Playlist for the Heart 4: Our Good Shepherd

Seven and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel along with several other members of the Lutheran Church from all across Canada. It was a wonderful experience and our tour guide was excellent. But without the people who drove and guided and cared for us, we might have had a difficult time getting around because all the signage is written in Hebrew. Hebrew, as many of you know, is an ancient language but ever since the formation of the present nation-state of Israel in 1948, the Hebrew language has been used in a modern context. What do they do for words that didn’t exist 2,000 years ago? I will tell you. They take the English word and spell it out phonetically using Hebrew letters. One of the other pastors on the trip and I would have great fun using our basic Hebrew to try to figure out what various signs meant. In the elevator in one of the hotels we stayed at, we deduced that pressing a certain button would take us to something called a spa. A few days later, while traveling about, we saw a sign for a fast food restaurant. After a little bit of thinking back to what we learned in Hebrew, we figured out that the sign said “McDonalds”.

Why do I tell you this story? Because for many of us, reading the Bible can be like reading signs in Hebrew. We know what we see, but we don’t understand what it means. We are separated from the time in which those words were written by 2,000 to 3,500 years, and it can be hard for us to understand what the words we read meant back in that time, which is necessary for us to understand what they mean in our own time.  People back then were mostly farming folk, so the agricultural metaphors that the Bible often uses made sense. Now, most people live in cities and our lives are very different from what they were for people in biblical times. So it can seem like what the Bible tells us is not relevant or applicable to our lives. In an effort to bridge that gap, we are going to look at one of the most well-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, Psalm 23. But we are going to look at this ancient passage through the eyes of a modern shepherd in the hope that his insights will help us grow in knowing what God is saying to us through these words.

Sheep Need a Shepherd, and So Do We

That shepherd is W. Phillip Keller, who wrote the book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 which this sermon is based upon. Phillip was born in Kenya to missionary parents in 1920 and spent the first years of his childhood with them in East Africa. When he was eight years old, he was sent to a strict, religious boarding school 250 miles from his family. When Phillip was a teenager, his father died and Phillip was devastated. When he became an adult, Phillip left the Christian faith of his younger years.  Eventually, God brought him back and Phillip became a pastor and the author of several inspiring devotional books that encourage others in the renewed faith he found. He and his wife Ursula settled in British Columbia, where Philip died in 1997. Phillip’s years of experience as a sheep rancher enabled him to share insights in his book that deepen our understanding and appreciation for this beloved and well-known Psalm.  This is altogether fitting because Psalm 23 was written by another sheep rancher, the shepherd-king David.

            As we begin, the first thing that we need to remember is that sheep really need a shepherd. Sheep are one of the most defenceless domesticated animals that they are. They need a shepherd to protect them from the many dangers they face. They need a shepherd to direct them to clean water and nutritious pastures so that they have the food they need to be healthy and strong. They need a shepherd to step in and take action when parasites threaten to disturb, disrupt or destroy their lives. They need a shepherd to prevent conflicts that could damage or destroy the sheep. They need a shepherd to trim away their manure-contaminated wool. They need a shepherd to treat their wounds their wounds. They need a shepherd to come and find them when they have wandered off and gone astray.

The second thing that we really need to remember is that we humans, like sheep, need a shepherd to care for us. We are very vulnerable to our enemies who want to destroy us—sin, death and the devil, so we need a shepherd to protect us. In terms of the things that are really important, the things that make a difference now and forever, we don’t even know what to feed on or where to go so that the important things become part of our life and our life helps to advance the really important things. So we need a shepherd to guide us. We try to do the right thing, but we can never get the things that we say, think and do totally right and we have no way of addressing the guilt-ridden and shameful things of our past. So we need a shepherd to find us when we have wondered away from God, trim away our woolly sin, heal our broken hearts and restore us to life in God’s presence. Having raised sheep myself for a few years, I did not like being compared to them, but the truth is that those comparisons were more accurate than I wanted them to be.

            The third thing that we really need to remember is that we have a shepherd. Writing about 1,000 years before Jesus came into this world in human flesh, King David was writing about how the Lord, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who appeared to Moses in a burning bush, the God who chose the Israelites to be his own so they could be a light shining God’s love and character into the whole world, the God who brought those Israelites out slavery in Egypt and into a land of their own which he had promised to give to them, that God was his shepherd who loved, cared for and protected him. Long before he became king, David had lived experience of the Lord God protecting and providing for him as David fought off bears and lions that were threatening his sheep, and as he defeated the giant Goliath who was threating God’s people.

