Sunday, June 15, 2014

Psalm 23

Psalm 23
A psalm of dependence.

"A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want."  (verse 1)

      Who better to write a psalm about shepherding than David, the shepherd boy who became king. Growing up as the youngest of Jesse's sons, David spent many days and nights in the field, caring for the family's flocks.  He was well acquainted with every aspect of shepherding, a fact which influenced his leadership style throughout his life. Whether leading his motley assortment of followers from cave to cave during the Saul years, or leading his people in the worship of the Lord as their king in Jerusalem, David was first and always a shepherd. But like those who have the role of a shepherd in the church today, David recognized that he was also a sheep. He too needed someone to lead, sustain, and protect him. With confidence and assurance in God's faithful care for him, David declares: "The LORD is my shepherd".
     Tied into this declaration is an affirmation of its application to his life. Because God is his shepherd, David says "I shall not want." To want is to desire or need. In Bible college, many years ago, I was meditating on this verse. I realized that "I shall not want" could be taken either as a choice to be content in what the Lord has provided, or as a confidence in the Lord's provision for me, that I would not be in want. I came to the conclusion that both interpretations were valid in that they are both based upon the care and provision of the good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep." (John 10:15)

     I have noticed that different people tend to struggle with different aspects of the application of this verse. While some might battle fear regarding God's provision and care for them, others battle discontentment and covetousness. The Shepherding heart of the Lord is the answer to both.
     As related to covetousness, from early childhood, one of my favourite pastimes was looking at the Sunday ads that came in the paper. I would pore over the various flyers, enticing myself with new clothes, toys, gadgets, and decor. What had previously satisfied me, did no longer. I now needed something more, something new, something better than what I had. As I grew to become an adult, these desires took on new forms, but the heart sin was the same: I was discontent with what I had and wanted something better.
    A key verse that has given me the victory over this sin time and time again has been Hebrews 13:5: "Therefore, let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." The promise of the Lord to care for all my needs, to be everything that I need, and present constantly with me, frees me to relinquish the petty fleshly lusts and to walk in the liberty of contentment. There is so much stress involved in covetousness and conversely, there is so much peace in contentment. Truly, as the VeggieTales song says, "A thankful heart is a happy heart." It turns out that everything I need to know I could have learned in Sunday school!

    The faithful provision of the Lord is also the key to victory over fear for the future. Life throws many curve balls and whether financial, physical, or relational, the promise of the Lord to be ever present with us, taking care of us, is the grounding we need to find peace and joy in the midst of every trial. Describing the man who trusts in the Lord, Job writes, "You shall laugh at destruction and famine, and you shall not be afraid of the beasts of the earth." (Job 5:22)  Total confidence in the provision of the Lord enables you to be so free from fear that you can even laugh when frightening things come your way. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want!"
       When my husband and I answered the Lord's call to service, we knew we were embarking on an exciting journey that would involve much faith and sacrifice, but we had no idea how much fun such a life of trust would be!  We often found ourselves entirely dependent upon the provision of the Lord, as our obedience to His call frequently ran contrary to conventional financial advice (ahem... translation: we were slightly crazy).  Many times we would offer our situation up to the Lord in prayer, laughing as we did so, because we knew from experience that not only would He faithfully answer, but that He often did so in the most unusual and even funny ways.
      One time, when we needed food and presented our need to God, thanksgiving turkeys starting showing up on our doorstep, and once a full salmon was discovered in the trunk of our car! Another time, we asked Him for a fridge, (as we were using our neighbour's backyard fridge and it was getting awkward), and within a month, two new fridges showed up at our house. Another time, I prayed for a pair of jeans, and in one day, someone felt led to give me 17 pairs! That was many years ago, and I'm still wearing some of those jeans today. Trusting in the Lord's provision has afforded a unique opportunity to witness God's sense of humour in action. Don't tell me God doesn't know what a good practical joke looks like! "You shall NOT want!"
     The Good Shepherd cares for His sheep and as we trust in Him, He will meet our every need. "And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:19)

