THE SHEPHERD’S CARE
Readings: Psalms 23 & 24; Matthew ch. 13
In the Psalms it is written: “How excellent is thy loving—kindness, 0 God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.” Those words express the real privilege of our calling as sons and daughters of the Most High. Not less so they imply what must be our obligation, an obligation to be fulfilled with joy and gladness in view of the privilege of our calling.
Those words of David depict something that is too big to grasp and comprehend in its fulness, and too good to allow it to slip from our grasp. To trust under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty is to follow the example of Ruth the Moabitess, Ruth the Gentile, as it is written again: “. . . in him shall the Gentiles trust,” and again in another Psalm: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most 1-ligh shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” The secret place of the Lord, the secret of the Lord, is with them that fear Him, and that hope in His mercy. It is not for those who self-confidently go ahead with a false assurance in a way of their own devising. But to accept gladly the constraints that are here implied is o have access to that “fatness of thy house and . . the river of thy pleasures.” A river of pure, refreshing water provides more than any man can drink; it is an inexhaustible supply. Such are to be “abundantly satisfied,” and the Hebrew word there means “saturated.”
That same prospect is put before us throughout the Scriptures, and notably in those Psalms of David and the parables of Jesus which we have read this morning. The words of all three Psalms are simple in the extreme. Yet they convey to us, as do all the words of Scripture, on the one hand comfort, assurance and encouragement as to the certainty of the hope that brings us around this Memorial Table, yet on the other hand we have unmistakable warning, exhortation, admonition.
The very affirmation with which the 23rd Psalm opens, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is much more than a reminder that we have a powerful source of help and comfort in all life’s problems. In such words we are saying that we are content to allow the Lord, as the Shepherd, to do the leading and the teaching, to be the policy-maker in our lives, by submitting in full trust to His guidance, as it is written again: “. . . lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” All this implies that we take the trouble to ascertain His word and to hear it, and consciously to close the mind against all advice and counsel of a contrary character, that in His light we may see and walk in light. The urgent advice to us is:
“Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.” The need for that advice is as pressing today as it has ever been, possibly more so, with all the many sophisticated means of instruction and communication that are ready to shout their easy, pleasing, policy-making counsel.
Whilst therefore the 23rd Psalm radiates depth and strength of assurance (even the world sees this Psalm as a kind of sugar candy), its peaceful atmosphere is not to be dismissed as a kind of Biblical tranquilliser. Its spirit of contentment is not escapism orcomplacency. The blessings mentioned are akin to those conditional blessings given in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man” who does not do certain things, but whose delight is in the Law and the Word of the Lord, in which he meditates day and night. Similarly in Psalm 23, the blessings so appealingly set forth are all seen to stem from the fact that the Lord is allowed by the individual member of the flock to act not only as a protector but that His guidance, as that of a shepherd, is accepted without demur or question.
In this light, in His light, we can perhaps reflect again upon the opening two verses of this Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” That was the kind of care of the Almighty towards His people Israel in their wilderness wanderings. To quote from the R.V the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey to search out a resting place for them;” and the same is the purpose of the Lord in the treatment in probation of each one of His Israelites by adoption.
“Ye shall find rest unto your souls,” Jesus said. To Ruth, the Gentile Moabitess, it was said: “. . .shall not I seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?. . . He (Boaz) will tell thee what thou shalt do.” And to this Ruth replied: “All that thou sayest unto me I will do.” The acceptance of the Lord, therefore, as a Shepherd involves trust and faith as to His ability and willingness to lead to the promised “place of rest,” a faith which is expressed in willingness to seek out and to submit to His instructions, His guidance, His leadership as a Shepherd. That indispensable direction and guidance can be found only in His Word. Least of all is it a matter which is dependent upon changeable and inconsequential human opinions, however confidently such opinions may be asserted.
Conflicting human opinions and consequent strife are represented as stormy waters, unclean waters. By contrast, the Word of the Lord, to which we are directed by the Shepherd—represented likewise by water—is always pure, refreshing, unchanging and therefore peaceful
—“still waters.” It is said that still waters run deep, and if we do no more than hurry quickly and superficially through the daily readings (perhaps not always even that), turning thereafter to the shallow and trivial things, to the often unclean waters of human thoughts and opinions as they are conveyed by the daily press and by other media, then in such case we shall know nothing of the marvels of the depth of those “still waters” of the Almighty afforded by His Word.
