Scripture: Psalm 23:3
Date: August 17, 2014
We continue to rush along in our series on the 23 Psalm. We are already on the second part of the third verse. I’ll bet you didn’t realize we had covered so much. And that there was so much to learn about this relationship between the Shepherds and sheep. There will be a test at the end of the series.
Last week we talked about the Shepherd “restoring” the sheep to the flock and how that is what God desires to do for each of us. But here’s the problem that I’ve discovered in my life. Too often my faith experience ends at the point of restoration. And before I know it, I have wandered from the flock again. That’s why David tells us that not only does the shepherd restore our soul, but he also desires to lead us down the right paths for the rest of our lives. It is the shepherd’s desire that we not wander away from the flock anymore. The truth is that sheep are not smart enough to pick their own paths. If they are left to do that, the paths they choose will often lead to disaster because they will inevitably choose what looks like the easiest path, but that’s frequently not the best path. The shepherd must lead them, in essence, the shepherd becomes the path for them. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who went on a safari in Africa and found himself deep in the jungle. His guide went before him and with a large machete, he whacked away at the dense undergrowth to clear a narrow path for the visitor to pass through. It was slow going in the hot sun and the traveler was becoming increasingly convinced that they were lost in the jungle, and after awhile the traveler said to the guide with a note of desperation in his voice: “Are we lost? Where are we? Where is the path?” And the guide stopped and looked back at him and said: “I am the path.”
“He leads me in the paths of righteousness.” Now to really understand David’s statement we need to consider again the land on which the sheep were kept. Chase from your minds pictures of pristine pastures full of lush green grass. The sheep of Israel were raised primarily in the desert called the Judean wilderness. So there was very little moisture. In fact, we got more rain just last Sunday then most areas of the wilderness would see on an annual basis. And the terrain was rugged and had been made hard by centuries of harsh environmental conditions. So for the most part it was not a safe place to be for sheep or shepherds. Even in Jesus time it was not safe to travel through the wilderness alone. Remember he told the story of the man who was traveling the Jericho Road, which was the main road through the wilderness, and he was attacked. The limestone caves which were found all over the wilderness provided the perfect hiding places for robbers and bandits, the outcasts of society. And there were many animals ready to devour the sheep. It was a dangerous place. And in David’s time, there were no roads in the wilderness just paths that had been worn into the rocky ground. Now there were basically three kinds of paths in the wilderness. The first kind were the good paths that had been worn in the rocky ground by the footprints of travelers who would travel alongside the Jordan River from the fishing villages in the north around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent most of his ministry. Religious Pilgrims would follow the Jordan River to the Dead Sea and then they would turn to the west and follow a well worn path up the steep climb to Jerusalem. They were paths that had been made by religious pilgrims over many, many years. These paths were generally well traveled which kept the predators at bay and they went over the easiest terrain and so they tended to be the safest paths to travel. And so if you stayed on these paths, you would find company and safety in the journey.
But there were other paths in the wilderness that frequently confused inexperienced travelers. They were really false paths. These were paths that were formed by the extreme forces of nature. In the rainy season the waters from the highlands would wash with great force to the Jordan valley and carve out paths as they went. These became know as Wadis. Now, in the dry seasons, at the top where the Wadis began and at the bottom where they emptied into the Jordan or the Dead Sea, they looked like good paths through the wilderness. But most often the water flow as it rushed from several hundred feet above sea level around Jerusalem to 1400 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea, would cause deep crevices and valleys through the wilderness through which no one could pass. So inexperienced travelers would begin the journey up the Wadi and come to the point where they could not go any further and they would have to turn around and find another path. Sometimes a sudden storm would trigger a flash flood and the travelers would have no place to escape and they would all be killed. Some scholars believe that’s what happened at the Red Sea. God led the escaping Israelites through a dry Wadi and when the Egyptian Army followed them, the rains came and caused a flash flood. Sometimes in life we can become deceived by what looks like a good path, but it just leads to a dead end, or worse.
And then the third kind of paths in the wilderness were man made. They were made by the robbers and bandits that inhabited the wilderness. Knowing that those who passed through, often searched for an established path to take, they would create a path that would lead unsuspecting travelers right to them. Into isolated areas. Where they would relieve them of their worldly goods and often their lives. Sometimes we are enticed to follow man made paths that give every appearance of being the right path, but turn out to be traps.
