"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1)
Clovis G. Chappell: This is the start of a new year. I am sure that we desire to face our untried to-morrow with calm confidence and hope. It is to help us toward this great achievement that I have chosen these heartening words. They are a port of the most familiar song in all the Bible. More than that, they are a part of the most familiar song in the literature of the world. Of all the poems that, through the ages, have been born in the hot hearts of men of genius, this is the best known and the best loved. More of you can quote it from memory than any other single passage in God's Word. Some of us learned it at mother's knee during the tender years of childhood. Others came to it in later life under the stress of heavy burdens and of compelling needs, or under the spell of a newborn love for the Good Shepherd. But whenever we came, whether in joy or sorrow, youth or age, more have found their way to it and have taken it into their hearts than any other song that was ever sung.
Naturally, therefore, I do not count on your interest in what I shall have to say because of the novelty of my text. I rather count on it for the opposite reason. I know that familiarity is said to breed contempt. This is often the case. It might be possible for some of us to dwell so long beside the sea that we should cease to wonder at its majesty and mystery. It might be possible to live under the very shadow of towering mountains till we no longer lift our eyes to those awful heights that shimmer under their ermine mantles of eternal whiteness. But familiarity does not always breed contempt. Sometimes it leads to a finer appreciation and to a more abiding love. Suppose, for instance, that next summer you and I should visit together the farm where I spent my boyhood. I might say to you, "Here is the winding path that leads down to my favorite spring. Let us go there and drink." "O, no," you might answer, "that old spring is so familiar to you. Let us seek one that you have never seen before. Let us find a new spring and drink from that. You will enjoy it so much more." "By no means," I should answer. "I know this spring is most familiar. I have visited it with some dear hearts that to-day sleep on that sunny hillside yonder. I have sat beside it and had its musical prattle mingle with the voices of my youthful dreams. But that makes me all the more eager to visit it again. As I kiss that well-loved spring upon the lips I shall not only drink refreshing water, but I shall drink tender and precious memories as well.
So it is with this ageless song. The fact that we know it so well makes us love it the more. For some of us it is intimately associated with scenes unspeakably dear and tender. As we listen to it, we hear again the cadences of dear voices that are hushed to-day and feel again the caress of loved hands that have turned to dust. If this Psalm could write its own biography, what a thrilling story it would have to tell! There is no sea that it has not crossed, no land it has not visited, no road that it has not traveled. It has been thumbed by beggars and kings, by little children and silver-haired pilgrims. White-souled mothers have rejoiced over it, and sinsick harlots have clung to it as their one hope. Sheltered souls have sung it amidst the peace of God's house and in the warmth and glow of the home fireside. Tempest-tossed souls have also sung it as they were being pounded by the fists of persecution, or as they were braving the heartbreak of lonely exile. Dying saints, surrounded by loved faces, have found it a soft pillow upon which to rest as they slipped into their last sleep. Martyrs have found in it calm and comfort as they went to meet God in winding sheets of flame.
Sometime ago I was called to see a mother who was very near the sunset. When I reached the home I found it already under the solemn hush of death. "We are glad you came," said the daughter softly. "But I am not sure that mother will know you. She no longer seems to recognize any of us." But I went in and sat beside her. How still she was and how altogether in different to the sights and sounds of this world! Then I put my lips close to her ear and quoted these immortal words, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul." And the dying head nodded a bit, and the thin lips broke into a smile as if she were seeing old loved faces and hearing gentle voices whose wooing she could not resist. When she had become deaf even to the call of her own child, she still seemed responsive to the tender appeal of the Good Shepherd.
We cannot say with authority who wrote these deathless words. For long centuries they have been credited to David, the shepherd king. If he wrote them, as I assume he did, they were not written, I feel sure, in the springtime of his life, nor yet in the vigor of midsummer. These are the words of a man who has lived much and thought much, who has greatly sinned and has been greatly forgiven. He has now reached life's December, but June is still in his heart. There he is in his palace in the city of Jerusalem. Memory takes him by the hand and leads him into a far-off yesterday. His thin white hair suddenly becomes the golden locks of youth, his palace roof lifts and overarches into the deep blue of a cloudless Syrian sky; his scepter becomes a shepherd's crook, his court and subjects become a flock of sheep. How familiar is this flock! He knows them every one by name. He knows their peculiarities. Here is one that wears a scar. He has had to rescue him from the jaws of a lion. Here is another that had a veritable genius for getting lost. More than one sleepless night has he spent in the wilds of the hills in search of that foolish sheep. As he looks upon this scene there comes a new warmth to his heart and a new tenderness into his face. "I, too, have a Shepherd," he murmurs. "There is One who has loved me and has sought me in all my wanderings. There is One whose gentleness has made me great, and that One is God. The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want."
