The two psalms selected for the message today are classic examples of testimonies of faith, written by those whose adventures with God taught them not to be afraid.
The middle chapter of the Bible is Psalm 117, and the middle verse of the Bible is Psalm 118:8, which says, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” Our study will involve a look at two psalms of trust. We can trust the Lord God of Israel because He is all powerful. He created the heavens and the earth without difficulty. He is also a never-slumbering God. Day and night we are the objects of His care. And He is the constantly protecting God. He protects from the heat of the day, and stands guard during the dark shades of night. There is no reason to go to rest at night with a spirit of fear.
For our study this month, we are choosing to call Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and Psalm 121, “The Lord is My Protector.”
1. The Lord Is My Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-6)
Psalm 23 is one of the passages of Scripture which many of us can quote from memory. Some of us can thank our parents for teaching us the Word of God. And although it was written nearly three thousand years ago, this Psalm has been a hymn of comfort and healing to many hearts bruised and broken by grief.
Psalm 23 has brought comfort and cheer to thousands of sick rooms. It is one of the first Scriptures learned by a little child at his mother’s knee, and yet it is also the last bit of inspired verse uttered by saintly people in the moments preceding death. When our 32-year-old daughter lay dying a few years ago, she repeatedly asked to have the 23rd Psalm read to her. One time when I had finished reading the Psalm, she said, “Read it again.” God’s children over the years have loved this Psalm because it speaks to our deepest needs—our need for rest and refreshment, our need for guidance and protection, and our need for forgiveness and restoration.
David pictures the Lord as the great Shepherd who provides for and protects His sheep. The opening sentence of the psalm (the words of verse 1) unfolds the theme for the verses to come. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
The word “Lord” begins with a large capital and the remaining letters are in small capitals. In this form, the word points to our Lord Jesus Christ as the promised Redeemer. Jehovah-Jesus, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, is seen here. One who can say, “The Lord Jesus is my shepherd,” can also say, “I shall not want.”
The word “my” is very significant. If this Psalm would read, “The Lord is a shepherd,” it would lose its value for the child of God. The little word “my” makes all the difference. Those who can say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” have every right to lay claim to the blessings that are enumerated in the rest of the Psalm. The leading thought in the whole Psalm is the writer’s full belief that God would provide for him, and that he would never be left in want (or as some translations say, “he would lack nothing”). This thought is illustrated and amplified in each of the other verses of the Psalm.
a) I shall not want peace (verse 2)
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.” One of the responsibilities of the Oriental shepherd was to lead his flock each day to a good pasture. By late morning, when the sun would get hot, it was time to rest. The sheep were not always ready to rest, but the shepherd made them lie down. He gently tapped his leading sheep on the head, and when the leading sheep responded, the others soon followed by lying down under the shade of a huge rock or clump of bushes in the soft green grass.
The “green pastures” speak of spiritual nourishment, and the “still waters” speak of the peace that comes when we take time to read the Bible and pray. There is nourishment within the pages of the Bible for every hungry heart. The person who “delights” in the law of the Lord shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3). All of us need to spend quiet times in the “green pastures” of God’s Word. The person who gives the first portion of each day to prayer and meditation in the Bible will be better prepared to meet the challenges of a new day.
b) I shall not want pardon (verse 3)
“He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The fields in Palestine were covered with narrow paths. Some of the paths were close to steep cliffs and deep ravines, over which straying sheep might fall to their death. One of the duties of the shepherd was to guard his flock from places that were dangerous.
It seems that sheep never learn to stay away from perilous places. They have a tendency to stray, and if they get lost, they become utterly helpless. The words “He restoreth my soul,” mean that the Shepherd seeks to bring erring persons back. We all sometimes wish that we could start over, wipe out the past, and get a second chance. The goal of the Lord Jesus is to rescue us from dangerous places and from sinful living.
The Holy Spirit likens human beings to sheep that have a tendency to go astray. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” The hymn-writer says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” We all know that this is true! It’s not that we pit ourselves against God and try to run off into gross wickedness. The usual experience is this: “I just didn’t think; I never meant to fall into such grievous sin.”
