Sunday School Lesson

April 2

Lesson 5

Shepherding Love

Devotional Reading: John 10:11-18

Background Scripture: Psalm 23

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Key Verse

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.—Psalm 23:1

Lesson Aims

After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:

1. Identify the shepherd and host metaphors.

2. Explain how the psalm’s imagery brings comfort, goodness, and mercy to those who trust in the Lord.

3. Tell of a difficult life event when trust in the Lord as shepherd was essential for a God-honoring outcome.

Lesson Outline

Introduction

A. An American Secular Icon—Psalm 23

B. Lesson Background

I. Shepherd Metaphor (Psalm 23:1-4)

A. Identifications (v. 1)

B. Actions (vv. 2, 3)

New Green Pastures

C. Confidence (v. 4)

II. Host Metaphor (Psalm 23:5, 6)

A. Vindication (v. 5a)

A Table Prepared

B. Reward (vv. 5b, 5c)

C. Deliverance (v. 6)

Conclusion

A. Not an Icon, but a Test

B. Prayer

C. Thought To Remember

Introduction

 

A. An American Secular Icon—Psalm 23

William L. Holladay states that Psalm 23 became an American secular icon in the two decades after the American Civil War (1861-1865). Movement toward this status was sparked by Henry Ward Beecher’s tribute to the psalm in the years just prior.

The tragic loss of life in that war plus the economic panics of 1873 and 1893 bolstered the popularity of Psalm 23. The general public gravitated toward the lines “the shadow of death” and “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” for comfort. The psalm’s position as secular icon was finalized when funeral homes began to print it on the back of obituary handouts.

B. Lesson Background

Shepherding was a common occupation in ancient Israel through the centuries (Genesis 12:16; 26:14; 29:9; 30:31, 32; Jeremiah 33:12; Luke 2:8; etc.). It should not surprise us, then, that the Bible has scores of references to sheep and shepherds. Sheep were completely dependent on shepherds, making the job of shepherding what we would call 24/7 (note Luke 2:8, which has shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night”).

Since all this was so familiar to the ancient Israelites, the words shepherd and sheep became metaphors. Moses and David, two of Israel’s greatest leaders, had been shepherds in the normal sense (Exodus 3:1; 1 Samuel 16:11) before they became figurative shepherds of God’s people (compare Psalm 77:20; Isaiah 63:11; Ezekiel 34:23; etc.). The Old Testament describes God himself with the metaphor of shepherd (Psalm 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11). In the New Testament, it is Jesus who is “that great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20; compare John 10:1-16; 1 Peter 5:4).

The psalms are traditionally seen as five books, and Psalm 23 is in Book I. This psalm is part of an early collection of Davidic psalms, namely Psalms 3-41. A later Davidic collection, namely Psalms 51-65 and 68-70, is found in Book II. Our approach to Psalm 23 is in terms of two metaphors: shepherd (vv. 1-4) and host (vv. 5, 6).

I. Shepherd Metaphor

                                                                   (Psalm 23:1-4)

This psalm’s superscription attributes it to David. Those who have an electronic version of the Bible will note that such superscriptions are designated as “verse 0” of the particular psalm in view.

A. Identifications (v. 1)

1a. The Lord is my shepherd.

The profound nature of the opening statement comes to the fore when we remember that David himself had been a shepherd in his boyhood days (see 1 Samuel 17:34-36) and now he is the shepherd of the people of God (2 Samuel 5:1-5; 7:4-8; compare Psalm 79:13). In proclaiming the Lord is my shepherd, the twice-shepherd king of Israel therefore acknowledges that he himself has a shepherd.

That shepherd is none other than God. “He is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:7; Hebrews 4:7 attributes this psalm to David). The king himself admits his own need for the divine shepherd. It is natural for the people of Israel to look to David as their chief earthly shepherd. David’s identification of a shepherd higher yet should keep them from idolizing the king.

What Do You Think?

How do we resist idolizing those who would claim to guide (shepherd) us today?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Recognizing the danger before it happens

Correcting the problem after it happens

Other

1b. I shall not want.

David’s next statement is a roundabout way of identifying himself as one of God’s sheep. David’s shepherding background reminds him that sheep want for nothing only when their shepherd provides for all their needs. He knows that the God of his ancestors supplied all their needs (Deuteronomy 2:7; etc.), and He will continue to do so.

