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The Most Beautiful Song In The World

Psalm 23

Two men were arguing over which one knew the most about the Bible. One man said to the other, “I’ll bet you don’t even know the 23rd Psalm.” The other man replied, “I’ve got ten dollars that says I do.” The first man said, “And I’ve got ten dollars that says you don’t. Go ahead and recite it.” The other fellow said, “Alright. Here goes, ‘Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name.’” The first man interrupted, “Aw shucks, here’s your ten. I never thought you’d know it.”

Well, obviously, neither one of them knew the 23rd Psalm. But I think it is safe to say that most of us do. In fact, this Psalm, written by King David, is known and loved all over the world. However, nowhere is it better known and loved than in Scotland for there the words of the Psalm have been set to music and the resulting hymn has sometimes been called “The National Anthem of the Church of Scotland.” The melody to which the hymn is sung is called “Crimond.” It was composed in 1870 by a woman named Jessie Seymour Irvine, the daughter of the minister in the little Scottish town of Crimond and thus the name of the melody. By the way, that little town of Crimond is also famous for something else. It’s famous for the unusual clock in the church tower. You see, the clock maker accidentally put six marks onto one of the five-minute sections on the clock face, and as a result, each hour in Crimond is sixty-one minutes long making a day in Crimond twenty-four minutes longer than anywhere else on earth. Ah, but the people of Crimond say that just gives them a little more time for singing “The Lord’s My Shepherd.”

That’s a sentiment with which I completely agree; for it is my opinion that the words of Psalm 23 set to music make the most beautiful song in the world. So now I invite you to join me in looking at that Psalm line by beautiful line.

The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want…

Of course, you remember that early in King David’s life, he was a shepherd and therefore from his own experience he knew that shepherds possess no social, political, or religious status whatever. Because of the daily tasks shepherds were called upon to perform, they were considered to be ritually unclean—that is they were not permitted to participate in worship at the synagogue or the temple. That’s why only those in the lowest rung of the social ladder ever took the job of shepherd. Yet, in light of that, what’s so amazing about this Psalm is that David refers to God as “my Shepherd.” What is so beautiful here is that David understood that God comes to us in life no matter how lowly our station, no matter how humble our circumstance. God is not aloof, distant, removed, apart. God is not away off, out there somewhere. No, God comes to us right where we are in life. That’s what David is saying in this Psalm. David knew that sheep are not very intelligent, and consequently, sheep rely upon the shepherd to meet their every need. They require constant care and guidance from the shepherd. So David says that God comes to each one of us in life, and He walks with each one of us through life so closely that He is there to care for us, to see to it that every need of ours is met. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”

He maketh me lie down in green pastures…

Understand that sheep are not only not intelligent but they are also lazy. That’s a fact. They will always seek to lie down in the first pasture they come to, but the good shepherd knows that that is not a good thing for the sheep because the first pasture they come to has usually been grazed over. No, the good shepherd forces the sheep to move on, forces the sheep to climb higher up to the higher elevations where the grass is richer and greener because there has been more moisture there. Even though it takes greater effort to get to the greener pastures, there is a greater benefit in feeding there. Occasionally I have people ask, “Why don’t I have more of the thrill of the faith in my life?” The answer is simply because there are so many people grazing in pastures which are not green. Yes, there are so many of us who do not build risk into our religion. We are resistant to change. We want everything to stay just as it is. We are not willing to climb higher and higher in the faith. We are not willing to be stretched and challenged. We are not willing to grow in our knowledge and our love of Jesus Christ. We are not willing to speak a word of witness for Jesus especially in those times when it takes courage to speak such a word. And because we do not climb to a point that is higher and more demanding in our faith, we never really enjoy all the richness and the greenness of true faith. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…

Did you notice there that it says “He leadeth me beside the still waters,” it doesn’t say “to still waters.” You see, a good shepherd knows that sometimes still waters are stagnant waters, impure waters. The shepherd knows that drinking stagnant water may lead to sickness and so he drives the sheep beside the still waters and on beyond the still waters to where the waters are flowing and rushing, where the waters are living waters. The message is clear. God challenges us to stretch, and move beyond the things that are still static and indifferent in our faith, to move on to a vital, living experience of Jesus Christ in our lives. I love what Philip Keller said, “I know of nothing which restores and refreshes my soul as the knowledge that God knows what He is doing with my life.” “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake…

Righteousness literally means “right living.” The good shepherd understood the land. He knew where the dangers and the hazards were to be found. And therefore, he always worked hard to keep the sheep on the path for their own safety’s sake. David is reminding us that God moves us along in life giving us the gifts of prayer and worship and study of the Scriptures, in order to keep us on the path to right living in our experience. I remember talking with a young minister who was serving as the chaplain on a college campus. He was concerned about the man who was the Chairman of the Board of that college because he felt the man was doing some unchristian things. This young minister said to me, “I don’t know how to approach this man. He is so big and powerful, and I’m just one of the hired hands here. So I don’t know what to do.” I said to this young minister, “Is this man a Christian?” He replied, “Well, he talks a good game but he doesn’t score many points.” It’s sad, isn’t it, when you encounter people who claim the name of Jesus Christ but who never score points because they are not living every day in obedience to God’s Word, God’s will, and God’s way. They are not moving through life on the path of right living. That’s why David says, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me…

