Perhaps no aspect in which the Lord reveals Himself to us is fuller of genuine comfort than the aspect set forth in the Twenty-third Psalm, and in its corresponding passage in the tenth chapter of John.
The psalmist tells me that the Lord is my Shepherd, and the Lord Himself declares that He is the good Shepherd. Can we conceive of anything more comforting?
It is a very wonderful thing that the highest and grandest truths of the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ are so often shut up in the simplest and commonest texts in the Bible. Those texts with which we have been familiar from our childhood, which we learned in the nursery at our mother's knee, which were used by those who loved us to explain in the simplest possible way the love of our heavenly Father, and the reasons for our trusting Him -- these very texts, I have discovered, contain in their simple statements the whole story.
I feel, therefore, that what we all need is just to get back into the nursery again, and take up our childish verses once more, and, while reading them with the intelligence of our grown-up years, to believe them with all our old childish faith.
Let me carry you back then with me, my dear reader, to the children's psalm, that one which is so universally taught to the little ones in the nursery and in the infant school. Do we not each one of us remember the Twenty-third Psalm, as long as we can remember anything, and can we not recall even now something of the joy and pride of our childish hearts when first we were able to repeat it without mistake? Since then we have always known it, and at this moment its words, perhaps, sound so old and familiar to some of you, that you cannot see what meaning they can convey.
But in truth they tell us the whole story of our religion in words of such wondrous depth of meaning that I very much doubt whether it has ever yet entered into the heart of any mortal man to conceive of the things they reveal.
Repeat these familiar words over to yourselves afresh: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
Who is it that is your shepherd?
The Lord! Oh, my friends, what a wonderful announcement! The Lord God of Heaven and earth, the Almighty Creator of all things, He who holds the universe in His hand as though it were a very little thing, He is your Shepherd, and has charged Himself with the care and keeping of you, as a shepherd is charged with the care and keeping of his sheep.
If your hearts will only take in this thought, I can promise you that your religion will from henceforth be full of the profoundest comfort, and all your old uncomfortable religion will drop off forever, as the mist disappears in the blaze of the summer sun.
I had a vivid experience of this at one time in my Christian life. The Twenty-third Psalm had, of course, always been familiar to me from my nursery days, but it had never seemed to have any special meaning. Then came a critical moment in my life when I was sadly in need of comfort, but could see none anywhere. I could not at the moment lay my hands on my Bible, and I cast about in my mind for some passage of Scripture that would help me. Immediately there flashed into my mind the words, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." At first I turned from it almost with scorn. "Such a common text as that," I said to myself, "is not likely to do me any good"; and I tried hard to think of a more recherché one, but none would come; and at last it almost seemed as if there were no other text in the whole Bible. And finally I was reduced to saying "Well, if I cannot think of any other text, I must try to get what little good I can out of this one," and I began to repeat to myself over and over, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Suddenly, as I did so, the words were divinely illuminated, and there poured out upon me such floods of comfort that I felt as if I could never have a trouble again.
The moment I could get hold of a Bible I turned over its leaves with eagerness to see whether it could possibly be true that such untold treasures of comfort were really and actually mine, and whether I might dare to let out my heart into the full enjoyment of them. And I did what I have often found great profit in doing, I built up a pyramid of declarations and promises concerning the Lord being our Shepherd that, once built, presented an immovable and indestructible front to all the winds and storms of doubt or trial that could assail it. And I became convinced, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the Lord really was my Shepherd, and that in giving Himself this name He assumed the duties belonging to the name, and really would be, what He declares Himself to be, a "good shepherd who giveth his life for his sheep."
He Himself draws the contrast between a good shepherd and a bad shepherd, when He follows up His announcement "I am the good shepherd," with the words, "But he that is an hireling and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep and fleeth; and the wolf catcheth them and scattereth the sheep." And through the mouth of His prophets the Lord pours down a scathing condemnation upon all such faithless shepherds. "And the Lord saith unto me," says the prophet Zechariah, "take unto thee yet the instruments of a foolish shepherd....Woe to the idle shepherd that leaveth the flock! The sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye; his arm shall be clean dried up, and his right eye shall be utterly darkened."