The problem was that at their beginning the three kinds of paths all looked essentially the same. It was where they led that was so different. And so it was so easy to choose the wrong one and end up lost, or worse. And so it is with our lives, it seems to me. Life presents us with many paths that we can take. And often times it is very difficult to tell the difference between the right paths and the wrong ones. And so, David says, the Shepherd leads the sheep on the the good paths. As is the case in so much of the relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep, it’s a matter of trust. The sheep must trust the shepherd to lead them on the good and safe path. And how does the shepherd do that? Well, the curious thing about that word righteousness is that this is one of the only passages of scripture that appears to describe righteousness in terms of a path to travel. Usually when the word righteousness is used in scripture, it doesn’t refer to where we are, but rather who we are. And I suspect that is really what David had in mind when he talked about “paths of righteousness”. Because remember, in the first part of this verse he talked about a changed life, about restoring our soul. Once the sheep is restored to the flock, the shepherd must make sure they don’t wander again. Hadden Robinson writes:
God’s leading is not primarily to location or vocation. Rather, He leads us to a right life and a mature, godly character. God’s guidance has to do with what we are, not where we are. If we are what God wants us to be, He will have no trouble placing us where He wants us to be.
In other words, those who are righteous, whose life is in Christ, will walk the path of righteousness wherever that may lead. Because they follow the Shepherd. Remember that near the end of His life on earth, Jesus had a conversation with His disciples which I think reflects this statement. He tells them that He is going to prepare a place for them. “And” he says, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” But Thomas the doubter says to Him: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” And Jesus says: “I am the way.”
David is saying that for the restored sheep, the shepherd is the way. David knew that if sheep are left on their own, they will always pick the easiest, most traveled route. Most of us are the same way, aren’t we? But the good shepherd knew that the easiest way was usually not the best way. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, of all, the easiest path was usually the one that was overgrazed. Sheep, if left too long in one place will completely strip a field of its foliage, not only making it unsuitable for grazing in the short term but spoiling it for years to come. But if left on their own, sheep will settle on a few favorite places to graze, and so the shepherd must keep the sheep moving constantly. In addition, if sheep stay too long in one place, that area will become infested with disease and parasites. Then the next flock that comes along will pick those up and the whole flock can be quickly infested. Plus if the flock remained in one place for too long, the predators were able to find them. And so the good shepherd keeps the sheep constantly moving from one place to the next. Searching for the right path that leads to new pastures. Often that meant that the shepherd himself made new paths for the sheep. And the sheep had to trust the shepherd to be the right path for them. Those that didn’t were destined for destruction. As long as they kept their eyes on the shepherd, the sheep would keep to the right path. But when they started to take their eyes off the shepherd and search for a better path themselves, that’s when they began to stray. The prophet Isaiah spoke of sheep that refused to follow the path of the shepherd when he proclaimed to the nation of Israel: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every’ one to his own way. I don’t know about you but too often that describes my journey in this life. Jesus says, “I am the way” and we think that He really means that He is “a way” and search for another, easier way. Phillip Keller, our modern day shepherd, writes:
There is something terrifying about the destructive self determination of a human being. It is interlocked with personal pride and self- assertion. We insist we know what is best for us even though the disastrous results may be self-evident. Just as sheep will blindly, habitually, stupidly follow one another along the same little trails until they become ruts that erode into gigantic gullies, so we humans cling to the same habits that we have seen ruin other lives. Turning to “my own way” simply means doing what I want. It implies that I feel free to assert my own wishes and carry out my own ideas. And this I do in spite of every warning.
In this life, whether it be in the jungle and wilderness of difficult times, or in the times of green pasture, we will be confronted with many choices, many paths. How many times have we prayed that God would show us the path. But that’s not what Jesus tells us. He says that He is the path. He is the path of righteousness. “I Am the Way.” And in other places David makes it clear what he has in mind when he talks about the path of righteousness. In the 7th Psalm, he writes God is a righteous judge. And then in the 11th Psalm he says The Lord is righteous, He loves justice. Psalm 112 says that God’s righteousness endures forever. Isaiah describes God as a righteous God and a Savior. And the apostle Peter writes that: Our God and Savior Jesus Christ does what is right.
One thing that the scriptures make very clear is that this path is not an easy one. So how do we follow the Shepherd on this path. Well, based on his experience with sheep, Phillip Keller offers us some travel tips.
