The Twenty-third Psalm is one of the most quoted and well-known poems in the Bible. In its short six verses are contained some of the deepest truths and most beautiful images in scripture.
Today, I want to look at just the first five words of the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. Familiarity with these words can rob them of their true power. Imagine if we used a modern-day analogy: The Prime Minister (or King or President) is my life coach, or home health care nurse, or bodyguard. Can you imagine!?
How often do we gloss over these words and fail to see the amazingly powerful message there. The LORD– Yahweh, the Almighty, Ruler of the Universe– is MY shepherd. He does all the kind of things a shepherd does for his sheep– feeds, leads, protects, and provides. He fights off predators, binds up wounds, and shears off the extra wool that can get us entangled in briers or slow down our progress. He stands with us in the heat and cold, and finds shelter for us from the wind and rain. He does all of this for me, when I can’t; because I can’t. He knows everything about me– my strengths and weaknesses and limitations. He knows everything about what I need– where the best grass and water are and how to get there; how much rest I need before the next stage of our journey; the likelihood that I will wander off and need to be called back to the flock. He knows what dangers lie ahead, and how to deal with them.
The Lord IS my shepherd– He is always on the job. He hasn’t left me alone in green pastures, or sent someone else to take me through the valleys. He didn’t start out as my shepherd and then decide to quit. He isn’t waiting for me to reach a certain stage or measurement before I qualify to be His sheep.
The Lord is my Shepherd– not my task-master, nor yet my servant. He is both my Lord and my caretaker– my master and my minister. When I pray today, it is not to someone remote and aloof or powerless and malleable– I am bleating in my sheepish voice all my praise, my love, my irrational worries, and my sincerest gratitude, to the eternal and all-powerful shepherd who calls me by name.
“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..” These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?
I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.
And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.
There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.
Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!
Of David. 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— whom should I dread? 2 When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. 3 Though an army deploys against me, my heart will not be afraid; though a war breaks out against me, I will still be confident. 4 I have asked one thing from the Lord; it is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, gazing on the beauty of the Lord and seeking him in his temple. 5 For he will conceal me in his shelter in the day of adversity; he will hide me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Then my head will be high above my enemies around me; I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy. I will sing and make music to the Lord. 7 Lord, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me and answer me. 8 My heart says this about you: “Seek his face.” Lord, I will seek your face. 9 Do not hide your face from me; do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my helper; do not leave me or abandon me, God of my salvation. 10 Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me. 11 Because of my adversaries, show me your way, Lord, and lead me on a level path. 12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing violence. 13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart be courageous. Wait for the Lord.
There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…
David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.
But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!
Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.
Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
5 Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel: 2 She has fallen; Virgin Israel will never rise again. She lies abandoned on her land with no one to raise her up. 3 For the Lord God says: The city that marches out a thousand strong will have only a hundred left, and the one that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left in the house of Israel.
4 For the Lord says to the house of Israel: Seek me and live! 5 Do not seek Bethel or go to Gilgal or journey to Beer-sheba, for Gilgal will certainly go into exile, and Bethel will come to nothing. 6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will spread like fire throughout the house of Joseph; it will consume everything with no one at Bethel to extinguish it. 7 Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground. 8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns darkness into dawn and darkens day into night, who summons the water of the sea and pours it out over the surface of the earth— the Lord is his name. 9 He brings destruction on the strong, and it falls on the fortress. 10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty at the city gate, and they despise the one who speaks with integrity. 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. 12 For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates. 13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent at such a time, for the days are evil. 14 Pursue good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord, the God of Armies, will be with you as you have claimed. 15 Hate evil and love good; establish justice in the city gate. Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says: There will be wailing in all the public squares; they will cry out in anguish in all the streets. The farmer will be called on to mourn, and professional mourners to wail. 17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass among you. The Lord has spoken.
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. 19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Won’t the day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. 25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.
The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.
God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!
Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
3 Acknowledge that the Lord is God. He made us, and we are his— his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Psalm 23 New King James Version (NKJV) The Lord the Shepherd of His People A Psalm of David. 23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not [a]want. 2 He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures; He leads me beside the [c]still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 4 Yea, 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will [d]dwell in the house of the Lord [e]Forever. Footnotes: Psalm 23:1lack Psalm 23:2 Lit. pastures of tender grass Psalm 23:2 Lit. waters of rest Psalm 23:6 So with LXX, Syr., Tg., Vg.; MT return Psalm 23:6 Or To the end of my days, lit. For length of days
The Bible is filled with imagery of sheep and shepherds. Growing up, I lived in the countryside, but we never raised sheep, and I had little experience with livestock of any kind. We had one neighbor who had sheep, however, and he shared a lot of insight into why we should pay attention to what sheep can teach us about ourselves, and our God.