Again the prophet Ezekiel says: "Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds: Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? ... The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought back that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them ... Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I am against the shepherds, and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock."
Surely one would think that no Christian could ever accuse our divine Shepherd of being as faithless and unkind as those He thus condemns. And yet, if the secrets of some Christian hearts should be revealed, I fear that it would be found that, although they do not put it into words, and perhaps hardly know themselves that such are their feelings about Him, yet at the bottom they do really look upon Him as a faithless Shepherd.
What else can it mean when Christians complain that the Lord has forsaken them; that they cry to Him for spiritual food and He does not hear; that they are beset by enemies on every side and He does not deliver them; that when their souls find themselves in dark places He does not come to their rescue; that when they are weak He does not strengthen them; and when they are spiritually sick He does not heal them?
What are all these doubts and discouragements but secret accusations against our good Shepherds of the very things which He Himself so scathingly condemns?
A dear Christian, who had just discovered what it meant to have known that that was what He was called, but it meant nothing to me; and I believe I read the Twenty-third Psalm as though it was written, The Lord is the sheep, and I am the shepherd, and, if I do not keep a tight hold on Him, He will run away.' When dark days came I never for a moment thought that He would stick by me, and when my soul was starving and cried out for food, I never dreamed He would feed me. I see now that I never looked upon Him as a faithful Shepherd at all. But now all is different. I myself am not one bit better or stronger, but I have discovered that I have a good Shepherd, and that is all I need. I see now that it really is true that the Lord is my Shepherd, and that I shall not want."
Dear fellow Christian, I pray you to look this matter fairly in the face. Are you like the Christian I have quoted above? You have said, I know, hundreds of times, "The Lord is my shepherd," but have you ever really believed it to be an actual fact? Have you felt safe and happy and free from care, as a sheep must feel when under the care of a good shepherd, or have you felt yourself to be like a poor forlorn sheep without a shepherd, or with an unfaithful, inefficient shepherd, who does not supply your needs, and who leaves you in times of danger and darkness?
I beg of you to answer this question honestly in your own soul. Have you had a comfortable religious life or an uncomfortable one? If the latter has been your condition, how can you reconcile it with the statement that the Lord is your Shepherd, and therefore you shall not want? You say He is your Shepherd, and yet you complain that you do want. Who has made the mistake? You or the Lord?
But here, perhaps, you will meet me with the words, "Oh, no, I do not blame the Lord, but I am so weak and so foolish, and so ignorant, that I am not worthy of His care." But do you not know that sheep are always weak, and helpless, and silly; and that the very reason they are compelled to have a shepherd to care for them is just because they are so unable to take care of themselves? Their welfare and their safety, therefore, do not in the least depend upon their own strength, nor upon their own wisdom, nor upon anything in themselves, but wholly and entirely upon the care of their shepherd. And, if you are a sheep, your self also must depend altogether upon your Shepherd, and not at all upon yourself.
Let us imagine two flocks of sheep meeting at the end of the winter to compare their experiences -- one flock fat and strong and in good condition, and the other poor and lean and diseased. Will the healthy flock boast of themselves, and say, "See what splendid care we have taken of ourselves, what good, strong, wise sheep we must be?" Surely not. Their boasting would all be about their shepherd. "See what a good shepherd we have had," they would say, "and how he has cared for us. Through all the storms of the winter he has protected us, and has defended us from every wild beast, and has always provided us with the best of food."
Or, on the other hand, would the poor, wretched, diseased sheep blame themselves and say, "Alas, what wicked sheep we must be, to be in such a poor condition!" No, they too would speak only of their shepherd, but how different would be their story! "Alas," they would say, "our shepherd was very different from yours! He fed himself, but he did not feed us. He did not strengthen us when we were weak, nor heal us when we were sick, nor bind us up when we were broken nor look for us when we were lost. It is true he stayed by us in clear and pleasant weather, when no enemies were nigh, but in times of danger or of storm, he forsook us and fled. Oh, that we had had a good shepherd like yours!"
