The 23rd Psalm is a classic passage of Scripture, perhaps the favorite passage of many people. I would daresay that several of us here this morning, and many people we know who are not here this morning, have a sense of emptiness. Emptiness is a disease of our society. We have focused on money, material possessions, physical health, and interpersonal relationships. As we go through our routines day after day, week after week, year after year, many people in our society are asking the question, “Is this all there is? Is there anything MORE to life?” Boris Becker, the famous tennis player, came close to taking his own life because he was overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness, hopelessness and loneliness. He shares the following words: “I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed: money, cars, women, everything. I know that this is a cliché. It’s the old song of the movie and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything they need and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.” In the 23rd Psalm, David is faced with several challenges, and his shepherd is the only one on whom he can count. We are in the same situation. At the end of the day, all we have is just Jesus, nothing else. He is the only One who will not fail us or let us down – everyone and everything else will at some point fail us. The exciting truth is that this Jesus is really all we need. We see that truth illustrated in three ways. Although the entire chapter speaks to us, I want to focus on verse 5.
First, all we need is Jesus – He meets our needs completely. Verse 5 says, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. The pattern of the psalm changes with this verse. The setting of a field switches to a setting of a feast. A trail switches to a table. As I understand it, one of the most important jobs a shepherd has is to go find a mesa, a field of green grass where the sheep can feed and be nourished. Shepherds would call this area “good tableland,” because this was a place where the sheep could continue to eat in peace. Sheep will not eat when they are fearful. So for that reason, the shepherd had to drive out all of the enemies that might be in and around the field. The shepherd would eliminate physical hazards like poisonous plants that could kill the sheep, or stakes and sharp stumps that could wound the sheep. He would drive away wild dogs and wolves that could attack the sheep. He made sure there was nothing in the field that could harm them. In many parts of the Middle East there were tiny little adders, poisonous snakes that lived just beneath the surface of the ground. Often they would jump from the ground and nip the sheep on their noses. The bite from those snakes wouldn’t necessarily kill the sheep, but it could cause an inflammation that would eventually result in the sheep dying unless something was done. Aware of the presence of these snakes, the shepherd would go up and down the field, looking for small little snake holes. At the top of each one he would pour a light circle of oil around each. Then when the vipers would sense the sheep were near, they would try to spring from their hole but couldn’t. Their bodies couldn’t get past the slippery oil, so they would just glide back down into their burrows. The shepherd had to make sure that the sheep would be totally without fear, so they could eat, and so that they could lie down and digest their food. In the words of our passage then, it was the shepherd’s job to “prepare the table” for the sheep. Even though the sheep realized that wolves, dogs, bears and snakes were common in the field, they could eat in peace because the shepherd had cleared the way for them. It is easy for us to eat when we are surrounded by family and friends. It’s another thing to try to eat when we are surrounded by people who do not like us and may seek to harm us. If we realize the shepherd is watching over us however, then we can relax and enjoy the things before us, regardless of our circumstances. Friends, peace for us as Christians is not the absence of problems. Peace for us as Christians is an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of our problems. As I understand the customs among the Cherokee Indians, the tribe had a ritual for a young man as he moved into adulthood. The members of the tribe would take a young man into the middle of the woods on a dark night, then leave him there all by himself. He was given no weapons and no way to defend himself. The last person to speak to him would be his father, who would say, “No matter what happens, you have nothing to fear.” During the night, the young man would hear every owl hoot, every branch rustled by the breeze, every falling pine cone, and every animal scurrying through the woods. He had little trouble thinking that every shadow was a big, black bear looking for its next meal. Usually the young man would spend the night in sheer terror until the sun would finally rise. When the sun would rise, he would first strain his eyes and get accustomed to the brightening light. Then he would look at his surroundings more clearly. One of the first things he saw was his father who had never left him, but had stood watch all night with weapons in hand, ready to defend him. The main reason why we can rest and enjoy our lives, even in the midst of many dangers, is that our shepherd never leaves us. He not only meets our needs, he meets our needs completely. Sheep will die without a shepherd. No matter how much grass may be before them, how much water may be available to them, without a shepherd they will eventually get lost, sick, poisoned, attacked or killed. When the shepherd is with them however, their needs are met completely. This morning, are you certain that the Shepherd is with you? You can be.
