When The Shepherd Takes Our HandErwin W. Lutzer | August 14, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
Many of us know Psalm 23. But do we understand the Good Shepherd’s work? Jesus has to do so much, because we, His sheep, are incredibly needy.
So the Shepherd guides, protects, and comforts His sheep. Even when we are wandering, He will pursue us. We take confidence in His constant presence, knowing that He will not abandon us. When we have Him, we truly need nothing else.
“If people would just repeat Psalm 23 seven times every night before they go to bed, we very seldom, if ever, would have an emotional breakdown.” Those are the words of Charles Allen, a Christian psychologist. If only we grabbed hold of Psalm 23.
As we come to this wonderful Psalm today, let us not be fooled simply because we are so familiar with it. It is deep in its riches. And let us not be hindered simply because some of us have never taken care of sheep. I had to do a little bit of studying this week to actually find out what shepherds go through so that I’d be better equipped to be able to interpret this Psalm, so you shall receive some of those insights as we go through the message.
Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd. He said in John 10, “I am the Good Shepherd and I am known of mine. I know My sheep. They follow Me. The recognize My voice.” He is the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23.
How does a shepherd get sheep? Well, unless he inherits them he buys them. Jesus purchased us at high cost. And then what a shepherd does is he marks every sheep on his ear, putting his particular stamp on the ear of each of the sheep so that there is no question about identification. Jesus marks us with the cross. He gives us the blessed Holy Spirit of God. Why? It is a down payment, as a recognition that we belong to Him, and He follows us all the way home.
What we are going to do this morning is to simply be blessed. Would you like to just open your soul today for God’s blessing? You say, “Well, I feel unworthy of God’s blessing.” Believe me, you are unworthy of God’s blessing. So am I. We all are, but God has chosen to bless us. And today we are going to relax. I am relaxed. I want you to be relaxed, and all that we are going to do is to soak in Psalm 23 and leave rejoicing and changed forever.
The way I intend to look at this Psalm is to list from it those responsibilities to which a shepherd commits himself when he has some sheep. What are those responsibilities that a shepherd takes over when he has sheep? Now I’m referring to those of you, of course, who are the sheep of Jesus. Some of you aren’t, and I’m going to give you an opportunity at the end of the message to become one of His sheep. But actually it’s just now for those of us who know Him. But I want all the rest of you to listen in. What does a shepherd commit himself to do when he takes over responsibility for the sheep?
Well, are you ready to be blessed? All distractions are set aside, every worry about tomorrow taken care of and every regret of yesterday under the blood, so that we can be blessed.
Well, first of all you’ll notice that he takes responsibility to provide for them. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” Sheep are very difficult to get to lie down. You cannot even cause them really to lie down unless they do so voluntarily. And they don’t do that unless all of their needs are met because they cannot rest as long as they are restless.
Very quickly I am going to list five different needs that a shepherd needs to take care of if he expects his sheep are actually going to lie down. First of all, they have to be free from anxiety. I understand that a rabbit, running among some sheep can distract some of them, and a whole flock of sheep can become like a herd stampeding to nowhere, most of them not knowing why they are running, but they run anyway.
You know, when God created sheep I believe that He created them for the express purpose so that He would have a good illustration of human nature. He said, “I want to create an animal that is as stubborn as human beings. I want to create an animal that is always tempted to go its own way. I want to create an animal that is essentially ignorant, though they think that they know a lot more than they really do. I want to create an animal that is always going his own way. ‘All we like sheep have gone astray. We’ve turned everyone to his way,’ so I’m going to create sheep because sheep are an awful lot like they are.” In the Bible sheep are not painted in a flattering way.
So first of all, they have to be free from anxiety. The shepherd has to interfere so that they can get some rest. They have to be free from distraction like pests, and all kinds of things that may distract a sheep so that they can no longer concentrate on the rest that is intended to give them. They have to be free from conflict.
In every animal society there is what is known as dominance. One animal wants to be dominant over the others. If it’s among chickens it is called pecking order. If it’s among sheep it’s called butting order. And usually there is one sheep – sometimes an old miserable ewe – who wants to take charge of the flock and walks around with head cocked, eyes glaring, waiting for anyone to get some grass before she does, making sure that everyone is in line, taking care of everyone and causing irritation throughout the whole herd. And the only way they can begin to rest is when the shepherd begins to interfere and give that flock some rest and some comfort from one or two that want to dominate the rest.