We all understand this responsibility of the shepherd in the case of sheep; but the moment we transfer the figure to our religion, we at once shift all the responsibility off the Shepherd's shoulders, and lay it upon the sheep; and demand of the poor human sheep the wisdom, and care, and power to provide, that can only belong to the divine Shepherd and be met by Him; and of course the poor human sheep fail, and their religious lives become thoroughly uncomfortable, and even sometimes most miserable.
I freely confess there is a difference between sheep and ourselves in this, that they have neither the intelligence nor the power to withdraw themselves from the care of their shepherd, while we have. We cannot imagine one of them saying, "Oh, yes, we have a good shepherd who says he will take care of us, but then we do not feel worthy of his care, and therefore we are afraid to trust him. He says he has provided for us green pastures and a safe and comfortable fold; but we are such poor good-for-nothing creatures that we have not dared to enter his fold, nor feed in this pastures. We have felt it would be presumption; and, in our humility, we have been trying to do the best we could for ourselves. The strong, healthy sheep may trust themselves to the shepherd's care, but not such miserable half-starved sheep as we are. It is true we have had a very hard time of it, and are in a sad and forlorn condition; but then we are such poor unworthy creatures that we must expect this, and must try to be resigned to it."
Silly as sheep are, we know well no sheep could be so silly as to talk in this way. And here comes the difference. We are so much wiser than sheep, in our own estimation, that we think the sort of trust sheep exercise will not do for us; and, in our superior intelligence, we presume to take matters into our own hands, and so shut ourselves out from the Shepherd's care.
Now the fact is simply this, if any sheep in the flock of Christ find themselves in a poor condition, there are only two explanations possible. Either the Lord is not a good Shepherd and does not care for His sheep, or else, His sheep have not believed in His care, and have been afraid or ashamed to trust themselves to it. I know not one of you will dare to say, or even to think, that the Lord can be anything but a good Shepherd, if He is a Shepherd at all. The fault, therefore, must lie just here; either you have not believed He was your Shepherd at all, or else, believing it, you have refused to let Him take care of you.
I entreat you to face this matter boldly, and give yourselves a definite answer. For not only your own welfare and comfort are dependent upon your right apprehension of this blessed relationship, but also the glory of your Shepherd is at stake. Have you ever thought of the grief and dishonor this sad condition of yours brings upon Him? The credit of a shepherd depends upon the condition of his flock. He might make a great boast of his qualifications as a shepherd, but it would all go for nothing if the flocks he had charge of were in a diseased condition, with many missing, and many with lean ribs and broken bones.
If an owner of sheep is thinking of employing a shepherd, he requires a reference from the shepherd's last employer, that he may learn from him how his flock fared under this shepherd's care. Now, the Lord makes statements about Himself as a good Shepherd. He is telling the universe, the world, and the Church, "I am the good shepherd"; and if they ask, "Where are Thy sheep, what condition are they in?" can He point to us as being a credit to His care? And is it not grievous if any of us refuse to let the Shepherd take care of us, and so bring discredit upon His name by our forlorn condition? The universe is looking on to see what the Lord Jesus Christ is able to make of us, and what kind of sheep we are, whether we are well fed, and healthy, and happy. Their verdict concerning Him will largely depend upon what they see in us.
When Paul was writing to the Ephesians that he had been called to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what was the fellowship of the mystery which had been hid in God from the beginning of the world, he added the significant words that the object of it all was "to the intent that now unto principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Well may we be lost in amazement at the thought that God has purposed such a glorious destiny for His sheep as to make known to the universe His "manifold wisdom" by means of what He has done for us! Surely this should make us eager to abandon ourselves to Him in the most generous trust for salvation to the very uttermost, that He may get great glory in the universe, and the whole world may be won to trust Him.
But if we will not let Him save us, if we reject His care, and refuse to feed in His pastures, or to lie down in His fold, then we shall be a starved and shivering flock, sick, and wretched, and full of complaints, bringing dishonor upon Him, and, by our forlorn condition, hindering the world from coming to Him.
