[This is a brief small group/Bible class series that parallels the sermons of Dean Barham at Woodmont Hills Family of God in Nashville, TN, for the month of July 2009. You may listen to Dean's lessons here.]
THE DIVINE SHEPHERD
“God Who Has Been My Shepherd All My Life”
The “Shepherd” metaphor is a rich but now somewhat distant idea. The relationship of a shepherd with his sheep was profound—friendly, comfortable and trusting. The Shepherd’s provided for and protected the flock. He led them to food and water as he protected them against predators. Sheep followed their shepherd.
“Shepherd” also had royal connotations in the ancient world. Kings were shepherds of their people (see Jeremiah 23:1-4). David, then, though first a shepherd of sheep became of shepherd of God’s people (Psalm 78:70-72). The shepherd King is supposed to embody the life and heart of the divine shepherd.
The entire Psalm is an exposition of the first line: “I shall not want” or lack. The Psalm then tells us what the believer does not lack with God as Shepherd. It does not mean “I don’t lack for anything I ever desired,” but “here is what the Lord has done for me so I do not really lack anything.” The meaning is “so long as the Lord is my shepherd, I will not lack for anything I need.”
At one level, the Psalm’s language rehearses God’s activity in Israel, particularly “exodus” language (the language of God leading Israel through the wilderness into the Promised Land). During the wilderness time Israel lacked nothing (Deuteronomy 2:7), God lead Israel to holy pastures (Exodus 15:13), there is no fear because God is with them (Deuteronomy 20:1; 31:8), God prepared a table for Israel in the wilderness (Psalms 78:19), and God dwelled among his people in the tabernacle during the wilderness (Leviticus 26:11-12).
At another level, the Psalm’s language describes God’s relationship with believers. The Psalm is a testimony to what God does for his people (both communally and personally) and it is a testimony of God’s caring presence. The significance of “The Lord is my Shepherd” is that “I am with you.”
Notice the images that fill the Psalm. They are images about how God cares for believers. God nourishes the soul (grass, water, “restores my soul”), provides ethical guidance (“paths of righteousness” and the “staff” is about leadership that guides), comforts the broken (no fear, comforting “staff”), protects against evil (“rod”=club for defense, enemies), lives confidently (goodness and mercy will follow), and celebrates life (table, oil, cup).
The key idea, if there is one, is indicated by what lies at the center of the Psalm (“You are with me”) as well how it begins (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) and ends (“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). The key idea is presence–it is a presence that acts. It comforts, nourishes, protects, celebrates with and blesses. The Psalm is a testimony to what God has done for his people (corporately and personally) and it is a testimony of God’s caring presence among his people. The significance of “The Lord is my Shepherd” is that “I am with you.”
God as Shepherd is a model for human shepherds whether Israelite kings or church elders. Theirs must be a presence that acts as well—comforting, nourishing, protecting, guiding and enjoying the people of God.
1. What images are most compelling and helpful to you in this Psalm? What in this Psalm speaks most directly to your heart and experience? How does that image reflect God’s shepherding care?
2. Since God is the model shepherd for human shepherds, what qualities in this Psalm are most important for human shepherds, particularly shepherds of the church?
3. What might these qualities look like in a church which is led by elders? How should elders imitate the divine shepherd? If you could say to an elder, this Psalm means you should __________, how would you fill in the blank?
4. When thinking about who you might nominate as a shepherd at Woodmont Hills, identify those people who have comforted, nourished, and guided you in your discipleship. Share some of these individuals with the group and how they pastored you in your walk.