And by the way, what ones are the most comfortable, the ones that lie down most easily? They are the ones who are further down in the butting order. They don’t have anything to prove. They are not in competition. They are not jealous of others who have the best pasturelands, and they are the most contented.
But notice what the text has to say. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” He takes care of all of my needs. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Another need that must be met is, of course, food. And so what the shepherd does is he will find a piece of land, and maybe remove the rocks, and try to sow some grass, and try as best he can to water it, to create the kind of pasture that the sheep will enjoy, and benefit from. And he will do that, of course. And the sheep afterwards enjoy it, but they aren’t necessarily thankful.
God gives us food. It’s the food of His Word that is to be absorbed into our soul. We’re supposed to meditate in the law of God day and night, and then we find contentment, but many of God’s sheep don’t. They refuse the green grass and they go somewhere else. They fill their lives with television, and it’s something like a sheep trying to be comfortable and sustained by Astroturf. It’s just not working.
And then, of course, He says, “He leads me beside still waters.” Sheep do not like running waters because then they get their wool wet, so what he likes to do is to take rocks and so forth and create a little dam, a little place where the water can run, a little pool that is quiet. And God says, “I take care of that Myself. I feed you, I care about you, and I Myself am the water from which you can drink.
What is the responsibility of the shepherd? First of all, it’s to provide for the sheep. He makes it available but he can’t force them to do it. If they don’t want to, if they are interested in finding their own grass, their own polluted streams, all that the shepherd can do is work with them, and the sheep begin to face the consequences. Number one, the shepherd says, “I’m going to provide for them.”
Secondly, the shepherd says, “I’m going to guide them.” You’ll notice in verse 3 it says, “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” He restores me. There are two kinds of situations in which sheep need to be restored. One is when they have followed false paths. A sheep will go from one clump of grass to another, to another, to another, and pretty soon, you know, they are a quarter of a mile from the herd, and they don’t know their way back.
Sometimes also there are robbers and thieves that will actually create some false paths for the sheep, hoping that they will wander down those paths. And oftentimes there are windswept paths that look like sheep paths that sheep will follow. And so what the shepherd has to do is go find one of those sheep, and he needs to bring the sheep back into the herd or into the flock. And what happens if a sheep is particularly rebellious, a sheep that is simply unwilling to learn that it’s a bad idea to get out of step with the rest of the flock? Well, what the shepherd will do, which seems very mean, is to actually break the leg of that sheep. What he’s trying to do is to teach him a lesson.
That’s why the Bible says in Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray,” and then he says in verse 71, “It was good for me that I was afflicted. Now I have kept Thy word.” And what the shepherd will do is take that sheep and put him on his shoulders (plural – not just his shoulder, but shoulders), and will sling him over his neck so that he can really hold on to all four legs if he wishes to do that so that the sheep is secure. And he’ll bring him back and he’ll work with him and he will teach him a lesson that it is a bad idea to go your own way and to choose your own grass and your own water. You can’t live alone if you are a sheep and you have to stay close to the shepherd. That’s one kind. There are Christians who are going the wrong way and the shepherd has to pull them back. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
There’s another kind of sheep that needs to be restored and that is the one who has to be turned right side up because what happens is some sheep will be resting in the sun and enjoying themselves, but they’ll be along on the side of a hill. And so what happens when the center of gravity begins to shift in their body is they get turned upside down, and there they are just like a turtle. And they can’t get back up on their own, and they can paw all that they want. They can paw the air but nothing happens, and they will be dead in a matter of hours if they are in the heat of the sun, and if not, they can also die of starvation over a period of time. And what the shepherd needs to do is to get them upright. These kinds of sheep are cast down sheep. That’s what they are called, and maybe that’s what David had in mind in Psalm 42 when he says, “Why are you cast down, oh my soul?” Why are you turned upside down? Why is it that you feel so helpless and all that you are doing is beating the air? God is there to help you. God is there to right you and to set you up straight and get you back into the path.
You’ll notice that He leads us, the Bible says, in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. We sometimes sing, “He leadeth me, oh blessed thought,” and it is a blessed thought to know that God is the one who does the leading, and we do the following. And He doesn’t take us any place where He has never been. The shepherd always goes to pastures ahead of the sheep and checks things out, and there is no trial that God will take you through but that Jesus has been there.