I do not wonder that unbelievers are not drawn into the church, when I contemplate the condition of believers. I do not wonder that in some churches there are no conversions from one end of the year to the other. If I were a poor sheep, wandering in the wilderness, and I were to see some poor, wretched, sick-looking sheep peeping out of a fold, and calling me to come in, and I were to look into the fold, and should see it hard, bare, and uncomfortable, I do not think I would be much tempted to go into such a fold.
Somebody said once that some churches were too much like well-ordered graveyards: people were brought in and buried, and that was the end of it. Of course you cannot expect living people to want to take up their abodes in graveyards. We must have a fold that shows sheep in good condition if we expect outsiders to come into that fold; and if we want to attract others to the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must ourselves be able to show them that it is a satisfying and comfortable salvation. No one wants to add to their earthy discomforts by getting an uncomfortable religion, and it is useless to expect to win outsiders by the sight of our wretchedness.
Surely, if you do not care for yourselves, you cannot fail to care for the dishonor you bring upon your divine Shepherd by your poor and wretched condition. You long to serve Him, and to bring Him glory; and you can do it if you will but show to all the world that He is a Shepherd whom it is safe to trust.
Let me help you to do this. First face the fact of what a Shepherd must necessarily be and do in order to be a good Shepherd, and then face the fact that the Lord is really, and in the very highest sense of the term, a good Shepherd. Then say the words over to yourself with all the will power you can muster, "The Lord is my Shepherd. He is. He is. No matter what I feel, He says He is, and He is. I am going to believe it, come what may." Then repeat the words with a different emphasis each time:
The Lord is my Shepherd.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Realize to yourself what your ideal Shepherd would be, all that you would require from anyone filling such a position of trust and of responsibility, and then know that an ideal far beyond yours, and a conception of the duties of such a position higher than any you ever dreamed of, were in the mind of our Lord when He said, "I am the good shepherd." He, better than any other, knew the sheep He had undertaken to save, and He knew the Shepherd's duties. He knew that the Shepherd is responsible for His flock, and that He is bound, at any loss of comfort, or of health, or even of life itself, to care for them and to bring them all home safely to the Master's fold. Therefore, He said: "And this is the Father's will which hath sent me that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day." And again He said, "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." And still again: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me, and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand."
Centuries before Jesus came to be the Shepherd, the Father said: "Therefore I will save my flock. And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd." And it seems to me, I catch a glimpse of the Father's yearning love as I read these words; and I feel sure He laid help upon One who is mighty; and that none, therefore, who are in this flock need fear any evil.
He has undertaken His duties, knowing perfectly well what the responsibilities are. He knows that He has to do with very silly sheep, who have no strength to protect themselves, no wisdom to guide themselves, and nothing to recommend them but their utter helplessness and weakness. But none of these things baffle Him. His strength and His skill are sufficient to meet every emergency that can possibly arise.
There is absolutely only one thing that can hinder Him, and that is, if the sheep will not trust Him and refuse to let Him take care of them. If they stand off at a distance, and look at the food He has provided, and long for it, and absolutely trustworthy; and nothing complicated in obedience, when we have perfect confidence in the power we are obeying.
Let me entreat you, then, to begin to trust and to follow your Shepherd now and here. Abandon yourself to His care and guidance, as a sheep in the care of a shepherd, and trust Him utterly.
You need not be afraid to follow Him whithersoever He leads, for He always leads His sheep into green pastures and beside still waters. No matter though you may seem to yourself to be in the very midst of a desert, with nothing green about you inwardly or outwardly and you may think you will have to make a long journey before you can get into any green pastures, the good Shepherd will turn the very place where you are into green pastures; for He has power to make the desert rejoice and blossom as the rose; and He has promised that "instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle-tree"; and "in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert."
Or perhaps you may say, "My life is all a tempest of sorrow or of temptation, and it will be a long while before I can walk beside any still waters." But has not your Shepherd before this said to the raging seas, "Peace! be still. And there was a great calm"? And can He not do it again?
