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Praying the Psalms: Psalm 23

October 17, 2010
Sermon: Praying the Psalms
Text: Psalm 23

I invite you to turn with me to our Scripture for today, Psalm 23.  We will read responsively this beautiful psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

It is a somewhat daunting task to preach a sermon on Psalm 23.  The truth is that most of us are familiar with this passage.  Many of us know the psalm by heart.  We have recited it since the time we were children.

Fred Craddock, a former professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, gave the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School.  He entitled his lectures “Overhearing the Gospel.”  His contends that we become almost insensitive to a message that we hear repeatedly.  He says that this numbness can happen to the Gospel message.  We hear it so many times that it begins to sound like the music in a grocery store or in an elevator.  We do not listen to it.  We do not even hear it.

Craddock suggests that preachers find ways to make familiar passages become new and fresh.  It is my hope that we can do that this morning.  I may not have anything new to tell you about Psalm 23, but my hope is that what I say will cause you to look at this psalm differently, especially as you try to incorporate it in your own life of prayer.  Our series of sermons has been Praying the Psalms.  This song of praise is certainly one we want to pray.

Most scholars believe that David wrote this passage late in his life.  While the first few verses are about a shepherd’s life, the last of the psalm seems to be about the royal court, and especially the royal banquet table.  David writes about his own relationship to God out of his experience, both as a shepherd boy and now as king.  It is in many ways a song from David’s heart.

Psalm 23 has been important to Jews and Christians alike.  It speaks of God’s care and protection.  If you are feeling that you have been battered by life, hardly a psalm can offer any better comfort and consolation than Psalm 23.  In both traditions – Jewish and Christian – the psalm has been used as a hymn.  The Christian church has two or three very popular melodies.  In our first service, we heard one by Ralph Carmichael.  We have sung several versions of the psalm already in this service today.  Our hope is that even as we sing, we pray.

Of course, the psalm is often used at funerals, speaking as it does of God’s protection in the face of death.  Sometimes I use it as a call to worship for the funeral.  Sometimes I use it at the graveside.   Just this past Friday, this psalm was used in the middle of the service for Charlie Snipes.  We, as a congregation, read the psalm together, which was printed inside the memorial brochure.  How many times have I used this psalm at Hospice House by the deathbed of some dear person preparing to go to heaven?

If we look carefully at the psalm, we can see that it is properly divided into two sections, as I have indicated.  God as a shepherd, guiding and caring for His sheep, is a theme repeated in the New Testament.  Jesus offers a parable about the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7.  We also see this same theme in John 10:11 where Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd.”  The second section is at the banquet table, with David partaking in a meal provided by God, the host at this extravagant banquet.

So many people have offered commentary on this psalm.  John Calvin said that it is best used as a psalm of thanksgiving.  Indeed, at the Community Thanksgiving Service, after 9-11, I used Psalm 23 as the text of the sermon.  It is an appropriate Thanksgiving psalm, one that you can read with your family on Thanksgiving Day.  Matthew Henry focuses on the imagery of the shepherd tending the flock.  Alexander MaClaren says that the psalm contains a recurring theme relating to three very important issues in our lives:  rest, work, and dealing with sorrow.  Charles Spurgeon identifies six sections, according to the verses of the psalm.

Many of you know that I enjoy reading the paraphrase of the Scriptures in Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  Psalm 23, however, is one passage I do not enjoy reading from Peterson’s translation.  It is not that Peterson has done a poor job of translating.  He has actually done an excellent job, but he was not thinking about the people of South Carolina when he paraphrased this passage.  He comes to that famous verse – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  Peterson paraphrases that line, “Even if I go to death valley, I won’t be afraid.”  My experience here is that in Spartanburg, about half the people find that version comforting and about half find it frightening.  I suppose it is not the best paraphrase for our particular locale.

Psalm 23 is really a psalm for every day.  It is not just about dying; it is also about living.  We need to come back to this psalm at times when we are praying the psalms.  It is one of the best in offering comfort and strength, but it offers so much here that we need to keep in mind.

I want to point out to you that David makes a dramatic change in the middle of the psalm.  He begins with “The Lord is my shepherd,” speaking of God in the third person:  “He makes me lie down…he leads me…he restores my soul, he guides me…”  Then David shifts to the second person:  “I will fear no evil because you are with me.  It is your rod and staff that comfort me.  You prepare a table before me.  You anoint my head with oil.”  I find great importance in this shift from the third person – speaking about God – to the second person – speaking to God.  The shift tells me that whenever we come to the Bible, we need to do more than just read about God.  We need to speak to God.  The psalm itself is a perfect example of that.  It shows how Bible study leads us into the life of prayer, how theology leads us into intercession, petition, and supplication, even to a personal thanksgiving.  It is one of the important lessons that I have learned from the psalm.