Not only does God use the imagery of sheep and shepherds, He uses examples throughout the Bible of actual sheep and shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the sons of Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos– all were shepherds. When the Messiah was born, the first announcement went to shepherds in the fields, keeping night-watch over their flocks!
Jesus used stories of sheep and shepherds in his parables, as well. There is a lot to understand, and I am not qualified to teach anyone about shepherding, but there are several wonderful principles that don’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge:
Sheep NEED a shepherd. There are breeds of mountain sheep that live independently, but the Bible stories speak of domesticated sheep…they are “high maintenance” animals– they need food and water, shelter, protection, and a lot of guidance and supervision! We NEED God–He understands our situations, our weaknesses, and our strengths, far better than we do. He knows the future; He has a plan, and He provides all that we need. We may not see the road ahead–we may not see the green pasture or the still waters where He wants to lead us–but He IS the WAY, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and we can trust Him to get us there.
Sheep need to be sheared. Left unsheared, the sheep’s wool will become matted, filthy, and a potential source of danger and disease. The sheep cannot get rid of its wool on its own. However, once the old wool is sheared off, the sheep is clean, and new wool can grow. Not only does God provide for our immediate needs, He provides for our renewal and growth–physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Sometimes, that means we need to be “sheared” of habits, people, or situations that have become “matted”, and filthy. We haven’t even noticed the change, and we don’t see the danger. God wants to free us from the “baggage” we accumulate, and help us experience new growth.
Sheep depend on others to stay safe, healthy, and fed–there may be “lone wolves”, but there are no “lone sheep”. God will bring us into “flocks”. We learn to eat together, travel together, rest together, live together, and follow our shepherd’s voice together. Trying to be a “lone sheep” makes for a lot of trouble!
Shepherds make great sacrifices to care for their sheep– they provide, protect, rescue, heal, guide, and clean their sheep. A good shepherd is watchful, faithful, caring, and gentle, even as s/he must be strong, brave, and fiercely protective, risking their lives (or even giving their lives) for their flocks. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows each one of us intimately– He knows how to heal and guide us. He wants us to recognize His voice above all others, and to stay close to Him. He died to redeem you and me!
May we trust our Good Shepherd today, and every day. May we spend time acknowledging Him as our loving and faithful Shepherd, and call out to Him– in praise, in adoration, in supplication, and in loving gratitude.
The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.
Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.
Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.
The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?
Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:
1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV) 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. 10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.
I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.
We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.
Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.
Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.
That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.
Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.
Walls, fences, borders, barriers– there are many reasons to build them, and many ways to view them, but they have only two sides, and we can be only on one side or the other. I enjoy visiting castles and forts, monasteries, and mansions. Nearly all have impressive walls. From the outside, they look imposing, intimidating, and often unfriendly (especially those with armed guards and cannons!). But inside, the walls provide protection, insulation from any outside threats, and often peace.
Most walls provide protection– from nature, from floods or winds, from predators, and from enemies. But there are a few walls that are built, not to keep danger out, but to keep people trapped within. Such walls are used to isolate, punish, and imprison.
God is described in the Psalms (and elsewhere) as a fortress, a rock, a safe place, a hiding place, and a sure defense. But those attributes and qualities are for those who chose to come inside the fortress; to ask for protection and defense.
Sometimes, we approach God as an adversary, rather than a defender and protector. We find ourselves on the outside, facing dangers unprotected and alone. The very walls that can shield us and give us peace rise up as barriers, We feel locked out and vulnerable. The only difference between peace and peril is where we are in relation to the wall. We are no stronger, our enemy is no weaker on one side or the other– only the wall makes the difference. And the level of peace and confidence is related, not to our own ability, but to the stability and strength of the wall between us and disaster. The higher and stronger the wall, the safer we feel.
Other times, we approach God as a jail-keeper. We have lived inside the walls, and resent His protection. We have forgotten, or we deny, that there is danger outside the walls. Or we assume the walls are too close or too restrictive to offer us peace. But God hasn’t built a wall to keep us near Him or to control us– He IS the wall, the fortress, the bulwark. To approach Him is to be protected. To resent His protection is to resent His very presence.
Earthly walls will eventually crumble and return to dust. Even walls that have stood the test of centuries, like the Great Wall in China, or the Tower of London, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem– they are not perfect, nor will they last forever. But our Bulwark, our Sure Defense, will never fail. Not only will He never fail to stand, nor fail to protect us, He will never fail to let us in when we seek His salvation.