What an amazing discovery! Look at the incredible wealth of it.
1. He dares to claim God as his very own. He does not say that the Lord is a Shepherd. That would have been a wonderful discovery. But one might say that without having any "glowing coal" at his heart. One cannot say "The Lord is my Shepherd," however, without getting a handclasp of life. Luther was right when he said experiential religion is in the personal pronouns. Everything wears a different look when we can speak of it as our very own. Here is a group of women clustered about a cradle. In that cradle is a beautiful, healthy, kicking baby, trying to swallow now its hand, and now its foot. All the women are interested, but there is one who looks at that little bundle of life with different eyes from the rest. The other women say, "That is a baby!" This one, with eyes lighted by the sweet radiance of mother-love, says, "That is my baby."
"The world grows green on a thousand hills,
By a thousand rivers the bees are humming,
And a million birds on a million rills,
Sing of the golden season's coming.
But gazing out on the sun-kissed lea
nd hearing the thrush and the bluebird singing,
I feel that the summer is all for me,
And all for me the joy it is bringing."
So it may be with the summer time of the soul. We may have God for our very own.
2. Having dared to claim God as his own, the psalmist's next word is the most logical ever uttered. It is the very acme of common sense. If the Lord is my Shepherd, what follows as naturally as night follows day? Just this, "I shall not want." He is able to supply all our needs, and there is none other who can. Soon or late, grim want breaks by all other defenses and lays its torturing hands upon us. We are accustomed to say that money talks, and that is true within certain narrow limits; but, in the presence of the deep wants of the heart, it is as dumb as the frozen lips of death. "Knowledge is power," we say. But if it is knowledge that is only of the earth, earthly, then in the presence of life's supreme needs it is utter weakness. It leaves us at last in a more desperate plight than was the hungry prodigal by the swine trough of the far country. Love and friendship are blessings of unspeakable value, but not even these are able to satisfy the deepest hungers of the heart. There is but one way to avoid gaunt and ghastly want, and only one, that is to be able to sing with this glad-hearted poet, "The Lord is my Shepherd."
What are some of the wants that the Good Shepherd will supply?
1. If the Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want for rest and refreshment. We shall surely find in him satisfaction for the hungers and thirsts of our souls. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." The sheep lie down because their hunger has been satisfied and because, thanks to the presence of the shepherd, they feel secure. And the same Good Shepherd meets our needs. "I am the bread of life," he declares. "He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." (John 6:35) With supreme confidence he asserts his ability to satisfy the longing soul.
Then he claims also to meet the need of our weary hearts for rest. He stands in our presence to-day as he stood long centuries ago, crying after us as we go our feverish and fear-filled ways: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls." (Matt. 11:29) The years ahead may disappoint us in a thousand ways, but it will certainly not disappoint us in our quest for rest if only the Lord is our Shepherd.
2. With the Lord as our Shepherd, we shall not want for leadership and guidance. "He leadeth me beside still waters." That means that he goes before us into our unknown to-morrow. We have not passed this way before. No one has. "We are the first that ever burst into this silent Sea." But this is our consolation, that our way is not new or strange to him who goes before us.
One has called attention to the fact that the old geographers, after they had mapped the known world, wrote upon the seas that lay beyond the confines of the known such words as these: "Here be dragons. Here be demons that devour men." But the author of the one hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm had a more sunny faith. He believed that it was not dragons and demons that were waiting for us beyond the known, but that God was there.
"If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." (Psa. 139:9)
Such also was the faith of this shepherd king. Such may be our faith. Whatever lies beyond to-day, we may be sure of this, that God is there. He always goes before.
Not only does the Good Shepherd go before us, but he gives us guidance. "He leadeth [or guideth] me in the paths of righteousness." How we need such guidance! How limited is our vision! How often we stand bewildered at the forks of the road not knowing which way to turn! Is there One who does know and who is willing to guide? We sing, "Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom." But is there really a Kindly Light that does lead those who are willing to be lead? This psalmist, speaking out of his own experience, says there is. These Scriptures say there is. "When he, the Spirit of Truth is come, he will guide you." (John 16:13)
The choicest of the saints through the centuries speak to the same purpose. They are sure that the gracious God who guides even the birds in their quest for unfading springtime will not leave his own children to go their unchartered ways in the dark. Therefore, watching the waterfowl in his flight, they sing,
"He who from zone to zone guides through the trackless heavens thy solemn flight,
In the long way that I must go alone will guide my steps aright."