We know that God is our shepherd in a richer and fuller way than David because in the time between us and him, God the Son came into the world and wrapped himself in human flesh to become one of us so that he could save us. In John 10:14-16, Jesus tells us, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:14-16) So for those of us who are living after Jesus came into the world, we have a greater sense of how the Lord is our Shepherd because of Jesus.

The Four Seasons of Sheep Ranching

            So let’s dig into Psalm 23. It starts off,

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

Phillip Keller looks at this Psalm through the framework of the annual cycle in the life of a shepherd and his flock. We begin in spring with the flocks close to main ranch. Hearing these words of green pastures and still waters may cause us to think of lush grass growing as high as the bellies of the adult sheep, but we forget that this Psalm was written by David in the Holy Land which is hot, dry and brown for much of the year and water is a scarce commodity. To provide the kind of water and pasture described here a shepherd would have to do an awful lot of work. They would have to keep the flock on the move search for whatever grass and water he could find for his sheep. He would have to pick rocks to clear land and dig trenches to direct water during the rainy season so that more grass could go. He might have to dig a deep well by hand to get water for his flocks when no flowing water was around. All these things a shepherd would do because he cared for his sheep.

            All these things Jesus does for us in a much greater way. In John 6:35, we read, Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” By going to the cross and paying the full cost of our forgiveness, Jesus restores our soul with his forgiveness and brings us into a close, intimate relationship with him. In this relationship, he is our bread of life for he satisfies our hunger for love and transcendence by making his home in our heart. Through his love and grace, Jesus transforms us to become more like him, even helping us to think and feel what he does. In the Bible, this is called having the mind of Christ (see 1 Cor. 2:16). All these things Jesus gives to us as a free gift, even though they cost Jesus everything. Content with Jesus and his unconditional, infinite love for us, we lie down and rest in his presence like safe and satisfied sheep.

            With verse 4, the journey toward summer pasture on the high mountain meadows begins. 

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

            The dark valley in this Psalm is often associated with death, and some well-known translations render the first part of verse 4 as, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but the original Hebrew does not mention death. What it says is “When I walk through a valley of deep shadow, I do not fear evil because you are with me.” This is significant because, as Phillip Keller points out, going through valleys are a necessary part of life. Valleys are inherently places of deep shadow because of the tall mountains on each side, and it can be intimidating to leave the home ranch and enter a strange and shadowy valley with challenges and threats that are different from those around our home base. But Phillip also points out, if you want to get to those high mountain meadows filled with life-giving grass for the summer, you have to go through the valleys. And valleys are the only place where you will find clean, clear water for the journey. So we must travel through the shadowy valleys, but we do not need to be afraid, because our Good Shepherd is with us. Just as a shepherd would use his rod or staff to fight off predators, count his sheep, nudge them in a new direction or lift them to safety, so also Jesus defeated our enemies of sin, death and the devil on the cross. He lifts us to safety in his ever-loving arms. He counts us as one of his own and nudges us back onto the path of life by his Spirit.

 Phillip Keller wrote about how he would sleep at night with a rifle by his side when he was with his sheep because, here in BC, there was the threat of mountain lions destroying his sheep. Though he saw the results of a mountain lion attach several times—sheep that were killed and their livers were eaten and sheep that were wounded so badly that there was no hope of survival for them—Phillip said that he never actually saw a mountain lion attack his sheep. That is how stealthy mountain lions are. Our enemy, Satan, works in much the same way. In fact, he is so stealthy that many people don’t even view him as a threat or believe that he really exists. That suits him just fine because it is easier to attack people when their guard is not up. And just like a mountain lion, Satan, cares nothing for the sheep. He doesn’t want to possess them, he only wants to destroy them.

Thank goodness, we have Jesus as our Savior. Recognizing the danger of the devil, Jesus defeated him on the cross and will banish him completely from this world at the end of time. Even with his wings clipped, as they are now, the devil is still a formidable foe seeking to destroy us. However, with our eyes on our Good Shepherd, we are forever safe in his loving care, and we confidently follow him through the valleys of dark shadows because we know that he is leading us to high mountain meadows of plenty.

            As we approach those meadows, we read,

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies. (Psalm 23:5a)

Usually this verse brings a picture of a banquet to our mind. However, Phillip Keller notes that in both Spanish and the East African language of Kiswahili, the word mesa means table and is also used to refer to high flat-topped mountains. Thus the high mountain meadows could be considered a table for the sheep, a table which is prepared by the shepherd who goes ahead to scout out locations for bedding down his flocks at night, to pull up any toxic plants, such as the white cammas, so that his sheep stay safe, and to formulate his grazing plan so that the sheep are well-fed and the pastures have time to rest and renew. 

