A Faith That Sings: The Greatest Songwriter’s Greatest Song
I’m going to ask us to remain standing. Let us today read together the scripture lesson for today, Psalm 23. This is the Word of God.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for His name sake. 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. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.”
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Here is the greatest song ever written by the greatest songwriter who ever lived. I refer to the 23rd Psalm and to the great King David.
I have to tell you, I’ve always loved the story about the two fellows who were arguing among themselves as to which one knew more about the Bible. The first fellow said to second one, “I bet you don’t even know the 23rd Psalm.” And the second fellow said, “Well, I’ve got 10 bucks that says I do know the 23rd Psalm.” The first fellow said, “Okay. I’ve got 10 bucks that says you don’t. Go ahead and recite it.” “All right,” the second fellow said, “here it is. Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” The first fellow interrupted, and he said, “Oh,shucks! Here’s your 10. I never thought you’d know it.”
Obviously, those two fellows didn’t know the 23rd Psalm, but I would be willing to bet that most, if not all of us, do. This great Psalm is known and loved the whole world over. But nowhere, perhaps, is it better known and more deeply loved than in Scotland. For there in Scotland, the words of this Psalm have been set to music, and the resulting hymn is sung frequently and far and wide in Scotland. It is sometimes referred to as the national anthem of the Church of Scotland. The beautiful melody into which the words have been set was composed by a young woman named Jessie Seymour Irvine. In the year 1870, she wrote this tune. She was the daughter of the man who was the minister in the church in the little Scotland town of Crimond, and that is why she named the tune she composed Crimond.
Well, there’s something else worthy of note about the little town of Crimond. It has to do with the huge clock that is found Interesting he church tower right in the centre of that little town. The clockmaker apparently, mistakenly put six marks in one of the five-minutes’ segments on the clock’s face. As a result, you see, what happens in Crimond, every hour is 61 minutes. And in Crimond, every day is 24 minutes longer than the day anywhere else on earth. You know what the people of Crimond say? They say, “Well, that just gives us more time to sing, the Lord is my shepherd. I’ll not want.” I have to tell you that’s a sentiment with which I could heartily agree. I do so love the greatest Psalm ever written by the greatest writer who ever lived. And that is why today I want us to look at that great song, but look at line by beautiful line.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
You will remember that King David, early in his life, was a shepherd. And so King David knew on the basis of his own personal experience that shepherds in that day and time were regarded as being the lowest of the low. They had no social, no political, no religious standing, whatever. In fact, because of the task they had to perform each day, they were regarded as what is called ritually unclean. That is to say, they were not allowed to participate in either the synagogue or the temple. Shepherds occupied the very lowest prong on the social ladder. And yet, think how astonishing it is that great King David, here in this song, refers to God as my Shepherd. I think he used the term deliberately. I believe he was making the point that God comes to us, God comes to all of us, no matter where we are in life, no matter how lowly our station, no matter how humble our circumstance. God comes to us right where we are in life.
Furthermore, King David because of his experience as a shepherd understood that sheep are not very intelligent. Now, that’s true. Sheep are not very intelligent. Sheep, actually, are totally incapable of taking care of themselves. They rely totally on the shepherd for everything that they need in life. They require constant care, constant guidance, constant attention. The shepherd must be with them around the clock. They cannot do anything on their own. And so King David is reminding us that God not only comes to us right where we are in life, but God then stays with us all the way through life, caring for us constantly, seeing to it that our every need is met. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
Sheep—King David knew this—sheep are not only not intelligent. Sheep are lazy. That’s right. That’s a fact. Sheep are lazy. Sheep will—the first step they take into the first pasture, they will lie down. And the shepherd knows that that’s not good for the sheep because those first pastures have all been grazed over. There’s no nourishment to be found there. And so the shepherd must always be engaged in moving the sheep on, in urging them to climb to hire elevations where the grass is rich and green and filled with nourishment.
The message of King David is quite clear. Too many of us—golly. I hate to say this. Too many of us are downright lazy in our faith. Yes. We are perfectly content just to sit back and let everything come so easy and comfortable. We don’t want any changes in our life. We don’t want any changes in our church. We don’t want any risk in our religion. We don’t want to make the effort to climb higher in our knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, and as a result, we wind up missing out all too often on the higher elevations. It’s harder to get there, but there’s greater benefit in grazing there. We miss out on those higher elevations where the grass is rich and green, and where spiritual nourishment is to be had, and we can experience a true and thrilling faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.
