Residents of a Christian care home gathered for a service and were asked to turn to Psalm 23. Everyone heard the “whispered” Oh no! Not again! I write that tongue-in-cheek because despite its familiarity, myriads have benefitted from the content and comfort of this psalm. Although you know it well, you have kindly overcome the inclination to skip over this article. I promise nothing new, except to try to tailor the teaching to the theme of this month’s publication, and show how present-day shepherds in God’s assembly can handle various issues affecting the flock and minister to them.
At the very place where shepherds heard of the Savior’s birth, David had pondered a day in his life as a shepherd. He had fed, led, watered and protected his sheep until the lengthening shadows saw them gathered home. Here was a comprehensive picture of divine care, and so he wrote Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David provided, and David protected, and it mirrored the Lord’s provision of spiritual sustenance and safety for His people.
The Provision for the Sheep
David rejoiced in his personal relationship with Jehovah, “my shepherd.” The sense of belonging was sweet, and the Savior encouraged that mindset, referring to “my sheep” (Joh 10:14,26,27); we are His. Sheep are rarely found singly, although a true shepherd cares for each of them individually. The shepherd of the parable said, “I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luk 15:6). However, the thought of a flock is a familiar Bible concept. The Lord Jesus likened the whole Church to a flock. Some originate in the fold of Judaism, and there are the others who are “not of this fold.” They, too, have been brought, and together have “become one flock, one shepherd” (Joh 10:16 RV), the “one new man” of Ephesians 2:15, the Church comprised of converted Jews and Gentiles.
Referring to the local assembly, a diminutive of the word flock is used, the little flock, (e.g., Act 20:28; 1Pe 5:2). The different word indicates the contrast between what the Lord called “my church” against which the “gates of hell” can never prevail (Mat 16:18), and the vulnerable local assembly which “grievous wolves” can infiltrate, “not sparing the flock” (Act 20:29). Hence the need for vigilance, and my burden is to encourage local shepherds to have Jehovah-like care as expressed in Psalm 23.
David asserts that his Shepherd catered to every need: “I shall not want.” If true of Old Testament saints, it is certainly true of us. God has given us His Scriptures to enlighten us, His Son to empathize with us, His Spirit to empower us, and His servants to encourage us; we lack nothing. Practically, local shepherds must ensure that every need of the flock is met. It is encapsulated in Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders, “Shepherd the assembly of God” (Act 20:28 JND), or Peter’s command to elders, “Shepherd the flock of God” (1Pe 5:2 ESV). Jehovah’s attention to detail should be reflected in the meticulous concern of every elder as he takes care of the church of God (1Ti 3:5).
Our Shepherd makes us to recline in green pastures. The grazing is over, and at His instigation, the well-fed sheep are in repose. In Scripture, bodily postures are used to illustrate spiritual truth. We are companions, walking with God until translated (Gen 5:24); competitors, running until the crown is won (1Co 9:24); combatants, standing until the smoke of battle has cleared (Eph 6:13); and converts, saved and sitting with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Walking, running, standing, sitting – and here, as contented sheep, we are lying down; spiritually, all these should be true of us simultaneously!
In arid conditions, sheep depend on shepherds locating verdant pastures, and in the barren wilderness of this world, where “the pleasures of this life” disappoint, our Shepherd provides the luscious nourishment that is sourced in Scripture. Again, local elders should ensure that such is available – a balanced diet of teaching to stimulate growth and ensure spiritual health. One shepherd fed his flock among the lilies, a pleasant environment (SoS 6:3). Similarly, in feeding the little flock, the “sound speech, that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8) must be presented attractively to encourage compliance and not resistance.
Elders must be proactive in arranging scriptural outlets for testimony. Inactivity is not an option, but the flock can be overdriven (Gen 33:13) and has “to rest at noon” (SoS 1:7). Thus, robust outreach should be balanced with repose in the green pastures lest there be a lack of spiritual energy and impetus.
The Shepherd feeds, but He also leads, and visits to refreshing streams are crucial; nourishment and refreshment go together. Jehovah provided manna in Exodus 16 and water from the rock in chapter 17. Elijah’s bread and flesh was washed down by water from the brook (1Ki 17:6). The Bread of God of John 6 offers rivers of living water in John 7. Together, hunger and thirst are accommodated until the last book of the Bible – “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more” (Rev 7:16) – and so in the spiritual realm, God allies spiritual nourishment with refreshment. The water of the Word has an emotional and uplifting effect that is refreshment for the hour, but longer term, it is converted into spiritual muscle and energy, for it is “able to build you up” (Act 20:32).
In assembly life, amidst the need to cover the range of doctrine, shepherds must deliver something to touch hearts, providing a lift for those experiencing the searing heat of persecution or perplexity. Aspire to Philemon’s commendation: “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through thee, brother” (Philemon 7 RV).