He will guide us in our quest for our life's work. He will show us the particular way in which he has planned that we use our lives. He will give us the high joy of looking from our task into his face and saying, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world." (John 18:37) He will also guide us day by day, giving us to know, with Saint Paul, both the constraint and the restraint of the Holy Spirit. He will enable us to say with a conviction born of experience, "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." (Prov. 3:6)
3. With the Lord as our Shepherd we may hope for restoration. "He restoreth my soul." This word "restore" has two possible meanings. It means to bring back to health and strength one who is sick. This Good Shepherd of ours claims emphatically to be able to cure the sinsick soul. All the saints are firmly sure of the truthfulness of his claim. To them, for any man to go day after day groaning under the burden of his disease and missing the joys of health seems the height of madness. We hear one of them asking in utter amazement, "Is there ho balm in Gilead? is there no physician there?" (Jer. 8:22)
Why then is there torturing sickness where there might be buoyant and abounding health? Regardless of the deadliness of the disease from which I may have suffered yesterday or from which I may be suffering to-day, there is healing for me at the hands of the Good Shepherd if I will only give Him the chance for which He so eagerly yearns.
Then to restore means to seek that which is lost and to bring it back to the fold. Surely David is here speaking out of his own experience. He is thinking of that blackest and most tragic crisis of his life. What a crime was his! First, adultery, then murder, not in the heat of passion, but deliberate and cold blooded. Yet even then God did not give him up. He never left off seeking till He found him. That gives hope for you and me. Even yet, after all our defeats and failures, we may win. This year that is ahead need not be simply another year. It may be a new year, new because we ourselves have become new. I know that to some this sounds a bit far away and impossible. We have given up hope of ever being greatly different from what we are. We are not satisfied with the lean, drab lives that we are living, yet we see little chance of ever changing them for the better. When we hear our fellows making New Year's resolutions, we smile wistfully or cynically at the sheer futility of it all. We realize how quickly acts become habits and how habits harden into character that is very stubborn and hard to make over. Therefore we say with sad approval
"At thirty man suspects himself a fool;
Knows it at forty, and reforms his plan;
At fifty chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all the magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same."
But here is one who stands in a world grown old and gray and shouts, "Old things are passed away; behold they are become new." (2 Cor. 5:17) This is true because "he restoreth my soul."
4. With the Lord as our Shepherd we shall not want for companionship and comfort in sorrow. The Good Shepherd leads us in green pastures and beside the still waters. But the whole journey does not lie among such lovely pastoral scenes. The road changes at times with bewildering suddenness from green pastures to wild and eerie moors, or to rugged and flinty uplands, or to deep valleys of horror and gloom. But our Shepherd does not forsake us in these desperate hours. He draws the closer to us. "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." He not only walks with us in the darkness, he also brings us through it.
Recently I was making a journey by train through a country of wild and rugged beauty. The landscape on every side was gorgeously green and flooded with a golden glory of sunshine. Suddenly it became dark as blackest midnight. As I tried to look through the car windows I could see nothing at all. But in spite of this seeming tragedy I was not afraid. I knew we had entered a tunnel. I knew that this tunnel was not a terminus, but a thoroughfare, that therefore we would soon pass into the sunlight again. Even so the Good Shepherd will not leave us in the dark valley. He will bring us through it into the sunshine. "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." (Psa. 30:5)
5. Finally, with the Lord as our Shepherd, we shall not want for a home at the end of the journey. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." When the sun is set and the day is done, does the shepherd hie him home in the gloaming, leaving the sheep to shift as best they can in the wilderness through the long night? By no means. It is when the night comes on that their danger is greatest and that they need him most. Therefore, when he turns his steps home he leads the flock after him and never rests till every one of them is safe within the fold.
And may we not expect as much from the Good Shepherd that layeth down His life for the sheep? Will He love us and lead us all through our pilgrimage only to forsake us when our need of Him is most desperate? Will He hold our hands in his till we reach that greedy and muddy ditch that we call the grave, and then fling us into it and turn his back upon us forever? I for one cannot believe it. On the contrary, I am very sure that when the evening shadows gather, like the Good Shepherd that He is, He is going to lead us home; that where He is, there we may be also. He loves us too much and has invested too much in us to willingly fling us away.
"For none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed,
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
Ere he found the sheep that was lost."
from "Sermons from the Psalms" by Clovis G. Chappell, 1931
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