4. God is Good and Gracious Psalm 23
Background: I think this man was a believer who may have been out of fellowship with the Lord and died in a senseless car accident. He was known as a loving son, a man of many friends, a young man with a positive outlook on life. He freely expressed his love for his mother and others. Most importantly he was known, by those closest to him, to be a man whose trust was placed in Jesus Christ for his salvation.
I will be reading several passages of Scripture, which express the faith and the hope of the child of God when confronted with the ugly reality of death. These passages reflect the faith of Mr. Smith's family, which they desire me to share with you.
The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
. . . another messenger came and said, "Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!" At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart." The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 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; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; 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 for ever.
The words of the 23rd Psalm, which I read a few moments ago, are familiar to nearly everyone, even those who seldom attend church or read the Bible. This psalm speaks of the comfort and security of the child of God, even in the face of death. More specifically, this psalm bears testimony to the faith which those who knew Mr. Smith were assured that he possessed, and of which he spoke.
In the agriculturally oriented world of the ancient Near East, the literary imagery of a shepherd and his sheep was immediately grasped. David, who is the psalmist, spoke of His relationship with God as being like that of a sheep, who is comforted, guided, and protected by a faithful shepherd. He acknowledged that every blessing he experienced was the result of the leading of his shepherd. Following the imagery of the psalm, these blessings were "green pastures," "still waters," "restoration of his soul," and "guidance in the right path." In short, all blessings came from God.
David was a man who had experienced adversity as well as affluence and ease. Thus, this psalm also speaks of the comfort which David, as a sheep, experienced in the trials of life. Summing all adversity up in terms of the worst trial of life, David spoke of the ultimate enemy of man--death. He does not say that God has led him to the valley of death, for death is the consequence of man's rebellion against God. He does say that even in death, God is with Him, and thus he need not fear any evil. Indeed, death is referred to as "the valley of the shadow of death" for the shadow is but a reflection. For David, death was not the ultimate enemy, but only a shadow, something which one could pass through unharmed. You may not walk through a wall, but you can pass through its shadow unharmed.
David's hope and joy was not merely a matter of the present, but also of the future. After death David looked forward to spending eternity in God's presence. David changes his imagery and speaks of the joys of heaven as that of a great banquet, which God has prepared for him. His enemies will look on in wonder as God anoints his head with oil. Goodness and mercy will follow after David, as He will live forever in the house of the Lord.
This Old Testament psalm depicts in poetic form the hope of the child. It was a hope which saw the enemy of death as but a passing incident, and ultimately only an event which would only usher the child of God into the presence of God. No wonder men and women have found comfort in this psalm. Notice, however, that the comfort and joy of the psalmist is his because the LORD was his shepherd. David did not fear death and he delighted in the hope of living in God's presence for all eternity because he had come to trust in God as his shepherd.
IF WE WOULD EXPERIENCE THE COMFORT OF WHICH THIS PSALM SPEAKS, WE MUST UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE GOD AS OUR SHEPHERD. This becomes more and more clear in the Old Testament, finally explained in the New.
In the Old Testament, God was spoken of as Israel's shepherd. The promise and hope of God's people was that someday God would come to the earth in human flesh to shepherd those who trusted in Him. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised,
"I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice" (Ezek. 34:15-16).
In addition to the figure of a shepherd, the coming Christ was also referred to as a lamb. This is because it was necessary for the Christ to take the place of His people, to bear their punishment, so that they could share in His blessings. Specifically, He would have to die in the place of the sinner, and then to be raised again. Thus, Isaiah the prophet wrote,
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:6-7).
In the New Testament, the writers of the gospels therefore speak of the Christ who came to the earth as a babe in the manger as both the "lamb of God" and the "shepherd." When John the Baptist introduced the Lord Jesus he said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
When Jesus referred to Himself as the "good shepherd" He was identifying Himself as the promised Messiah, the Christ for whom the Old Testament saints looked. Jesus said: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).
The Lord Jesus did lay down His life. He was nailed to a cross. He was buried in a tomb that was sealed shut and guarded by Roman soldiers, and yet, in spite of this, He rose from the grave, appeared to hundreds, and then ascended to heaven, from which He will return.
