Calvin began his Institutes with these words:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves…. Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.
Psalm 23 indicates the same truth. If we will know the Lord as our Shepherd we must also know ourselves to be sheep.
What is true of sheep? Sheep are the most dependent of animals—they require a shepherd. They are the most easily distracted of animals, who get easily lost. They are the most vulnerable of animals, constantly surrounded by danger. They are some of the most easily diseased animals, especially because of their wool. They are some of the most senseless and therefore the dumbest of animals. This is why they are so dependent on shepherds.
Dear Christian, this is you! Time and again, the Word of God refers to His people as “sheep” and as His “flock.” Jesus is known as the Great and the Chief Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4). He is the Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the hundredth that has wandered. His sheep hear His voice and they follow Him (Matthew 18:10–14; John 10:1–30).
Because He is such a wonderful shepherd, we, His sheep, like physical sheep, are the most devoted of creatures. This is clearly a major theme of Psalm 23: delivered by, dependent upon, devoted to the Good Shepherd, our sovereign Saviour.
As we study this psalm, we will do so as sheep on a journey. I believe this psalm, among numerous lessons, highlights the various experiences and epochs that we Christians undergo as we follow our Shepherd.
I believe that a firm grasp of this psalm—moving beyond sentimentality to reality—will help us in our quest to live wisely, as children, as sheep, as the flock of God. May God give us such wisdom today.
Relationship with the Shepherd
The psalm opens with the experience of the sheep entering into relationship with the Shepherd: “The LORD is my shepherd” (v. 1). This relationship requires an essential confession.
The Lord is described here as David’s “shepherd.” A shepherd is one who feeds, who tends to the needs of a flock. It refers to one who keeps watch (see Luke 2:8). It also was a Hebraism, which referred to a Ruler (2 Samuel 5:2; 7:7; Psalm 78:72). This is our God (Psalm 121:3–4; 66:8–9). He is “the God who has fed me all my life long to this day” (Genesis 48:15).
Jesus is described in much the same way. Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would “feed His flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11). Micah said that “He shall stand and feed His flock” (Micah 5:4). Matthew 2:6 makes it clear that this was a prophecy of Jesus. At the final judgement, Jesus “will separate [the nations] one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). Jesus was the “Shepherd” who was struck so that the flock was scattered (John 26:31). “I am the good shepherd,” said Jesus (John 10:11). He is “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). He is “the Lamb … in the midst of the throne [who] will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters” (Revelation 7:17).
But, what is required to make such a confession? How can you do so? How can you know that He is your shepherd? How can you confidently say, “The Lord is my shepherd?” It is only by God’s enablement and enlightenment. There are several things that we need to be enlightened about.
First, we need to be enlightened about our nature. Like sheep, we are disobedience. We must confess that, like sheep, we have gone astray. We must confess that we are sinners.
Second, we need to be enlightened about our need. We are sheep, and sheep need a shepherd. And we do not need just any shepherd; we need the Shepherd, the one appointed as the Saviour of mankind. You cannot confess the Lord as your Shepherd without confessing your need. So, humble yourself. The difference between sheep and goats, biblically speaking, is humility.
Third, we need to be enlightened about His name. David speaks of “the LORD”—Yahweh. This is the name that speaks of God as the sovereign one. He is our creator, and we are His very dependent creatures. He is the God who makes and keeps covenant. To be in relationship with Him calls for covenant faithfulness. He is the LORD, and we must call Him that and honour Him appropriately. It does little good to call Him, “Lord, Lord” if we will not do what He says (Luke 6:46).
Perhaps the starkest revelation of the character of God in the Old Testament is found in Exodus 34:6–7, which describes our Shepherd in this way:
The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.
Jesus is the true Shepherd. He is God. Everything that is true of God is true of Jesus. To Him belongs the honour that is due to the Father. He shares the full attributes of deity. The names of God are the names of Jesus. The deeds of God are the deeds of Jesus. His seat—His throne—is the throne of the Father. He is the very Shepherd of whom David wrote in this psalm.
To affirm the Lord as our Shepherd requires true self-realisation empowered by revelation—spiritual revelation. Paul said it plainly: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” On the other hand, “he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one” (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). Jesus spoke along similar lines in John 3:5–8. Again, Paul wrote, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3) and John wrote, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1).
