Psalms 23:4 My Protector
Text: Psalm 23:4
Psalms 23:4 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.
Introduction: Sometimes we go through things that we don't understand. Often on the other side of difficulties we look back and see that it was necessary for us to pass through that valley. But we never could have seen that truth until we make it through the valley.
Joke: It's somewhat like the naïve soldier who went into the army. He wrote a letter home to his mother.
So much has happened since I joined the army I don't know where to start. Maybe I should start by telling you that I am in the brig. Momma, that's army talk for jail. I guess I better explain how I wound up here. You see, it's been real tough. First they cut off all my hair, then they took away all my nice clothes and gave me some uncomfortable green ones. Then they gave me some tags to wear around my neck and they gave me a number. My number is 37. They gave me shots in all parts of my body… at the same time! When we got to boot camp the first day the got us out of bed at 4:30am. I didn't get up cause I thought someone had made a mistake. The sergeant came in real mad and yelled at me. "Number 37 don't you know what time it is? "Yes sergeant, but someone sure needs to tell the idiot blowing a horn it's still dark outside."
This didn't make the Sargent very happy and he told me we get out of bed everyday at 4:30am. Next they took us outside and made us put on heavy backpacks. They make us marched 20 miles everyday, except Sunday. On Sunday the sergeant got us up at 7:30a and said he was going to be nice and only march us 10 miles and then let us rest. Well I was so glad but the Sargent told us He was going to march us to church that morning and we had better behave. I raised my hand and the sargent asked, "What do you want number 37?" I asked if I could attend the church of my choice and the sergeant asked me what church would I choose. I told him I like to attend Our Lady of the Blessed Heart back home.
This didn't make the sergeant very happy and he told me we would attend the church of his choice. Well we marched for hours, finally we arrived at a little Baptist church. Now Momma, you know I've always been a good Catholic and you told me to stay clear of any Baptists, but I didn't want the sergeant to get mad at me again, so I went in and sat down. And you know mom it wasn't so bad. It felt so good to quit marching and the people were friendly. But what happened next is why I am in the brig. You see a man got up front waved his hand in the air and called out, "Number 37. 'Are you weak and heavy laden?" and I jumped up and said, "Yes, sir and you're the first person who's cared enough to ask since I joined the army!"
This didn't make the sergeant very happy and that’s why I'm in the brig.
Signed your son.
In the last sermon David began to look at the paths of righteousness his shepherd would lead him on. Now in verse 4 the shepherd and the sheep are walking those paths through the mountains toward the higher tablelands. It is time in the cycle of the sheep's year to begin the trek from the home fold to the mountain pastures. In between lie the valleys as deep and shadowed as the mountains are high and bright. The only way to reach the mountain heights will be with the shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death.
My Shepherd Leads Through the Valleys
Through the valley
This verse begins the dangerous journey to the high mountain pastures. This trip is necessary because the summer heat has burned up the grass in the lower home fields.
The passage from the lower home folds to the mountain pastures meant traveling through narrow mountain passes or along trails which ran beside steep rocky cliffs. Along the way predators would wait. Wolves, lions and others would hide in the shadows of the valley waiting to strike a sheep that had wondered too far from the shepherd's protection.
Why would the shepherd put the sheep in such danger? Because the lower mountain fields would not sustain the growth of the sheep. Those fields had served their purpose but now the flock had to move on or begin to starve.
Closer to the Shepherd
Notice that David has switched from the third person to the second person in his speech. In the first 3 verses he spoke of he, but now is saying you and I. It is as if the sheep now begins to directly talk to the shepherd. David stops talking about the shepherd and begins to talk with the shepherd. As if He is right there with David. This is because the valley and its shadow of death bring the sheep closer to the shepherd
Phillip Keller writes, "During this time the flock is entirely alone with the shepherd. They are in intimate contact with him and under his most personal attention day and night. That is why these last verses are couched in such intimate first person language."
