I wonder if you know what the most commonly repeated command in the Bible is? Clue: it’s nothing to do with sex!
The most commonly repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not”, or “Don’t be afraid”. I must admit that I’ve never actually counted, but I’ve been told that some variation of “Fear not” can be found one hundred and three times in the King James Version. The fact that it’s repeated so often should surely tell us something about the powerful role that fear plays in our lives.
I wonder what your greatest fear is? Is it health related – the fear that you might contract an incurable disease, or be incapacitated by old age, or have to live with chronic debilitating pain? Is it that you might be the victim of a violent act of some kind? Is it a fear about your family – that something might happen to your kids, for instance? Is it a relational thing – that family or friends might reject you? Is it a fear that you might get found out – that someone would somehow find a way to get behind the mask you put on each day and discover the real ‘you’, the one you’ve been trying so hard to hide from people all these years?
What do we do with our fears? It’s probably not a good idea to deny them, to try to pretend they’re not there. At first glance it might seem as if the Bible writers are counselling us to do that, but actually they aren’t. In most cases when the Bible says “Fear not”, it goes on to give us a reason for not being afraid – usually a reason connected with God. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
That last quote, of course, is taken from our psalm for today – one of the best known passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. Taken in context, the verse is teaching us another reason for not being afraid. Yes, from time to time we all feel like frightened sheep, but we have a shepherd who will protect us and provide for us and guide us – Yahweh, the Lord God, the shepherd of his people, who has come among us in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Sometimes we can get a little too romantic about this shepherd image. Most of us older folks remember pictures from our childhood of a blond haired Jesus surrounded by children, holding a cute baby lamb in his arms, but those aren’t the kind of images we find in Psalm 23. The actual background to that psalm is a little more scary. Let me read you a couple of paragraphs from John Goldingay’s book ‘Psalms for Everyone’; here’s how he begins his chapter on Psalm 23:
In the foothills of the mountains near where we live is a retreat center where we have a faculty gathering each Fall. Two years ago a new director at the center gave us some advice we had not been given before. If we met a bear on the grounds, we were advised not to try running away; bears can run faster than we can. I’ve forgotten what we were supposed to do instead, but in any case I decided I wasn’t going for a walk, especially as the director told us that we would probably not get attacked by a rattlesnake if we stuck to the path and that there had been no cougar sightings lately. From a location like that of the retreat center many canyons lead up into the mountains, and I can imagine shepherds once leading sheep up the canyons. Shepherds would know about bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes and would know the best way to deal with them. In relation to some creatures, a club would be an important part of their security.
The canyons are deep and often have streams running through them, at least in winter and spring, and they are thus densely wooded – they have the water supply lacking in the countryside outside the canyons. They are…dark and a bit sinister, and their deep darkness contrasts sharply with the bright sunshine above them. Maybe the swiftly running water would be a bit scary for the sheep, but the shepherd would know where it flows into quieter pools. He would also know where the presence of moisture makes some grass grow and where the presence of shade stops it withering in the blistering heat. He would know where there are some trees or other bushes whose fruit he can knock down with his cane. So the flock is secure and also provided for. Their shepherd is faithful in his care for it. So it is for a human being who has Yahweh as shepherd.
That makes it all a little more vivid, doesn’t it? That gives us a better sense of what the psalmist might have had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.
The psalm begins with the well-known words, ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want’. But if you look closely in your bibles, you’ll see that all the letters of the word ‘LORD’ are capitalized. That’s the translators’ way of telling us that they’re not being entirely faithful to the original here. The original doesn’t say ‘Lord’ but ‘Yahweh’, which is the special name of God that he shared with Moses; it’s sometimes wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. It’s the name God used for himself in connection with his covenant with Israel; he had covenanted to be their God, to be faithful to them and to care for them, and they in turn had covenanted to worship only him and no other gods, and to keep his laws. So the psalmist is describing his relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel; he is not just the shepherd of the whole nation, but ‘my shepherd’.