There’s good news for us! Jesus stands ready to restore our wandering souls. There is pardon. Sir Henry Baker says, “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed; yet in love He sought me; and on His shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” Many of us can testify that just when we were beginning to stray, Jesus came and brought us back. If we confess our sins, the Lord Jesus is faithful and just to forgive (1 John 1:9). If the Lord is your shepherd, you will not want pardon.
c) I shall not want protection (verse 4)
“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.” The “rod” and “staff” were used by the shepherd to protect the flock when passing through dangerous places. There are many dark valleys and deep ravines in Palestine that cast shadows much of the day. The “valley of the shadow of death” speaks not only of death itself, but of any shadowed way. Life has many experiences that are terrifying. Death is not the only valley we must pass through. Sometimes there is the betrayal of a friend, the waywardness of a son or daughter, or the intense sickness of a family member. God promises that He will lead us through all those experiences, and will use them for our good.
The true Christian has nothing to fear even in the most gloomy scenes of life. Likewise, he has nothing to fear in death and in the great world beyond, for he can say, “Thou art with me.” For the disciple of Jesus, death is only “a shadow.” Death is not darkness. And where there is a shadow, there must also be a light. You can’t have a shadow without a light—and the Lord Jesus (our Shepherd) is that Light. If the Lord Jesus is your Shepherd, you shall not lack protection—neither in this life, nor in the next.
d) I shall not want provision (verse 5)
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” One of the dangers confronting a Palestinian shepherd was that of poisonous plants. Many poisonous plants were fatal to sheep, and so it was necessary for the shepherd to “prepare” the pasture. He would take a crude mattock, and when he came with his flock to a new pasture, he carefully grubbed out every poisonous weed he could find. Only then would he let his sheep into the pasture. Just so, our Shepherd prepares a table of good things for us every day. The Psalmist says at another place, “Blessed be the Lord who daily loadeth us with benefits” (Psalm 68:19).
The “anointing of the head” and “the filling of the cup” are symbols of spiritual joy. The cup is not merely full; it is running over. And the wonderful truth found in the Bible is that God’s blessings are always overflowing! It may not always seem that way—but with God, the calf is “the fatted calf,” the robe is “the best robe,” and the peace is the kind that “passes all understanding.” Followers of Christ should be the happiest people in the world because of God’s gracious provision of the overflowing cup of blessing. If the Lord is your Shepherd, you will not lack provision.
e) I shall not want paradise (verse 6)
The 23rd Psalm concludes with the words, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” These words express the confidence that in the Father’s house, mansions are being prepared for those who follow Christ here in this life. When the “earthly house” (our present body) is laid aside, we have the promise of receiving a new house “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). We can be sure that the same Lord Jesus who led us safely on our journey through this life will see us safely into His everlasting fold.
The person who begins (in verse 1 of the 23rd Psalm) to travel by faith with the Good Shepherd, now in the last verse, is seen as a dweller in the house of the Lord forever! At the end of life’s road, the Lord opens the doors of His palace and bids us to enter in, and to live with Him in the realms of the blessed forever. If the Lord is your Shepherd, you shall not want Paradise. The 23rd Psalm pictures the secret of a happy life, a happy death, and a happy eternity.
2. The Lord Is My Protector (Psalm 121:1-8)
The group of psalms from 120 through 134 is often called “the psalms of ascent” because they were sung as the Jewish pilgrims made their way from the countryside to the city of Jerusalem for the great annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. To get to Jerusalem from any place in Palestine, pilgrims always had to ascend from a lower area to the mountain on which Jerusalem is built.
In Psalm 120, the worshiper is getting ready to leave home, letting unpleasant surroundings behind him. In verse 2, he says, “Deliver my soul . . . from lying lips,” and in verse 6, he says, “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace” (or, “I have dwelled for a long time with those who hate peace”). The pilgrim looks forward to walking in the streets of Jerusalem. He says, “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:2).
In Psalm 133, he rejoices in the pleasant fellowship he finds in the house of God with other believers. He says, “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” In verse 3, he says that unity is as refreshing as the dew on the mountain early in the day.
