you’re struggling right now with which specific direction you need to take in an area of your life. He wants to lead you. Let Him lead you.
Furthermore, if you’ve lost your footing or have been injured along the rocky, uneven terrain of life – whether by your own doing or by someone else’s – your Shepherd wants so much to restore you. Let Him restore you.
God is the Shepherd who provides for us as Leader, Feeder and Healer.
And he does it all for His name’s sake.
For His express glory.
So that we – you and I – may know and call Him – the I AM – our Shepherd.
Copyright 2019 Carole Anne Hallyburton. All rights reserved.