Singing of Fear

Sermon by David Felker on Jul 21

Psalm 23

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Please turn with me in your Bible to Psalm 23. Psalm 23; the passage is on page 458 in the church Bible in front of you. This is the third of four sermons in a Sunday night mini-series, a July mini-series looking at different psalms in the first book of Psalms, Psalms 1 to 41. And tonight we will be in Psalm 23, “Singing of Fear.” And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text tonight.

I’ve talked before about growing up the son of a football coach, and with that profession often comes some transition. And we didn’t move around as often as some, but we did move four times from the time that I started kindergarten to the time that I finished high school. And I adored my childhood. I loved and trusted my dad. I saw the Lord work in our family in those moves and I got so close to my siblings and my parents during those transitions. And I don’t remember as a child being afraid of much. I’m a middle child and I was kind of the one that tested the parental limits and was very much the middle child and kind of the fearless one. But I do remember very vividly being afraid those four times that we moved. I remember that there was fear in my heart, and especially the night before starting at a new school. And there is just so much unknown. And I remember real fear in my heart and I would be walking into a new school, a new cafeteria, a new classroom with new teachers and new teams, new peers and new coaches, and fear that I wouldn’t make friends, fear that I would be alone, fear that I would get lost, fear that I would let my parents down, fear that I wouldn’t fit, that I wouldn’t have a place. And there was fear about so much unknown. 

And you know, parents can only answer so many questions. Parents can only answer so many questions. And my parents could only help so much. It seemed very dark and very scary and I did not know what was out ahead of me. And time after time and move after move the Lord provided for me and He gave me refuge and rest from my fears and He did this by giving me someone, each time, by giving me somehow one who figuratively would take me by the hand and walk me through what was scary and walk me through what was dark and walk me through what I could not see. 

And in so many ways as I think about that part of my childhood, that is how fear, that’s how fear often works in our lives. Fear is guided, our fear is often guided by loneliness. Our fear is often guided by loneliness and it’s guided by the parts of our stories that are ahead of us. There are parts of our stories that are ahead of us that we cannot possibly know. And in a sense, those childhood memories reflect what I think that we will find in Psalm 23, this song for the fearful.

I asked Finley, my two-year-old daughter, I asked her on Friday, I said, “Finley, what are you afraid of?” And the first thing that she said was, “I’m afraid of the cow mascot at Chick-fil-A.” And I said, “Aren’t we all!” We’re all afraid of the cow mascot! But the second thing she said was, “I’m afraid of the dark.” So the cow mascot and the dark. “I’m afraid of the dark.” And of course, fear is something you never outgrow. She’s only two but it’s something that you never outgrow. We are so afraid, all of us are so afraid, and a lot of us can’t imagine life any other way than with our fears. It’s the water that we swim in. And because our fear is real and the darkness is real - you will face dark things in this life; they will be a part of your story. They are around the corner and that is why the most common command, many of you know this, the most common command in Scripture is, “Do not fear.” And it’s often accompanied by the promise, “because I am with you.” “Do not fear because I am with you.” The Good Shepherd is with you in that darkness. 

And so Psalm 23, this is a psalm, it’s in the category of psalms - it’s considered a psalm of confidence and it invites us to bring all of our fears, it invites us to bring all of our fears to this text and into this posture of confident trust. And so before we read, let’s pray expectantly that God would give us this posture of confident trust tonight. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we come to familiar ground. This is a familiar text and we do pray that it would not lead to coldness in our hearts. We come confessing that we all too often live fearfully and so we pray, we pray that our hearts would be redirected and recast towards our Good Shepherd to see His beauty, to see His care. We pray that the love we find there would cast away all of our fears, that it would bid our sorrows to cease. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Let’s give our attention to Psalm 23, beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:

“A PSALM OF DAVID.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amen, this is God’s Word.