First, instead of loving ourselves the most, we must be willing to love Christ first and others before ourselves. This is not the warm fuzzy romantic love that we often think about. This is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind when he said that the greatest love we can show is when we are willing to lay down our lives for another. And to illustrate that love, He went to the Cross for us. Now the cross was such a torturous way to die that it was obviously meant to show the extreme nature of God’s love for us. Jesus’s love was so extreme, so complete, that He was willing to endure such torture for us. It is hard to understand that kind of love. But it’s the kind of love that leads us on the path of righteousness. Keller writes: Most of us know little of living like this or being “led” in this right way. But once a person discovers the delight of doing something for others, he has started through the gate being led into one of God’s green pastures.
And then Keller says that instead of just being one of the crowd, we must be willing to be singled out, set apart. Now I said before that sheep are notorious followers. They want to be a part of the crowd. There is safety in numbers. And so the problem is that if one strays down the wrong path, loses sight of the shepherd, the rest of the flock is likely to follow. Sometimes that happens because the shepherd’s path is too hard to follow and so one veers off onto an easier path and the rest follow. Jesus, Himself, said that only a few would find His way to be acceptable. The path of righteousness can be a path of hardship and suffering, that often leads us to enter into the suffering of others. We must not hesitate to bear the burdens of others along the path of righteousness. Jesus warned that sometimes along the path of righteousness, we’ll be asked to take up our cross and follow.
And then, Keller says that in sheep terminology, we must be willing to be a “tail ender” instead of striving to be the “Top Ram.” Because, he says, those that are striving to be the Top Ram are always looking for another path. They are reluctant to place their well being and the well being of the flock in the hands of the Shepherd. They believe it is their responsibility to find fresh pasture in which to graze, and though their motives might be good, they are unwilling to place themselves in God’s will. Like Jacob, who we talked about last week, they wrestle with God. “Tail enders” on the other hand trust the shepherd to lead and follow wherever he goes.
And then the next is similar. Instead of finding fault with life and asking “why” when difficult things take place in our lives, we are able to approach all circumstances with a sense of gratitude. Phillip Keller writes:
Human beings, being what they are, somehow feel entitled to question the reasons for everything that happens to them. In many instances life itself becomes a continuous criticism.. . of one’s circumstances. We look for someone or something on which to pin our misfortunes. We are often quick to forget our blessings, slow to forget our misfortunes. But if one really believes his affairs are in God’s hands, every event, no matter whether joyous or tragic, will be taken as part of God’s plan.
You see we too often confuse the way of righteousness with the easy way and think that if we are following the shepherd, we’ll be spared the dangers and snares that lay along the other paths. The way of righteousness is the hard way and few dare to travel it, but for those who follow the shepherd the reward will be lush green pastures and still waters to drink. To remain on the path of righteousness, we must be in the love and will of the shepherd.
And finally we must know that the path of righteousness sometimes leads to the cross of Christ. In commenting on this part of the Psalm, Max Lucado writes:
It was, at once, history’s most beautiful and most horrible moment. Jesus stood in the tribunal of heaven. Sweeping a hand over all creation, he pleaded, “Punish me for their mistakes. See the murderer? Give me his penalty. The adulteress? I’ll take her shame. The bigot, the liar, the thief? Do to me what you would do to them. Treat me as you would a sinner.
And then Lucado concludes:
The path of righteousness is a narrow winding trail up a steep hill. At the top of the hill is a cross. At the base of the cross are bags. Countless bags full of innumerable sins. Calvary is the compost pile for our guilt. Would you like to leave yours there as well?
We are presented with a lot of paths in life. Some we think will lead to happiness. Some to success. Some to fame and fortune. But many just lead to nowhere. They are man made paths that often lead to destruction. Because we are consumed with where the path will lead, rather than the path itself. So many times in nearly 35 years of ministry I have had persons come to me seeking direction and what I say to them is that what they really need to seek is Jesus. When He is your path, where you need to go becomes a whole lot clearer. David discovered in years of searching that the path of righteousness did not lead to a location, but rather it led to a relationship. Between the shepherd and the sheep. And more than a thousand years later, Jesus became the fulfillment of David’s understanding. And He proclaimed — “I am the way.” The way to love and life and wholeness and salvation. The way to eternal life. The way to green pastures. He leads us in paths of righteousness. And He calls each one of us to take our eyes away from the confusing and false paths of this life and follow Him.