Preached by Dr. Gene Scott on April 27, 1980
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow
of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . .
- Psalm 23:4
TURN IN YOUR BIBLE TO PSALM 23. It is a familiar psalm. I am sure many of you have read it numerous times and some can even quote it from memory. It is commonly known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm,” and many Bibles will have that as a heading. But in the Hebrew it simply says it is “A Psalm of David.” I want you to understand that it is a great deal more than a shepherd’s psalm. This is a psalm that was written to be sung. In the Hebrew, this psalm is divided into three separate strophes or sections. David never heard of chapter and verse; he did not add the verse numbers that we have in the King James Version. You need to write some marks in your Bible to separate this psalm into its three sections. Draw a line after the first phrase in verse 3: “He restoreth my soul.” That ends the first section and ends the description of the Lord’s role as our Shepherd. The second section should begin with “he leadeth me,” and it runs to the end of verse 4, where it says, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Draw another line after that verse. The third section begins with verse 5, “Thou preparest a table before me.”
As always, I am not interested in just preaching a sermon. May God speak to us through His word and make it come alive to you where you are. Let God’s word find a lodging place in individual lives today. I want God through His word to speak to you about Himself and what He expects from us.
This psalm speaks of more than God’s shepherd role; it gives you the whole philosophy of the Christian life. In our Christian journey, we must not allow ourselves to caricature God’s word. I preached in a previous message about “the day of the Lord.” There are some people who study prophecy and the second coming only to find the passages that fit their wants, and they disregard all the rest. They hunt and peck in the Scriptures to lift out only those passages that reflect treatment from God that pleases them.
The church is seldom crippled by blatant errors because they are so easy to recognize. The church has always been crippled with half-truths, where a part of the truth is taken as the whole. The apostle John said, “I write unto you, little children. . . I write unto you, fathers. . . I write unto you, young men.” Those are three separate frames of reference. The child is dominated by his wants, and there is a phase in our relationship with God where He does meet our necessary wants. But the parent is not going to become the slave to the child’s wants. God also speaks to us as young men and He speaks to us as fathers. There are some churches that only aim for one of those three frames of reference. I can find you baby churches, young-men churches and old somber-father churches. But God wants to minister to all of them.
When the Gospels were written, God knew that there were people in limited frames of reference who were looking for a Messiah. So He made a concession when He inspired men to write the four Gospels. Some were looking for a king, so God had Matthew write his Gospel to show that Jesus fulfilled the role of the Messiah as King. Some were looking for God, so He had John write of Christ’s eternal, divine nature. Some were looking for a perfect man, so He had Luke write his Gospel that spoke of Christ as the perfect Man. Some were looking for the Messiah of the prophets, so He had Mark write his Gospel that showed Christ fulfilling the prophesied role of the Suffering Servant. It would be erroneous to take only one frame of reference and say, “This is the nature of Christ, entirely.” God included all four Gospels so that we might see the whole Gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ.
The Pentecostal movement emerged as a reaction to the liberal view that mankind could solve all of its problems and usher in the Millennium. The Pentecostals truly saw that God is the answer to all of man’s problems, and the Full Gospel movement in essence proclaimed, “God is our Healer, Savior, Baptizer and King.” In doing so, they put their whole focus on what God can do for us. The error of that movement was that it tended to produce Christians who were quick to judge everything by what God did for them, personally. The pendulum had to swing, so the Deeper Life movement came on the scene. And they began to proclaim out of the book of Colossians that God does not exist for us, rather we exist for Him. And all things are not only from God, in God, by God and through God, but also to God. Man was created to find his fulfillment in God.
Throughout the history of the church there has been the constant problem of people having a limited view of God’s intentions. We can start our relationship with God by bringing our needs to Him. He knows our needs. John Bunyan saw that when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while sitting in a prison cell. He characterized every sinner as a pilgrim beaten down with the weight of a burden on his back. Seeking to be delivered from the burden, the pilgrim family met Evangelist, who pointed to a wicket gate and said, “Do you see it?” And the pilgrim replied, “No, I don’t.” So Evangelist asked, “Do you see the light?” And he replied, “Yes, I think I do.” So Evangelist said, “Fasten your eyes on that light and go, past the Slough of Despond, to that gate.” You could close John Bunyan’s book at that point and miss the whole experience of Christianity. If you were to stop right there, you would only have a simple-minded Christianity that leads to error. Christianity is simple, but it ought not to be simple-minded. The pilgrim made it to the gate without knowing that the darts of Beelzebub almost got him before he made it in. After he went through the gate, he went to the house of the Interpreter, who began to lead him on to God’s purposes for the Christian.