We’ve been saying that last few weeks that the Psalms function as a kind of teacher. They’re the school for the heart and for the affections where you bring every part of yourself - even the most desolate and desperate and deepest places, you bring them to the Lord. You bring your sadness and you bring your fear. And the Psalms teach us how to process those emotions, how to express those emotions, how to sing them and how to pray them to the Lord. And we’ve said as one minister said that the Psalms teach us that we don’t exalt our emotions. We don’t enthrone them. Our emotions are not the guiding light. But we also don’t stuff them. We don’t suppress them but we sing them. We pray them to the Lord. And they’re not cheap. The Psalms are not cheap; they’re expensive. We’ve been saying this. That you’re to leave a piece of your heart with God, in a sense. 

And tonight we come to the psalm that Charles Spurgeon called, “the pearl.” Charles Spurgeon called Psalm 23, “the pearl of the Psalms.” And so long before Michael Jordan, long before LeBron James and long before David Beckham and long before Ryne Sandberg, King David had his own number 23. And this is a psalm that maybe for you is the most beloved psalm in the Psalter. Maybe this is your most favorite passage in all of Scripture. Maybe this is a passage that was cross-stitched at your grandmother’s house. Maybe this was a psalm that was read or a psalm that was prayed at the funeral of someone that you dearly loved. This maybe is a text that was read to you or read to someone that you love in the hospital. Maybe before a baby was born or maybe in deep fear, this was a passage that was maybe a balm for your soul, medicine for your soul in the dark night. Whatever way God has used it in your life, it’s certainly a passage that can bring with it a flood of memories. 

And so this psalm - look with me at the text - this psalm is known for one image, one illustration, but it’s actually these two interlocking illustrations that we’re going to look at. First and most famous and really the governing illustration is the shepherd in verses 1 to 4. But then the second, there’s also in verses 5 and 6, this illustration of God being our generous Host. The Host in hospitality. He invites us to His table. And so we’re going to look tonight at this Good Shepherd. This psalm is often called “The Shepherd’s Psalm.” So we’ll look first at the Good Shepherd; that we are a sheep in His care, verses 1 to 4. And then second, we’re going to look at the generous Host, verses 5 and 6; that we have a seat at His table.

The Good Shepherd. 

And so first, the Good Shepherd. You see in verse 1, the most well-known verse in the psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd.” And of course the illustration was easier to catch, it was easier to pick up on in agricultural ancient Israel than probably with us today, but we do have some vague recollection of sheep and shepherds. Let’s put it like this. On a job application when you are asked the question - and no one likes this question - but when you’re asked the question, “What animal?,” when you’re asked the question, “What animal best personifies your personality? What animal do you identify with? What animal would you be in the history of time, in the history of job applications?” you know this - no one has ever answered, “a sheep.” No one has ever answered that! And many of you know why. Because sheep are not the brightest, they’re not the bravest, they’re not the strongest. They’re easily scared, they’re always weak, and they’re always vulnerable. And yet, time and time again in Scripture, this is the image. This is the image, time and time again; this is us. And as you grow as a Christian, you recognize more and more we are His sheep, we are the people of His pasture. 

And you see, that is the best thing. The best thing about being a sheep is that you have a Shepherd. And Charles Spurgeon said that he thought the sweetest word in Psalm 23 is in verse 1. It’s the word, “my.” “The LORD is my shepherd.” Look at the text. “The LORD” - all caps. So Yahweh, the covenant God, the faithful God, Yahweh is my Shepherd. This low position, the position of Jesse’s youngest, the position of David. Remember, “Man looks at outward appearance. Man looks at outward appearance.” This was David’s position. And so Yahweh is my Shepherd. That Yahweh has stooped to serve in this low position and His job, the Shepherd’s job, and so Yahweh’s job is to be with the sheep. He’s teaching the sheep and He’s tending the sheep and keeping the sheep and defending the sheep.