"He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters."  (verse 2)

       David is speaking from the perspective of being a sheep, with God as His loving Shepherd. When a shepherd takes his flock out to pasture, he leads them to places rich with green grass, and will often linger in that place until all the resources have been exhausted. He then will strike camp and move on until a fresh pasture of grass is found. In pastoral communities, there are ancient routes that shepherds have followed so consistently since days of antiquity, that at any given time of year, it can be guessed which pasture the flock will be grazing upon with remarkable accuracy.
      The best grazing spots will naturally have ready access to water, so most pasture land lies alongside the banks of rivers or lakes. In every river, there are places where it runs faster and is more turbulent, as the terrain through which it flows presents uneven topography or even obstacles, that result in waterfalls, white water, and whirlpools. At these points, it would be particularly dangerous for sheep to drink. Not a highly intelligent animal, (to be kind), sheep have been known to drown in small flash floods, ponds, and other less acute dangers. A good shepherd would naturally lead his sheep to water at safe, still parts of a stream.
      David is saying that, like a good shepherd who leads his sheep to green pastures and still waters to eat and drink, the Shepherd of his soul leads him to times of rich nourishment and refreshment spiritually.  The Word of God is that means by which we are strengthened in spirit; it is our "food" so to speak.  In the book of Hebrews, spiritual maturity is related directly to the regularity of a believer's time in the Word of God:

"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.  But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." (Hebrews 5:12-14)

       Jesus Himself linked our sanctification (i.e. Christian growth and maturity) to our intake of the Word of God, when He prayed to His Father, "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth." (John 17:17)
       Like a shepherd who leads his flocks to good pasture, our Good Shepherd has given us the Word of God to feed our souls upon, and we would do well to eat from it.

      Regarding the still waters, in John 7:38, Jesus said, "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." For those of us who have believed upon Jesus, there is a spring of spiritual refreshment within us in the Person and power of the Holy Spirit. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we no longer have to seek out external "waters" to quench our soul thirst; we need only to depend upon the power of the Spirit of grace who now dwells in us.

"Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life. The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”" (John 4:14-15)

      The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is like the refreshing stream; to drink of it, however, one must bend the knee and bow the head, even as a sheep steps down into the waters and lowers its head to access the sweet still water. The recognition of our need, coupled with our trusting dependence upon Him to meet that need, is how we receive His life-giving water bubbling up from within our soul. When we are self-sufficient or proud, His power, although there, remains unused in our life. Like a thirsty sheep, let us humble ourselves before God and allow Him to fill us up overflowing with His Holy Spirit.

"He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His namesake."  (verse 3)

      To "restore" means to bring back or to put back, in reference to a prior state of being or condition.  The idea of restoration is that of repairing, healing, and renewing and is most often used in the sense of a return to wholeness or beauty.  David here attributes the LORD with restoring his soul: his internal being, or as some understand it, his heart and mind. 
      David was known as a man after God's own heart; he had a loyal heart, inclined to worship. He was also a man of great faith. But he was human, like us, and "prone to wander", as the song has it. His heart would deviate from the right path at times, his emotions reel with the circumstances, and his mind despair when he couldn't see past his present distress.  His soul regularly needed restoration, and God was always faithful to do that work of renewal in his life.
      I believe it is key here to note the context of this declaration. It is after David has established the spiritual provision of the Lord through His Word and His Spirit that he speaks of soul restoration.

Our minds are renewed as we immerse ourselves in the life giving Word of God:

Romans 12:2, "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."

