The Shepherd Psalm
We are thinking about Psalm 23 in the context of a day in the life of a sheep. In the first verse we see the early start the sheep made; then a pause in the heat of the day. Now the sheep is again on the move as we consider the last part of verse three: “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
The sheep has just been having a rest, lying down, enjoying still waters and the restoration of quiet in the middle of the day. There is a need for that in the Christian life. But the main purpose of the Christian life is not rest; for this little verse says, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,” and the paths along which we walk suggest movement, progress. The little pause, the midday halt the sheep enjoyed was to prepare for future progress, to get ready for the dust and the heat and the problems. This is why God gives us experiences of rest from time to time—spiritual as well as physical—always in preparation for the rest of the journey. Remember Peter and James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Peter said, “Lord, I just want to stay right here.” We’ve been in places like that: conventions, conferences, times when we’ve said, “Lord, this is where I want to remain.” But Peter’s vision and the voice he heard on that mountain were to prepare him for the valley, for down there was a father with a demoniac boy, a critical crowd, a hungry multitude. Remember that the vision and voice you hear in quiet with Jesus is to prepare you for the valley. And so the halt at midday, the times of vision and quiet waiting upon God are in preparation for future service and ministry and progress.
In that lovely little book by Brother Lawrence called “The Practice of the Presence of Christ,” he recounts a moment where in his cell he had a very real and precious experience of the nearness of the presence of the Lord. As he was just enjoying the presence of the Lord a bell rang calling him to some very menial task, a drudgery, the sort of thing he didn’t want to do, and for a moment he was tempted not to leave this sweet sense of the presence of Jesus. But he responded to the duty and having finished it, came back, and as he noted in his little book, the presence was still there. It seemed then that the Lord spoke to him and said, “If you had stayed, I would have gone.” That is quite a statement. That vision, you see, was for action. That sweet sense of the presence of the Lord was for progress. Let us recognize that the midday halt and the path about which we read in this psalm is a little picture of what the Christian life is intended to be: constant progress.
What would you think of a sheep that refused to move, that just simply sat down, dumb, refusing to budge? And what would you think of a Christian who does that? That’s worse, because a Christian ought to have more sense. The pictures implied in Scripture concerning the Christian life are always suggesting movement. Colossians 2:6, “Walk in the Lord Jesus.” Hebrews 12:1, “Run with patience the race.” First Peter 2:21, “He left us an example that we should follow in His steps.” Acts 9:2 speaks of the Christian life as “the way.” It is all meant to be movement, and in the purpose of God, none of us is intended to be today what we were yesterday, but always progressing, moving, advancing with God.
It may be that nothing very noteworthy happens in any particular day. Sometimes there are difficulties, but usually the problem with the Christian is not crisis, but sheer monotony of just one day after another. From Christopher Columbus’ great voyage of discovery the logbook of the ship makes interesting reading. Occasionally you read about storms and hurricanes; but day after day, page after page it simply says, “today we sailed on.” Nothing happened at all—except the tremendous thing that they sailed on! That required a lot of courage and faith and persistence. This is what the Christian life is intended to be. Have we advanced today? Has this been a day of progress? So the sheep goes on, and so the child of God is intended to go on, day by day.
It is interesting that this word, He leadeth me, in this third verse is a different word altogether from the word in the second verse of the psalm. Verse two, “He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Verse three, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” The first word simply means He goes on before me, He leads me on. But the second word means He directs, He guides me in the paths of righteousness. We are not speaking here about four-lane highways but about little difficult mountain tracks that are difficult to find and difficult to keep on. The shepherd in the East is always an expert at finding out these little hidden tracks on the mountainside and leading the sheep safely along. So it is with the Lord Jesus. He knows best where to lead us. And as life goes on, I find that His way is more difficult to discern. Twenty or thirty years ago guidance seemed to me to be very easy, but I don’t find it so now. Sometimes He guides by Scripture; sometimes by conscience; sometimes by the example of others; sometimes by advice; sometimes by circumstances. He takes us up a little mountain track, as He leads His flock on to Glory. He guides me in paths of righteousness. Look at that word a moment in Acts 16, in the story of how the Gospel first came to Europe. Verse ten says, “And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.” Previous verses of the chapter tell how Paul had been hindered at one place and another. Now he puts together all the bits of evidence, he has seen the vision and heard the Macedonian call, and he says, “assuredly gathering.” Those are lovely words to bear in mind when you are seeking guidance. Put the bits of evidence together—circumstances, the Word of God, all sorts of things—and by them all you assuredly gather.
I would suggest that to know the leading of the Lord in everything, the essential condition is our willingness to do His will when He makes it plain. John 7:17 says, “If any man will to do he shall know.” That’s a great promise, and we must beware of being willing for His will merely if it suits what we want to do. If we would know the way He would take us, then we must be prepared to take it before He shows it to us. That is a real principle of guidance. We walk by faith and not by sight, and if I am committed to take the way, whatever it may be, then I say reverently, the Lord is committed to show it to me. It is not a great open vista, but one step at a time. And so the shepherd guides the sheep along the perilous mountainside paths.