I recently read the story of a man named Stephen Lungu. Lungu was born and raised in Zimbabwe (though his parents were Malawian). His mother had turned him out onto the streets when he was still a child, and he was a drug addict before he was a teenager. By his own testimony, he hated white people and hated South Africans because of apartheid laws. One day, he and his gang were planning to petrol bomb a tent where about two thousand people were gathered for an evangelistic meeting. The meeting was headed by South Africans, and his hatred drove his murderous intent.
Before bombing the tent, he decided to step inside the tent to gather his bearings. As he did so, a young woman was sharing her testimony of faith in Christ. She quoted Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As he heard that verse quoted, he came under profound conviction, and God saved him that very day.
A few days later, he turned himself into the police, admitting the crimes he had committed. Astonished, the police told him that, since God had forgiven him, they would forgive him too. They did not arrest him. Lungu has spent the last thirty years preaching the gospel.
At one particular meeting, a drunk woman came up to him when he was finished preaching and told him that she thought she was his mother. DNA testing confirmed it. God saved her too, and she likewise became an evangelist.
As I read that story, it struck me afresh that God alone makes the difference. There are many who, like Stephen Lungu, hear the gospel, but brush of off as irrelevant. But those whose eyes God opens will receive the gospel truth in repentance and faith. And no one is beyond the saving grace of God.
David was one who had been grabbed by God’s grace, and so he could boldly declare, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Is He yours? Or is He merely your Santa Claus, or some sort of talisman?
As I was preparing this message, I came across an old funeral sermon I had once preached from this text. I started reading the sermon, and the name “Gracy” was all over the place. I was having difficulty placing Gracy, until I finally read her surname in one place. I then remembered her story.
Gracy was a good, religious woman, who had never met Christ. One day, her granddaughter asked her if she had been saved. She did not know what it meant to be saved, and so her granddaughter shared the gospel with her. God worked in her heart and brought her to himself, so that Gracy was able to speak of the Lord as her Shepherd. I preached her funeral service from Psalm 23.
There are many who sit in churches who sing and read Psalm 23, but they cannot claim the Lord as their Shepherd because they have never experienced His grace. Only by grace can we enter, and only by grace can we experience and exclaim the Lord as our Shepherd.
Resolve about the Shepherd
The next experience is a confident resolve about the Shepherd: “I shall not want” (v. 1b). There is nothing we need that we will lack if He is our Shepherd. The relationship with God confessed yields a resolve of confidence. In many ways, this theme of confidence permeates the psalm. He who is trustworthy to save us is trustworthy to keep us. This is our Shepherd! “He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps [or, shepherds] you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3). And, as someone has said, if God is going to be up all night, there is no need for both of us to be!
Those who know the Lord as their Shepherd can resolutely declare, “I shall not want” because He is all that they want. They sing, “Hallelujah! All I have is Christ! Hallelujah! Jesus is my life!”
Think back to the early days after your conversion. Think back to the early days of a new experience of God’s grace. Did you not have that confident resolve that your Shepherd was all you needed? That is the resolve of those who know the Lord as their Shepherd. When Christians live wisely, they live by the motto: Jesus plus nothing equals everything.
Of course, this confession is somewhat offensive in the day and age in which we live. We live in a pluralistic society, where any claim to the exclusivity and sufficiency of Jesus Christ is frowned upon. But that does not matter to His sheep. With Peter, they declare, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Like Peter, they fail; but, like Peter, they know what it is to be restored.
Keep working on this resolve by meditating upon Him. Keep working on this resolve by meditating on truth. Prioritise your relationship with the Shepherd. Take up your cross daily and follow Him. Such confidence affects or church life. It helps us to serve and to take the risk of life. How else do you explain the early church living in true gospel-centred communion, even selling their goods and using the proceeds for the common good of the congregation (Acts 2:42–47)?
The confidence of the church is seen throughout the record in Acts. In Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested. When they were released, they reported what had happened to them to the church. The church confidently responded in prayer and worship. When Saul’s persecution of the church forced the believers to disperse from Jerusalem, they went out proclaiming the gospel to everyone they met—Jew and Gentile (and Samaritan!) alike (Acts 8:1–5; 11:19–21).
