Fear No Evil

Psalm 23

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Fear No Evil

In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. That sounded nice; it was good rhetoric; it had a nice ring. The problem is that it wasn't true then and it isn't true now. We have a lot to fear, and there is something warped about the person who never experiences fear. (Steve Brown, No More Mr. Nice Guy, p.133)

It seems as if there are increasingly greater reasons to fear than ever before in our world. The menace of terrorism, rising social unrest, falling markets, and the looming threat of war on the horizon weigh heavy on all of us, increasing our anxieties and fueling our fears. At times, as in the recent case of the DC sniper, the fear becomes so tangible you can cut it with a knife -- so strong, you can smell it in the air.

Do you, as a Christian, remain untouched by the fears of those around you? Does your Christian faith preserve you from the anxieties and fears that plague your neighbors, your world? I can only speak for myself, so I will be completely honest with you -- I am often a very fearful man! And I am willing to bet, that no matter how great your Christian faith, you have your fair share of fears as well. If we are honest, we share many of the same fears that trouble others around us. We fear the possible devastation and destruction of war. We fear the loss of job, the loss of financial security, the loss of home. We fear the loss of family and friends, the inevitable loneliness that will follow, and the haunting threat of insignificance -- living a life that appears to amount to nothing. We fear the loss of health, the loss of mental faculties, physical abilities, and the ability to care for ourselves. We fear rejection, pain, failure, embarrassment, aging, and ultimate abandonment. We fear the future, and, if nothing else, we fear our impending and inevitable death! We all must wrestle with our fears. To deny them is dishonest and dangerous. Furthermore, denial gives us no real ability to face our fears and courageously conquer them.

Pastor Steve Brown writes, One of the most dangerous thoughts a Christian can have is to think a bold Christian has no fear, and then to deny the reality of that fear. I visit a lot of hospitals, and I will often ask a person who is facing surgery, "Are you frightened?" I get a great variety of answers to that question. Some Christians say, "No, Pastor, I'm not afraid. Christ is with me, and He has taken the fear." Others will say, "How can I be afraid? I'm a Christian." Not too long ago, I was visiting a delightful lady in our church, and I asked her the question. Her answer was disarming in its honesty. She said, "Don't be silly! Of course I'm afraid. Do you think I'm a nut? People die in this place, so you pray for me." That was refreshing! There is nothing Christian about the denial of reality. The courage of the Christian doesn't come without fear. (Steve Brown, No More Mr. Nice Guy, 133).

How do you deal with your fears? The truths contained in one of the most well-known songs of ancient Israel can go a long way toward helping us truly work through, and successfully deal with, our fears. Outside of John 3:16 and the Lord's Prayer, Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar and well-loved texts in the Bible. Most people can quote it from memory -- in the King James Version, no less! This is remarkable in a culture in which most people rarely see sheep and have probably never seen a shepherd. For many, Psalm 23 is learned from the cradle, and for many more, it will be spoken at their grave. Why is Psalm 23 so well-loved? Because we are a people prone to numerous and diverse fears and this psalm recognizes and addresses them. Contrary to popular opinion, Psalm 23 is not simply about peace, tranquility, and rest in a quiet scenic mountainside. This is only to read half of the psalm. The psalm is also full of dark valleys, evil presences, and sinister, life-threatening enemies. Psalm 23 is not simply about peace in times of ease, but peace in the presence of evil. The peace the psalmist writes about is experienced in the midst of numerous dark elements of fear. Consider the fears that are suggested in Psalm 23:

The fear of being in want, lacking the necessities of life -- food, drink, shelter, etc. (verse 1)

The fear of weariness and exhaustion, calling for restoration -- new life, fresh wind (verse 3)

The fear of death -- a universal fear that touches us all (verse 4)

The fear of evil -- the experience of unjust suffering, abuse, loneliness, etc. (verse 4)

The fear of enemies -- those who justly or unjustly oppose us and seek our destruction (verse 5)

The fear of being forgotten, left alone, with no place to call home -- in short, the fear of ultimate insignificance and meaninglessness (verse 6)