So much so that - look at the text - in His shepherding care, “I shall not want.” In other words, “The LORD shepherds me in such a way that I lack nothing.” And you see here in the first three verses all sorts of benefits of being His sheep. And we can’t fully flesh these out, but He knows us. He knows you. Jesus says in John chapter 10, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own. My sheep hear My voice. And I know them, I know them by name.” 

This afternoon, I was talking to Lauren and Marshall - and I’m just going to put the cards on the table. We have a baby coming in a month and we don’t have a name. Okay? So those are the cards on the table. We do not have a name! And so we were talking this afternoon about baby names. And you know Marshall had some good ideas - that we probably won’t use! Marshall had some good ideas, but we didn’t land on anything. And so you can give us recommendations tonight. We don’t have a name. But later we finished the conversation and Lauren took a call in the other room and Marshall said to me, he said, “Dad, will you always remember my name? Dad, will you always remember my name?” And I wrote that down and I said, “I’m using that tonight!” “Will you always remember my name?”

Your Shepherd will always remember your name. He knows everything about you. He knows you. He knows how frightened you are. He knows your particular needs. He knows your particular fears. You are His sheep. You are comprehensively known by your Shepherd and you are comprehensively loved by your Shepherd. 

And so because He knows you, look at this - you will not lack. You will not lack rest. You will not lack restoration. You will lie down in green pastures because He knows you. He knows how to take care of you. So He knows you. His other benefit - “He leads you.” He leads you. He guides you down just the right paths in life. There’s no reason to fear. He leads you. He leads you in paths of righteousness. And so He knows you and He leads you and then He defends you. Look in verse 4. “I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and He protects you. He defends you from those things that threaten you. And so when you are in that most dark place, what does He say? He says, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” And so He is armed when you are under attack. He’s defending you. He defends you even when you’re lost, even when you are prone to wander. Even when you are prone to leave the God that you love. Luke 15 says that He’s the kind of Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine. Don’t we need that? He’s the kind of Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in the open pasture and He goes after the one. So He goes after you. He goes after you and when He finds you the text says He lays you on His shoulder, rejoicing. He’s rejoicing. And so He’s protecting you even if He has to prod you, even if He has to guide you and keep you from wandering off, from wandering off the cliff, that no one can snatch you from His hands.

And so He knows you, He leads you, He defends you, but I want you to think about this. There’s no plea in this psalm. There is no request in this psalm. Psalm 23 is actually a story. Psalm 23 is the story of a journey. It’s a journey of faith. Psalm 23 is real life. This is a journey of faith, filled with trials and traps and temptations, but it’s a journey - look in verse 5 - it’s a journey to the banquet table of God. And so the Shepherd takes you from verse 2, from the green pastures where there are springs and still waters, and He takes you through verse 4, the dangerous desert valley where thieves and where enemies are hiding in the dark. And He takes you, He carries you to the banquet table of God, to verse 5, to the feast table of God, to the wedding supper of the Lamb where there is oil and there’s new wine and there’s food that’s been harvested and you celebrate with God. And so your Shepherd knows you and He leads you and He defends you.

But I think the psalm is driving towards this benefit - that He is with you. He’s with you. I want you to notice in the first three verses - I love this - David is talking about the Lord. He’s talking about the Lord. In the first three verses he’s talking about the Lord as his Shepherd, but when he gets to the darkest place, look in verse 4, when he gets to the darkest place - maybe you have been there; that deep, dark valley. He’s not talking about the Lord. Notice the pronouns change. When he says, “I will fear no evil,” for in that place - what does he say? “For You, You are with me. You are with me.” Derek Kidner in his Psalms commentary says, “The dark valley is as truly one of His right paths as are the green pastures.” So the dark valley is as truly one of His right paths as are the green pastures. “And His presence overcomes the worst thing that remains - the fear.” And so His presence overcomes the worst thing that remains.