            Like sheep, we humans tend to want to go ahead and nibble on everything that is set before us, a pattern which could be disastrous if we wander into dangerous territory alone. Thankfully, Jesus has gone ahead of us and addressed every danger we could ever face and removed its power to destroy us. We can clearly see how Jesus has gone ahead of us in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed with a very heavy heart that the cup of suffering that he was about to face could be lifted from his. Yet, out of love for his Father and for us, Jesus was willing to drink from that cup if that was what was necessary. And it was. Jesus’ suffering and death was the cost that needed to be paid so that all sins for everyone throughout all the world for all time could be forgiven. With our faith in Jesus, we have the assurance that he is always with us. And just like he did for Peter when Satan wanted to tempt him and sift him like wheat, Jesus will be with us and praying for us so that we can resist temptation and not succumb.

            Continuing, we read,

You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:5b)

            As fall approaches, breeding season begins and rams begin butting heads as they compete with each other to breed the most ewes. While this is a natural activity, this head butting can result in injury or death to the sheep. To prevent such things from happening, Phillip would smear axle grease on the heads of his rams. When their well-greased noggins would collide, the result would be a glancing blow that would send both rams for a tumble and leave them looking silly, but in good health.

Switching back to the human world, it is common for people to tear others down as they try to build themselves up. Sadly, this even happens in churches, and those wounded by conflict in a church often end up leaving the Lord’s flock. What is needed is an anointing of the Holy Spirit so that we take on the mind of Christ. Phillip Keller writes,

…when the gracious Holy Spirit invades a man or woman, when He enters that life and is in control of the personality, the attributes of peace, joy, long-suffering, and generosity become apparent. …This is to come to a place of great contentment in the Shepherd’s care. …As the children of God, the sheep in the Divine Shepherd’s care, we should be known as the most contented people on earth.”[i]

With the last verse of Psalm 23, the sheep and their shepherd are back at their home base for the winter, and David concludes his beloved Psalm with words of challenge and comfort:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. (Psalm 23:6)

The comfort comes with God’s promise, given to us through David, that God’s goodness and lovingkindness will always be with us and that we will be part of God’s household, or family, forever. All this is because of Jesus. The challenge comes when we ask ourselves what will follow in our wake. Will the love and goodness that God has poured into our lives follow along behind us and flow into the lives of others? Phillip writes,

“The only real, practical measure of my appreciation for the goodness and mercy of God to me is the extent to which I am, in turn, prepared to show goodness and mercy to others. If I am unable to forgive and extend friendship to fallen men and women, then it is quite certain I know little or nothing in a practical sense of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy to me…. But men and women who know firsthand about the goodness and mercy of God in their own lives will be warm and affectionate with goodness and mercy to others. This is to be a benefit to them, but equally important, it is a blessing to God.”[ii]

…for, and I am paraphrasing now, nothing brings a shepherd more joy than to see his sheep contented and thriving.

The Measure of a Successful Christian Walk

My hope is that this brief look at Psalm 23 based on Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23, has been a blessing and an encouragement to you. There is much more blessing and encouragement in the book itself and I heartily recommend that you pick up a print or electronic version for yourself. Psalm 23 is such a beautiful expression of the life we have in our Good Shepherd, Jesus. May we grow in awareness of his shepherding love and care for us so that we thrive in contentment in the life that he gives us.

Let me conclude with some of the last words in Phillip’s book:

“For when all is said and done on the subject of a successful Christian walk, it can be summed up in one sentence: “Live ever aware of God’s presence.” [And that is the challenge that I would like to leave with you today, to live ever aware of God’s presence. The quote continues…]

There is the “inner consciousness, which can be very distinct and very real, of Christ’s presence in my life, made evident by His gracious Holy Spirit within. It is He who speaks to us in distinct and definite ways about our behaviour. For our part it is a case of being sensitive and responsive to that inner voice…

Then there is the wider be equally thrilling awareness of God all around me. I live surrounded by His presence. I am an open person, an open individual, living life open to His scrutiny. He is conscious of ever circumstance I encounter. He attends me with care and concern because I belong to Him. And this will continue through eternity. What an assurance!

I shall dwell in the presence of (in the care of) the Lord forever.

Bless His Name.”[iii]


(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on July 24, 2022. To view the podcast for this message, click here. For more information about our church, please go to

[i] Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, ePub Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 110.

[ii] Keller, 121-122.

[iii] Keller, 130-131.

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