There is a place in Israel which even now is called “the valley of the shadow of death.” I have walked that treacherous valley. It is a deep ravine carved out of the midst of the Judean desert—a ravine so deep that on either side are sheer rock cliffs towering up toward the sky. The cliffs are so high that the sun rarely shines down into the bottom of that valley. It is a dark and shadowed place. Not only that but great boulders have fallen down into the bottom of the valley, and it makes passage there very difficult indeed. Furthermore, if you try to walk along the narrow footpaths, which have been carved out of the sheer cliffs, you discover that it is very hazardous as well. Then there are wild animals roaming through that valley, and the caves in the cliffs, even today, are hiding places for fugitives from the law. Yes, it’s a dangerous place indeed, and it’s a fearsome thing to walk “the valley of the shadow of death.” But there is something here that I want you to notice. When David reaches this point in the Psalm, the direction of his words changes. He had been speaking of God in the third person. He had been talking about God and about the things God does. Now suddenly in the valley of the shadow, he begins to speak directly to God. He says, “You, Oh Lord, are with me.” The valley of the shadow is a fearsome place when we are forced to walk in it, but God is never closer to us than when we are in that valley. “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 to this day carry both a rod and a staff. A rod is a long stick with one end carved thick and round and the other not so thick. The appearance is rather like a baseball bat. The shepherd uses it as a weapon to protect the sheep from the wild animals which sometimes attack the flock. It is a weapon of protection. But the shepherd also has a staff, a longer, narrower stick of wood carved with a great hook on one end. The staff is used for herding the sheep, and it’s also used for helping the sheep. Sometimes the sheep falls into a hole, and the shepherd reaches down with the staff, puts the hook under the front legs of the sheep and, by so doing, is able to pull the sheep up out of the hole. So the rod and the staff remind us that God protects us from the evil that attacks us in life, and God picks us up when we stumble and fall along life’s way. I have to tell you that for as long as I can remember when I have encountered situations which have filled me with fear and anxiety, I repeat the words of this Psalm. It is protection for me. And when I have encountered those holes of depression and frustration into which I sometimes fall, I repeat the words of this Psalm. It is lifting for me. What works for me may work for you. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…

There are many poisonous weeds in the Holy Land. Those weeds are tasty to the sheep, but they are also very deadly. So the shepherd goes into the pasture before the sheep, and he finds those poisonous weeds and he pulls them up and destroys them. They are the enemies of the sheep. Only then does he permit the sheep to graze. By the way, do you know that the word used in the Middle East to describe high pasturelands is the same word used in Spanish, the word “mesa”—a high flat pasture, and do you know that the word “mesa” literally means “table?” A tableland is a high, flat pastureland. “Thou preparest a table before me.” Do you understand that God prepares for us what we encounter each day so that those who would be deadly enemies cannot get to us? No doubt, you’ve had the experience of encountering something fraught with danger, and then suddenly, in some unexpected way, deliverance came. My guess is that you then gave thanks for the preparing hand of God. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

Thou anointest my head with oil…

Grazing sheep get cut by brambles, bruised by stones, and bitten by insects particularly about the head and face. So, every night, the shepherd examines his sheep looking for those injuries to which he then applies soothing oil in order to clean the wound and take away the pain. The words of Psalm 23 can have the same effect. Dear friends, when we get beat up in life, when we are cut to the quick, when we are injured in spirit the words of this Psalm become like soothing oil cleansing our wounds and taking away the pain. “Thou anointest my head with oil.”

My cup runneth over…

It’s so important for us to understand this. Sheep do not lap water like dogs. You cannot give a sheep a drink of water out of a pie pan or a saucer. No, for a sheep to drink, a sheep must be able to immerse his entire snout and most of his head into the water. A sheep must have a deep vessel filled to overflowing in order to drink. This is testimony to the abundance of God. God doesn’t just give us a little bit in life, just enough to get by. No, He gives us grace full up and running over. If we immerse ourselves in that Grace then we shall have life and have it abundantly. “My cup runneth over.”

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever…

I heard once of a shepherd in Scotland who had two sheepdogs. Do you know what he named them? He named one of them “Goodness” and the other “Mercy.” I love that. You know how sheepdogs are with the sheep. They never leave them. They constantly move about the flock, holding the flock together until they can get the flock all the way home. That’s what God’s goodness and mercy do for us. They never ever leave us alone. They hold us together, and they lead us in the end all the way home—home to the Father’s house.

But let me try to say it all to you in a single incident…

I remember several years back visiting in the hospital with a wonderful woman from the congregation I served at the time. Her name was Frances Kirkpatrick. She was desperately ill. Her skin was chalky white. Her hair had gone flat silver so that you really couldn’t tell where she stopped and the pillow began. She was very close to death. Her husband believed that death would come within hours, and in fact, he turned out to be correct. I walked over to her bed. I picked up her tiny frail hand in my own, and I wondered what I would say to her. Then suddenly I remembered that one Sunday morning a few years earlier, in the midst of the sermon, I recited the 23rd Psalm in the broad Scots dialect that is so prevalent in the highlands of Scotland. After that sermon that day, I remembered that Frances Kirkpatrick had come up to me and thanked me for the reading of the Psalm because of her own Scottish upbringing. Then I remembered that she had said something else to me that day. She had said as the tears flowed down her cheeks, “I want to recommit my life to the Shepherd.” And so she did. Now as I stood at her hospital bed with the shadow of death lengthening over her, I remembered that earlier conversation. So there in the hospital, holding her hand in mine, I leaned down over her bed and I began to say the 23rd Psalm.

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 bumy scroon.

Ma soul he wakens by its dwan
Oot o’er the mairlen veet
In kilricht roads for his name’s sake
He erts 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 ma head
Ma bickers lip an our.

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.

She never said a word out loud but the tiny rivers of tears that ran down her temples and into her ears spoke volumes. It wasn’t very long before the shepherd came to take His little lamb back home.

So do you know this Psalm? Yes, I suspect we all do. It is the most beautiful song in the world. But, you know, that’s not the real question. The real question is, do you know the Shepherd?

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