“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”
This is the ground that we have traveled together so far in our Lenten journey through the 23rd Psalm. Along the way, we have been particularly attentive to the two things as we hear this beloved Psalm together.
First, we have been attentive to the literal meaning that lies behind the figurative language. The Psalm is not really about a shepherd and his sheep but about the Lord God and His people, His holy church. Lying down in green pastures beside still waters is the picture, but the meaning in the picture is that the Lord God gives His Word and Sacraments to His people, and these ‘means of grace’ give His people the rest that they both need and long for.
Second, we have been attentive to the speaker and the audience to who he is speaking. Who is saying these things and to whom is he saying them? Using his ‘poetic license,’ the author has the sheep doing the talking. And behind the ‘picture’ we know that the author and speaker is David.
But the question is, to whom is he speaking? Next week, the audience will be clearly identified. “You are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” From that point forward, the sheep is speaking directly to his good shepherd, or, David is speaking directly to his Lord.
But to whom is this sheep, this David, speaking in this first half of this psalm? It could be that the sheep is speaking to all the other sheep in the flock. OR maybe he is speaking to an individual sheep that is lost. OR maybe, he is speaking to a flock of sheep under a ‘not-so-good’ shepherd as the Good Shepherd.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.” So, it could be that David is preaching to his congregation OR evangelizing the lost OR those following false gods.
OR, it could also be that the sheep is talking to himself. Faced with danger, or temptation, or trials, where courage and steadfastness and faithfulness are required, David is speaking to his own heart to be brave and remain true. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
Today, we add verse three to the conversation that I suspect for most of us, is focused inwardly, to reassure our own anxious hearts that as long as we are in the Lord’s flock, we are safe and secure under His care, and free to live courageously and faithfully.
I. First we consider, “He restores my soul.”
I have suspicion that we may not hear these words as they were originally intended to be heard.
When we recite this Psalm, we tend to speak this phrase as though it were directly connected to what precedes. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” Understood in this way, “He restores my soul” is all about my emotional condition, as in, “I was depressed and feeling down. My soul was broken or worn out but the Lord ‘restored my soul.’ He helped me feel better about myself and my life.” Which is actually a lot more psychology that any sheep could begin to process.
Actually, “He restores my soul” begins a new verse, verse 4, and as such begins a new thought, distinct from verse 3.
Literally, the Hebrew here reads, “He causes me to repent.” Or a little freer than that, “He brings me back.” The picture here is of a sheep that has wandered away and become separated from the flock and gotten lost.
What we’re told about sheep is that when one wanders away from the flock, which they are prone to do, once the sheep realizes that it has become lost, it has a panic attack and it begins to shake and shiver and bleat, which is music to the ears of a hungry wolf.
The shepherd knows that if this sheep is to be rescued, he must act quickly and find it before the predators do. This is why, as we heard in our gospel reading, the shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to go look for the one lost sheep. He can’t take the whole flock along with him. That would be too slow.
Once the shepherd finds his lost sheep, the sheep is too weak from the ordeal to walk back to the flock on its own. And so the shepherd must lift it up and carry it on his shoulders back to the flock. And depending on the size and weight of the sheep, typically 90 to 150 pounds, this is quite a heavy huge burden for the shepherd to carry.
It is an interesting thing, that long before the ‘cross’ became the identifying symbol of the Christian faith, the predominate image was of a shepherd carrying his lost sheep on his shoulders. What is even more interesting is that many of these images portrayed an over-exaggerated proportion of the sheep to the shepherd, sometimes the sheep being even bigger than the shepherd himself. In so doing, they were portraying the enormous weight that our Lord bore to “bring us back.”
The prophet Isaiah would emphasize the little word, “ALL” when he reminds us that, “We ALL, like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way. And the Lord has laid on Him, the enormous weight, the incredible burden of, the iniquity of us ALL.” (Is. 53:6).
When the Good Shepherd was nailed to the cross, He bore the bore the weight of the entire world on those shoulders and “brought us back” to Himself, where we are safe and secure.
II. Second, “He leads me in paths of righteousness…”
Again, it might be helpful to hear this differently than we are so used to hearing it. “He leads me in right paths…” When I quit listening to His voice, when I tune Him out, when I become so distracted with the interference of the daily details, both those that are thrust upon me and those that I freely add to my overfull life, I easily wander away from the ‘right path’ and go down the wrong path of which there are so many.
As we can imagine, the open desert in the middle-east is marked by a confusing maze of well-worn trails that have been used by countless shepherds and their flocks over the ages. A good shepherd knows which of them leads out of the valley to the next place of green pastures or still waters and not to a dead end or edge of a cliff.
As long as the sheep follow the Good Shepherd, they travel with the confidence and security of knowing that He is leading them on the ‘right path’ that leads to heaven itself. But when they stop listening to His Word or refuse to listen to His voice, they go astray.
Our Lord speaks and we listen and we follow Him. And His Word leads us on the right path, which we would never have chosen for ourselves. He “brings me back,” He “causes me to repent” by setting me on the RIGHT PATH – the path of righteousness.
Hearing and listening to His Word has a two-fold purpose. It not only shows us and leads us on the right path, but it also keeps us from taking the wrong path. As we heard last week, “a stranger they will not follow for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:5)
III. Third, “He leads me in paths of righteousness, FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE.”
There is an issue of integrity involved in any work that we are assigned to do whether that be the work we do as our ‘employment’ or as a husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister, neighbor, citizen and the like. How we carry out the responsibilities entrusted to us determines how reliable and trustworthy others may consider us to be.
How trustworthy are we, is the issue here – not only as it applies to honesty or dishonesty, but how capable and dependable are we to actually do the work that we have been given to do.
Shepherds are entrusted with the responsibility of leading and caring for the flock that has been entrusted to them. If the shepherd is entrusted with a flock of 100 sheep and he loses even one, his reputation as a ‘good’ shepherd is tarnished. His ‘integrity’ is damaged.
And so, “for his own name’s sake,” he brings back the lost sheep and leads it along right paths. He wants His name to be immediately associated with virtues such as ‘trustworthy,’ and ‘faithful’ and ‘dependable.’
In other words, He is not known as the GOOD SHEPHERD because he has such good sheep who never go astray and always follow right paths, but “for His own name’s sake.” He is the GOOD SHEPHERD despite the fact that His sheep are NOT GOOD.
This is the theme that we heard the prophet Ezekiel expand upon in our first reading. “Thus says the Lord God, it is not for your sake, O House of Israel, that I am about to act, but the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name…. And the nations (that is, the gentiles, the unbelievers) will know that I am the Lord, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” (Ez.36:22-25).
This is the reason that when the Good Shepherd that returns with his one, lost sheep, He calls His friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” The celebration is for him. He has vindicated His name.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul directs our attention to that day when the whole creation from the beginning of time to the end will praise the name of our Good Shepherd. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
When our Lord teaches us how to pray, the very first thing He tells us to pray for is that His name would be holy to us. “Hallowed be Thy name.”
How comforting and reassuring it is for the sheep to know that the Shepherd will always be GOOD, even when they are unfaithful and go astray, “for His own name’s sake.”
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He causes me to repent and brings me back. He leads me in right paths, for His own name sake.