Psalm 23 does not picture an ideal world, but a weary world full of uncertainties -- a world full of shadowy valleys, evil threats, and menacing enemies. Psalm 23 paints a picture that has more in common with a Tolkien movie than it does with a Thomas Kinkade painting. And yet, in the midst of real fears, Psalm 23 speaks of a peace that passes understanding -- a peace that survives and thrives in the midst of the concerns and worries of the real world. This peace does not come from within, but from without. It is a peace that flows from a covenant relationship with One much stronger than ourselves! The Shepherd and His Sheep In this Psalm, David speaks of the covenant-keeping, name-revealing God of Israel as his personal shepherd: "Yahweh is my shepherd" (Ps. 23:1).

This is an amazing statement in light of its cultural setting. In ancient Palestine, shepherds held a necessary, but lowly, position. In a large family, this position was usually assigned to the youngest son. A shepherd's work was constant, tedious, and demanding. Sheep are "high maintenance," requiring constant care at all times. An ancient shepherd worked under different conditions than modern shepherds. In ancient times, the sheep were not fenced in, but totally dependent on shepherds for protection, grazing, watering, shelter, and tending to injuries. One reason shepherding was held in such low esteem in ancient Israel is that the shepherd's full-time load allowed little time to participate in the religious activities of the community. There would be no need for shepherds if it were not for the pathetic plight of sheep. Sheep are helpless, defenseless, needy, and unable to provide for themselves. If not for their importance to humanity, sheep would probably be extinct! (Indeed, sheep may be one of the best untapped resources available for upsetting evolutionary theory!) Sheep lack everything necessary to survive on their own. If not for the care of a shepherd, sheep would be doomed. Under the Shepherd's Care Sheep owe their lives to their shepherd. They never assist the shepherd in the slightest degree. A good shepherd assumed the role of provider, guide, protector, and constant companion of the sheep.

In Psalm 23, David uses the work of the simple, caring, lowly shepherd as a lens through which to view God's care and concern for his life. In verses 2 - 5, David highlights three needs sheep have and the caring response of the shepherd to those needs.

Sheep cannot find food or water.

Sheep lack a keen sense of smell.

They are at a loss when it comes to locating the basic necessities of life. If left to themselves, they will even eat poisonous weeds.

The good shepherd provides all the physical necessities needed to preserve the life of the sheep. It is these necessities that are highlighted in the opening verses of the psalm:

To "lie down in green pastures" means to have sufficient food to eat.

To be "led beside still waters" means having something to drink.

To be "led in right paths" means to avoid falling in a hole or falling prey to wild animals.

Simply put, when the shepherd "restores [the sheep's] soul" it means he is keeping the sheep alive through his providence -- something the sheep could not do on its own without great difficulty and potential harm. Sheep lack a sense of direction. Sheep get lost easily, even in familiar territory, often being unable to find their way to a sheepfold even when it is within clear view. To add misery to woe, sheep easily wander astray. This characteristic is behind the proverbial saying found in Isaiah, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way…" (Isaiah 53:6). The good shepherd guides the sheep in good and right paths. He keeps them from falling into holes or becoming food for prey. He prevents them from wandering astray and losing their way. Over time, the sheep come to recognize and follow the shepherd's voice. The shepherd knows what is best for the sheep, and even though he knows it may frighten the sheep, his guidance is not limited to peaceful pastures.

As the psalm progresses, we find the shepherd moving his flock from fertile slopes and quiet pools to the "valley of deep darkness" in order to get from one fertile field to another. The "righteous path" is thus a path through dark valleys populated with ominous enemies. The shepherd is quite aware that this arouses great fear in the heart of the sheep (for sheep are easily frightened), but he also knows that this is necessary to their survival. It is therefore wise for the sheep to follow the shepherd, for his reputation is at stake ("for his name's sake"). It is the shepherd's responsibility to provide and protect. It is the sheep's responsibility to trust and follow.