You see, one of the highlights of the Lord’s shepherding of His people has always been His nearness. The burning bush. The pillar of fire. The tabernacle. God with us, Immanuel. One of the highlights of His shepherding of us has always been His nearness. And I want you to see it’s never the circumstances - look in the first few verses - it’s not the circumstances that drive David’s confidence or dictate David’s confidence. It is the presence of the One who is with him. “For You are with me.”

There’s a story of a little boy who was ill. He was desperately ill and his parents knew that he was going to die soon. And so they called their pastor and their pastor rushed to the house and he went to the boy’s room and he spent time with the boy just he and the boy. And after some time, the pastor left. And that evening, the little boy died. And so the next morning the pastor went back to the home and he sought to comfort the parents. And he cried with them, he reminded them of the promises of the Gospel, he prayed with them, and then the parents asked the pastor, “Are you able to explain something that happened?” And they said, “In the last hours of his life, our son, he grabbed his ring finger with his other hand, he grabbed his ring finger and he died in that position. And he started doing that after you left. Are you able to explain this?” And the pastor said, “When I went into the boy’s room he was barely able to talk. He was barely conscious and I was trying to communicate to him the beauty of the Gospel, the faithfulness of God.” And he said that, “I was telling him this is what it means to belong to Jesus. This is what it means to be in His grip - that He is with you.” And the pastor said, “I grabbed his hand, and starting with his thumb, I said, ‘The - LORD - is - my - Shepherd.” And so this little boy had his hand on “my.” He is reminding his heart that he is safe and secure, that he is embraced by, that he is kept by the Shepherd who is with him.

Do you sense the nearness of the Lord, your Shepherd tonight, that God promises to be near? If your family, if your marriage is hanging together by a thread, that God is not far off. God is not far off. If you struggle with a disease that is sucking the life out of you or the life out of people that you love, this means that God is not distant. If there is infertility or if there is dementia or if there is chemo in your life and in your story, that you will feel at times abandon to yourself and to your story, but the Lord is with you. 

If we are honest, when we are in verse 4, when our story is in verse 4, we think that our life is going to collapse. Our valley of deep darkness, our tears, our circumstances, they yell at us, they shout at us that we are not loved, that we have been abandoned, that we have been deserted and forsaken. And David, David has a short memory. I think David has a short memory like us, and what David is doing is he’s calling to mind the promises of the Gospel. He’s calling to mind these truths and he’s preaching them back to his fearful heart. And so he’s bringing his fears to the table. He’s bringing them to the Lord and he’s preaching the promises of God to his fears until the promises of God become the truest story, until they become the truest story to his heart. He sings them before God. 

What are those attributes of God that you are really struggling to cling to tonight? What have you forgotten tonight? What have you forgotten about God and His promises in the midst of verse 4, in the midst of the dark? And how is that fueling the fear in your heart this evening? When you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, preach back to your fears, preach to your heart the promises of God until they become the truest story. So that is the Good Shepherd. That you are a sheep in His care.

The Generous Host. 

And secondly and briefly, let’s consider the generous Host, that you have a seat at His table, in verses 5 and 6. And so the Shepherd has carried you, remember, He’s carried you through verse 2, the green pastures, He’s carried you through the valley of the shadow of death, verse 4, and He’s carried you to this feasting in verse 5. And so David replaces the Shepherd imagery with, he describes this relationship now that’s actually more intimate. He was talking about shepherds and sheep and now he’s talking about companions around a table. And he gives us a picture of welcome. This picture of celebration and joy. Kidner points out that “to eat and drink at someone’s table could be the culminating token of a covenant.” And so to be God’s guest, he said, “is to be more than an acquaintance invited for a day, but it is to live with Him.” And so again, Psalm 23 is this journey and it’s this journey home. You see, this is where your story is heading. This is where your story is headed. And God as the great Host invites you to sit at His table and to commune with Him. Notice verse 5 - “He anoints my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This picture of oil and wine - it shows the overflowing joy of communion, the sign of welcome. And so He’s rolled out the red carpet. You are welcome. You are honored at this table. You are filled.

