Sermons and devotional messages

Excerpts from

Following the Shepherd

by Missionary Bob Burgess

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters.

He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name's same.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou annointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


...the first mention of a shepherd was in Genesis chapter 4. If you go to the end of the Old Testament, and come backwards about the same distance, to Zechariah 13:7, you will find the last reference to a shepherd. The first one in Genesis talks about a shepherd who was murdered, whose blood cried out for vengeance. The last one talks about a shepherd who would be murdered in the future, an obvious reference to the coming Messiah, whose blood would heal the nations. must have come as a great surprise to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, that angels would appear to them and that they would be the first people mentioned in Scripture to see the Son of God, even before the three kings. I imagine they were pleasantly surprised when they found that this newborn babe was living in a stable, a place they would have had no hesitation to enter.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus restored that occupation to its rightful position of respect. Many times he used figures of speech relating to shepherds and sheep. For example in John 10 he says,

"I assure you, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! For a shepherd enters through the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won't follow a stranger; they will run from him...." (Also Luke 15:4-7, Matt 9:36, 18:12, John 21:15).

Jesus was not an occupational shepherd of animals, but the figurative use of that word was very important in his teaching about himself.

I'm not sure whether or not that area was a big sheep-herding area back in the days of the apostles. I suspect it was, but today it certainly is. We picked up a story off the Internet recently about how some Turkish sheepherders had taken their sheep up on a mesa and left them sitting there while they went over to one side to have something to eat. Very casually, one of the sheep got up, walked over to the edge of the cliff, and just walked right off. And 900 sheep followed him, over the edge. The pile got so big that the ones landing on top survived because the landing spot got softer with every sheep that jumped.
What does that news story teach us about sheep?

Among other things it teaches us that sheep are stupid. And who does the Bible compare you and me to?

Structure of Psalm 23

There are some strong reasons to divide the psalm into three parts. For example,

1. the first part of the psalm is written in indirect address, referring to God as "he”:  The first part says, "the Lord is my shepherd, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul and he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” The shepherd is out in front or off to one side and the sheep are talking about him, not directly to him.

2. the middle part is in direct address, referring to God as "you";  In verses 4 and 5 it changes. The scene has switched from a pleasant Garden of Eden-like situation where the shepherd is out front leading the sheep, to a very dangerous situation where the Shepherd is right next to the sheep. "Yea though I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I will fear no evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

3. the last part goes back to indirect address.  In verse 6, where it talks about the future, it goes back to the indirect address and simply says, "Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." It does not say, "I will dwell in your house forever," as if he were talking directly to God.

Daily Cycle

The first section (1-3) gives the daily cycle of a shepherd and his sheep....

The second part of the daily cycle takes place in the afternoon....Waters of menuhot, as the Hebrew says. The same root is used in Genesis 2:2 where it says that God "rested on the seventh day." The shepherd takes us to quiet, restful waters.

Let's relate this idea of quiet, restful waters to the Jewish idea of “living water." Water from a spring, or rainwater, was called "living water.” This was what was preferred when an Israelite dipped himself into a mikveh for ceremonial cleansing. Jesus applied the term to himself on several occasions. To quote Bargil Pixner, during the Passover, a ceremony occurred in Jerusalem where "the priests went down to the Shiloah Pool, where the water was conducted from the Gihon Spring. They drew water and went up with it in a joyful procession to the Temple, where they circled the altar of burnt offerings with the water seven times. Jesus apparently refers to this water drawing rite, when, on the last day of the feast, which John calls "the Great Day," he stood and said in a loud voice:

If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said,
streams of living water will flow from within him (Jn. 7:37-38)."6

Whether we are talking about still waters or rushing waters or any other kind of water, we must never forget that apart from water there can be no life. As the Jewish writer Harold Kushner says, "when the psalmist thanks his faithful shepherd for leading him to water, it is more than thirst-quenching refreshment for which he is grateful. It is life itself".7

The third part of the daily cycle, "he restores my soul," which is literally, "He causes my soul to return," is talking about nighttime in a safe pen. The reasons I suggest that this restoring of soul is taking place in the sheep pen is because 1) it fits into the daily cycle, and 2) because the root for the Hebrew word for sheep pen is the same as the root for the Hebrew word for the Holy of Holies (dvr). The Holy of Holies was where the presence of God was in the tabernacle, so I think David is relating the restoration of our souls in the sheep pen to that of being in the presence of God. It is the presence of God that restores our souls.

Thinking of a sheep pen as a place of restoring our souls, two ideas occur to me. One is that the sheep do not make the pen, the shepherd does. Any walls that you and I try to build up around ourselves thinking that we are protecting ourselves from the world are doomed to failure: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Psa 127:1). And the other idea is that the pen is usually open (it has no roof), and does not offer much protection either from the elements or from a large predator such as a lion or a wolf. By separating us off in a pen, the Shepherd is not pulling us out of the world with all its problems. The Shepherd has made the pen in an open way so that we will not forget that our protection comes not so much from being in the pen as from the Shepherd who is guarding the gate.