Have you been rejected? He was despised and rejected of men. Have you been a victim of injustice? All of the injustices and the false accusations that were made against Him, He endured. Will the time come for you and for me to die? Yes, and He has died as well. He’s gone on ahead. He has prepared the way, and now He asks us as His sheep to follow “in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” His reputation is at stake.
Third, he comforts the sheep. You’ll notice it says in verse 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”
Most people when they read this think of a funeral, don’t they, because this Psalm is oftentimes read at funerals and has comforted many of those who have survived? But actually there is such a thing in Israel as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve been in Israel four times and only once did I see that valley. Most of the time people don’t go to see it. It’s a little bit out of the way. The bus has to make some extra miles, but you see this deep valley. I’m told that hyenas are there at night and vultures by day, and beating sun also during the day and cold at night. And you look at how steep it is and there is no way that anyone would want to go in that valley. It’s known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death where many people have died.
And so he says, “Even though You are going to lead me through that valley, I know that Your rod and Your staff are going to be there, and You are going to be with me.” Do you notice in the text how he actually now changes pronouns. In the first three verses he talks about the Lord in the third person. “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” In verse 4 it says, “Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” Now he’s into the second person. God walks with him through the experience.
The shadow of a sword draws no blood. The shadow of a wolf does not bite. Donald Gray Barnhouse was coming back from the funeral of his wife, and he was trying to comfort his children. And as they were going along the highway a truck came and passed them, and he noticed that the shadow passed the car. And he said, “Children, were you hurt by the shadow?” And they said, “No, we weren’t hurt by the shadow.” And he said, “Now we would be hurt by the truck but not its shadow. In the very same way,” he said, “your mother has died but she passed through the shadow of death and she was not hurt by it because the Good Shepherd was there with her on the other side to greet her, and she made it to the other side.”
Oftentimes what shepherds would do to help the sheep in the summertime, as they had to go to higher grazing elevations, was they would take them through that valley, and then up the other side, but the sheep didn’t want to go. It was too steep. There were too many rocks and too many dangers. So what the shepherd would do was to choose a little lamb, and he would put that lamb on his shoulder and he himself would begin the journey. Well obviously, as you might suspect, the mother of the little lamb would follow. And once the mother began to follow, one or two other sheep would follow, and once you got two or three others, you’d get all the rest, and pretty soon the whole flock would be going through the valley and doing their best, struggling up to the other side. See, that’s what God does to us, doesn’t he?
There are some of you who are listening to this who know what it’s like when God chooses a little lamb – the death of a child, a child that is born stillborn, or perhaps dies after a certain number of weeks or years or months, and your heart is just absolutely broken. And for the first time in your life you begin to long for heaven, and you begin to say, “I want to follow my child all the way to Glory.” I want to follow that one who has followed the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd takes us to the other side.
“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.” The rod, of course, is a defensive weapon that is about four feet long. It’s like a club. It keeps the enemies away. The shepherd uses his staff (the crook) to bring back that sheep that is on its way off the path, or has fallen or broken a leg. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Yes, the Shepherd’s crook sometimes hurts, but it’s good because it gets me back. David, who wrote this Psalm you remember, experienced the bitterness of sin, adultery and murder, and he knows what it is like for the restoring Shepherd to come and to say, “David, you are off the path. I have to pull you back into fellowship with Myself so that I can continue to lead you in paths of righteousness.”
So, you’ll notice that he comforts the sheep. He defends the sheep in verse 5. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Imagine! The sheep is now on the other side of the valley. That’s where the green grass is. That’s where the table is prepared, and the shepherd has prepared it. He has gone on ahead. He has checked out the grass. He has checked on the water to make sure that it isn’t polluted. It is the best meal that the sheep can possibly ever have, and where does it happen? It happens right there in the presence of its enemies.
If you can feel content in the presence of your enemies, you have won the battle with fear. If you can feel content exactly where God has planted you with people who are against you, people who are lying about you, people who would like to destroy you, people who would like to see you fail, and right there you are content, that is the provision of God. And how does it work? You stay very, very close to the Shepherd. The reason that the sheep can graze in the presence of enemies is because the sheep knows that the shepherd is close by, and the shepherd is watching the sheep as he or she needs. The shepherd is there.
