Half way through this psalm, the object of address changes. The sheep was at first addressing the observer, telling him or her about the shepherd. Now the sheep turns to the Shepherd and the rest of the Psalm is addressed directly to Him. YEA THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, FOR THOU ART WITH ME; In many areas of the world the shepherds will lead the sheep up the mountains to the lush mountain pastures. Keller feels this is what is being described in the next section of this Psalm. The year for the sheep is divided into two sections: winter/spring and summer/fall. David knew about these sheep drives. Where was he when Samuel was looking for the lad to anoint king? He was in the upper pasturelands with the sheep! David knew the high country and the dangers there. And David knew a shepherd would never take the sheep into unknown territory. And so every spring the shepherd would go into the future summer pasturelands to prepare them for the flock. Wells would be cleared of noxious weeds or dead animals -- much work needed to be done. Then he would go back and when the time was right take the sheep on the slow summer drive to the high country. We often talk about 'mountaintop experiences' with God. But there is no magic helicopter to get us there. We have to walk. And the best way up the mountain is not from ridge to ridge like a mountain goat, but up the mountain valleys, sometimes steeped in shadows from high cliffs. Flash floods can come through these valleys, and the shepherds know it. They know where the safe areas are. They know where the caves are. They know when to hurry the sheep a bit. But, all in all, we go THROUGH these valleys -- we do not remain in them. And they are leading someplace; they are not lost dead-ends. Finally we will go through the final valley of death itself to the final mountaintop with Christ. But we are not dead yet! And there are valleys we need to walk through to get to that higher ground with God. And so when a child dies, or a parent; when a job is lost, or a friend; when life seems to come crashing down or there is a terrible upheaval, we follow. Get close to Him. Don't stray. He will guard you, protect you, guide you. In those valleys there is lush grass and plenty of water that you wouldn't have if you were going ridge to ridge like a goat! In the valley you will not slip and fall down the mountainside if you lose your footing. Older, more mature Christians can look back on their experiences in some of the valleys they have walked through and reassure the younger Christians that they do not need to be afraid or even nervous. Christ knows what He is doing. He knows all the dangers and He knows what to look for and exactly how to protect us. The Good Shepherd Himself told us, "In this world you will have trials; but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world." He knows what He is doing, and He knows where to lead us. THY ROD AND THY STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME The shepherd carries very little with him up to the mountain pastures. But he always carries his rod and his staff. The rod is a short hand club which shepherds learn to throw with deadly and precise accuracy. The staff is the very symbol of a shepherd, with the crook end, taller and more slender than the rod. They have two distinct purposes. The rod is used for protection and discipline. It is how the lions or other predators could be killed. The rod is also used for discipline. Should a sheep start to stray toward a dangerous area, a thrown rod striking the rear end will send the sheep scurrying back to the flock and to safety! The rod is the Bible. It is the only weapon given us in Ephesians 6. It is our protection and our discipline. If we really WANT more discipline than that, He will administer more, but I pray I will always be responsive just to the first bit of discipline! The rod has other uses, too. The shepherd uses the rod to count and check the sheep. Sheep wool is thick and often tangled, hiding skin problems. The rod is used to part the wool so the shepherd can examine the sheep top to bottom and make sure there are no hidden problems. The English expression 'to pull the wool over someone's eyes' relates to this exact thing. It means to hide a defect. The rod exposes any defects and problems that the shepherd needs to work with. David wrote the same meaning in Psalm 139: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive (or wicked) way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Our Good Shepherd carefully examines each of us. If someone is NOT examined by the Good Shepherd, then he is not one of His. But if we are His, and submitting to Him, God will search us through His Word. We cannot deceive God. Through His Word He will look deep into our lives and not just at the surface appearance -- the wool. We should never be afraid to let our Shepherd examine us. We want to be the best we can be for Him. God's Word is always strong enough to protect us, right enough to correct us, and thorough enough to examine us. Thus He leads us. The staff serves a different purpose. The staff is a symbol of the shepherd's care for his sheep. It is also what the shepherd himself will lean on for support when he is tired during the long, dark nights. The shepherd uses his staff for three things: 1. to pull babies toward their mothers so that his personal scent will not be on them, causing possible rejection, and to pull shy sheep in closer to himself. 