How to Say It

Crimean Kry-mee-un.

Davidic Duh-vid-ick.

Yahweh (Hebrew) Yah-weh.

 

B. Actions (vv. 2, 3)

2a. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

The phrase green pastures may bring up mental images of lush, rolling meadows that extend as far as the eye can see. But in reality the land in ancient and modern Israel often bears little resemblance to such an ideal. It is a semiarid climate that experiences little or no rainfall for five months each year. Shepherds lead nomadic lives as they move frequently from place to place in search of suitable grazing for the sheep (compare Genesis 37:12-17; 47:4).

So shepherds often have to settle for the scarce grass that is found on “little hills” and in “pastures of the wilderness” (Psalm 65:12; Joel 1:19, 20; 2:22; compare Job 39:8). The shepherd has to be skillful in finding adequate grazing in such places and be ready to move on when the likelihood of overgrazing presents itself (compare Genesis 13:5-9). But that’s the point! God is able to provide sources of food that are more than adequate for the psalmist’s needs.

The Old Testament sometimes describes God’s ideal for the future in terms of abundant pastureland (Isaiah 49:9; Jeremiah 33:12; etc.; contrast Isaiah 13:20; Jeremiah 25:36; etc.). That abundance is accompanied by the blessing of allowed rest, the sense of maketh me to lie down (compare Isaiah 65:10; Ezekiel 34:14, 15).

New Green Pastures

My husband’s position was eliminated when the college where he taught downsized. To say we were devastated would be an understatement. We struggled with the stress of uncertainty. Realizing that a move was likely, we thought about the friends we would leave behind and the disruption to our children’s lives. We pondered the unknown, about moving to a place where we knew no one.

We did it, though. Another teaching job became available at a Christian college halfway across the country, and we moved. We felt sure that God had opened that door for us, and so we followed Him. Leaving loved ones took courage, and we mourned the loss of their constant company. But we believed that God would provide for us in our new area of ministry, our new pasture.

Two years later, I can say that stepping out in faith changed our family for the better. We love our new jobs and have much more family time than before. We have new friends we love, and we have been able to keep up with our old ones as well. Following God as sheep follow the shepherd can bring us to places where we can heal from hard times and experience God’s presence anew.—L. M. W.

What Do You Think?

How can we improve at recognizing when God is leading us toward “green pastures”? What can happen if we don’t?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding job relocations

Regarding spiritual nourishment

Regarding ministry service

Other

2b. He leadeth me beside the still waters.

The importance of still waters is seen when we consider that the alternative of flowing streams introduces the elements of unreliability and danger in Palestine. A shepherd who seeks a flowing stream that was usable previously may find only a dry streambed on arrival (compare 1 Kings 17:7; Job 6:15-17; Jeremiah 15:18). At the opposite extreme, rainfall in the mountains or hills may turn dry streambeds or gently flowing water into deadly flash floods. Even today, tourists are warned about hiking through dry streambeds because of the possibility of being swept away should such a flood come (and tourist hikers have indeed drowned).

This distinction between nonflowing and flowing water should not be overemphasized, however, since positive images of the latter are to be found in many passages (examples: Deuteronomy 8:7; Psalm 1:3; 126:4). Such images sometimes occur in parallel with those of nonflowing water (Isaiah 41:18; etc.). Of greater importance is recognizing that the he leadeth me phrase of the half-verse before us stands parallel with “he maketh me” in verse 2a. Thus the image of rest is continued. The place of abundant food and water is not a place where one hastily washes down a doughnut with a cup of coffee before rushing to the next appointment. It is, rather, a place of repose and respite.

What a picture! Surely the Lord takes care of “his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11)!

3a. He restoreth my soul.

A consideration of the word soul is in order for understanding what the psalmist says is restored. The Hebrew word behind our English translation soul occurs about 500 times in the original, and it signifies different things depending on context. It can refer to the “life” of a person (Genesis 32:30; 44:30); the “life” of an animal (Leviticus 17:14); the “mind” (Genesis 23:8); “lust” (Exodus 15:9); “me” (Numbers 23:10); etc.