Notice please. King David does not say He leadeth me to the still waters. No. He says He leadeth beside the still waters. You see, King David, the shepherd, knew that still waters, sometimes are stagnant waters, impure waters and drinking from still waters, sometimes can lead to sickness. And so the good shepherd moves the sheep beside the still waters and onto where the water is rushing and flowing, where the water is living water, where the water is filled with refreshing, renewing, restoring power. Once again, the message of King David is clear. God is constantly challenging us to a vital, living, dynamic relationship, with a vital, living, dynamic Lord. I love what Phillip Keller once said. He said, “Nothing so refreshes, renews, and restores my soul like knowing that the Lord knows what He’s doing with my life.” Yes. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
The good shepherd always knows the lay of the land. The good shepherd always knows where the places of danger and hazard are to be bound, and that’s why the good shepherd always manages to keep the sheep on the path for their own safety’s sake. Well, righteousness literally means right living. And so King David is urging us to remember that God calls us to move through life every day on the path of right living. And God gives us great gifts to help us in that venture. He gives us the gift of prayer, and the gift of worship, and the gift of the study of the Bible. He gives us these gifts in order to keep us focused on following the path of right living in our everyday lives. It’s a terribly sad thing to encounter a person who claims the name of Jesus Christ, but who is not being obedient to God’s word and God’s way and God’s will in every day of that life. It’s a sad thing indeed. Let me say it very clearly. The real secret to joyous significant living is to be found on walking the path of right living every single day. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
In the Israel of King David’s day and even in the Israel of now, there is actually a place there called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is located between the city of Jerusalem and the city of Jericho. It is actually a narrow, deep ravine carved way down into the heart of the Judean wilderness. And this long, narrow, deep ravine on the sides are huge, sharp, sheer cliffs towering up, towering so high that the sun very rarely ever shines down in the depths of that ravine. It is a dark and shadowed place. There is a pathway carved into the cliff along the side of that ravine. And if you walk the pathway, as I have done, you’ll recognize how dangerous it is. One little misstep will send you plunging over and down into the depth of that ravine to your death. Those cliffs on either side of that ravine are pockmarked with caves. They are caves which serve as shelters for wild animals, and when you walk the Valley of the Shadow of Death in Israel today, you realize what a fearsome, fearsome place it is. So King David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” What he is saying is that when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, God is never closer than when He is at that moment.
There’s something here. I need to interrupt myself right there, just for a moment. There’s something here you just have to see. It is so important. Up to this point in the Psalm, King David has been speaking of God in the third person. He has been speaking about God, who God is, and what God does. Now, suddenly, at this point, he changes the direction of his words. From this point on in the Psalm, he is speaking directly to God. “Thou art with me. You are with me. Oh, Lord.” When we are in the valley, God is never closer to us than in that walk through the shadowed valley. Let me try to express it this way. King David writes. Yea, though I walk through. Focus on those two words, though and through. The only thing different about the two words is the little letter R. Are you aware of the fact that the letter R in our American sign language is represented by crossed fingers? The middle finger crossing over the index finger. But are you aware that the crossed fingers are actually a sign invented long before American sign language. That sign was actually developed by Christians in the first century when it was declared that the practice of the faith was illegal, and they were being persecuted on every hand and killed in horrendous numbers. They developed the sign of the crossed fingers, a miniature sign of the cross of Jesus Christ as a code sign, so that covertly they could communicate to one another their identity as Christians, and so that they could affirm one another that the cross of Jesus Christ was there with them in the midst of all the pain and the adversity and the death. So let me bring all of this into the great songwriter’s greatest song. Yea, though I walk. King David is saying that all of us—without exception, all of us sooner or later are going to have to walk the valley of the shadow. But I want you see. He says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley—through, the little letter R, the miniature sign of the cross of Jesus Christ. I walk through the valley. I do not stay in the valley, because of Jesus Christ, you and I move on through the valley of the shadow of death. 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.
Shepherds in the Middle East now, always carry a rod and a staff. The rod is a stick of wood about a yard long, carved round and long, thick on one end, round and not so thick on the other. It looks very much like a baseball bat. And that rod is used to protect the sheep from wild animals which sometimes attack the flock. And the shepherds also carry a staff. It’s a very long and narrow stick of wood with a hook carved into the end, great big hook. The staff is used to herd the sheep along, all right, but the staff is also used to help the sheep. You see, sometimes, sheep fall in the holes in the earth. And sheep have great, big, bulky bodies. And they have little weak, spindly legs, and their legs are not strong enough to hoist their big bodies up out of a hole, and so the shepherd must reach down with the hook end of the staff down into the hole and run the hook down, under, and around the front legs of the sheep, and then with the hook uses that to pull the sheep up to safety. The rod and the staff remind us that God protects us from the evil that attacks us in life. And God lifts us up when we stumble and fall along our life’s way. I have to tell you, for as long as I can remember, whenever I have encountered situations in my life which have filled me with fear or anxiety, I simply repeat the words of the 23rd Psalm. They are protection for me. And then when I stumble and fall into the holes of despair and frustration, as occasionally happens, I simply repeat the words of the 23rd Psalm. They are lifting for me. What works for me, may well work for you. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
In the Holy Land, there are many weeds which are poisonous. They’re very tasty to the sheep, but they’re fatal to the sheep. And so the shepherd always, before he will permit the sheep to graze in a particular pasture, find those poisonous weeds, pull them up and destroy them because they are enemies of the sheep. Only then will he allow the sheep to graze in that pasture. King David is reminding us that God is a preparing-God for us as well. By the way, are you aware of the fact that in the middle east, this word that is used for high, flat, pasture lands is exactly the same word that we use in both Spanish and English for those high pasture lands, mesa. And are you aware that the word mesa literally means table. And so when we speak of a mesa, a high, flat, pasture land, we refer to that as a table land. God prepares a table before me. God is a God who is preparing the way for us through life and trying to deal with the things that might prove fatal to us. My guess is that at some point along your way in life, you may have experienced the sudden deliverance from some moment of great danger, and instinctively, you gave thanks to the God who was there for you. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil.