2. as a gentle guide to sheep to walk the right way 3. to rescue sheep stuck in rocks or hard places. The staff is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter. He guides the baby Christians to the more mature Christians. He guides us in the way, and gently pulls us closer to Christ Himself. Sometimes a shepherd will be walking along and will lay his staff gently across the back of a special sheep. The sheep clearly enjoys this attention. It is like people walking holding hands. The sheep is fully satisfied and the shepherd is also happy and content at that moment to see his sheep calm and walking as they should. In a similar way, the Holy Spirit connects us to Christ, and through the Holy Spirit we enjoy sweet communion with our Shepherd. The peace at these times is tremendous and the satisfaction totally fulfilling. And when we go the wrong way and get stuck, Christ uses the precious Holy Spirit to gently pull us out and set us on the right way again. Thy Word and Thy Spirit, they comfort me... THOU PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES This table is NOT one set with knives and forks and such! This is reference to the mountain pastures -- the tablelands! The high, flat lush pastures where the sheep will feed and grow fat during the summer months. The Shepherd goes up in the spring to prepare the Tableland. He will put salt blocks in convenient locations both on the way up and on the table itself. He will check where the best grass is, and where he will establish his 'home' camp. He will clear out noxious weeds or plan to avoid them. Lambs especially are so curious, they will eat anything, and easily poison themselves! The lambs must be protected from any kind of plant that might be bad for them. [from Helen: in the Christian life I have often thought of this in relation to the Great Commission. To 'make disciples' is NOT to 'make believers.' Only the Holy Spirit can make believers. But we are told to take these new believers and make them followers, or disciples. We are one of the first lines of defense Christ has established against the noxious teachings of false Christians and 'nice' worldly things. We must be faithful to that.] Jesus knows us and He knows our future. He has gone ahead of us to clear out what can hurt us and to provide, there, what we will need. He has prepared that table for us. The shepherd will usually go alone to the table in the spring and again just before leading the sheep up. The wild animals know he is there. They are watching. He does his work anyway, even knowing he is being watched by the enemies to his flock. If any of the predators is aggressive enough to come after him, that animal will be killed immediately. Many people think Satan is a joke. He is not a joke. He is a predator. His purpose is to hurt, destroy, cause confusion. Jesus knows and is prepared. We don't know and we can't possibly be prepared in and of ourselves. The closer we are to Christ, the safer we are. When the shepherd is up on the tablelands, he also must clear out the waterholes, as mentioned before. During the winter a lot of junk collects in them, and the shepherd will make sure the sheep will have an abundance of pure, clean water. We can rest quietly in His care and follow Him with complete confidence. (from Helen again: this particular chapter has so much more to say -- I urge people to read this book...) THOU ANOINTEST MY HEAD WITH OIL; MY CUP RUNNETH OVER High in the mountain pastures everything looks perfect. But it's not. Flies, mosquitoes, gnats and other bugs can drive the sheep crazy. The worst problem is the nose fly which actually lays its eggs in the sheep's nose where the larva will hatch and cause a sheep to bang its head against anything to stop the incessant itching and irritation. Some sheep kill themselves this way. Sheep hate the nose flies and will often panic and run when they appear. But the shepherd has the answer -- a special, smelly ointment that he will smear on the faces of the sheep which not only keep the nose flies away, but all the other bugs as well. Then the sheep can graze peacefully. Keller likens these flies and bugs to the daily 'buggy' problems we all have to deal with. And the Shepherd anoints us with His oil of grace so that we can go through these times with confidence, showing His grace to the world. And just like the shephered cannot put the medicinal grease on the sheep's faces just once and forget it, so our Savior is constantly giving us the grace we need for everything. We need the Holy Spirit every day! Sheep also have another summertime problem: scab. Scab is a skin disease which spreads easily and quickly through the flock. It is caused by a microscopic parasite and is spread by one sheep touching another. Scab is an excellent picture of sin and false doctrine. If a flock is completely clear of scab, just a little preventative medicine -- again an oil -- on the heads will prevent it. Sheep love to rub heads and so that is where it will be found first. But sometimes a new sheep will enter the herd and will have a hidden case of scab. The entire flock can then be infected. They must be dipped, one by one, in a chemical bath and the chemicals applied by hand to the head. It is a long and difficult task for both shepherd and sheep. How do we often get exposed to false doctrine and some sin? By talking with other people! We love to talk together, and false doctrine can often spread and, with it, sin. Entire congregations can become infected through one infected leader. Or we will watch TV or movies or videos and get wrong ideas about what is OK in life. And so sin enters, like tiny microscopic parasites, and infects us. But Christ loves us and has the cures we need. We are His. There is something else that oil is needed for -- only this time is is often grease! The autumn is coming to the tablelands now, and the male sheep are starting to feel their hormones kicking in. It is mating time. Mating