A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on April 29, 2012.

Psalm 23

We live in a time when the existence of our souls is anything but obvious.  To speak of the human soul almost seems archaic.  We know we have minds and bodies.  But souls?  Today many are not so sure. 

Once a pathologist who proudly claimed to be an atheist performed an autopsy before a group of medical students.  When he concluded the procedure he glibly announced, “After thoroughly examining this body, I see no evidence of a human soul.   Need I say more?”   

I know of no way to prove to the skeptical pathologist or anybody else that we possess souls.  But I would say there is more than one way to invade the human person.  You can use a scalpel and other tools of the surgeon or the pathologist.  Or, you can use the word of God which is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit (Hebrews 4:12). 

One word from God that has spiritually pierced more minds, calmed more hearts, and restored more souls than perhaps any other is the Twenty-Third Psalm:    

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

he leadeth me beside still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths

righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through 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.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence

of mine enemies; thou annointest my head with oil;

my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house

of the Lord forever.

If you are like most people, just hearing these words has an effect that is unmistakable. These words penetrate deep inside and stir something.  That “something” is your soul.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have begun reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm with someone at the point of death and immediately noticed a difference.  Most recently I saw it when I visited with Joe Haymes just before he died.  Joe was in a coma-like state, agitated, with shallow, labored breathing.  When I began reciting Psalm 23 there was an immediate change.  His breathing slowed, his body calmed, and he listened closely to every word.  In that moment he wasn’t just listening to his pastor.  He was listening to the Lord, his shepherd, who was preparing to take him in his arms and lead him home. 

How do we explain the impact of this psalm?Many, of course, point to the sheer beauty of the language, especially in the King James Version.  Even non-believers acknowledge that the six verses of Psalm 23 constitute a literary gem.

Some say it is because the psalm is so personal.  Martin Luther said that great faith is always expressed in personal pronouns.  To say, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want is to speak about a God who is not some ethereal idea out there in the cosmos, but an intimate presence as close to us as our own breath.

Since this psalm is heard so frequently at funerals, most people remember it for its promises of eternal life…that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  When Christians hear Jesus declare that he is going to prepare a place for us, a house with many dwelling places, we know he speaks of that same house mentioned in Psalm 23.  When we are on our deathbeds, in the shadow of death and hear these words,  we breathe easier, and not just because of a sedative.

But the truth is this psalm has even more to say to us about this life than the next.  And today I want us to see what God is promising that impacts our life in the here and now, as well as the hereafter. 

There is one very important condition upon which all the amazing promises of Psalm 23 rest, summarized in the first five words—The Lord is my shepherd. When this psalm was written by King David, kings were also called “shepherds.”  So it is all the more striking that a powerful king like David would write, The Lord is my shepherd.  

To say The Lord is my shepherd is to say God is my God, my shepherd, my king, and none other.  I have put my life in his hands.  I belong to him and not myself.  I will follow him and no one else. 
And so before we probe any further into this literary masterpiece I have to ask a fundamental question—have you placed your life in God’s hands?  Are you living as though you are your own shepherd, guiding your own life and making your own decisions, or have you made the Lord your shepherd?  Your answer to that question makes all the difference.

Once we’ve made the Lord our shepherd, then we can count on four things to be true in our lives—

The Lord will provide for our needs;

The Lord will restore our souls;

The Lord will remain our constant companion;

And the Lord’s goodness and mercy will pursue us all of our days. 

Once, back in the day memorizing scripture was considered “normal”, a little boy was asked to stand and recite the Twenty-Third Psalm.  He stood and said, “The Lord is my shepherd; I don’t want anything else.” 

That little boy may have bungled the words, but he got the meaning of the words just right.  When we are rightly related to God, that relationship provides enough sustenance to satisfy our souls.

Philip Keller is a 20th century shepherd who wrote about the Twenty-Third Psalm based on his personal experiences with sheep.  He writes, “Sheep do not just take care of themselves.  Sheep require more attention than any other class of livestock.” 

Because sheep are such high-maintenance creatures, a good shepherd is always thinking about his sheep.  He’s caring for them, looking out for their needs, making sure they have adequate food and water. 