Sheep are virtually defenseless. In regard to this, Chuck Swindoll writes, Most animals have a rather effective means of defense -- sharp claws; teeth; speed; ability to hide; keenness of smell, sight, and hearing; great strength; ferocity. But sheep are awkward, weak, and ignorant; they have spindle legs and tiny hoofs, and are pitifully slow, even devoid of an angry growl. Defenseless! The only sure protection for the sheep is the ever-watchful shepherd. (Charles Swindoll, Living Beyond the Daily Grind: Book 1, pp.69 - 70).

The good shepherd protects from evil, deep darkness, and the presence of enemies. There is nothing more comforting to sheep than the presence of the shepherd. Thus, the greatest promise of this psalm, and the reason the sheep need not fear, is simply this: "I will fear no evil, for you are with me."

Though the sheep are defenseless against evil, the shepherd is well-armed for attack and defense. His rod is ever ready to defend in attack. His staff is ever ready to direct, retrieve, and even discipline his sheep if necessary. Furthermore, the good shepherd refuses to lose any sheep under his care. To this end, he also uses his staff, counting the sheep that pass under, in order to assure not one is missing. The rod and staff are welcome sights to defenseless and fearful sheep -- the rod protecting them from enemies, and the staff rescuing them from wandering.

Some interpreters introduce a second metaphor at verse 5. They argue that the shepherd imagery fades into Temple imagery, where a host is present to serve at a religious meal. One common argument used to support this has to do with the presence of a table and cups, for sheep don't eat at tables or drink from cups, do they? If this interpretation is valid, the host at the temple performs the same functions of the shepherd in the previous verses -- providing nourishment and protection. If one continues with the shepherd metaphor, the picture is one of the shepherd providing and protecting in a new setting -- no longer the peaceful setting of verses 1 - 3, but now in the ominous setting of the valley of deep darkness. In order to provide, the good shepherd must clear away the thickets, brush, poisonous plants, and dangerous insects in order to make a safe place for the sheep to eat and rest. In this dangerous setting, he plays the role of the compassionate servant -- tenderly giving food to the sheep at the "table", gently anointing the wounds, cuts, and scrapes of the injured sheep, and carefully giving cups of water to each individual sheep. Yet, even in this dismal setting, there is an abundance -- the provision is "overflowing," satisfying the sheep through the shepherd's goodness.

Learning to Love the Voice of the Shepherd

It is at this point in the psalm that David makes a great statement of faith -- a statement made possible by reflection on the shepherd's provision, guidance, and protection in the past:

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" (Ps. 23:6).

The shepherd's faithfulness in the past has assured the sheep that the shepherd will surely be faithful in the future. The sheep has come to know the voice of the shepherd and to find solace and comfort in his care. David's trust and confidence was built over the course of a lifetime of experiencing Yahweh's continual care and mercy. His trust did not develop overnight. Nor were his fears vanquished in young manhood. It was as David journeyed with Yahweh from the peaceful fields through dark valleys to his true home in God's presence in the Temple that he came to recognize God's tenacious and steadfast grace. Like David, we learn most about trusting God in the valleys.

Our trust builds as we recognize that our paths through deep darkness are "righteous paths" the shepherd leads us in and through. Through it all, God's goodness and mercy pursue us in order to bless us. It is in the "valley of the shadow of death" that the most abundant provision and tender care of the shepherd was experienced! God's goodness and mercy are not passive in the psalm, as the translation follow might suggest. The better word is pursue: "Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life" (Ps. 23:6). Throughout the book of Psalms, it is ordinarily the enemies who pursue the psalmist (7:5; 69:26; 71:11; 109:160). In Psalm 23 there are enemies present, but the shepherd has rendered them harmless. Instead of enemies, it is the shepherd who actively pursues his sheep in order to shower goodness and mercy. It is a great encouragement to know that, like a policeman pursuing a speeding car, Yahweh does not simply follow us, but is in active pursuit of us. Why does Yahweh maintain such a high level of pursuit? Because we, like sheep, are prone to wander and go astray. Thankfully, the pursuit continues "all the days of one's life." Indeed, it continues throughout all eternity: "I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." No one else can provide for us in this way and with such steadfast faithfulness. God's provision, guidance, and protection are lifelong and eternal. Like a good shepherd, God is always with us, a constant companion who cares for us. We, like sheep, are the most helpless of creatures when left to ourselves. But under the provision, guidance, and protection of the shepherd, we lack nothing that we need. This is what is behind David's amazing claim: "The LORD is my shepherd!"