And in Psalm 134, he leaves for home early in the morning, bidding farewell to the night guards on duty. In verse 1, he says, “Behold, bless ye the LORD, all ye servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD.” These are the psalms of ascent—from leaving home in Psalm 120, to arriving in Jerusalem in Psalm 122, and enjoying the fellowship of believers in Psalm 133, and then leaving refreshed to go back home again in Psalm 134.
The 121st Psalm is part of the series of psalms known as “the psalms of ascent.” The psalmist says in verses 1 and 2: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the LORD which made heaven and earth.” The 121st Psalm is often called “the traveler’s song.” These words were sung by the pilgrims on their way over the hills and through the valleys, as they traveled to and from Jerusalem. There were dangers along the way, but the travelers affirmed their trust in the One who created the hills which surrounded Jerusalem. They lifted up their eyes to the hills, saying “My help comes from the Lord” (verses 1-2). They sang (recorded in Psalm 125:2), “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people . . ..”
Verses 3 and 4 teach us that God watches over His people. The Psalmist says, “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
The faithful in Israel were not like the pagan Canaanites in the land, who believed that their gods fell asleep, if for example, their crops failed. The God of Israel does not slumber or sleep. He watches faithfully over His people by day and by night. The little child’s prayer expresses confidence in that truth:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my soul to take.”
The assumption is that the Lord is awake and watching over us during the night.
Verses 5 and 6 remind us that the Lord is our keeper. The Psalmist says, “The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” Our God is a Protector, like “a shade” from the hot sun of the Near East. He is at “thy right hand,” meaning that He is always near by. God is never off duty, whether the sun is shining by day or the moon is shining by night.
Verses 7 and 8 assure us that the Lord covers our “going out” and our “coming in,” meaning that from the journey’s start to the journey’s end, we are being protected by our heavenly Father. If we observe the laws of the land, and if we are trusting in the Lord God Jehovah, we can be sure that even if we meet with an accident, it was with the approval of our God.
Some of us have happy memories of a father and mother who read from the 121st Psalm before we started out on a trip. David Livingstone, the famous missionary to Africa, read Psalm 121 as he worshiped with his father and his sister before setting out for Africa in 1840.
To travel under the watchful eye of God is the dominant idea of the Psalm. The Hebrew word “shamar” is used six times in the psalm; this word means “watches over,” “preserves,” and “keeps.” When a man once asked the Greek general, Alexander the Great, how he could sleep soundly when he was surrounded by so much personal danger, he replied that “Parmenio,” his faithful guard, was watching. We should be able to sleep even more soundly because we know that our God who never slumbers or sleeps is guarding us!
God is not dead. Martin Luther was frequently worried and downhearted. One morning his wife came to the kitchen dressed in black, the clothes of mourning. Luther said to her, “Who died?” His wife answered, “Why, don’t you know—God in heaven is dead!” Luther said, “Katie, how can you talk such nonsense. God is eternal; He will never die.” Katie responded, “Well, why are you so despondent and so discouraged then?” Martin Luther soon realized how wise she was, and it was that incident that helped him master his sadness.
If you are among those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, why not come to Him today? Why face the issues of life alone? Why not choose companionship with Jesus? If you want to be saved, there are some basic steps to take:
1) Turn from your old ways. The Bible says that we must repent and be converted, in order that our sins may be blotted out (Acts 3:19).
2) Receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. The Bible says that those who “receive” Him will be given the right to become the sons of God (John 1:12).
3) Determine to follow Jesus as your Master. The first act in following Jesus is to imitate His example by receiving water baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).
4) Join a spiritual fellowship of Bible believers. Those who received the message of salvation in the early church were baptized, and then they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (Acts 2:41-42).
Psalms 23 and 121 do not promise that believers will avoid all illnesses and all accidents, but they do teach that our God is always watching over us and is always concerned about us. We can be sure that each step we take and each breath we breathe is being supervised by the God who loves us with an everlasting love. It is indeed reassuring to know that nothing escapes the attention of our loving Guardian and Keeper.