Jesus said on one occasion, “I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves.” Sheep are very defenseless. They have no way to protect themselves. A dog can kill a hundred sheep in a night, and there is nothing that the sheep can do if the dog is wild and out of control. There’s just nothing that they can do, and Jesus said, “You know, you are like sheep, but I’ll stay with you there in the presence of your enemies right where it hurts the most, right where the most damage against you is possible. I am there with you.”
And now it’s at the end of the day for the sheep. The sheep are coming back into the fold. It says, “You anoint my head with oil.” You remember Jesus said, “I am the door of the sheep. No one gets past Me unless he belongs to Me.” And if you’ve been to Israel you know they have those long, long stone fences, and then they will have a gate, and that gate basically is the shepherd at night because he’s going to distinguish and say, “These are my sheep; these are your sheep. Let’s keep them all straight.” And they know his voice. And as they come through the sheep gate he looks at them. He notices that they are bruised. Maybe the cheek has been cut. Perhaps a twig has hit an eye, and the sheep is in pain. He notices all the scars that the sheep has and so he anoints them with oil medicinally. He takes care of it. He gives them some comfort and the sheep feel so much better that they have somebody who care about them, and somebody who is meeting their needs, and somebody who is aware of their aches and their pains and the scrapes that they have picked up in their experience of the terrain.
And so the Scripture says that “their cup runs over,” because it is night-time but they need a drink before they are put to sleep, and so he takes a cup and he fills it very, very full because remember sheep do not like to get their wool wet, and so they prefer a very full cup, and they drink and they do so contentedly. “He not only anoints my head with oil, but my cup overflows.”
And then there’s a last commitment that is made and that is that he stays with them to the end. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Goodness means that God is going to provide for my needs. Mercy means He is going to take care of my sins. And when it is all over, and when the last words have been said and the last rites have been pronounced, it is then that he shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus is going to be there when we reach the other side.
And how long is Jesus going to be our shepherd? You say, “Well, surely this relationship ends at death,” and the answer of course is no because it says in Revelation 7:17, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.” He is our Shepherd forever as He guides us even in heaven.
Now there are five very quick lessons that we need to learn from this Psalm. I’ll give them to you very quickly.
First of all, when we have the Shepherd, we really need nothing else. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I have no lack.
Do you remember in the Old Testament you had what was known as Levites? All of the other tribes were given an inheritance. God said, “This is the boundary of Judah. This is the boundary of Ephraim, but you Levites, you don’t get any land.” If you had been a Levite how would you have felt about that? You probably would have thought to yourself, “Well, what a bummer. Everybody else is getting land and we’re not getting any.” But you know what God said to the Levites? He said, “I am your portion. You are the portion of My inheritance and you maintain My lot.” God says, “You’ve got Me.”
And I speak to those of you today who do not have the wealth of others, who do not have the prestige of others, the looks of others, the power of others or the influence of others. Do you have the Shepherd? If you have the Shepherd you have all that you need for your journey home.
You say, “Well, does God really take care of the sheep like you’ve described? Isn’t this just poetry?” I’m thinking of a man who was in a truck and he had an accident and the truck went off the road and into the ditch in wintertime. The man was so wounded he could not get his way out of the truck and find his way back home. But he did write some notes, and one of the things that he said was this, “I am in His hands.” Weeks later his body was discovered and he was dead. Did God take care of His sheep? Was God there? Was the Shepherd there as this man was suffering in despair, unable to get help? The answer is yes, because even there God was giving grace. Even there the Shepherd was walking with him through the experience so that he could write a note of faith and hope and confidence that no matter what happened to him, he would arrive eventually in heaven, safely under the care and the guidance of the Good Shepherd. He carries us all the way home, as it says in the text. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever.”
The second lesson is that the best advice I can give you today is to stay close to the Shepherd. Let me ask you a few questions today. Did those sheep out in Judea have a whole map of the land in their head? Did they know what lay on the other side of any given hill? Did they understand the number of hyenas that were present, the bears that were present? Did they know all that? Did they know where the polluted streams were versus the good streams? Of course not! All that they could possibly do was to depend upon the shepherd, and you and I are like that. We think we know what lies on the other side. We think we know what pastures are greener and better than the ones that we are in. So there’s that person you want to marry that people are trying to convince you to not marry, but you know what is best, even though he is not a Christian, or she’s not a Christian, but after all you know better than God. Do you really? Do you really know better than the One who is omniscient, who knows you very well, and who knows all details of the Universe with unerring accuracy? Wouldn’t it be better to trust His judgment than yours because you don’t know what lies on the other side of that valley?