Our hearts are renewed as the Spirit of God works in us by His grace:

Ephesians 3:16, "that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man,"

The work of soul restoration is an ongoing process in the lives of all who place their faith in Jesus Christ. As we allow Him to lead us to rich pastures and still waters, He will restore our souls. "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day." (2 Corinthians 4:16)

      What does it mean to be led in "paths of righteousness?" Applied to sheep, it means the correct and safe path that leads eventually to rich pastureland and alongside refreshing streams. It does not lead to dangerous forests full of predators; it does not lead to cliff edges where many may fall to their death; it does not lead to barren deserts where there is no food or water. It is the good path.

      Glance back at Romans 12:2 and notice the second half of the verse: "that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Have you ever sought to know the will of God for your life? This verse tells us plainly that as we allow the Lord to renew our minds through the Word of God, that His will for us will become clear.  It also says in Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."
       As we let the LORD guide us into all truth in His Word, His specific will for our lives will be revealed. I cannot tell you how many times I have been puzzled over what to do or how to think, and after pouring my heart out to the Lord, I pick up my Bible and journal for my daily devotional time, and right there in the text for that day, I find the answer I need. Really. It is more times than I can count. He does lead us into the right paths, if we let Him. 
      Yes, there are times, too, when the answer is long in coming, but it always comes, and at the right time. Sometimes the waiting period is part of the process by which He leads us into truth, and sometimes it is for necessary character growth that equips us to walk the path He has set for us.  
Don't be an obstinate sheep and insist upon going your own way, ("All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each one to his own way..." Isaiah 53:6), but rather let Him lead you into the right path... the good path... the one that leads to a future and a hope. And if He has not yet shown you the way to go, be in the Word and keep waiting on Him. He will guide your steps. 

"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."  (verse 4)

      Every shepherd knows the areas through which he must be extra vigilant in his care for his sheep. He leads them by day, keeping a keen eye for danger and His staff in hand ready to defend them should the need arise. He will guard them at night in a sheep fold, lying across the entrance, his very body becoming the door to the fold.  Jesus said in John 10 that He was the "door" to the sheep fold (John 10:7) and that He was the "Good Shepherd" (John 10:14) who lays down His life for the sheep. When there are dangers surrounding us, we can rest assured that our Shepherd is with us and that He will protect us. The Bible declares again and again that God is ever present with us and will never abandon us.

“And the LORD, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Our good Shepherd also promises to not lose a single one of us:

"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." (John 10:27-28)

      No matter what fears you are facing, they are only the "shadow" of death; they are not death itself.  They will not overcome you. You have a good Shepherd who will never leave you and who will guide you through every trial and temptation that this life may yield. Stick close to Him in full confidence that He has not, nor ever will, lose a single sheep that belongs to Him. 

      Notice, too, that the Good Shepherd carries not only a staff for defence and guidance, but also a rod. Rods speak of discipline, chastisement. Out of love, a good shepherd will strike a wondering sheep to keep it with flock, where there is safety. The discipline is not intended to hurt the sheep but rather to save it from hurt; a small sting to prevent horrible pain or even death.

It says of God in Hebrews 12:5-11 that He chastens only those that He loves.

"My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.  If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?  But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons.  
Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect.  Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?  For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.  Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."

      In his times of distress, David finds not only the staff of the Lord comforting, but also His rod. He rests in the assurance that God loves him enough to discipline, and thus protect, him when he leaves the safe and right path. I have many times asked the Lord to show mercy to me in not allowing me to wander too far from the path before restoring me to it. If He must chasten me, as a loving shepherd does to save his sleep from their own foolishness, then so be it. I would rather the gentle chastening of my Shepherd, than the teeth of the wolf or the jagged rocks of a precipice. 
We can take great comfort in our Shepherd's presence, knowing that He will save us from what lurks in the shadows as well as from what lurks in our own hearts. As Isaiah said, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each one to his own way, and the LORD has laid on Him (JESUS!) the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:6) 
      Our Good Shepherd lay down His life that we might live. What greater comfort is there?