Now, obviously, it pays to keep very close to the shepherd, for to follow afar off is to find yourself over the precipice and denying Him, as Peter did. Isn’t it amazing in the Christian life how all unintentionally you can find the gap between yourself and the Shepherd widening day after day? If you are not careful, if you don’t discipline yourself you will find as you look back how the gap between you and the Shepherd has widened. So many things cause that gap to widen. Popularity in the right place may be alright, but it can widen the gap. Spiritual pride; possession of earthly things if you don’t guard them and keep them in their right place; pleasure and over-indulgence and personal interests can all widen the gap. Love of self, love of sin, love of ease—any of these things can widen the gap if you don’t watch. We need to practice that tremendous word in Psalm 25:15: “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord for He shall pluck my feet out of the net.” My eyes are away from the net—that’s temptation—and they’re away from my feet—that’s myself—but my eyes are upon Jesus. The sheep is going on, after the shepherd. It pays to stay near the Lord. Watch your step, check your life, lest as time goes by you find, all unconsciously, the gap beginning to widen.
There is another thing here: “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” Paths of righteousness simply means right paths. How dependent the sheep is on the shepherd that he might go in right paths. The path along which God leads us may not always seem to be right. In Exodus 13:17, for example, is an interesting statement, “It came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near.” Here is scriptural authority for the statement, “A short cut may often prove to be the long way ’round.” There may seem to be a quick way, and then God seems to put you and Himself to a lot of trouble by taking you the long way ’round. But you see, God leads His children like a flock in the wilderness and He doesn’t undertake to explain or to ask us whether we approve or understand. All He asks is that we trust Him. If you ever go mountain climbing you know that from the summit of the mountain you see it all so clearly in retrospect as you look back down the track you’ve traveled. You know, I can hardly wait, for that day when we reach the summit and see Him face to face. And as we look back along the route we will understand it then: the places we didn’t want to go along—they were very rough, we almost resented them. The dark places that we dreaded travelling along—but the Lord took us there. How different they will look from the top when we see them from the standpoint of the Throne. How glad we will be then that we had such a Shepherd.
Going across to London recently we were flying at quite a height under a lovely, perfect blue sky. But right over the south coast of England we couldn’t see a thing because of deep, solid black clouds underneath. It was about nine o’clock in the morning, the sun was shining brilliantly in the east and suddenly as we began to go down to land we went into this absolute blackness. Lights were put on in the plane as we went down, guided by radar towards the airport. Then, suddenly, we burst out right over the river in London, not very high because the clouds were so low. As we flew under that cloud presently it all seemed to vanish and we stopped at the airport in just a little patch of sunshine. What a difference it makes when the sun shines. What a difference it made when we were in the beautiful, brilliant blue sky looking down upon the blackness. And from underneath it looked so dark.
I love to think that the Lord Jesus is taking you and me along a path, and I don’t understand, but I am not expected to understand. Therefore, I don’t presume to give Him my approval of the way He is leading, but just simply trust Him day by day. Now, I remind you that the path would never be right if Jesus ever failed. But He never has! “He leadeth men in the paths of righteousness.” What’s the next world? “For His name’s sake.” Have you ever stopped to consider the significance of that tremendous statement? What sort of reputation would a shepherd have if he constantly led his sheep astray? The reputation of the Lord is at stake when He guides His people. “For His name’s sake.” That’s a tremendous prevailing plea when we pray. Have you ever noticed how in the Bible men pleaded this? Exodus 32:12 is an example, where Moses is beseeching the Lord and saying, “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, for mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?” In other words, “Lord, your reputation is at stake in this wilderness journey, in getting us into the land of Canaan.” Or again, in Joshua 7:8 at the time of the defeat of Ai, “Oh Lord, what shall I say when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies. For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land shall hear of it, and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what will thou do to thy great name?” They were pleading the name of the Lord. God’s reputation is at stake in leading every one of us along. What a sense of security and peace that gives to us.
But then, something else about this path is that it can never be proved right unless I walk along it. Although this couldn’t be true of a sheep, it can be true of us. It is perfectly possible to hold the theory that the path along which the Lord leads us is right—but then never to go along it. Much of our religion is theory and not much practice. But our Lord Jesus is not a sign-post directing us to the path, He is the path itself. He is the Way.
Sheep are absolute masters at the art of imitation. What the one does the second will do and they will all do. If one gets into trouble they will all get into trouble. They just follow each other. They haven’t sense to do anything different, and that’s why the Bible says all we like sheep have gone astray. It is a great responsibility to be the first sheep in the flock. It is a great, solemn responsibility to be a Sunday School teacher, to be a pastor, to be a missionary, to be a Christian worker, a Christian leader. But everything will be well if you stick close to the Shepherd. He will lead you in right paths for His name’s sake. And as He leads you, you will discover He is using you to lead others.