Israel entered not into their more complete “rest” which the Almighty proposed to “seek out” for them, because of their unbelief. Part of their condemnation was their “refusal” of the “watem of Shiloah that go softly,” in preference for the more obvious and yet fatally deceptive and false security afforded by mere mortal man, the “arm of flesh.”
The words of Jesus which we have read this morning are most relevant to this need that we have to explore not merely the surface but the depths of the “still waters” of the Word. “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath . . . for this people’s heart is waxed gross (the Greek there is pachuno—fat or thick, as in pachyderm, or pachydermatous, thick-skinned and unresponsive to the Word of God) and” Jesus continued quoting the prophet, “their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and Ishould heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.”
Jesus said these things in the context of those parables which we have read this morning. In the first of them, the parable of the sower, mankind is categorised, classified, into four groups, according to their response to the seed which without discrimination has been spread abroad by the sower; that seed, Jesus said, is the word of the kingdom, the gospel, the Word of God in its entirety. That seed, the Word of God, tests mankind, revealing what they are by their response to it—”a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Following his explanation of the parable Jesus said: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear,” just as later he was to say to the seven ecclesias: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the ecclesias.”
This means that the parable has important exhortation for ourselves, including that first large group of people represented in the words, “. . . some fell by the wayside, and the birds of the air came and devoured them up This group comprehends the great mass of mankind, who are quite heedless and uncaring of the fact that God even exists, or that He has spoken at all. In the parallel account by Luke, Jesus is reported to have added that that which was not devoured by the birds was trodden down, walked upon by people unaware and quite uncaring of what they were doing. This was the picture of the wayside—multitudes all going along in the broad, humanly acceptable, well-trodden way to their eternal graves.
But what of ourselves? Do we never tread underfoot, as though it were of no consequence, that seed of the sower, the Word of God, giving first place instead, it may be, to our personal wishes and inclinations? Is God really our Shepherd in this sense? Paul referred to some who tread under foot the Son of God, and the Word of God of which he is the manifestation: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching . . . He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who bath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
Similar considerations apply to those “fowls of the air” which devour the seed, and of these Jesus said: “Then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.” There are those even by the wayside who receive the seed of the word, but these, although they see in it something that deserves attention, yet the word is received quite lightheartedly as though personal convenience and comfort and enjoyment were of the greater importance. The thinking of Jeroboam was somewhat like that: “It is too far for you to go up to Jerusalem. Behold thy gods, 0 Israel.” We cannot to any good purpose associate with the Truth as though it could be just a pleasant background to a mere weekly routine, in which in the main we follow and think upon the pleasant things of this life—our homes, our cars, the way of enjoying what is called spare time, a sleepy, dreamy, but so very pleasant routine. Easily that can become the picture of our own way of life.
Jesus continues his parable, packed as it is with more exhortation than can be considered on any one occasion. There was the stony ground, and then the ground which in itself was rich enough but from which the thorns were not weeded out. In the one case there was no depth of earth, and therefore no ability to withstand adverse conditions, the scorching sun representing the trials which must be the lot of every son and daughter whom God receives. God does not pamper His sons and daughters, and it is a mistake and a disservice to encourage one another to look upon trials as sufficient ground for laying aside our obligations in the Truth, by misguided advice to encourage others so to do.
The thorns, and doubtless other weeds too, Jesus equates with “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches” which “choke the word” and it becomes unfruitful. We may not be in danger of being led astray by riches, but the cares of this life are always ready to demand absorbing attention, all those things which Jesus said the Gentiles seek after.
So by these three conditions of the ground into which seed was cast we are shown the dangers to which we are liable: the cold indifference of the hard-packed, well-trodden wayside, the unenduring discipleship of the shallow and trivial-minded and the impulsive, the worldly and the ambitious, the merely socially-minded butterflies and those preoccupied with their all-important wealth. Finally there was the good ground yielding according to its capacity, an hundredfold, sixty fold, thirty fold, and we have been called with the intention that we shall be amongst these.