"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You annoint my head with oil; my cups runs over." (verse 5)

       Every time you open the Word of God to receive spiritual nourishment from the Lord, you are dining at the Lord's table in the midst of a hostile world. The Word of God has been the food of every soul who has trusted in the mercy of Lord from the beginning of time until now, and on into eternity. Yet Satan hates the Word of God and has sought to destroy it from the very beginning. In every place the Word of God has gone, light has shone in the darkness and souls have been saved. Nothing and no one has ever been able to destroy the eternal Word of God.

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

       David had physical enemies, like King Saul and the Philistines, from whom he at times feared for his life. These men sought to kill David, because David was chosen by God to lead the people of Israel as their shepherd-hearted king. Although it at times perhaps felt that all the world was against him, God never forsook David and provided for him again and again, so that even his enemies could not deny that God was with him. God was on his side.  "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)

      David was chosen out of all Israel by God to be king. While yet a boy, the Lord led the prophet Samuel to David to anoint him with oil as the next king of Israel. Yet it was many years before this prophesy would come to pass in his life. Through the long, hard years of waiting, David doubtless found strength in the promise of God. He was the Lord's anointed king, yet every passing year he seemed to get further and further away from the throne. It was his faith in God's Word that kept David from despair. God had promised it, so David knew He would do it. The anointing was his guarantee.
      In the same way, the Father anoints all who place their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation with His Holy Spirit, as a promise and guarantee of that salvation.

"Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee." (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

      Like a cup that is being filled past the brim until it is overflowing, our hearts can overflow with the joy and assurance of God's promises, protection, and provision for us. Worship arises spontaneously when we realize just how good our Good Shepherd really is to us. My cup runs over!

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." (verse 6)

       Notice that David didn't say, "Surely health and wealth shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in prosperity forever." That is the false gospel of self, preached every week in pulpits across the country. It is a "gospel" that cannot be found in the Gospels, nor the epistles, nor any book of the Bible.
       What we do find is mercy. Put simply, "mercy" is not getting the punishment that I deserve
From the very fall of man in the book of Genesis to the final act of God in the book of Revelation, the theme of "mercy triumphing over judgment" pervades the whole of Scripture. God's goodness cannot abide sin, and sin brings judgment, but yet His mercy conquers judgment! He fulfilled all in the person and sacrifice of His Son, Jesus our Saviour.  Perfectly good, Jesus died for the evil of all of mankind, providing atonement for all who trust in Him. That is mercy above all mercy.
       David was a man who trusted in the mercy and goodness of God. He knew that however he failed God, God would never fail him; that His mercy would endure forever. 

"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever." (Psalm 106:1)

      This statement is repeated over forty times in the Bible, and there are scores of other verses all about the unending mercy of God throughout scripture. Truly, as James wrote, "Mercy triumphs over judgment." (James 2:13)

      David loved the LORD with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He would have preferred, it seems, to have been born a Levite, whose calling and purpose was to serve the Lord in the tabernacle. David wrote countless worship songs for the Levitical choir, to be sung in the tabernacle, and made it the focus of the latter years of his reign to prepare for the building of the temple that God had said his son would build. David loved the house of the LORD.

"One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His temple."
Psalm 27:4

      While he never dwelt in the tabernacle during his life on this earth, nor even got to see the temple he designed for the LORD built, David spoke truly. He, for all eternity, will dwell in the house of the LORD, in His very presence. When Jesus returns to earth in majesty and glory to sit upon His throne in the temple of Jerusalem, David will be there, promised to be forever king in Jerusalem. David's life, as recorded in the Word of God, was but the prequel to the real story of his life.  As he wrote, and now has experienced in person, "As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness." (Psalm 17:15) David's greatest desire has been fulfilled.

       If you have trusted in the mercy of the LORD as displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you too have this same hope. Like David, you will dwell forever in the house of the Lord and be satisfied in His presence. Set your heart and eyes on Jesus, and look forward to the fulfillment of all He has promised you in His everlasting Word. 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep... us. 

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