Memorizing Psalm 23
The summer between my 10th and 11th grade year of high school, I took a 3-week trip out west with eight friends and three teachers. For three weeks we hiked up and down mountains, camped in tents, and fished for food. It was great.
Only one night during those three weeks, on the way from one site to another, did we stay in a motel. One of the reasons why I’ll never forget that night is because it was that night a friend helped me memorize the 23rd Psalm. I had a Sunday School teacher who had memorized it and I had always admired him for that. It inspired me to do the same.
So, with our motel Gideon’s Bible, over the course of a couple of hours, my friend helped me memorize Psalm 23. I’ve remembered it ever since.
The Comforting Power of Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is one of the most widely recognized Scriptures in all the Bible, right up there with John 3:16.
I’ve read it to the older members of my church who are homebound. I’ve read it to our folks who’ve been in the hospital or in hospice care. And, of course, we often read it together at funeral services.
It’s very familiar to many of us and can be a great source of comfort when we need it most. In fact, I would encourage you to take the time to memorize Psalm 23. It’s such a blessing to place God’s Word deep in our hearts and minds so we can recall it during tough times.
Written By A Shepherd
Psalm 23 was written by a shepherd, a shepherd who was also the son of a shepherd. King David was often called the “Shepherd of Israel.” He certainly knew what he was talking about as he referred to shepherds and sheep.
I think it’s important to remember that shepherds were the lowest of the low in the social circles of their day. That fact ought to amaze us because it was to shepherds that the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus. And it was a lowly shepherd boy who was chosen by God to be King over Israel. God doesn’t look at people the way we often do.
It’s also fascinating that God chose the metaphor of “shepherd” to describe himself in his relationship with us.
So, what was the job description of a shepherd?
A shepherd would actually live with his sheep 24 hours a day with unwavering devotion, day and night, both in fair weather and bad, to nurture, guide, and protect his sheep. The shepherd would assume full responsibility for the needs and safety of his flock, even risking his own life for their protection. (Holman OT Commentary)
Isn’t it awesome that the King of the universe, the Creator of all there is, chose to call himself a shepherd? But David points out that the Lord isn’t just a shepherd, or even the shepherd, but he’s my shepherd. He’s your shepherd. He’s our shepherd.
How precious and comforting those words must’ve been for the people of Israel, generations later, as those appointed to “shepherd” them, betrayed them.
Take in these words from Ezekiel 34:7-10,
7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. (Emphasis mine)
God takes this very seriously. That’s why Jesus picked up this theme about bad shepherds when he said in John 10:8, 10,
All [shepherds] who ever came before me were thieves and robbers…
The thief [false shepherd] comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
Our Good Shepherd
Therefore, in light of those bad, untrustworthy, and false shepherds who were stealing from God’s people and leading them astray, here’s what God said in Ezekiel 34:11-12, 14-16a,
1 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.
14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, (Emphasis mine)
That sounds like Psalm 23 in action, doesn’t it? That sounds like the ministry of Jesus in action, doesn’t it?
Jesus emphasized this role of a good shepherd when he said he came so the sheep “could have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that he lays down his life for the sheep.
Isn’t that the kind of shepherd you want watching over you, leading and guiding you, protecting you, caring for you?
The Shepherd We Need and Want
The good shepherd leaves 99 of his sheep that are safe and secure so he can go out and find the one sheep that’s lost and in danger. And then he celebrates once he’s finds it. Don’t you want that kind of shepherd?
Our Good Shepherd meets our physical needs. Verse 1 says, we will lack nothing. Our Good Shepherd meets our emotional needs – Verse 2 says, “he leads me beside quiet waters.” Our Good Shepherd meets our spiritual needs – Verse 3 says, “he refreshes my soul.” Our Good Shepherd meets all our needs, our needs for living each day, our deepest needs. Verse 3 says, he guides us along right paths (v. 3). Even when we walk through the darkest valleys of our lives, we don’t need to fear because he has promised to be with us during those times (v. 4).
And best of all, God promises his sheep that our relationship with our Good Shepherd is not temporary, but eternal.