You will notice that David could have started the psalm, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your shepherd.”  He could have put it in the plural:  “The Lord is our shepherd.”  He does not do that; instead, he makes it very personal:  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  When we pray this psalm, we need to find ways to make it very personal.  It speaks of a personal relationship to God.  It is a relationship of care and protection.

To make Psalm 23 more personal, insert your own name in the psalm.  Let me illustrate by using my name.  Maybe this will give you an idea about how you, too, can pray this psalm.

The LORD is Kirk’s shepherd, Kirk shall not be in want.
He makes Kirk lie down in green pastures,
he leads Kirk beside quiet waters,
he restores Kirk’s soul.
He guides Kirk in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though Kirk walks
through the valley of the shadow of death,
Kirk will fear no evil,
for you are with Kirk;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort Kirk.
You prepare a table before Kirk
in the presence of his enemies.
You anoint Kirk’s head with oil;
his cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow Kirk
all the days of his life,
and Kirk will dwell in the house of the LORD

Place your name into the psalm.  You will see that David is making this psalm very personal.

Some years ago, I was reading this psalm with Clare at a very difficult time in our lives as parents.  Some of our children were becoming teenagers.  It was one of those times when you feel uncertain about the job you are doing as a parent, whether you are making right decisions or making mistakes.

As I prayed the psalm, it suddenly occurred to me that Psalm 23 is a job description for parents.  You can look at the verbs that describe the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep and see a description of parenting.  More recently when I came to the psalm, I thought about these lines as words for grandparents.  The psalm provides instructions to grandparents, as well.  As I read the verbs, listen to them in this light.

Mom and Dad are my shepherds, I shall not be in want.
They make me lie down in green pastures,
they lead me beside quiet waters,
they restore my soul.
They guide me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for Mom and Dad are with me;
Their rod and staff comfort me.
They prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
They  anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
because of Mom and Dad.
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Can you see the connection between parenting and shepherding?  Can you see the connection between being a grandparent and being a good shepherd?  This psalm is rich in meaning.  Its strength continues much deeper.

One way to understand the psalm is through two wonderful books by Phillip Keller, a pastor and author.  His books A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 and A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd have given me a lot of insight.  His first-hand experience as a shepherd for eight years in South Africa provides him with knowledge that deepens the meaning of the psalm.

I want to talk about two sections of the psalm in particular.  First, Keller states that sheep, by their very nature, tend to be temperamental, on edge.  They are prone to be very timid and fearful.  Keller addresses the shepherd making the sheep in his care lie down in green pastures.  He writes that it is impossible for sheep to lie down and rest unless certain requirements are met.  They have trouble resting unless they know they are well protected from predators.  They have trouble resting if conflict exists within the flock or if friction occurs with another sheep.  Keller also says that sheep cannot rest if they are tormented by pests like flies or parasites.  Lastly, Keller says that sheep will not rest if they are hungry.

On Sunday nights, we are studying the seven deadly sins.  One important fact we learned is that anger and conflict in relationship with another person will keep us from finding good rest.  It is the reason the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  We should not go to bed mad.  We cannot find rest if we are having friction with another person.

How many times in the middle of the night has Clare punched me and said, “Kirk, I hear something.”  I get up, stumble through the dark, and look around to see what in the world she might have heard.  Sometimes I might find a little something, but most of the time not.  It would not work for me to say, “Clare, it is just your imagination.  Roll over and go back to sleep.”  That is not going to happen.  When something bothers her, it is so important for me to make sure that what she heard is really no longer a bother.

Just think about parenting.  Parents have to make their children lie down.  Sometimes that is hard to do.  Sometimes the children do not want to go to bed.

I remember that some of our children learned to use prayer as a way to filibuster.  When the children started calling all the cousins, aunts, and uncles by name, you wonder, “Is this prayer ever going to end?”  When they begin praying for all the characters they have read about in every Mother Goose book – characters like Little Boy Blue and Little Jack Horner – you finally have to say, “Pray as long as you want, but I am going to bed now.”

It is hard for children to lie down and rest.