The Lord Jesus is My Shepherd

Unlike David, we can possess even more confidence concerning the great compassion, care, and concern of God in light of the coming of Christ. Christ Jesus reveals to us the full extent to which God is willing to go to show us his love -- identifying with us in our humanity, sufferings, fears, and concerns. During his earthly ministry, Jesus took Psalm 23 upon his lips, but not as David did, in the role of a sheep. Instead, Jesus identified himself with Yahweh by proclaiming, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11, 14).

Like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, Christ provides for us. His provision is greater than food and drink. His provision is his very life (John 10:10b - 11). Christ gives us everything by giving us himself -- he who is the "bread of life," the "living water," giving "eternal life" (John 10:28) to all who follow him. Like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, Christ protects his sheep from wolves and hirelings who threaten the flock (John 10:12 - 15). Like the good shepherd, Christ guides his sheep: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me… and no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27 - 28). Each sheep passes under his rod and is accounted for. If not, he personally goes out to retrieve the wayward sheep to the flock. In light of Christ's shepherding, we can affirm with David: Because Christ provides, "I shall not want." Because Christ protects, "I will fear no evil." Because Christ guides, "I will dwell in the house… forever."

The Lord Jesus is My Sheep

It is good to know that God has reached out to us through Christ, putting a human face on the good shepherd of Psalm 23. As comforting as this is, it still does not present the full extent to which God has gone to shepherd us. Not only has God identified with us in our humanity, but in Christ, God has completely identified with us in all of the things we fear the most -- hunger, thirst, rejection, betrayal, loss, pain, ridicule, despair, insignificance, and death! God's goodness and mercy has pursued us all the way to the bottom, for not only is the Lord our shepherd -- the Lord is also our sheep!

Note the irony of Revelation 7:17: "for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd…" The Lamb is the King is the Shepherd! Not only is Christ Jesus our shepherd, but he has identified with our sufferings and sinfulness to the uttermost by also being our sheep -- our sacrificial lamb led to slaughter, silent before its shearers, bearing the sin of the world. "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). Here is where the fullness of Psalm 23 is finally realized. Here is where the absolute sense of "I shall not want" is completely fulfilled. ·

"for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life;

and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes" (Rev. 7:17) ·

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" (Ps. 23:1) ·

"They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat;" (Rev. 7:16) ·

"He makes me to lie down in green pastures… beside still waters" (Ps. 23:2) ·

"For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them." (Rev. 7:15) ·

"I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever" (Ps. 23:6)

Thou Art With Me!

We all, like sheep, wrestle with fears and anxieties. It is impossible not to, for we live in a world full of dark valleys, inexplicable evil, and dangerous enemies. The only way to "fear no evil" is to "know the shepherd" -- to know more intimately through green pastures and dark valleys what it is to bask in the greatest promise of all: "for Thou art with me." Only this truth is sufficient to calm our anxious hearts and still our fears: "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me!" There is a peace that passes understanding that is available to us through Christ. It is a peace that is not of this world, but can be known in this world. It is a peace not found in self and situation, but in Christ and his provision.

"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful… These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 14:27; 16:33).

How can you begin to participate in this peace? The key is in one word: "my." David had the confidence to say, "The Lord is my shepherd." He trusted that God cared for him personally. You have even more grounds for doing this in light of the coming of Christ and the self-giving of Christ as the Lamb on the cross. God cares for us individually and personally. He desires you to call him "my shepherd" -- to rest in his provision, follow his guidance, and find comfort in his protection. God is such a good shepherd that when one sheep is lost, he will leave the 99 to find the one. Are you the one this morning? Is his goodness and mercy pursuing you today? Can you say: "my"?

© Richard J. Vincent, January 12, 2003

What believer would not want to experience this deep devotion to God? Surely, this kind of loyal commitment is the desire of every person of faith. However, this does not come easy. There is a great price involved in reaching such heights. This level of commitment is only achieved through fierce struggle.

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