Because of this, the apostle Peter could encourage his readers by telling them that the "Chief Shepherd" will someday appear and will reward those who are faithful (1 Pet. 5:4). In the book of Revelation, the apostle John spoke of those who suffer in the great tribulation period, yet to come, saying,
"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:14b-17).
The unnamed author of the epistle to the Hebrews concludes his epistle with this benediction:
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (Heb. 13:20-21).
I do not in any way wish to minimize the sorrow and grief which the family and loved ones of Mr. Smith are experiencing. Nor will I attempt to explain the purposes of God in taking him home at such an early age. But what I do know, along with all those present who have come to know Jesus Christ as their Great Shepherd, that death is but a shadow, and that once we have passed through this valley, this shadow, we enter into the eternal presence of God. And because of this, we can find comfort in the assurance that those in Jesus who experience death have entered into the presence of God. This is not mere wishful thinking. It is the promise of the Word of God. It has been the source of comfort to all those who have faith in Christ.
Thus, the apostle Paul, when facing the possibility of his own execution as a martyr of the faith could write,
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Phil. 1:20-24).
Again, in his second epistle to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote,
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. . . We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6, 8).
There is great sorrow for each of us at the passing of Mr. Smith, but for the Christian who knows Jesus Christ as the Great Shepherd, there is also joy and hope. This hope is based upon the Word of God, in which we read,
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thes. 4:13-18).
The only question which remains is this: IS THIS HOPE YOUR HOPE? IS JESUS CHRIST YOUR GREAT SHEPHERD? The faith and confidence in the face of death of which the Bible speaks is not the possession of all, but only of those who have personally trusted in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that all have sinned, and that the wages of sin is death. Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. He died in your place, bearing your punishment, so that your sins might be forgiven and you might live eternally in His presence.
The family and loved ones who knew Mr. Smith have indicated to me that they are assured of his faith in Jesus Christ as his shepherd. The promises of the Bible are promises in which we can find comfort regarding the present blessing which Mr. Smith has in the presence of God. Is the Lord Jesus Christ your shepherd? If He is, you need not fear the valley of the shadow of death, for He is with you.
2 Kings 6:15-17
Background: The king of Syria intended to put Elisha, the prophet of God to death. He surrounded the place where Elisha and his servant were staying. The servant was stricken with fear. Elisha, however, responded,
"Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, 'O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.' And the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Ki. 6:15-17).
2 Kings 2:9-12
Background: Elijah, the prophet of God was about to depart, and Elisha, his servant who was to take his place, knew it, and so he would not leave him. Finally Elijah gave Elisha one last request, to which he responded,
"Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." And he said, "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so." Then it came about as they were going along and talking, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. And Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more (2 Ki. 2:9b-12a).
These two passages remind us of a very important truth. There are things going on around us, which are normally not visible to us. In the case of the horsemen and chariots of fire which Elisha's servant was enabled to see, in answer to the prophet's prayer, these were angelic hosts, assigned to protect God's prophet. The servant's fear was based upon his lack of awareness of all that was taking place around him. We are thus all reminded that God's angels are all about us, and that nothing can harm us apart from the permission and will of God.
The chariot and horses of fire which took Elijah into heaven remind us of another fact. While it is not normally visible to us, I believe that the angels are also employed in "escorting" the spirits of those who have died "in the Lord" into God's presence. I know that apart from divine enablement, Mr. Smith's departure was not at all glorious. But I believe that this text assures us that there was much more to be seen, just as was the case with Elisha's servant in chapter 6.
We have come here to lay Mr. Smith's body in the ground, but his entrance into heaven took place on Sunday, in a much more glorious way than our eyes can behold. The apostle Paul reminds us in the New Testament that the depositing of the physical body in the ground is necessary, since mortal bodies must be exchanged for those which are immortal. He also tells us that placing this body in the soil is like the planting of a seed in the soil. Thus, we do so looking forward to the time of the resurrection and transformation of this body.
1 Cor. 15:35-58
These are promises for the Christian, for those who have trusted in the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of their sins. Let us find hope in them as those who trust in Him.