So what does the psalm tell us about Yahweh our Good Shepherd?
First, it tells us that God will provide for our needs. In verses 2-3 we read,
‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’ (vv.2-3).
As John Goldingay pointed out in the passage I started off with, ‘green pastures’ are places where there’s a lot of good grass for the sheep to eat, and ‘still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He guides me along right pathways’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he restores my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!
So in other words, the writer is addressing our fear of not being able to make ends meet – not having food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. The writer is assuring us that God our shepherd will provide all these things for us. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us daily strength to do our work, and families to share with so that we can enjoy all these blessings. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy the basic necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us, and to give generously, so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.
You notice that I’m not talking about those dramatic moments when God responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer. From time to time those moments do happen – a time when we have an urgent need of some kind, and some completely unexpected help comes our way. But I’m not thinking of those moments right now. I’m thinking about the ordinary, mundane daily experiences: buying our food in the grocery store, putting it on the table, saying grace and really meaning it. We don’t tend to think of these as experiences of ‘the Lord our shepherd’, but they are.
So God has provided for our needs and the needs of all people. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.
This is addressing our fear of getting lost in life. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? Where will we find the wisdom to make good decisions? How are we going to avoid messing things up? How does God guide us, and how do we discover God’s plan for our lives?
I think there are two things we could focus on here. First, there’s God’s general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus our Good Shepherd. And secondly, there are those occasions when he has specific jobs he wants individuals to do. In the Bible he doesn’t usually have any difficulty telling them what those jobs are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God. For me, the first one is unquestionably the most important. The most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by the wise instruction he’s given us in the scriptures, and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” “OK, sorry I asked!”
All humour aside: if I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, and especially the teaching and example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.
So this psalm tells us that God will provide for our legitimate needs, and that he will guide us in right paths. The third thing is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:
‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff – they comfort me’.
‘Your rod and your staff’ is a well-loved translation, going all the way back to the King James Version of 1611. John Goldingay, however, translates it as ‘Your club and your cane – they comfort me’. In other words, the sheep might be scared of the bears and cougars, but then they see that the shepherd’s got a great big club to protect them with, and they’re not so scared after all! In fact, the word ‘comfort’ might be a little too therapeutic; in the original language, the word is closer to ‘courage’: ‘Your club and your cane, they give me courage!’
In the same way, we Christians look to God to protect us from danger. For example, whenever Marci and I are apart and I know she’s driving around the busy streets of Edmonton, I pray that God will keep her safe; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect her from that.
It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through, you might find it a little troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an aircraft that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor souls who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’
Yes, we know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.
So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?
I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In today’s passage from John’s gospel Jesus says,
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. The resurrection tells us that even death was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No, the ‘God of peace…brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep’ (Hebrews 13:20), and Jesus has promised us that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff – or his club and his cane! – give us courage.
Let me finish by saying this. Verse 4 is perhaps the most important line in this psalm. ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me’. You are with me. This prayer is based on one of the most powerful statements God makes to human beings in the Bible. “Surely I will be with you”. “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. God promises that we will not be alone. Whatever we go through – suffering, bereavement, disease, poverty, family breakdown, danger, even death – he will never forsake us. This promise doesn’t depend on our feelings, one way or the other. It’s a statement about the heart of God. We often talk about Christ living in our hearts, but it works the other way around as well: God carries us in his heart. We are all important to God: Yahweh isn’t just the shepherd of Israel, but my shepherd too.
So this psalm invites us to believe this, and to make it the basis for our prayer. “I am with you”, says God, and we reply, “I fear no evil, for you are with me”. Corrie Ten Boom, former inmate of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, used to say “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still” – and surely, she ought to know! So when we go through our own personal ‘valley of the shadow’ – whatever it might be – let us enter into the prayer of the psalmist and make it our own by personal experience: ‘I fear no evil for you are with me, your club and your cane give me courage’. Amen.
 John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1-72 (WJK, 2013), pp.74-75.