It is legitimate to start with your needs, and Psalm 23 starts with your needs. All of that is introduction to say that God will start with us right where we are. That is the meaning of the Incarnation. God came to where man was, to lead us back to where He is. That is the other half of the story. Inevitably, we want to camp where our needs are met and never go further in God. Inevitably, we will do what everyone else has done with this, the most famous psalm. We will take the starting point and make it the whole. Anyone can learn the trickiness of the human mind by the way in which, when you think of this psalm, you will immediately think of God as the Shepherd leading you to green pastures. There is always the danger of our human nature reducing God’s purposes down to serving man. If there is a cry that needs to be raised in the land, it is to return God’s people to the perspective of what God wants from us, instead of what we want from Him.
Psalm 23 begins where I am: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” The King James Version says, “I shall not want,” and thus distorts the meaning in the very first verse. I want you to strike out the words “I shall not want,” and change them to “I have no want.” It is a subtle change, but it is an important change if we want to understand the shepherd role of our God to whom we have given our lives.
The first verse has the same kind of translation error that the translators made in the book of Philippians, which is called Paul’s “joy letter.” Paul is in a prison cell 11 years after he founded the church at Philippi, which was born as the result of an earthquake that delivered him from another prison. He closes his letter saying, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound.” He says, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” The word therewith is in italics, indicating that it was added by the translators. It is not in the original Greek text. The King James Version implies that there is some elevated state that Paul attained, a state of “right” Christianity that, if you could attain it, then you too would learn to be content with your circumstances. The devil will use that to accuse you of being somehow less than Christian if you are discontented with the state you find yourself in. Let me relieve that pressure: you do not have to learn to be content with every state. That is not required.
Paul really said, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, no matter what the state, to be content.” He did not have to learn to be content with the state; he learned to be content in the state and in spite of the state. Why? “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” He learned to be content in every state because of a relationship with the Shepherd who was with him. God’s word is always consistent with itself. Paul wrote from another prison to Timothy, and he said, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” meaning “one sent by the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul still believed he was sent by the Lord Jesus Christ, in that prison cell.
There is a strange passage in the latter part of the book of Isaiah where the prophet says, “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light?” What do you do in that condition? You “trust in the name of the LORD” and you stay upon the name of the Lord that fits you. The many names of the Lord express what God wants to be to His people. They are revelatory openings into God’s nature where He tells us by His name what He wants to be for us.
One of His names is Jehovah-rohi, which means “The LORD is my Shepherd.” A shepherd takes care of the sheep. A shepherd scrutinizes the sheep every day. A shepherd will count each sheep and stay aware of each one of them. Every Sunday school child knows the picture of Jesus reaching for a lost sheep. Jesus said, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” He is our Shepherd. He does lead us, but He has not guaranteed He will give us everything until we “shall not want.”
In my teenage years I took a summer job as a shepherd. I learned something about sheep: they are dumb! They want what they want, and it is usually wrong. They want the grass on the other side. I want you to say with me, “I’m a dumb sheep!” Some people are so self-righteous and full of pride that when I ask them to admit they are “dumb sheep,” they flinch.
The Bible does not say, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It say, “The LORD is my shepherd; therefore I have no wants.” Sheep would never get lost if they had no desires. I may think I have many wants, but the Shepherd knows my needs. “The LORD is my shepherd,” and I am in His hands. Dumb sheep that I am, I will desire a lot of things, but I have no wants because I am guaranteed that the Shepherd will look out for me and give me what I need. Literally, it says, “I am wanting nothing.” It is not a word that speaks of my desires; it is a word that speaks of what satisfies and is necessary.