Jesus Christ satisfies. He is sufficient. He transforms our desires so we want His will. He transforms our worldview. He instructs us about our true needs, which in turn reduces, reshapes and even removes our “wants.”
William Borden, of Borden dairy products in the United States, was a very wealthy man. God saved him and he began attending Yale University. He was so disturbed that this so-called Christian college was so unchristian that he started a prayer meeting with a small handful other believers. That prayer meeting eventually expanded to include two thirds of the students on campus! He was burdened to go to China as a missionary to Muslims, and so he sold all he had and went to Egypt to study the language. There, at age 25, he contracted malaria and died.
Someone found his Bible, and in the back of it, he had, at various points in his life, written three short phrases: “No reserves. No retreat. No regrets.”
Rest because of the Shepherd
The next experience is that of enjoying Rest because of the Shepherd: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters” (v. 2). Upon conversion, we move from the theoretical to the actual. The psalmist here reveals why he is so confident in the Good Shepherd, and his experience is ours. He identifies several experiential realities, the first being rest—soul rest.
When we realise that we have been found by the Shepherd and that we therefore have all we need, there is a sense of rest. Jesus spoke of this rest:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
According to David, there are two major reasons that we can find rest in the Lord Jesus Christ.
He Feeds Us
First, we rest because He feeds us. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures” (v. 2a). The imagery here is interesting: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” We don’t always know what we need, what is good for us, but He does. Even when we forget that He is a good shepherd, He remains good. There are a number of ways in which our Shepherd provides for us.
First, He provides for us materially. In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus urged His disciples not to worry in an undue fashion about the future. If God provides for the birds of the air, how much more will He provide for us! He knows what we need and gives it to us when we need it.
Midway through this South African summer, dam levels across the country were dangerously low. For the first time in recent memory, water shedding was implemented by various town councils across the country. Experts predicted that, even with regular rainfall, it would take five years to fill the dams. We were urged to use water sparingly. The situation was dire. But God’s people prayed.
By the beginning of autumn, many of the country’s biggest dams were overflowing. God sent rain in such abundance that, in just a couple of months, dams that experts predicted would take five years to fill were filled. It was a clear case of God giving what was needed exactly when it was needed. If such rainfall had occurred when the dams were already far fuller, problems of an entirely different sort would have emerged!
Look at what He provides! The psalms speak time and again of God’s kind provision. David wrote, “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread” (37:25). Another psalmist remembered God’s previous provision for His people: “The people asked, and He brought quail, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven.” Or hear how Asaph recalled God’s provision for His people in the wilderness.
Yes, they spoke against God: They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? Behold, He struck the rock, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed. Can He give bread also? Can He provide meat for His people?”
Therefore the LORD heard this and was furious; so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel, because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation. Yet He had commanded the clouds above, and opened the doors of heaven, had rained down manna on them to eat, and given them of the bread of heaven. Men ate angels’ food; He sent them food to the full. He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens; and by His power He brought in the south wind. He also rained meat on them like the dust, feathered fowl like the sand of the seas; and He let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. So they ate and were well filled, for He gave them their own desire.
My future son-in-law was recently telling about his new job. Without going into any detail, suffice it to say that it is an incredible thing that a young white male in South Africa would be appointed to the position he has received. He was telling me the circumstances surrounding the job, but, really, it was his Shepherd who was providing for him.
The one who saves you can and will sustain you! “Let your conduct be without covetousness: be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave your nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
Second, our Shepherd feeds us spiritually. He transforms trials into triumphs and waste places into fruitful lands. As Ross highlights, “God was at work in David’s life, leading him to the best provisions where he can ‘feed’ to his heart’s content.”
God sometimes “force feeds” us for our own good. He “makes me” lie down in green pastures when I don’t realise I need to do so. As a family, we have been caring in recent months for a baby who came to us shortly after birth. Recently, he began eating solids. At first, my wife had to force feed him, because he didn’t understand that this new stuff that was being put into his mouth is actually good for him. But my wife knows what is best for him, and so she make him eat it. That is what God must sometimes do for us.
God’s Word fits us with all we need. The psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (Psalm 119:67). His Word gives us insight and perspective as we fight the good fight of faith. David spoke elsewhere of God’s Word “enlightening the eyes” and being “sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 9:8, 10; cf. 119:103). There is an account in 1 Samuel 14 that serves as a great illustration of what David means.
