The good shepherd
I preached the following sermon at the funeral of a 16-year-old boy on Saturday, November 6, 2021. I removed all identifying comments and did not transcribe the entire service.
I’d like to read a part of the Bible that I suspect we’re all familiar with. Even if someone has never stepped foot in a church, he or she will likely know this passage.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:1-6)
These words have provided comfort to countless people throughout many, many generations. But the first thing we should understand about this psalm is that it does not describe a life of ease. We may get that impression from some the statements here. I shall not want, or lack anything (Ps 23:1). The LORD makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Ps 23:2). He restores my soul (Ps 23:3). Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23:6). Is David describing a life free of trouble?
No, as the Bible says elsewhere, “Man is born to trouble” (Job 5:7). Trouble is inevitable.
David, the author of Psalm 23, knows the struggles of life better than anyone. In fact, he begins the preceding psalm, Psalm 22, by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1). When he writes Psalm 23, he’s being hunted by his enemies. He’s alone and isolated. He’s fearing for his life. In other words, the context is not one of easy living, where everything is going right. Instead, it appears everything is going wrong.
Even so, David says, “I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). I don’t want for anything. I don’t lack anything. I have everything I need. He has green pastures and still waters, so God is supplying his physical needs (Ps 23:2). God restores his soul, so God is also providing his spiritual needs (Ps 23:3). Despite the severe difficulties in David’s life, he’s surprisingly content because he has an accurate, God-centered perspective of the situation.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul expresses something very similar in a verse that is also quite well-known. In Philippians 4:13, he writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But like Psalm 23, the backdrop of Philippians is one of trouble and hardship. Writing as a Roman prisoner, Paul says:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:11, 12)
Then, he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Php 4:13).
If we derive comfort from Psalm 23, and I pray we do, I want us to realize that God is not promising here to take away our troubles. Instead, he fulfills these promises in the midst of our troubles. He gives Paul contentment when Paul is low and hungry. He gives David green pastures, still waters, and spiritual restoration even as he walks through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4).
Speaking to the Lord, David says, “You prepare a table—a banquet, a feast—before me” (Ps 23:5). When? Where? “In the presence of my enemies.” Even as David was surrounded by his enemies, God was supplying him with an abundance of grace in the forms of peace, strength, and comfort. Though the shadow of death loomed over him, he could say with remarkable confidence, “I will fear no evil” (Ps 23:4).
Perhaps we think David could be so optimistic only because he believed God would deliver him, but that’s not what he says. In fact, he is well aware of the possibility of the shadow of death soon becoming more than a shadow (Ps 23:4). Notice how he concludes this psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Ps 23:6).
To paraphrase that last line, David says, “My life will be full of God’s goodness and mercy even if it comes to an end sooner than later. Even then, even if death catches me tomorrow, I will be satisfied and rejoice because then I can leave this place of trouble for a much better one. I can go home to my Lord where I will dwell forever.”
Sometimes God delivers us from our troubles, and sometimes he doesn’t. The point of Psalm 23 is not that he always removes the trials we face. The point is that God supplies us precisely what we need when we do face trials. Better yet, he is with us every step of the way. As David walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he says, “Lord, you are with me” (Ps 23:4).
Even more than walking with us through our trials, God has proven his willingness to suffer in our place. When he came to this earth in the form of a man some two-thousand years ago, he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). The greatest trouble we could ever face is the consequence of our own sin, and God was willing suffer even that for our sake.
Today, your trial comes in the form of seemingly unbearable loss. Whether we lose someone we love when he is ninety-six or sixteen, it always hurts, and I will not minimize your pain. Today, you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4). As much as I would love to take the hurt away from you, I can’t. The best I can do is encourage you to lift your eyes above the shadows in this valley, set your gaze on the God of heaven, and say, “LORD, I need you as my shepherd (Ps 23:1). I need your rod and your staff to comfort me (Ps 23:4). Anoint my head with oil (Ps 23:5). Despite the sadness of this present circumstance, Lord, make my cup overflow.”
If the LORD is your shepherd, I believe he will (Ps 23:1).