“I have no needs” would be closer to the meaning, but I can translate it literally without damage if I say, “I have no wants.” The Old English would come much closer: “I am not wanting.” Those who have had exposure to the Old English in poetry and literature can catch the meaning of “I am not wanting” as distinct from “I shall not have any desires.” The desires remain, but the needs are adequately satisfied.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Some Bibles will have a better translation in their margin: “He maketh me to lie down in pastures of tender grass.” He takes care of me, gives me food I can eat and gives me an adequate supply. He may do it differently for each of us. But we must raise a flag and a standard to lead people out of the confusion and the false message that is being proclaimed today. There are many false teachers who will tell you that your wants and desires can take the laws of God and force the Shepherd into taking care of you on your terms, the way spoiled-brat kids raised in this generation make their parents the slaves to their wants.
God is not a bellhop. God is not a maid. God is not a stockbroker. God is not a genie in a bottle. He is a Shepherd with a bunch of dumb sheep who knows what those sheep need and He will supply them sufficiently. He will lead them to pastures of tender grass, but He does not guarantee barns full of hay. Get that in your head, in spite of what people are telling you about giving to God and getting rich.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Literally, it should read, “He leadeth me beside the waters of quietness.” That means God knows what I need, and if I put myself in His hands, the Lord of hosts has guaranteed I will have enough. The Bible says, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” You may have thought many times in your life that you would not make it. Many times your desires got ahead of your needs, but you could testify today that God has taken care of you, and you have had enough.
God will lead you where grass is tender, and you will have enough. The proof positive is the number of overfed Christians running around. Now there are bestselling books in Christian bookstores that will tell you how God will help you lose weight. The Holy Spirit has better things to do than help you to lose weight! Can you imagine the apostle Paul convening the church at Philippi to preach on “How the Lord helped me lose weight?”
The Lord is a Shepherd. Did you ever see a shepherd handle a sheep? If he is a good shepherd, the sheep have no wants; they do not even have to think about it. He will lead them to the right destination. That is exactly what Jesus taught in His parable of the lilies of the filed, when He said, “Take no thought” for tomorrow. You might say, “He didn’t really mean that.” Yes, He did! “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me.”
The word leadeth means “to run like a river.” I have seen Christians agonizing in prayer to receive peace, as though calluses on your knees and agonizing expressions will cause God to give you peace like something that drops out of heaven. The word peace is very simple: it means “cessation of againstness.” Someone has quit talking back, arguing, resisting and fighting. God, the Shepherd, is never going to surrender to the sheep. The sheep need to quit praying about peace and just give up: surrender! Stop trying to twist God’s arm into letting you wander off in your own chosen pasture. He takes care of my wants. He will find some tender grass for me, if this wheat field runs out. He will put me in waters of quietness. As a river flows, it will find a pool of quietness and rest there awhile before it hits the next rapids.
God’s word says, “He will not tempt you beyond what you are able.” God knows. We may be like a man in a boat running rapids right now, but the river will come to a pool. God knows exactly where our breaking point is, and no saint of God in His hands is ever going to break. You will break if you give in to worrying about tomorrow. You are in His hands and you are not broken today. And He does lead us beside still waters. He leads us to them and “He restoreth my soul.”
If we would use the common-sense meaning of words, we would understand many more things in God’s book. Sometimes when we come into God’s house, we put a set of “spiritual gears” into our minds, and we ascribe a super mystical meaning to everything. The word peace is just one example. Everyone on the street knows what it means. To have peace, someone must surrender. Likewise, everyone in the ordinary world knows what it means to wait on someone. What does the Bible say? “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.” Do you know how most saints “wait” on the Lord? They say, “Here I am, God. Bless me! I’m waiting for my blessing!” There is more than one kind of ministry: there is a ministry to the world, a ministry to the saints, and a ministry to the Lord Himself. Tragically, that is one ministry that is too often neglected in God-man relationships. You only have to read Ezekiel 44 to know that if God has to make a choice, He prefers ministry to the Lord.
In Luke 10, we see the picture of Mary and Martha in the Bethany household. Martha was encumbered with much serving, but “Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet. . .heard his word.” That little word “at” is interesting. She sat at His feet. It is the same word in the Greek that we find in the opening of John’s Gospel where it says, “In the beginning the Word was with God.” It expresses a worshipful relationship, where every attention and every value is focused on God. He, and He alone, becomes the object of all your energy. You are not doing things for Him, you are doing things with Him: worshiping Him and giving to Him your love, adoration and praise. Isaiah says, “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.” But when dumb sheep run their own way, that is the root of sin.