Grazing sheep are constantly caught by brambles and bruised by stones and bitten by insects. And every single night, the shepherd must carefully examine all of his sheep looking for any such wounds. And when he finds them, he pours soothing oil over them, in order to clean the wound and to remove the pain. The words of the 23rd Psalm can be just like that for us. When we are beaten up in life, when we are cut to the quick, when we are damaged in spirit, the words of the 23rd Psalm become like soothing healing oil poured over us. Thou anointest my head with oil.
My cup runneth over.
Sheep cannot lap water like dogs. Sheep cannot drink water from a shallow container like a pie pan or a saucer. They just can’t do it. Sheep, in order to drink, have to immerse their whole snout and most of their head down into the water in order to be able to drink. And so the vessel holding the water has got to be deep, and it’s got to be to the point of overflowing. That’s the only way the sheep can drink. This is testimony to our God is a God of abundance. God gives to us nothing less than the overflowing forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ, and if we choose to immerse ourselves down into that overflowing grace of Christ, then we shall experience life, yes, but even more, we shall experience life abundantly. My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I actually heard about a shepherd in Scotland who had two sheep dogs. He named one of them Goodness, and he named the other Mercy. I love that. I mean, you know how sheep dogs are with the sheep, don’t you? They never leave the sheep. They’re constantly moving around the sheep, holding the sheep close together, moving the sheep on toward home. Do you understand that that’s what God’s goodness and God’s mercy do for us? They never leave us, they hold us close, and they move us on toward the Father’s house where we shall live forever more. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There it is. The greatest song ever written by the greatest songwriter who ever lived, line by beautiful line. I wonder if I might try to capture the essence of this song in a single incident. It happened several years back. I was visiting in the hospital a woman who was a member of the congregation I served at the time in Orlando, Florida. Her name was Frances Kirkpatrick. She was a perfectly lovely woman. Yet, when I stepped into her hospital room, I recognized immediately, she was desperately ill. Her skin had turned chalky white, her hair had gone flat silver, so that as I looked at her, I couldn’t really tell where she stopped and the pillow began. Her husband Bill said to me, “Death is very close.” So I walked over to her bedside. She wasn’t moving, her eyes were closed. I reached down and I took her hand in mine, and I wondered what I would, could, or should say to her in a moment like that. And then suddenly I remembered. I believe it was God who triggered the memory. Suddenly I remembered, but a few years earlier, in the midst of a sermon, I had recited the 23rd Psalm in the Scots dialect, so prevalent in the highlands of Scotland. And after that sermon, Frances Kirkpatrick had come up to me and thanked me for reciting the psalm that way because she said it took her back to her childhood in the highlands of Scotland.
And then Francis Kirkpatrick said something else, tears filling her eyes. She said, “Dr. Edington, I want to recommit myself to the Shepherd.” So she did. There as I’m standing at her bedside, suddenly I remembered that. So as I looked down at her with the shadow of death lengthening over her, holding her hand in mine, I said,
“The Lord’s ma hair’d, I’ll ne’er want
He oots me he lee doon
Oot auld the knoll and mang the groes
Wot a bonny burny scroon.
“Ma soul he wakens by its dwan
Oot o’er the mairlen veet
In kilricht roads for his name’s sake
He eerts ma wandrin’ feet.
“Yea, tho’ I hast a gang milong
Doon through the dead virth dale
I’ll tho naskae’ for He is by
His crook and kent ne’er fail.
“My table He hast hansel’d weal
While foes do sit and glower
The oil ‘o grace is on my head
Ma bickers lip an óur.
“Gude guidance and gude greenin’ shall
Gang wit ma late or ere
And I’ll sign oop in the Lord’s big hoose
And bide forever mair.”
Frances Kirkpatrick never said a word, but the tightening of her hand on mine, and the little rivers of tears running down out of the corners of her eyes spoke volumes, and just a few minutes later, the Shepherd came to take His little lamb back home.
So do we know the 23rd Psalm? Yes. I suspect most, if not all of us, do know the 23rd Psalm. But, you know, that’s not the real question. No. Here is the real question. Do we know the Shepherd?
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.