I think of the number of people who have made bad decisions, living in arid conditions now, living in barrenness and hopelessness because at some point they said, “I’m not following the Shepherd. I’m going to do my own thing.” Follow the Shepherd. That’s the second lesson.
The third lesson is that the needy sheep has particular interest. The needy sheep! I could say the most needy sheep has the particular interest of the shepherd. Jesus told the story about a man who left the 90 and 9. He was entrusted with 100 sheep. If you are entrusted with 100 sheep and you come home with 99 it doesn’t look good. People say to themselves, “What kind of a shepherd is that? He had 100 and he can’t bring them all home.” So what the shepherd does is he leaves the 90 and 9 and he goes looking for that one sheep.
Let me make a couple of comments. First of all, nowhere in Scripture do we have any hint, or for that matter, in history, do we have any example of a sheep that went searching for the shepherd. Sheep don’t do that. Sheep are always going away from the shepherd. Sheep are always doing their own thing. Sheep are always following their own paths. No, it’s the shepherd who goes looking for the sheep.
And so what the shepherd does is he finds that sheep and brings him back and rejoices and is glad that there still are 100, the same number that he began with in the morning. That’s why some of us believe that once you’ve trusted Christ as Savior, you belong to Him forever, and that you will be saved eternally, and you can’t get lost as one of God’s sheep. It’s because the Shepherd’s commitment to you is so strong. Jesus said in John 10 very clearly, “My Father who gave them to Me is greater than all and no man is able to pluck them out of My hand.” And then He says, “My Father and I are One and no man is able to pluck them out of Our hand.” You have hands in harmony. You have the hand of the Father. You have the hand of the Son. The sheep have been given to the Son by the Father as a gift, and the commitment of the Good Shepherd is to bring them all the way home. Bruised? Scarred? Yes. Some with wasted lives on the wrong side of the valley to be sure, but they will make it, and they too will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There’s a last lesson, and that is that we must learn the value of the personal pronoun. You’ll notice that David said, “The Lord is my shepherd.” There is a story that perhaps some of you have read, which evidently is true, about an actor who stood up and quoted Psalm 23. And everyone was so impressed by his voice, by his inflection and by his ability to stand with such confidence and say such a wonderful piece of poetry. But the actor was also a friend with a pastor who was sitting in the audience and asked him to come up and to quote it. And when the pastor quoted it virtually many of the people were in tears. He didn’t quote it as well, but the actor said later, “I know the Psalm but he knows the Shepherd.” That’s the difference.
There are some of you out there who know the Psalm. You know of the Shepherd, but you cannot say like David did, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” How do you become one of God’s sheep? In helplessness admit your sinfulness. Admit that you cannot save yourself. If God is speaking to you at this moment I can assure you it is the voice of God who is seeking you, because left to ourselves, as I mentioned, we do not seek God. But God may be speaking to you today and you may say, “I want to be one of God’s sheep.” If that’s what the Spirit is saying in your heart, and you know whom you are when I’m speaking like this, why don’t you say, “I’m a sinner, and I receive today the free gift of eternal life. Today I want to be able to say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Forgive my sin. Make me one of Your followers and cause me to understand that I need You desperately both now and forever.”
Let us pray.
And our Father, we do ask in the name of Jesus that You, the Good Shepherd, might now be seeking. Go up and down the rows of the Moody Church, as well as other places where this message is being heard today, whether on the radio or cassette or CD, or the Internet, where people have joined us all over the world this morning. And we ask in Jesus’ name that you shall find sheep, some discouraged, some lost, some angry, but Father, draw them. Overcome their resistance I pray, and may they believe in Jesus at this very moment.
You talk to the good Shepherd right now, no matter where you are. If the good Shepherd is talking to you, and you are of course one of His sheep, you talk to Him. But if you are not one of His sheep, talk to Him. Tell Him you want to be saved.
Receive our prayers today, Father, we ask in the blessed, exalted name of Jesus. We are only sheep. You are the Shepherd. How desperately we need You. Help us we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.