Thursday, December 15, 2011

The gateway to Psalm 23

There are many wonderful things in The Lord our Shepherd: an exposition of Psalm 23 by Free Church of Scotland minister J. Douglas MacMillan (1933 - 1991). The book is taken from a series of talks MacMillan gave in 1979, which gives it a warm conversational tone. According to those who sat under his ministry MacMillan was a giant in the pulpit. Before becoming a minister of the gospel he tended sheep in the hills of Scotland. Yes. He was a shepherd. Throughout the talks are stories from MacMillan's personal experience, and insights that those with no experience of sheep or shepherding would never see. I'll share some of those in later posts.

MacMillan begins by drawing out the shepherd theme from the Old Testament and then identifying the Shepherd of Psalm 23. Of course, to David, the Shepherd is Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel. Moving to the New Testament we see Jesus identifying himself as "the Good Shepherd" (John 10), which to a Jewish listener meant nothing less than calling himself God. They knew very well that the only Good Shepherd was the one revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Shepherd of Israel. No wonder then that this affirmation is quickly followed by charges of blasphemy!

Later, the apostles call the risen Christ "the Great Shepherd" (Heb. 13:20) and "the Chief Shepherd" (1 Peter 5:4). In these NT uses of the shepherd theme the shepherd is linked to the atoning work of Jesus on the cross and the promise of his second coming in judgment.

By training the light of the New Testament on this most familiar of Psalms (so familiar that we miss its full import?) the author is able to draw out some amazing connections. Here is one.

What is the setting of Psalm 23? What do I mean by that? Well, where in your Bible do you find Psalm 23? You say, ‘Well, preacher, that's very easy. Psalm 23 comes after Psalm 22.’ That is absolutely right. But now I want to ask you another question: What is Psalm 22? Well, listen to it! Listen to its opening words: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Where are we when we enter into Psalm 22? We are at a place called Calvary. Go through this psalm, and you are closer to Calvary than any of the Gospels can take you, because you are not merely looking at the One who is offering His life, but you are in His mind and you are in His heart. You are sharing and seeing His suffering, in a way that the history of the Gospels cannot allow you to see and share His suffering. You are listening to His heartbeat as He says, ‘They laugh me to scorn . . . saying, He trusted in the Lord . . . let him deliver him . . . strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round [Bashan was famous for its breeding bulls—strong terrifying animals] . . . I am poured out like water . . . they pierced my hands and feet.’

Where are we? We are at a place called Calvary, and we are seeing the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep. We are seeing what it cost for Jesus to suffer and to offer. We are seeing what it cost this Shepherd (if I can put it like that) to get into Psalm 23. There was only one gateway for the Son of God to become the Shepherd of the sheep, and that was by the gateway of Psalm 22 and His suffering on the cross. . . . Much more so, my friend, before you and I can get into Psalm 23, we have to go by the pathway of Psalm 22 as well.

Quote from The Lord our Shepherd (p. 19)

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