Verse 6 says,
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Isn’t that the kind of Shepherd you want guiding you, feeding you, protecting you, seeking you, sacrificing for you, knowing you, and healing you as you travel through this life? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want to call upon when you’re too scared and too panicked to lie down and rest in green pastures?
Isn’t that the Shepherd you want leading you down the right paths of life, giving you his living water when you’re thirsty? Isn’t that the Shepherd you want protecting you as you travel, as Amazing Grace puts it, “through the many dangers, toils, and snares” of this world? And isn’t that the Shepherd you want at the end of your life, as you prepare to cross the waters of death?
David reminds us that that Shepherd is not just a shepherd, or just the shepherd, but he’s your Shepherd. And Jesus reminds us that he is that Shepherd, the Good Shepherd.
Hebrews 13:20-21 puts it this way,
20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (emphasis mine)
This very same Good Shepherd (great Shepherd) can be your Good Shepherd if you’ll answer the call of his voice to trust and follow him, wherever he leads you.
Matthew 9:35-38 - Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
I used to read this passage exclusively through the lens of evangelism. And to be sure, there are important implications for evangelism in these verses. However, it occurred to me that what led our Lord to make a plea for “workers” was the noticeable need for faithful shepherds over the harassed and helpless flock of God. The text says the flock was in such poor condition, that it was as though it didn’t have a shepherd at all.
Therefore, Jesus made the point that the need is great, and the workers – those who would be faithful shepherds – are few. He then declared to his hearers that they (we) should ask the Lord to send such workers into these very fields that are in such desperate condition.
In Search of Shepherds
God’s flock needs faithful shepherds today as well. There are many families without a faithful shepherd in the home. Churches have greater needs than the one “professional shepherd” on staff can respond to. The wayward, helpless flock of God is in dire need of faithful shepherds who will lead and guide her, nurture and feed her, defend and guard her, admonish and instruct her – love her to the point of pouring his life into her – even to the point of losing his.
Here’s the question: If the need is so clear, why aren’t there shepherds standing in line to care for God’s flock?
Reason One for Missing Shepherds
One reason can be found in these words of Gideon,
“How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).
Whether false humility (cowardice) or real, many flee responsibility before God because they do not feel they are “up to it.” But since when has God been counting on unaided men and women to do his bidding? His answer to us is the same as it was to Gideon, “I will be with you” (Judges 6:16).
This reminds us of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth regarding God’s use of the weak and foolish things of this world to confound and humble the “strong and wise.” God uses us, but he isn’t dependent upon us. That’s an important distinction. And misunderstanding it is one reason the shepherds are few.
Reason Two for Missing Shepherds
Another reason is the sacrificial nature that is required to be a shepherd. It’s not a romantic or glamorous post in God’s Kingdom. For those seeking their own end, however, it has often been used as a vehicle for their own name’s sake.
To such a view of shepherding, Peter says,
1 Peter 5:2-3 – Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;  not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
For those who would use their position of shepherd as a stepping-stone to their own power, fame, and wealth, Peter’s words must come as quite a shock. He reminds us that shepherds have been entrusted, by God, to care for his tender lambs. And their watch over them must come from the heart – from a genuine willingness to serve them. It shouldn’t be a means to personal fortune. It ought not be drudgery. It certainly must not be a means by which power and control are sought after. It is sacrificial – my life for yours – your life for theirs.
To be an example to the flock is to be always “on duty.” It is to be intentional in your thoughts, words and deeds. It is thinking, speaking, and doing rightly – Christianly – and then caring for the flock accordingly. This isn’t easy. It is a dying to self. But unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot produce many seeds (John 12:24-26).
For the Sake of Others
And that’s what we’re shooting for – many seeds – fruit that is good, lasting, and abundant (John 15). Our Lord told us the need is great. We needn’t look any further than our own family, church, friends – all our spheres of influence. The harvest is plentiful, but the shepherds are few.
Brothers, the reality is this: whether or not you pastor a church or teach a Bible study, you are a shepherd – to those in your personal mission field. The question is: What kind of shepherd are you?
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