means competition. The male sheep will go after each other in fury, butting heads in fierce competitions. They are willing to crash into each other day and night. The Shepherd knows. He is ready. He greases their heads and horns. Keller used axle grease! Then the rams go at each other and slide off of each other without damage. They are confused, yes, but not damaged! They try to hurt each other and can't. They get embarrassed and frustrated, but they are all safe. Take a look at some of the competition in and among churches. It's the same. People trying to hurt each other for the right to have authority. Jealousies, disagreements, competitions -- these can fracture a church and cause a lot of people to refuse to go back to church. The mark of Christ is that we will love each other. But how often we do not love each other -- how often we compete and try to damage one another. Or maybe troubles of one kind or another appear and we think Jesus has forgotten us, so we try to deal with things ourselves. We don't just need 'oil' then, we need 'grease'! We need the Holy Spirit in full measure, undiluted, to solve the very problems we get ourselves into with each other. Looking back over the summer on the tableland -- every need has been met, every want satisfied. The grass was lush and the wells full of pure, cold water. Predators took no toll, and the insects were kept at bay. The sheep were not even allowed to hurt each other. They have had everything that could be provided for them in the close company of their beloved shepherd. And so have we. Our cups are not just full, but overflowing. We cannot even deal with all the grace and blessings He has given us. It is coming autumn on the mountain now. No more danger of scab or insects. The sheep are at their most healthy and energetic now as the days start to cool. For a short time life is absolutely golden up there. But the winter storms can come early and sweep through the mountains without warning. It is time to go back down. The sheep may think that if they stay up there it will be summer forever, but it won't be. There is a change coming, and it's time to go home. There may be storms that sweep through as we come down the mountain, but Jesus knows. He is prepared. All we need is Him and His care. And when people see us go through our own storms with the calm and blessed assurance that we are loved and cared for by our Lord and Redeemer, then perhaps they will also turn their eyes to Him. SURELY MERCY AND GOODNESS WILL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE This has two different meanings. First, the sheep that is cared for knows that the Shepherds gentle and loving care will never cease. So again we hear a shadow of the boast that opened the Psalm, "The LORD is MY shepherd!" Do Christians really understand this? Do they really KNOW that the love and care of Christ will follow them all the days of their lives? Do they live that way, in serene confidence and joyous expectation? It's easy enough when things go well, but a lot harder when the storms sweep through. Christians need to really understand that SURELY goodness and mercy WILL follow them ALL the days of their lives. Jesus does not quit, even if we think we want to. He has not lost one yet. None of us is scheduled to be the first! He loves me. He gave His life for me. I am safe with Him. I can trust totally in Him. He will always care for me. Jesus loves being the Good Shepherd. That is the first meaning of this verse. But there is another that Keller points out. What kind of influence does a Christian leave behind him or her? Remember that sheep, if they graze too long in one area, can destroy the pasture land? But if they are rotated, they vastly improve the pasture land and properly maintained sheep pasture is some of the richest in the world. Sheep can benefit the land or hurt it. It all depends on the wisdom of the shepherd. Sheep manure is among the most beneficial for grasses and many plants. Sheep tend to do their business in this area on rises of land, where the rain ends up washing the nutrients downhill, thus fertilizing a large area. Sheep also eat many different kinds of plants, easily getting a weedy area under control in a short time. One ancient saying in the Middle East is that sheep are the animals with golden hooves -- and this is because with proper management they can enrich the land so greatly. When the Lord moves us from one area of life to another, what do we leave behind us, blessing or blight? When I leave, do people feel peace or confusion? After I am gone, do they think about forgiveness or bitterness? Do they know joy or frustration because of me? Have they known something of the love of Christ for them by my being there.... or not? The closer a Christian walks with Christ, the more he follows faithfully and in trust and confidence, then the more blessings that person will leave behind him no matter where he goes. People will turn their eyes to God because of his influence. The light will not have been hidden under a bushel. Jesus has satisfied us fully. Have we satisfied Him? AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER Home again from the mountain top. Back in the world, but not of it. Knowing where we belong, and with Whom. Forever. The sheep are stronger for the mountain trip, and fat enough for a cold winter. The babies will grow inside their mothers and be born strong and healthy in the spring, nourished by the mother's good nourishment from the tablelands. We will live face to face with the Lord forever. We are His and He is ours. The love is strong, deep, and eternal. It is the one real marriage 'made in heaven.' Do we live lives that allow us to boast the LORD, HE is MY Shepherd! ?