Stephen Haboush talks similarly, "Palestine has more mountains and hills for its size than any other country known to me. The correlate of these multitudinous mountain heights is the presence of valleys equally numerous and as deep as the heights are towering. I used to dread taking the sheep thorough one particular valley in Galilee. This is called in the language of the Holy Land "Wadi el-naar," which means "the valley of fire." Next to the Dead Sea, it is the hottest place in Palestine, being over five hundred feet below sea-level. Wadi el-naar was the rendezvous of thieves and robbers, also of the wild beast that harassed the shepherd and his flock. I would dread leading the sheep through this valley, but it was necessary whenever new pasture ground must be sought on the other side. My sheep would sense the danger and gather closely to my side. My continual calling and the sense of my presence gave them confidence and allayed their fear."
In the spiritual dark valleys, David says to his shepherd, "I will fear no evil for thou art with me."
Going on Higher Ground
Moving to Higher Pastures
The pasture of my early Christian life must be left behind if I am going to grow spiritually. I must go on to higher ground with my shepherd, moving from the old, the familiar and the comfortable to the new, the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable. That journey is through the valleys and often under the shadows of danger and even death.
Hebrew 6:1-3 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit.
As Christians we long for mountain top experiences in our walk with God. Yet, we do not like to consider that the path to the sunny peaks must always lead through the dark valleys.
David’s valley was being chased as an outlaw by Saul but his peak was being crowned as King of Israel.
Peter's valley was denying Christ, but he found the peak when he peached the sermon that saw thousands respond on day of Pentecost.
Paul and Silas were in the valley after being beaten and thrown in prison, but what a peak later than night when the jailer who beat them brought them out and asked, “What must I do to be saved?”
Jesus Christ, our Lord was mocked, beaten, crucified and buried in a valley that went to the depths of eternity but three days later he rose from the grave to a peak that ascended to the heights of heaven!
The valley is never enjoyable, but it is always necessary if I am to be drawn closer to my shepherd and journey on to the tablelands with Him. It is in the valley that I realize my weakness and Jesus' great strength, my fear and His courage, my doubts and His surety.
To our shepherd, Jesus Christ every valley can serve as a path to a higher ground if I will follow Him. We may not be able with our limited sight to ever understand or see this, but the shepherd knows the way. It is not necessary that He tells me every reason, it is enough that in the shadows He walks with me.
When I find myself in the valley my goal should be to focus on the shepherd and his leading me through, not upon the darkness of the shadows but upon the brightness of Jesus who walks before me.
Illustration: I Wish I were Blind
The hymn writer Fanny Crosby gave us more than 8000 Gospel songs. Although blinded at the age of 6 weeks, she never held any bitterness in her heart because of it. Once a preacher sympathetically remarked, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you.” She replied quickly, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I should be born blind?” “Why?” asked the surprised clergyman. “Because when I get to Heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!”
The darkness of her lifelong valley had made the presence of her Shepherd so much brighter.
My Shepherd Protects me through the valley
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
David gives two things that the shepherd uses to comfort the sheep; thy rod and thy staff. These two tools represent the basic arsenal of the shepherd.
Haboush writes, "My shepherd equipment was never complete without the rod and staff. They were the most essential tools. Without them the shepherd is helpless. The safety of himself and of his sheep depends upon the use of these two instruments. Let me describe them. The rod, about twenty-eight inches long, made of oak, was carried in my pouch attached to my cloak, and used as a club. It must be chosen carefully, a straight young tree often being torn up for this purpose, and the bulb at the beginning of the root being trimmed to make the head of the club. The handle is shaved to the needed thickness, with a hole in the end by which it is tied to the belt or hung from the wrist like a riding whip. Into the head are hammered nails and pieces of steel."
The rod could be used as a club or it could be thrown with great accuracy at a predator or if need be at a disobedient sheep. The rod gave the shepherd power to protect and control his flock; it was his symbol of authority.