And I love this phrase; I think it puzzles us. I love this phrase that, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” I think this may be my favorite part of the psalm. I think the psalmist is saying, “Think of the things that are foes in your life.” And surely David could have thought of individuals, but think more about internal foes that wage war against you. The enemies of your soul. The irreconcilable war that takes place inside of you. Think about those foes and when you are at the banquet table of God, when you are at His feast table, your enemies won’t speak. Those internal foes, they’ll be silent. And so this will be freedom for you. This will be freedom unlike you have ever known. And so not only is there welcome, and not only is there celebration, that you will be filled at this table, but there’s freedom here. There’s freedom at this table. 

And I want to invite you to imagine, imagine, beloved in Christ, this is where you’re going. Verse 5, this is where you are going. You and I have a certain future. We  will be seated at the feast table of God with the resurrected Jesus, but the scary part is verse 4. The scary part is you have to get through verse 4 to get to verse 5. The scary part is that verse 4 is a part of the story. And so what do we do? What is going to sustain us? And again, just like in that first image, the LORD is with us. I want you to look in verse 6. “Surely goodness and mercy” - goodness and hesed love; His unbreaking, always and forever love - “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman, says that “His goodness and mercy pursue us.” They pursue us. They run after you and me, that wherever you may find yourself to be - the mountaintop or the deepest, darkest valley - he says “you know that His goodness and His mercy are relentlessly chasing after you.” 

And I want you to notice the imagery in the psalm. It’s one, even as Ned prayed, it’s one of being wrapped up on every side. And so what is behind you? Verse 6, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me.” What is in front of you? What’s in front of you? Verse 3, “He leads me.” There’s no reason to fear. “He leads me in paths of righteousness.” And so goodness and mercy is chasing after me relentlessly, and in front of me He leads me in paths of righteousness. What about when I get scared? What about when I’m in verse 4? What does verse 4 say? That He’s chasing after me - “Goodness and mercy shall follow me,” that’s behind me. In front of me, “He leads me in paths of righteousness.” What does verse 4 say? “For You are with me.” He’s beside me. He is with me. That we are totally hemmed in, in the Lord’s care. 

Let me close with this. Some of you are familiar with the book, which later becomes a movie, Lone Survivor. It’s about fallen heroes of SEAL Team 10, these elite soldiers in the Navy SEALs. And early on in the book the author, Marcus Latrelle - he was a SEAL himself. He was part of this team and he’s describing something that was instilled in their training. And he says, “Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. This all comes back to that ironclad SEAL folklore - We never leave a man behind on the battlefield, dead or alive. No man is ever alone. Whatever the risk to the living, however deadly the opposing fire, SEALs will fight through the jaws of death to recover the remains of a fallen comrade.” And then he goes on to say this. “It is a strange thing really, but it’s not designed to help widows and parents of lost men. It’s designed for the SEALs who actually do the fighting. There’s something about coming home and we all want to achieve that, preferably alive. But there is a certain private horror about being killed and then left behind in a foreign land. No grave at home, no loved ones to visit your final resting place.” And then he ends and says, “I know it sounds crazy, but nonetheless it is true. Every one of us treasures that knowledge – no matter what I will not be left behind. I will not be alone. I will be taken home.”

And so goodness and mercy follow after me. They’re chasing after me relentlessly. In front of me, the Lord is leading me in paths of righteousness. And in the darkness, in the scary, when I’m fearful, He is beside me. We are totally hemmed in, in the Lord’s care. Isaiah 40 verse 11, “He will tend His flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs in His arms. He will carry them in His bosom and He will gently lead those who are with young.” That is an invitation. Amen. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

God of all grace, we are weak and frail sheep. We thank You that we do not need to fear when we are in the dark places, for You are with us. Your goodness, Your mercy run after us. We thank You that You have come after us in Christ, the One who has come to seek and save the lost, the One who has left the ninety-nine to come after the one. And so come after us tonight. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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