Thousands of the flock of Christ can testify that when they have put themselves absolutely into His hands, He has quieted the raging tempest, and has turned their deserts into blossoming gardens. I do not mean that there will be no more outward trouble, or care, or suffering; but these very places will become green pastures and still waters inwardly to the soul. The Shepherd knows what pastures are best for His sheep, and they must not question or doubt, but must trustingly follow Him. Perhaps He sees that the best pastures for some of us are to be found in the midst of opposition or of earthly trials. If He leads you there, you may be sure they are green pastures for you, and that you will grow to be made strong by feeding in them.
But words fail to tell the half of what the good Shepherd does for the flock that trusts him. He does indeed, according to His promise, make with them a covenant of peace, and causes the evil beasts to cease out of the land; and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods. And He makes them and the places round about them a blessing; and He causes the shower to come down in its season; and there are showers of blessing. And the tree of the field yields her fruit, and the earth yields her increase; and they are safe in their land, and are no more a prey to the heathen, and none can make them afraid.
And now you will probably ask me how you can get the Lord to be your Shepherd. My answer is that you do not need to get Him to be your Shepherd at all, for He already is your Shepherd. All that is needed is for you to recognize that He is, and yield yourself to His control.
When the announcement is made in a family to the children who have been longing for a little sister, that one has just been born to them, they do not go on saying, "Oh, how we wish we had a little sister!" or, "what can we do to get a little sister?" But they begin at once to shout for joy, and to dance about calling out to everybody, "Hurrah! Hurrah! We have a little sister now."
And since likewise the announcement has been made to all of us by the angel of the Lord: "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord," we have no need and no right to go on crying out, "Oh, if I only had a Saviour!" or, "What shall I do to make Christ my Saviour?" He is already born our Saviour, and we must begin at once to rejoice that He is, and must give ourselves into His care. There is nothing complicated about it. It is simply to believe it, and act as if it were true. And every soul that will begin from today believing in the good Shepherd and trusting itself to His care will sooner or later find itself feeding in His green pastures, and walking beside His still waters.
What else can the Lord, who is our Shepherd, do with His sheep, but just this? He has no folds that are not good folds, no pastures that are not green pastures, and no waters but still waters. They may not look so outwardly; but we who have tried them can testify that, let the outward seeming be what it may, His fold and His pastures are always places of peace and comfort to the inward life of the soul.
If you seem to have difficulties in understanding all this, and if the life of full trust looks complicated and mysterious, I would advise you not to try to understand it, but simply to begin to live it. Just take our nursery psalm and say, "this is my psalm, and I am going to believe it. I have always known it by heart, but it has never meant much to me. But now I have made up my mind to believe that the Lord really is my Shepherd and that He will care for me as a shepherd cares for his sheep. I will not doubt nor question it again." And then just abandon yourself to His care, as the sheep abandon themselves to the care of their shepherd, trusting Him fully, and following whithersoever He leads.
But we must not forget that while sheep trust unconsciously and by instinct, we shall need to trust intelligently and of purpose for our instincts, alas, are all against trusting. We shall have to make an effort to trust. We shall have to choose to do it. But we can do this, however weak and ignorant we may be. We may not understand all it means to be a sheep of such a Shepherd, but He knows. And if our faith will but claim Him in this blessed and wondrous relationship, He will care for us according to His love, and His wisdom, and His power, and not according to our poor comprehension of it.
It really seems to me as if we did not need any other passage out of the whole Bible besides this nursery psalm to make our religious lives full of comfort. I confess I do not see where there is any room left for the believer to worry, who actually believes this psalm. With the Lord for our Shepherd, how is it possible for anything to go wrong? With Him for our Shepherd, all that this psalm promises must be ours; and when we have learned thus to know Him, we will be able to say with a triumph of trust: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me [pursue, overtake] all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Even the future will lose all its terrors for us, and our confidence in our Shepherd will deliver us from all fear of evil tidings.
And I can only say, in conclusion, that if each one of you will just enter into this relationship with Christ, and really be a helpless, docile, trusting sheep, and will believe Him to be your Shepherd, caring for you with all the love, and care, and tenderness that that name involves, and will follow Him whithersoever He leads, you will soon lose all your old spiritual discomfort, and will know the peace of God that passeth all understanding to keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.