You may not like being called a “dumb sheep.” Jesus had to shock the most self-righteous ones in the New Testament by saying, “You whited sepulchers, you hypocrites, you blind guides!” I can just imagine their responses: “Did you hear what He called me? Look at my phylactery! I’ve got the whole Law of God bound on my wrist as the proof I do what is right. Is He blind?” They printed God’s law in little scrolls, wound them up, put them in little tubes and bound them to their wrists and on their foreheads. I can just imagine them boasting, “I have the Law of God right in front of my eyes. I won’t even eat an egg laid on the Sabbath because the chicken might have worked when she laid the egg!”
Jesus called them Blind guides, hypocrites and stinking graves. The Bible says we are all sinners. We are dumb sheep who have been adopted into the family of God. Now the Lord looks at you through the “spectacles” of Jesus and takes you as though you were Him. But you are still a dumb sheep, and the Bible says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” We need a shepherd who will kick our tail to get us in line. Take Him as your Shepherd.
“The LORD is my shepherd.” In the New Testament, the word translated “Lord” is kurios in the Greek. It means absolute, total, complete, nothing-held-back mastery. But that Lord is a Shepherd who loves His sheep and gave His life for them. He knows my needs, and I have no wants. He will lead me to tender grass. If you lose this pasture today, tender grass is the guarantee for tomorrow. If you are beaten up in the rushing rapids, in His time and place He will lead you to still water. He restoreth my soul. He provideth life every day afresh. That is the promise, and that concludes the first section or strophe of Psalm 23.
Now God, who is more than a Shepherd, changes the simile. The next section begins, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” G. Campbell Morgan translated this verse, “He driveth me in the paths of righteousness.” God will make sure I stay on the right path.
God does not exist to give you a special edge over the rest of the world. To use a ludicrous illustration, don’t pray for God to help you to win a golf game or a boxing match, as though God has nothing better to do than that. Don’t ever think that God is our servant. God never becomes our servant. He is our Shepherd, but He is also our Guide.
The Shepherd role deals with my minimum wants and my need to have supply, rest and restoration, and in the path of life He starts where my needs are. Many of you came to God because He met you in a time of need and He took you to a place where you could be restored. But now He has you! You have been lounging in that pasture, and now He becomes your Guide to drive you in the right way. Do not think that when you become a Christian that God is going to exhaust His purposes in just shepherding you and meeting your minimum wants every day. God has fuller purposes than that. He created man for His purpose.
I had my own ideas about what is right. They did not include pastoring a church. I thought that God could use someone to just meditate on His truths. And there is no better place you can meditate than on a beach in Tahiti. I knew exactly what the right paths were for me? I have had many discussions with God about why He does not lead me in the right paths for my sake. But the Scripture says, “He leadeth me in the right paths for his name’s sake.” He wants glory, and His name is Lord.
I could go to the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, where God describes His relationship with us as an eagle who stirs up the nest. I could draw an analogy to a mother bird that makes sure that those little birds have no wants. She hunts out the place to build her nest and she cares for her young, but there comes a time when she shoves those little birds out of the nest! That is why I don’t want this psalm to just be called “The Shepherd’s Psalm.” Christianity is not green pastures and still waters only; it is not tender grass and soul restoration only. When will those who run hither and yon to find nothing but green pastures, tender grass and soul restoration, understand that God wants to be the Driver as well as the Shepherd?
We are exhibits; we are signposts. Kenneth Wuest calls the church “God’s university for angels.” The church is comprised of those whom He has chosen out of the world, on whom He will inscribe His name. The church gets confused about God’s sovereignty when it carries it to the extreme position of predestination. But once God takes you, and you become His, He also intends to push you into the place where He can inscribe His name in you. That is the lesson of the potter’s house taught in Jeremiah 18, where God is the Potter who makes a vessel according to His purpose.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I have heard that verse read a hundred times at funerals. There could not be a worse use of this verse. This verse has nothing to do with someone dying; it has to do with someone under the threat of death, who is delivered. Though God’s leading may bring you to the valley where the shadow of death looms, you will fear no evil. You know that you are in good hands. Death has no terror. When death does come, do not quote Psalm 23, quote Paul instead. Paul said in 2nd Timothy, “the time of my departure is at hand.” He spoke of death using a word in the Greek language that described a ship, fully laden and just getting started on its journey. So when someone dies, a departure has occurred; they have boarded the ship and have just started their journey into eternity. But on this side of death, though God’s driving brings us to the brink, “I will fear no evil.” I wish Christians could understand this, and the peace would come.