Listen to what Phillip Keller says:  They cannot rest if they are hungry.  They cannot rest if they are afraid.  They cannot rest if they are in conflict with another person.  They cannot rest if something is pestering them.  Keller has taught me a lot about what is required to get the rest we need; likewise, he has taught me what is required to help children get the rest they need.

Keller writes about what it means to be comforted with the shepherd’s two instruments: staff and rod.  The staff, which you see on Christmas cards and in Christmas plays, is that long stick with a crook at the top.  That instrument hooks sheep and guides them.  It is true that sheep have a habit of going astray.  “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6).  A good shepherd has to continually guide the sheep back to the right path.  Certainly a part of parenting is guiding the children back into the right way.

Two roles that are most neglected by parents are found right here in the psalm.  One role is anointing, blessing.  The art of being a good parent is the art of catching your children being good and telling them so.  It is affirmation.  Children thrive on confirmation, not criticism.  Telling them what they have done well, praising them, giving to them our blessing is such an important responsibility of parents.  The second responsibility so sorely neglected is protecting children from predators.  Many bad people in the world would try to hurt our children.  It is the reason we have a protection policy for children and youth here at Morningside.  We want to protect our little ones.

At least on two occasions in my work as pastor of this church, I felt it was incumbent upon me to protect church members from those who would do them harm, manipulate, and take advantage of them.  Those times are not easy for me, but I take it as my role as a pastor to protect our members when the situation calls for it.  I have sometimes been criticized for doing it.  It is certainly a part of what it means to be a shepherd, a parent, and also a pastor.

The rod is an instrument similar to a billy club or a small baseball bat.  Keller says that a shepherd almost never uses the rod against the sheep.  It was primarily used to protect the flock against predators like wolves, bears, and lions.  Keller says that a shepherd uses the rod as a means of discipline against sheep that are disobedient and unruly.  The shepherd must think long and hard about the decision to use the rod against the sheep.  Selecting that method meant that the shepherd would use that rod to break the front leg of the sheep.  That choice of punishment meant that the shepherd would have to carry the sheep in his arms and on his shoulders until the leg healed.  During the process, the two would establish a new bond.

Think of the Lord as your Shepherd.  Has the Lord found it necessary to break you?  That is not a foreign concept in the Scriptures.  Sometimes because of our disobedience, we have to be broken.  Only then can we discover the person we depend on is our Shepherd.  He does not abandon us.  He carries us in His arms until we are healed, creating a closer relationship.

One more important aspect about the psalm is the idea that the shepherd makes me lie down in order to rest.  He restores my soul.  My soul needs to be restored at times.  Sometimes my body and my soul need to catch up with each other.  That is impossible unless you stop in a quiet place: green pastures, still water – whatever your quiet place.

The Jewish faith includes Psalm 23 as a part of the weekly observance of the Sabbath meal.  Clare and I have had the privilege of attending some Shabbat meals.  We have seen the litany, the ritual, used with the lighting of candles, readings and prayers.  One of those readings is Psalm 23 because it is about rest, rest as in Sabbath rest, the beginning of the Sabbath.  “He makes me lie down…he restores my soul.”  Only after we are spiritually restored can we follow in paths of righteousness.  This life is hard.  Following a shepherd is not always easy.  Sometimes it is not what we want to do at all.  What helps us is this periodic restoration, a restoration of our soul, a restoration of our spirit that comes when we spend time with the Shepherd.

We can study so many aspects about this psalm.  Most of all, when we read the psalm, we need to see that the heart of God desires a close relationship with us.  The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament underline that.  If a shepherd loses one sheep, he will go out and search until he finds the animal and brings him home.  Great rejoicing follows.  The Lord is the Shepherd who wants to find those who are lost.  He wants to bring them back into relationship with him.  Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.  My sheep know my voice.  I know them by name” (John 10:14).  A good shepherd will even lay down his life for the sheep.

Do you know that your Shepherd loves you?  Do you know that he has laid down his life for you?  He is not just the Shepherd of the whole world.  He is your Shepherd.  God seeks this personal relationship with you because He cares about you and loves you very much.

Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Shepherd?  If you have never made a decision to accept him as the Lord of your life, there is no better day than today.  Acknowledge him as your Savior.  It may well be that some of you want to rededicate your lives.  Simply say, “Lord, I have wandered away, and I need to be brought back into your care.”  You do not even have to walk down the aisle to do that.  All you have to do is bow your head right where you are and make that re-commitment to Christ.  We invite your response as God leads.

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