Mention of a restored soul in verse 3 implies lost ground. David had proved that his Shepherd could return him to his former condition, and thereafter lead him in “the paths of righteousness.” Cutting back on prayer time, curtailing Scripture reading and curbing assembly responsibilities could all be symptoms of the spiritual malaise that Scripture calls backsliding in heart (Pro 14:14). Preachers discourage us from “looking within,” but it is not altogether inappropriate to self-assess. “Consider your ways” (Hag 1:5,7); if the appraisal reveals slippage, be assured that the Shepherd, who is our “advocate with the Father” (1Jn 2:1), can effect restoration, and then lead us on. In seeking guidance, be sure that He will never lead you to do anything contrary to the precepts or principles of Scripture. He leads in paths of righteousness alone, without any deviation that is unholy, unethical or unbiblical.
Leaders must give a lead, and the arrangements that they make, their advice and their example, must all be perceived to be “paths of righteousness,” one hundred percent Bible based. They should also be aware of signs of decline, and act swiftly.
The Protection of the Sheep
In verses 4-5, the psalmist transitions to consider his Shepherd’s protection. He had experience of leading sheep from pasture to pasture through dark ravines with lurking predators, and that promotes the idea that our lives can enter unexpected phases, bright sunlight giving way to the chill of the narrow valley. At this alarming thought, he addresses the Shepherd in prayer – “thou art with me,” etc. He had confidence that in facing even the final trial, he would fear no evil – “the valley of the shadow of death” would hold no terrors. Perhaps this is not a reference to our literally dying, but to any alarming valley experience we may encounter. Facing such situations, anxiety is dispelled by the assurance, “Thou art with me.” Comfort is derived from glancing at the heavy club that provides protection, or the staff that prevents us from roving into danger. His promised presence for every circumstance is an antidote to discouragement and apprehension.
“Thou art with me.” Assembly members should be able to say that to their shepherds, for in life’s valleys, the hands-on involvement of elders is vital. They are described as “them which labor among you” (1Th 5:12). When speaking of interaction between elders and flock, Peter twice uses the words “among you” (1Pe 5:1-2); they must be among their people. It is difficult to be an itinerant preacher, a never-at-home businessman, or a snowbird and still function as a local shepherd. The flock needs you.
The Shepherd spreads a table in the presence of enemies. In Scripture, wolves, lions and bears all endanger the sheep, and yet the vigilant Shepherd provides nourishment in such a hostile environment. It is not just that God furnishes a table in the wilderness (Psa 78:19), providing sustenance in inhospitable terrain, but even when that environment is crowded with intimidating predators, the Shepherd will repel all such and bountifully provide for His flock.
As believers, we are “in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation” (Php 2:15), and everything militates against spiritual growth and godly living, but our Shepherd spreads a table, so that lambs can enjoy the milk of the Word and mature sheep can feast on “strong meat” (Heb 5:12-14).
Shepherds today must be alert to the activities of enemies, the “grievous wolves” (Act 20:29). Ensure that the flock’s spiritual diet is such that they will be well fortified against any self-seeking “teacher” whose agenda is to move away from the simple biblical pattern that governs both personal and assembly life.
With the head anointed to soothe the lacerations or bruises of the day, every need has been bountifully met; the cup overflows (v5). This Shepherd “giveth to all men liberally” (Jas 1:5); He is “the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1Ti 6:17); everything He does is unstinting. The “cup of salvation” of Psalm 116:13 is the cup of satisfaction of Psalm 23:5. The God who saves is the God who satisfies (Psa 107:9,13). “Saved and satisfied” was heard often from a former generation!
Dear brethren who lead, soothe any injured believers with the oil of a Spirit-directed ministry. Aim to produce contented sheep, people who appreciate the overflowing cup, seeing themselves blessed with salvation, but also honored by involvement in God’s testimony to a wicked world.
The Prospect of the Sheep
“The Life That Now Is”
Anticipating the future, David was confident that his Shepherd would continue to imbue his life with “goodness and mercy.” His experience of God’s faithfulness inspired such confidence, a conviction that was not misplaced. At life’s sunset he acknowledged, “Now [I] am old,” and looking back from that vantage point he declared, “yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken” (Psa 37:25). Let us have the same assurance for “the life that now is.” With all its twists and turns, divine grace will attend our way – “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2Co 12:9). Shepherds can motivate the flock by constantly rehearsing their confidence in a God whose past faithfulness stimulates assurance for the rest of life’s journey.
“That Which Is To Come”
Eternity! “The house of the Lord” will be “for ever.” Pleasant visits to green pastures and still waters will all be history. Never again will failure require restoration. The last dark valley will have been navigated. Enemies will no longer unnerve us. Let us lift up our heads; “my Father’s house” beckons (Joh 14:2). One by one, the sheep are being called home, but soon the trumpet will sound, and together we will all be summoned to meet the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, and for the first time, the “one flock” will be in the one place at the one time. What a glorious day that will be!
Shepherds, keep that prospect prominent. The zeal of the Thessalonians was fueled by “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Th 1:3). In your curriculum of assembly teaching, incorporate the important issues of future events, including this: the expectation of the bliss of being with Him and like Him forever, at home in the Father’s house.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.