In 1 Samuel 14, Saul and the Israelite army were at war and were pursuing the fleeing enemy. In a moment of rashness, Saul made a vow that anyone who ate anything before the enemy was completely defeated would pay with their life. Jonathan, Saul’s son, who had been off on his own mission when his father had made the vow, had not heard it. When he returned from his own mission, weary, he dipped the end of his staff into a honeycomb and ate some of the honey. Immediately, “his countenance brightened” (v. 27). Literally, “his eyes became bright” (ESV). In other words, he received strength to go on. That is what God’s Word does for us: It gives us strength to continue fighting; it brightens our eyes.
God created the green pastures for us to feed in. Will you lie down and feed?
He Frees Us
Second, we rest because He frees us: “He leads me beside still waters” (v. 2). The idea here is that our Shepherd frees us from fear.
Sheep are extremely skittish. They are very easily disturbed and become anxious. They are fearful. They fear torrential streams. Good shepherds lead their sheep by “still waters,” and will often actually still the waters. When the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River were raging, God “stilled” the waters to allow His people to cross. When the disciples feared that they would drown on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus stilled the waters.
Solomon wrote, “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD will be safe” (Proverbs 29:25). There are several ways in which the Lord frees us from fear.
First, He frees us from fear by assuring us that He is in control. Paul stated it quite plainly: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). He knows how much pressure we can take and when to release the pressure valve. There is no need for us to fear, for our Shepherd knows the waters and He knows how to get us through them. Listen to the testimony of Isaiah in this regard:
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand…. For I, the LORD your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’ Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,” says the LORD and your Redeemer, the Holy one of Israel.
(Isaiah 41:10, 13–14)
Again, “But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel; ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine…. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your descendants from the east, and gather you from the west” (Isaiah 43:1, 5). Again, “Thus says the LORD who made you and formed you from the womb, who will help you: ‘Fear not, O Jacob My servant; and you, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen’” (Isaiah 44:2). He is in control, and we therefore have no reason to fear.
Second, we have no cause for fear because He is our companion. He “leads me.” We are not alone. Joseph experienced some dark moments in Egypt, but in those moments the Lord was with Him (Genesis 39:2–3, 21, 23). It empowered Him, and it empowers us, to be courageous. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the resolve to obey in the face of fear.
Think of Daniel and his three friends, who remained resolute in their obedience despite the very real threat of death. They had great impact in a pagan land because of their resolve to obey. The angel told Daniel to “fear not” and to “be strong,” and Daniel responded, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me” (Daniel 10:19).
Or consider the example of Peter. At one point, he miserably failed, denying even that he knew Jesus when confronted by a small handful of individuals. But Jesus forgave, restored and strengthened him, and it was the same man who boldly stood on the Day of Pentecost and proclaimed Jesus the Messiah to a crowd of thousands. What changed? He had returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of his soul (see 1 Peter 2:25) and so he had received strength to continue.
The story is told that Martyn Lloyd-Jones was once preaching a sermon while London was being bombed. He did not skip a beat, but carried on preaching God’s Word as explosives wreaked havoc in the city.
Church history is filled with examples of those who stood boldly in the face of great opposition. Will you do the same? Will you stand boldly for Christ in your home, at school, in your workplace, in your church, and in your community?
Our Shepherd is able to provide contentment in the most unlikely of places. Though He often leads us beside still waters, He does not always deliver us completely from that which frightens us. Listen to the testimony of the apostle:
Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
He frees us from soul-disturbance of self! There is great freedom in self-forgetfulness, as Tim Keller reminds us in his book by that name. Let us forget self and live boldly for the sake of our Good Shepherd.
Restoration from the Shepherd
The next experience in this psalm is restoration from the Shepherd: “He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (v. 3). Having entered into relationship with God, we resolve that we will be satisfied with God alone. We therefore enjoy the rest that follows. Our biggest burden has been lifted and we enjoy feeding and freedom from fear. All seems to be going well—perhaps too well. We may become careless about the dangerous world, and the dangerous flesh we carry. We may even become careless about the devil, who walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. And before long, we realise that we have not walked carefully or thoughtfully. We have wandered far off the path and need to be restored.