Second, all we need is Jesus, for He meets our needs precisely. Our passage says, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil;… The shepherd used oil for two reasons – as a repellent and as a medicine. The worst enemy of sheep, as I understand sheep, is not wolves, bears, snakes or wild animals. It’s not even the danger of getting lost, eating poisonous grass or drinking bad water. The worst danger to sheep is a “nosefly.” A nosefly, as the name implies, flies up the nose of the sheep and lay eggs. The larva from the eggs will begin to drive the sheep crazy. The sheep can’t shake the flies by their hooves or by their tail, but they become desperate to get rid of them. Sometimes a sheep will be seen banging its head against a rock because it is going crazy from the larva. It will run, he will bleat, but nothing it does works. If the sheep gets no relief, he will become so bothered by the larva that he will stop eating. He will stop growing, and eventually will die. In order to protect against noseflies, the shepherd anoints the head of the sheep with a mixture of olive oil and sulfur. The oil kills the larva and the eggs that are inside the nose of the sheep. It acts as a repellent to prevent any other flies from bothering the sheep. The oil is also a salve or an ointment. When a sheep gets an open wound, dirt and debris make their way into it. If the wound isn’t cleansed, it will fester and the infection will get into bloodstream of the sheep. The shepherd uses the oil to clean dirt from the wound so that the wound can heal. So when sheep are bothered by nose flies, or when they are covered with sores, they don’t need a fly swatter, they don’t need aspirin, they don’t even need a kind word. When they are bothered by flies or by sores, they need oil. They need precisely the thing that helps them in their situation. The Holy Spirit is our oil. When we are wounded, the Holy Spirit heals us. When we are hurting, the Holy Spirit comforts us. When we are irritated or bothered by the little things in life, the Holy Spirit refreshes us soothes our hearts and minds. It is important to see in this verse that David speaks in the singular – “He anoints my head with oil.” It is a personal thing, it is a one-on-one activity between each one of us and God. At the end of the day, one of the last things a shepherd does is to examine every sheep one by one. He wants to make sure each sheep has no flies, no sores, no problems. The shepherd loves the flock, but he also loves each sheep. God cares for us in exactly the same way. He loves the whole world, but he also loves you. With God we never, ever get lost in the crowd. We never get lost in the flock. Jesus is watching over us, as our great shepherd, to meet our needs whenever they arise. All we need is Jesus, for he meets our needs precisely.
Then all we need is Jesus, for he meets our needs abundantly. Verse 5 again says, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. In the Bible an overflowing cup is a symbol of satisfaction. When a cup is overflowing, it means the person holding the cup has everything he needs. In the Middle East as most of us know, the terrain is mostly desert. There was a custom that pertained to the filling of a cup. If a person went to someone’s house, even as a total stranger, the first thing the host would do would be to offer a cup of water or wine. The guest would drink the cup, and the host would refill it. As long as the host kept refilling the cup, the guest was welcome to stay. If however, after several refills the host left the cup empty, that meant it was time to go. Now if the host decided he really liked his guest, and wanted him to stay a long time or even as long as he wanted, he would fill the person’s cup to overflowing. God is telling us here that he wants us to stay with him forever – He has filled our cup to overflowing. A shepherd, when his flock needed water and there were no streams, would lead his flock to a well. Some wells were very deep, as much as 100 feet down to the water, so the shepherd would use a long rope with a leather bucket at the end. He would lower the bucket, then raise it by hand. Since the bucket held less than a gallon of water, he would pour the water into large stone cups beside the well. Now the shepherd would always make sure that the cups were filled to overflowing because sheep do not like to get wet. Sheep are afraid of water. When the cups were filled to overflowing, the sheep could drink with ease, having all they wanted and being completely satisfied. Just as the shepherd blesses his sheep, so God blesses his children. A little girl was praying on one occasion and she said, “Lord, fill my cup. I can’t hold very much, but I can run over a whole lot!” We all want to run over in the blessings we receive. If we think about it, we do run over in our blessings. 40% of the world’s population has no electrical service. 60% do not have telephone service. Half of the people who do have telephone service live more than two hours from the nearest phone. One-third of the people on the planet have never made a phone call. If we think about our situation for just a few moments, and compare our own situation to the rest of the world, we would say, “My cup overflows.” God blesses us to overflowing with forgiveness, with strength, with wisdom, with peace, with joy. When God gives, he gives abundantly. Scholars say that when Jesus turned water into wine he gave the people 120 gallons, enough for ten weddings. When he fed the 5,000, there were 12 baskets of leftovers. What is our first tendency today when our cup overflows? We want a bigger cup! Friends, we don’t need a bigger cup, we need to share the overflow with the people around us, many of whom don’t know Jesus. I read this last week of a pastor who had the opportunity to lead music for a leper colony on the island of Tobago. There was a time in the service when he asked for requests from the congregation. A woman who had been facing away from the pulpit turned towards him and raised a hand that had no fingers. Her nose was entirely gone. Her ears were basically missing, due to the severity of the leprosy. Most of her lips had eroded. The rest of her body was covered with sores from the dreaded disease. The minister was hardly able to look at her, but he managed to ask, “What would you like us to sing?” She responded, “Count your many blessings.” The pastor was so overcome with emotion he had to leave the platform before the service had concluded. One of his church members followed him out the door and said, “I guess you’ll never be able to sing that song again.” The pastor said, “Yes, I can sing it again, but I will never sing it the same.”