The word soul is therefore quite flexible! With all these potential choices of meaning, it can be difficult to know where to start. When we’re stumped in such an instance, a safe approach is to begin by ruling things out; that is, start by determining what it cannot mean in the context at hand.

In that regard, we can be certain that the word soul as used here does not refer only to the spiritual side of the psalmist’s being, with the physical side left out. The context of the psalm addresses the entirety of the psalmist as the object of the loving shepherd’s restoring care. Many psalms plead for God’s restoring favor (compare Psalm 6:4; 25:16; 31:2; 69:16; 71:2; 86:16; 88:2; 102:2; 119:132). This one, however, views that favor as an accomplished fact.

3b. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Sheep by nature tend to act as a group rather than independently. This means that a herd of sheep will tend to follow a leader. But which leader? In 2005, nearly 1,500 sheep jumped off a cliff (with 450 dying) when they blindly followed the foolish path of a dominant member of the flock. All this happened while the Turkish shepherds, their usual leaders, were away at breakfast.

Traveling correct paths requires proper leadership. Different Hebrew words stand behind the two translations leadeth in verses 2b and 3b, but the psalmist intends them to mirror each other. We see this in Psalm 31:3 as well (also by David), where the same two Hebrew words are translated “lead” and “guide.” Perhaps the wording of Exodus 15:13 is David’s model.

Regarding the nature of the paths of righteousness wherein the psalmist is led, compare Proverbs 8:20; 12:28; 16:31; Matthew 21:32; and 2 Peter 2:21. The phrase for his name’s sake confirms the moral tone of the paths in view. Sometimes God takes action (or does not take action) specifically to protect the honor of His name. What David acknowledges in the verse before us he also acknowledges and/or requests outright in 2 Samuel 7:23-26; Psalm 25:11; 31:3; 109:21. Jesus, the good shepherd, always desires to lead us down the right path. But that becomes reality only as we choose to “hear his voice” (John 10:3).

C. Confidence (v. 4)

4a. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

The valley of the shadow of death is often thought to refer to situations where physical death is very possible or even likely. Although shadow of death can refer to danger that threatens one’s physical life (compare Job 10:21, 22; Psalm 107:10-16), it also can be understood in a figurative sense (see Job 16:16; 34:22; Isaiah 9:2; Luke 1:79). Bible students who are confused by this ambiguity are not alone! Jesus’ disciples often misunderstood His use of figurative language (Matthew 16:5-12; John 11:11-14; 16:25-29; etc.).

Metaphors function as figurative, symbolic language by stating or implying comparisons. In the context at hand, the psalmist compares himself with a sheep who is under the care of an expert shepherd. The valley of the shadow of death compares his life journey with the nature of terrain that actual sheep must enter to find sustenance. Whatever dangers lurk in these places, the expert shepherd knows how to avoid or neutralize them.

At first, we may think that the presence of the word evil tips the scale toward understanding the valley as standing for the spiritual dangers of living in a sinful world. Though the Hebrew word is translated in a number of ways (examples: hurt, harm, wickedness, etc.), this word evil is best understood by its context. It can refer to physical harm or difficulties in some cases (examples: Genesis 26:29; 47:9; Exodus 32:14) while referring to issues of sin elsewhere (examples: Genesis 13:13; 39:9; Numbers 32:13).

Visual for Lessons 5 & 9. Use these lyrics as a road map: draw attention to thoughts that reflect various points in the text as they are encountered.

Ultimately, it is the phrase “the paths of righteousness” in verse 3b that leads us to think that the psalmist is using the valley to symbolize spiritual danger. Even so, the possibility of physical danger’s inclusion in the reference cannot be dismissed (compare Jeremiah 2:6). We are at least aware that the phrase the valley of the shadow of death has a more than one possible meaning.

4b. For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The word for marks the twenty-sixth Hebrew word of this fifty-word psalm. David does something interesting just after crossing this midpoint: he switches from addressing God with third person “he” to second person thou. This change serves to heighten the closeness David has or wants with God: thou art with me.

The rod that comforts the psalmist is the shepherd’s weapon to protect the flock (compare Job 21:9; Isaiah 10:5; etc.). The crook of a staff is used to rescue sheep that have wandered into relatively inaccessible places.

What Do You Think?

In what ways can we be God’s instruments of comfort to those in a dark valley of life?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding physical issues (sickness, etc.)