Or perhaps we are enjoying our relationship with God and the rest He gives us, and yet we become a bit smug and self-righteous. We become a bit critical about other sheep who seemed to always be wandering. Perhaps we think, “It’s a shame that they do not stick close to the Shepherd, as I do.” And then it happens: We fall. We find ourselves slain by the enemy. We have sinned, grievously. What shall we do? Is this simply a part of the experience of the sheep’s journey? Indeed, it is.
The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith understood this, and so they penned these words:
The most wise, righteous, and gracious God often leaves, for a season, his own children to various temptations, and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for former sins, or to reveal to them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, so that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for various other just and holy ends.
God sometimes allows us to fall into sin. As Barbara Duguid notes, “In order to humble us and to make us more conscious of our utter dependence on him, God often leaves us to temptation and does not intervene to rescue us. God lets go of us, and we do what is still natural to us as a depraved sinner—we fall flat on our face.”
We fall so that the Shepherd might restore us. This consists of two realities: forgiveness and fixing. Let’s briefly examine each of these.
Restoration through Forgiveness
First, our Shepherd restores us by forgiving us: “He restores my soul” (v. 3a). Forgiveness is the first step in restoration. David prayed elsewhere: “Wash me thoroughly from iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2). Asaph concurred: “Restore us, O God; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!” (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19). The sons of Korah added their voice: “Restore us, O God of our salvation, and cause Your anger toward us to cease” (Psalm 85:4).
“Restore” in these psalms means “to cause to turn back.” Simply, it means to return, which often means to repent. Ross notes,
In causative formations it has a wide range as well: it is used in 1 Kings 13:6 for the ‘restoring’ of a withered hand; it is used in Isaiah 52:8 for the ‘restoring’ of the captives to their land; in Isaiah 58:12 it refers to the ‘repairing’ of the walls, and in Daniel 9:25 for the ‘rebuilding’ of a ruined city. It therefore bears the idea of returning something to its original state. David’s words are general enough to mean that the LORD restores him to his proper spiritual and physical condition by forgiving him and renewing him (Pss 32 & 51).
Thankfully, our Shepherd initiates this. He leaves the 99 to go and find the one. Years ago, a friend in Ethiopia gave me a painting of an Ethiopian shepherd, carrying a lamb around his neck, restoring it to the flock. I had the painting framed and it hangs in my study as a reminder both of what God does for me and of what I am called to do for the flock over which He has made me an overseer.
The plotline of Scripture—the story of redemption—is one of restoration, not removal. God forgives us, and in so doing reconciles us, refreshes us, renews us, and rejoices us. Indeed, Jesus saves!
Our Shepherd is willing to forgive us, regardless of the sin we have committed. What a shame it is that we often refuse to accept this gift. We are fools for doing so!
If the Shepherd forgives His straying sheep, ought the sheep not also to forgive one another? In God’s flock, He uses sheep to restore wandering sheep. This begins by the sheep being willing to forgive on another.
It is important to remember that the Good Shepherd forgives and restores sheep, not goats. Which are you? One day, the goats will finally be separated from the sheep. The sheep will then enter eternal life, while the goats will receive eternal punishment. Which will you receive?
Restoration through Fixing
Finally for this study, let us note that our Shepherd restores us by fixing us: “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (v. 3).
When I was in university, I held a job at Wiebold Studio in Terrace Park, Ohio. This is a company that specialises in the restoration of artwork, pottery, portrait miniatures, silver, bronze and glass. I worked there as a janitor, but I saw the painstaking work that the artists would put in to restore blemished works of art. That is what our Shepherd does for us. He specialises in restoration. IN fact, He is so good at it that it looks like re-creation!
God’s sheep are to be hopeful. God can do miracles. I have witnessed God do great things in my years pastoring BBC, and I have no doubt that He can continue doing great things. He is able, as Joel put it, to restore the years that the swarming locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25).
Salvation is progressive by nature. We are saved, first, from the penalty of sin. We are then saved throughout our lives from the power of sin. One day, we will be fully delivered from the presence of sin, and from any of its lingering and short-lived pleasures. Our Shepherd not only mends, but He also moulds us into what He wants us to be. He releases us from our sin and then remakes us into His own image. He guides us to and in godliness.