Whilst praying, as we do, that we may indeed ultimately be found amongst such, the important thing to remember is that these four different kinds of human soil, or human mentality—the hard wayside, the stony ground, the thorn-choked ground, and even the good ground—none of these is necessarily destined to remain in those respective conditions. That is an aspect of the matter upon which Jesus did not enlarge except by implication. Everything depends upon that which the husbandman may do, that which we ourselves may do.
The hard, unyielding wayside can be broken into, ploughed up, and turned into good soil, the stones can be gathered together and taken away, likeside the thorns, but only by an effort, and so we have the appropriate words of the prophet Hosea: “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord.” But equally important is the ease with which that good ground can become infested with the thorns, encumbered with stones, or trampled to become a hard, unresponsive pathway. The whole picture here presented is a reversible process, according to the husbandman’s effort or the lack of it.
The danger and tragedy of the downward process is that those to whom this is happening are unable to recognise their true estate. Human nature, as with the serpent in Eden, is subtle and deceitful above all things, and every man tends to justify and to rationalise his own chosen way of life. In his own eyes he is right, as indeed it is written. The mortal nature that we have is untrustworthy in the extreme, and our only means of cleansing and enlightenment (or in the words of the parable, the only means to good husbandry) is to be found in these still waters in all their depth, that “river of thy pleasures” to which we are led by the “good shepherd” whom we remember at this Table.
These things taken together, the remembrance of him at this Table, together with the daily endeavour consciously to live the day as unto him, to seek out and to assimilate the “green pastures” and the still waters of the Word, and so “in service day by day” to remember him—the total effect must be that described in our reading this morning: “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake”—to be, that is, in due time partakers of His Name and purpose.
The message of this 23rd Psalm and of the parable of Jesus is. therefore that God will make of each one of us a new man, a new woman, whose ways and thoughts will be as those of the Almighty, and that for a manifestation of His Name for His honour and glory. Viewed from our present position all this seems as a “tall order.” Yet such is the result of the process of doing faithfully day by day what we can to build up our own faith and that of each other, particularly perhaps in those ways which are known only to the Lord and ourselves.
The Psalmist here speaks of his freedom from fear of evil: “. . . will fear no evil: for thou art with me. That was not to be freedom from experience of evil; it was not so for David, nor for Jesus. For the sheep who submit to the care of the Shepherd all circumstances, however seemingly untoward, are accepted as from God, and therefore not to be feared because there is the recognition that this is something which, in the wise foresight of God, is needed, something without which we would be the poorer. It was in the faith of such a belief as that, that David—and the same has been true of all the servants of God—these have all been able, in spite of all adversities, to describe the prospect before them in the words we have read this morning: “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 shailfollow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
But then immediately we have the commencement of Psalm 24:
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” It follows, therefore, that notwithstanding all the assuring and comforting prospect conveyed by Psalm 23,—table- sharing fellowship with the Almighty, reminiscent of the experience of the Israelite elders in the wilderness who ate with Elohim—and despite the glorious hope of eternal life in the house and presence of the Lord, only they can look with confidence to these things whose whole mode of life is a living acknowledgement of the fact that, in reality, the earth is the Lord’s and that He has created it for His pleasure, and that it is only in that glory and pleasure that His sheep and His flock, whom He takes and feeds, can find true delight and happiness.
The 24th Psalm therefore proceeds to look at the conditions on which men may be allowed to participate in those delights and pleasures of which the 23rd Psalm has spoken: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?” We have read the reply to that question, and the exhortative message is self-evident. Then the 24th Psalm proceeds to speak of the coming day when the Lord with his saints in glory will demand access to his city, Jerusalem: “Lift up your heads, 0 ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” But those words do have some application now. Christ, as the condition of our being with him then, demands access to the gate of our hearts and minds now: “. . I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me.” How true it is that “In thy light shall we see light.”
As we remember him now therefore, and as we seek his followship and examine ourselves, can we say that we have fully and in reality opened that door?