The forth part of the daily cycle, being led in paths of righteousness, would then relate to the leading of the sheep out to pasture in the morning, thus completing the daily cycle. It seems to me that the idea of going in paths of righteousness denotes a relationship with the Shepherd. We walk in paths of righteousness because he is with us. If he were not leading us along those paths, they would not be paths of righteousness. He walks out in front of us and we follow his voice.

The Israelite shepherds trained their animals to follow the voice of the shepherd, and you and I need to be trained to follow the voice of our Shepherd. Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice …” And he usually does not shout at us. Usually it is a still, quiet voice, one that we will miss if we are not alert to what is going on. If we don't hear it and don't pay attention to it, he will have to shout at us, or else send someone like King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to get our attention. Wouldn't it be much better to be led by the still, small voice of the Shepherd, than to be herded by sheep-dogs barking at us or a sheep-herder throwing rocks at us?

Some have translated "paths of righteousness" as "circles of righteousness," saying that David is referring to the paths that actually go somewhere as opposed to the many sheep trails that criss-cross any hill where sheep have grazed and go nowhere.8 Kushner translates this as "roundabout ways that end up in the right direction".9 Numerous times I have gotten off on goat and sheep trails while walking in rugged country. They might start out looking like major trails that go somewhere, and then just sort of disappear, or else lead you out to the edge of a cliff. At times, I could hardly figure out how to get somewhere, even though I could see off in the distance where I wanted to go, because there were so many goat and sheep trails that went nowhere. And in country with rugged mountains and deep canyons, to get off the main trail can put you in all sorts of dangers.

We need to be sure that we are on paths of righteousness, not some sheep trail that only goes in circles.


Note that so far the author has taken us through three periods of rest – lying down in green pastures, drinking from still waters, and restoring our soul. Only then, when we have become obedient in resting and learn to rely on the strength and abilities of the Shepherd, are we taken out on paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

When we hear that phrase "for his name's sake," a little flag ought to go up in our minds. We need to be thinking, "Something is going on here." Knowing that Jesus is our Shepherd, and the dramatic and dangerous life that Jesus led, we ought to start getting a little suspicious that life is not just going to be lying around stuffing ourselves and regurgitating and drinking cool drinks and hanging out with the gang. God might have something else in mind. It might involve getting us out of our comfort zone. I meet so many people who are not willing to get out of their comfort zones, maybe for a weekend or a month or even a year. But God's claim to our lives is not limited in time, and it might involve some hardships, long time hardships, for the sake of the gospel.

So, when we hear the words, "he leads us in paths of righteousness for his name's sake," we need to become more alert. Our senses need to be turned up a notch. Look at the next verse, "Yea though I walk through the valley of deep darkness." All of a sudden, we are no longer in the Garden of Eden. Life gets exciting, even dangerous. We find ourselves in situations where we are no longer in control. We even start wondering if God is in control.

That is where we are going to have to leave our study.

Ways of using Psalm 23 in hard times

Before we close, I want to briefly mention a couple of ways that this psalm can be used to help you when you do find yourself in a valley of deep darkness. The first is the time-honored way that this psalm has been used down through the years, and that is to go through the psalm emphasizing the different words as you go along, and thinking about each word. For example, say to yourself, "The Lord is my Shepherd." Think about the word translated Lord. David of course did not write Lord, he wrote YHWH, which we gentiles usually pronounce Yahweh. The translation "Lord" showed up more than 200 years before Christ, in the Septuagint translation. But no matter how it is translated, it is referring to the one who has no beginning or end, the one who just "Is," and as Brian Morgan has pointed out, he is the one who is always faithful (sermon, April 18, 2004). The word is found in the first line and the last line of the psalm. It is as if David is saying, "He is the beginning and the end. The alpha and omega. Everything starts and ends with him, even into eternity." We are in good hands.

Then say to yourself, "The Lord is my shepherd." Not was. Not someday. The Lord is my shepherd, right now. And then, "The Lord is my shepherd. He might be other people's shepherd also, but what I need to know is, he is my shepherd. And then, "the Lord is my shepherd." Thinking about that word shepherd helps me to remember something very important, and that is: I am not the shepherd. He is. He is the one who makes me lie down in green pastures, who leads me by still waters and restores my soul and leads me in paths of righteousness. When I forget that I am not the shepherd and start acting as if I was, I get in trouble. I wonder off, just like a sheep, getting into things I have no business getting into.

A second way I have used this psalm is this: At any time in my life I can ask myself, At what point am I, at this very moment, in the 23rd Psalm? I go through the psalm thinking, Am in green pastures? Am I in a dark valley? And if I am, do I see the Shepherd's rod and staff, poised to defend and guide me? Or am I at the point, in my older age, of wondering if God's goodness and covenant love are pursuing me, cleaning up some of the mess I have left? What is going to be my legacy after I am gone from this place? Going through the psalm like this gives me a framework that I can use to check up on myself and helps me to pull my life back into the Word.

Taken from a sermon given at Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino and used by permission.

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