Amazing, isn’t it?  We have a God who is this attentive to our needs.  Of course, we live in a society that always wants more than it needs.  So there is no rest for the weary in our perpetual race to accumulate all we think we need, and sometimes we are so wired from our ceaseless activity we cannot sleep at night. 

Sheep are much the same way.  Philip Keller observes, “There are several conditions under which a sheep will not lie down.  Sheep are real timid creatures.  As long as they are afraid they won’t lie down.  They won’t risk resting.

“Because they are social creatures, (if there’s) friction in the flock…they will not lie down and rest.

“Because they are creatures of appetite, if they’re empty inside, if they’re hungry, they will not lie down.”  And on a related note, sheep are instinctively afraid of running water because if they were pushed into the water, their wool would become saturated and they might drown in the current.” 

So what does it mean that the Lord…

Maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside still waters?

It means he provides for what I really need on every level of life. It means he soothes my fearful heart.  It means I can sleep at night, and live with a simple kind of trust that says, The Lord is my shepherd; I don’t want anything else. 

But that’s not all.  The Lord also restores my soul.  And that’s a good thing because sometimes I get exhausted, not just physically.  Sometimes I get exhausted in my soul.  I’ve given all I can give, and then some, and there’s just nothing left but a dry hole.

Now some understand God’s restoring our souls to mean God keeps us alive in body and spirit.  Others note that God restored David’s soul by forgiving David after he so blatantly sinned by sleeping with Bathsheba and then having Bathsheba’s husband killed. 

But I’m thinking that David’s soul restoration goes far beyond any one event or moment.  This man who was a shepherd, a king, a warrior, a musician, and a poet, this man who had talents galore and pressures we can only imagine—this man counted on spending time with God to restore his soul.  Maybe he learned to commune with God in solitude and silence as he tended his flocks.  Later, he would survive all manner of crises and traumas and somehow land on his feet. 

Why?  Because he carved out time to be with God and pour out his soul to God.  Because (fortunately for us) he recorded a journal of his soul ruminations that we now call the Psalms.  And God restored his soul, over and over and over again.

What God did for David he can do for us, too.  If we will spend the kind of time David did in the presence of God. 

It was because David’s soul was full to overflowing with God’s Spirit that he knew God was with him all the time.   God was with David on the mountaintops of life, when he slayed Goliath and defeated massive armies and became the greatest king in the history of Israel.  He was with David in the deep, dark valleys when David was almost killed by Saul, and then by his own son Absolom, and when David’s son with Bathsheba died. 

David had used his own shepherd’s rod and staff to protect and guide his sheep many times.  Now he knew that God did the same to protect and guide him. 

David knew the rules of the range, knew that if you were being chased by an enemy that enemy could not attack you as long as you were sitting at table in the tent of a friend.  Likewise David knew that as long as he dined at the Lord’s table, as long as he feasted on God’s presence he was safe.  Could an enemy physically kill him?  Yes.  But no adversary could kill his soul, the most vital part of him, the part that belonged to God. 

David knew that shepherds anointed their own sheep with oil to heal their wounds.  And he knew that God had anointed him to heal not only but those deep inner wounds created when people abandoned and betrayed him.  Indeed, the anointing of God was so deep and the restoration of his soul so abundant that the cup of his spirit was typically full to overflowing. 

Remarkably, even though David lived hundreds of years before Jesus’ resurrection, David knew God could conquer death.  And he confidently affirms that he will be living in the beloved arms of his heavenly shepherd after this life comes to an end. 

But that’s not all.  He knows he is loved, deeply loved in this life.  He says as much when he writes that God’s goodness and mercy shall follow him all the days of his life.  Actually, the Hebrew is even stronger, as it says God’s goodness and mercy shall pursue him all of his days. 

We worry that our sins will eventually catch up with us.  And time will catch up with us.  And death will finally claim us.

But has it ever occurred to you that no less than God is actively pursuing you, God is nipping at your heels, and the pinnacle of love is on your tail?   And when he catches you, he will sweep you up off your feet and take you home with him.  And you will be in the arms of the one who made you and loves you more than can imagine for all eternity. 

Close your eyes and listen again to this word from God, and let it restore your soul…

(Recite the Twenty-Third Psalm). 

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