The staff was usually a much longer more slender pole and its purpose was complementary to the rod both were necessary to the work of the shepherd.
Keller adds, "The staff is also used for guiding sheep. Again and again I have seen a shepherd use his staff to guide his sheep gently into a new path or through some gate or along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast. Rather, the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal's side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path."
Comfort in the tools of the Shepherd.
Many applications could be made from the twin tools of the shepherd, let me make these. The rod is a weapon of power, authority, protection and punishment. By it the shepherd shows he is in control and will provide protection and sometimes punishment. The rod speaks of the judgment and justice of Jesus Christ.
Psalms 45:6 says, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a sceptre of justice." Here God as ruler is holding a different kind of rod, a scepter but it also is a symbol of his authority and his judgment.
Rev 12:5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron:
Why would the Lord's justice and judgment bring comfort to his sheep?
The sheep know that his shepherd is righteous. He will protect the flock from those that try to do it harm. And He will also deal with those of the flock who are rebellious. Like a child who longs for the stability of a strong parent, the sheep finds comfort in the shepherd's unfaltering justice.
Passing Under the Rod
Another use of the rod by the shepherd also speaks of judgment. Both or our shepherd authors write of "passing under the rod."
Keller describes it this way, "In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. The picture is a very poignant one. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd's outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see that all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.
This is what was meant in Psalm 139:23,24 when the psalmist wrote, ''Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
How does such an "intimate judgment" bring comfort? To submit myself fully to the authority of Jesus Christ I must ask Him to examine and cleanse me. I realize I must meet His standard not my own. He must be my judge now for He will be my judge in eternity.
Guided by the Staff
Yet justice without compassion is an unbearable burden, so David also looks to the staff. The staff was a tool of guidance, of support and love. With it the shepherd would draw the sheep to himself rather than beat it into compliance. The staff speaks of the Lord's love and mercy. The staff would also be used to guide the sheep by tapping them on the side and direct them into the path the shepherd wanted them to take.
Psalms 5:8 Lead me, O LORD, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face.
Psalms 25:5 Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
Psalms 61:2 From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
The rod comforts by establishing the boundaries of my life while the staff comforts by bringing me back to the paths of life where to my shepherd Jesus Christ walks with me.
The Path I Feared
I said, "Let me walk in the field."
He said, "No; walk in the town."
I said, "There are no flowers there."
He said, "No flowers, but a crown."
I said, "But the skies are black,
There is nothing but noise and din."
He wept as He sent me back.
"There is more," He said, "there is sin."
I said, "But the air is thick,
And fogs are veiling the sun."
He answered, "Yet souls are sick,
And souls in the dark undone."
I said, "I shall miss the light,
And friends will miss me, they say."
He answered, "Choose tonight
If I am to miss you, or they."
I pleaded for time to be given.
He said, "Is it so hard to decide?
It will not seem hard in Heaven
To have followed the steps of your Guide."
I cast one look at the fields,
Then set my face to the town;
I said: "My child, do you yield?
Will you leave the flowers for the crown?"
Then into His hand went mine;
And into my heart came He;
And I walk in a light Divine,
The path I had feared to see.
I said, "But the air is thick
All of God’s Children will have our valleys and our peaks. As David shows us these are events which will be repeated over and over again in my life. How then, will I go through the valleys? In fear and frustration, blaming God and questioning his love for me? Or will I understand that I must press on other pastures if I am to grow. Will I realize that the valley means my relationship with Jesus will be closer for I must depend on him to bring me through?
The valleys will always be there but if you are his sheep the shepherd will always be with you. Yet, if I stray too far, if I rebel against his leadership or if I determine to find my own way, the predators and the shadows wait. If I walk away from Jesus I am walking toward darkness. Won't you trust Him? Won't you trust His love, his judgement and his justice? He won't fail you and He won't leave you. Follow where He is leading this morning.