He does all of this “for His name’s sake.” Ross notes that, in the ancient world, “a shepherd’s reputation depended on his ability to lead the sheep in the right direction.” Shepherds rarely owned the sheep, but served, instead, as stewards of others’ sheep. Their reputation depended on their ability to safely care for the sheep. If a sheep was lost, the shepherd would often be required to compensate the owner. In the same way, our Shepherd’s reputation is at stake, and He will not allow His reputation to be married. He leads us safely “in the paths of righteousness” for His name’s sake.
“The paths of righteousness” are the paths that lead to the right place. They are those that “lead directly and safely to the destination, as distinguished from wrong tracks that would lead astray” (Briggs). “The right path,” writes, Gerald Wilson, “is the one that gets you where you need to go.” Part of the way in which the Shepherd leads us in these paths of righteousness is by helping to put off unrighteousness and put on true righteousness (Ephesians 4:22–24).
After the death of her husband and her sons, Naomi decided to return to Israel. Her daughters-in-law decided to make the journey with her, but she sought to dissuade them from doing so. Orpah heeded the words of her mother-in-law and returned to Moab. Ruth would not do so. She cried, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). Really, what Ruth was saying was, “Don’t send me back to false gods!” She had been saved, brought into relationship with the true and living God, and she was not content to stop following her Shepherd.
This is the very reason that God has given us His Word—particularly the epistles in the New Testament. They serve to equip us to follow our Shepherd in a dark world. We have not been left in the dark as to what this looks like. We have God’s Word and God’s church to equip us for such faithful living.
We should note that it is the sovereign Shepherd, who sovereignly grants salvation, who also sovereignly grants repentance (see 2 Timothy 2:24–26). Zacchaeus was both a wee little man and a wee little weasel, until God granted him repentance. His repentance was very practical, displayed in a commitment to restore in full—and above—anyone whom he had defrauded (Luke 19:28).
God can grant repentance and faith to the worst of sinners—yes, even to the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:12–16). I have personally witnessed this. I have known people who have sinned grievously, the point of even destroying their families, whom God has restored and used. When Mark Dever arrived at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the 1990s, it was a struggling church, virtually useless in Washington. He began preaching the Word, and some twenty years later, that church is now one of the most influential churches in the world for the spread of the gospel and healthy church life.
Christians are given the awesome stewardship of God’s name. He gives us His name, and as Kidner comments, “to uphold that name, God will make new men of us, whose ways will be His own.” Our goal is the fame of His name (see Psalm 79:8–9). Keeping that goal before us is the key to staying on the paths of righteousness.
The New Testament gives numerous examples of those who have failed to uphold the stewardship of that name (Demas, Diotrophes, the Laodicean church, etc.). We must be sure not to fail in the same way. God’s promise to lead us in the paths of righteousness provides us with a worthy goal (Christlikeness for His name’s sake) and with empowering grace (for our failures). The goal of godliness is God’s glory “for His name’s sake”. And He is glorified when He exercises His grace in Christ.
So, why do we keep sinning? Why does God allow it? John Newton argued that the greater goal in our failures “is the fashioning of humble and contrite hearts in God’s chosen people as, through their ongoing weakness and sin, they come to trust in themselves less and less and to trust and delight in Christ, more and more.” In other words, in our sin we come to increasingly appreciate that the Lord is our Shepherd, and so we will not want, for He will be all that we want.
We are only half way through this psalm, but this is a good place to pause. We will pick up on the second part in a future study. For now, ask yourself, is the Lord my shepherd? Is He really? Do you hear His voice? Do you follow Him?
My goal is not to make found sheep doubt; I am trying to unsettle complacent sheep that still need to be found. Do you see your sin and therefore your need for the Saviour? Do you hear His voice calling you into the fold? Will you repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?
Most reading this can confidently, not presumptuously, say, “The LORD is my shepherd.” That is wonderful. Yet, do we need to return in some way to Him? Are we wandering after that which will starve our souls rather than feeding and sustaining them? Are there others in the body who need to be restored? Will you be a means towards that end? Will you relay the Shepherd’s voice to them?
Perhaps it is only to the degree that we do that we as a church will more confidently and joyfully sing this song for sheep.