This verse also says something to those who preach only the good news. God leads us in right paths, and that includes the trip through the valley where the shadow of death looms, where the terror of death is on the horizon, where you feel that it is going to kill you. Do not eliminate that from the message of God’s leading.
We need a sane Christian understanding of this life and faith. God knows our limits. The Shepherd puts us in the green pastures, tender grass and the place of restoration, but He also pulls us out of our comfort zone. The rapids are part of the trip. He is going to drive us in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. And though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for He is with me. God has not promised that we will not get into valleys. He has promised to be with us in the valleys. He is with us in those terrifying experiences of this life. The word evil speaks of the pernicious one, whose design is to annihilate us. I will fear none of it, for Thou are with me. And when we die, we will be with the Lord in the place where He is, just as He promised the thief on the cross who repented.
This Driver is rather hard-nosed and tough. The next words are “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” There are various words for rod. This rod is a rod that is used to beat something. The staff is used to hook something and pull it back. God is a disciplinarian. He takes charge. He can beat the stuffing out of the enemy and beat some sense into us. That is also part of the trip. Get this Driver in perspective! We have become His. He takes care of us and He restores us, but now He is driving! He is going to drive us into right paths – right paths, not want paths. See the difference? We do not tell God where we want to go; He guides us in the right way to go, and if it leads to 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.”
Now in the third strophe, the Lord changes from Shepherd and Guide to Host. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” That means I am going to have enemies, but God provides a table for me. “Thou annointest my head with oil.” Literally, “He makest fat my head with oil.” The oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the expression “my cup runneth over” is a symbol of gladness.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” In heaven, He is the King who has prepared a palace. Down here on earth, He is the Shepherd who makes sure that I have my minimum necessities met. He leads me in paths of righteousness. En route on the trip, He “preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” the symbol of communion. My enemies round about will hate without a cause, but we have constant communion with the King while we are on this journey. He gives us His Spirit and He gives us gladness, which is the joy of His presence. Goodness and mercy for our stumblings follow us along the trip, tough as it may be, all the days of my life. I do not have to be perfect. I just have to understand the nature of the path, and keep hanging on to God as I move on. I can commune with Him in the presence of mine enemies. His Spirit is there to strengthen me. My cup runneth over with His presence, and goodness and mercy follow along to pick me up when I stumble.
Let’s understand what this Christian journey is about. Christianity is headed for a palace. What is wrong with most modern Christians? They are trying to make heaven happen down here. Goodness and mercy follow me down here. I have a Guide who leads me in right paths down here, and a Shepherd who knows and provides my minimum needs down here. But my true home is in eternity, where “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
What God starts, He finishes. The Lord is my King, and I will reach a palace by and by. We may be dumb sheep, but we are smarter than most sheep; we know who the Shepherd is. I do not know where you are today in your journey, but if the devil has been telling you that you are not going to make it in the financial daily-need realm of your life, you overcome by the word of your testimony. Stare that devil in the face and say, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I have no wants.” If your need is tender grass, He will give it to you. If it is still waters, He knows when you need it. It may not be when you think you need it, but He will give it to you. He will restore your soul. No, you won’t crack up. Get that idea out of your head. You might say, “Man, it has been tough!” But remember that He is driving and He knows what is necessary to get us onto the right paths. The rod and staff both protect and direct, and that ought to be your comfort.
You might say, “I’ve been a Christian for so long and have so little to show for it.” You have a mansion, you have a palace, you have what Peter said Christians ought to demonstrate in their actions to a world that doesn’t have hope: we have hope “that fadeth not away.” “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever!” Some of you would like to bring the Lord down to be your maître d’ forever, but He has better things in mind for us. Let this psalm give you shepherding, guidance and understanding of where the real trip is heading.
From The Pulpit, Volume 9
Reprinted with permission from Pastor Melissa Scott
Wingspread Note: God has many names mentioned in the Bible. Each one has a particular meaning. Here are just a few of the most powerful names of God and their associated meaning:
ELOHIM – God’s First Name Revealed
YHWH- I AM
ADONAI – The Lord is Master
JEHOVAH JIREH – The Lord Will Provide
EL SHADDIA – The Almighty God
JEHOVAH SHALOM – The Lord is Peace
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