Regarding mental issues (depression, etc.)

Regarding spiritual issues (doubt, etc.)

Regarding relationship issues (marriage, etc.)

II. Host Metaphor

                                                                  (Psalm 23:5, 6)

Some students believe that the shepherd metaphor extends throughout Psalm 23. But the content of verses 5, 6 favors a shift to a host metaphor; it mirrors the shepherd metaphor but is more condensed.

A. Vindication (v. 5a)

5a. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

Tables of food are prepared by those who host banquets, feasts, or other meals for visitors. To do so is part of one’s obligation to extend hospitality in various contexts of the ancient world (Genesis 19:1-3; Judges 19:15-21; etc.). The meal is often an elaborate meal, with nothing but the best from the host (compare Genesis 18:3-8; 19:3; 24:31-33, 54; Proverbs 9:1, 2; Luke 15:23, 27, 30).

God is presented in the Old Testament as a gracious host to ungrateful people as they journeyed toward the promised land (Psalm 78:19). But David does not have such an attitude! He is secure enough in the divine shepherd to dine even while enemies are present. In writing another psalm, David prays against his enemies that “their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap” (Psalm 69:22). The provision of food mirrors that in Psalm 23:2a, above.

A Table Prepared

The Tatar people had lived in the Crimean Peninsula for generations before Stalin came to power. After World War II, he decided that they had collaborated with the Germans. To repay their supposed treason and to remove any ability for them to self-organize, his forces rounded up people at gunpoint and relocated them to central Asia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, survivors moved back to Crimea and began to build villages.

One summer, I walked down their dusty streets. I noticed many times that entire families lived in one-room cinder-block buildings or even large tents. Women cooked and did laundry outside, exposed to the elements. Despite their circumstances, they almost always invited me to sit down for tea or coffee. Often they served me homemade cherry preserves and desserts. Think about it: people who had nothing, who had experienced trauma and despair, offering us such expensive hospitality! Like the host in Psalm 23, they prepared a table for us and treated us well.

God used the example of these hosts to teach me a lifelong lesson. What do you suppose that lesson was?—L. M. W.

B. Reward (vv. 5b, 5c)

5b. Thou anointest my head with oil.

The host honors the guest by anointing his head with oil (compare Psalm 45:7; 92:10). Given the fragrances that were available to add to olive oil (see Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17), such anointing is a soothing and refreshing experience for a weary traveler. This anointing was not done for Jesus when Simon the Pharisee hosted Him for dinner, an intentional oversight noted by Jesus (Luke 7:46).

David (the psalmist) possibly intends a double meaning: he may be recognizing his physical anointing to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:3, 12, 13; compare 2 Samuel 5:3) while acknowledging God’s continual anointing in spirit.

5c. My cup runneth over.

Presumably the host has given the guest a large cup of wine (compare Jeremiah 35:1-5), and the guest is well satisfied as a result. The Hebrew word translated runneth over occurs elsewhere only in Psalm 66:12, there translated “wealthy place” in a context of being rescued by God. The host has given the guest more than enough to satisfy his thirst. This cup of satisfaction is equivalent to the waters of Psalm 23:2b, above.

C. Deliverance (v. 6)

6a. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Surely there is no doubt about the very characteristics of God that are goodness and mercy! Instead of worrying about any enemies who may be in temporary pursuit, the psalmist focuses on the goodness and mercy that follow him permanently. These two are equivalent to the rod and staff of verse 4b, above. God is the divine host who will always be there for His guest.

In numerous other places, the Hebrew verb translated shall follow is rendered in terms of pursuit or chasing after (examples: Genesis 14:15; Deuteronomy 11:4; 1 Kings 20:20). David knows what it’s like to be both the pursuer (Psalm 18:37) and the pursued (1 Samuel 23:7-29). What a relief and blessing it is to be pursued by God’s goodness and mercy! This is mirrored by the “paths of righteousness” of Psalm 23:3b, above.

What Do You Think?

When was an occasion that God’s goodness followed (even pursued) you, but you didn’t recognize it at the time? How did you grow spiritually from the experience?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

In your preteen years

In your teenage years

During various stages of adulthood

6b. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The shepherd and host metaphors mirror each other yet again in that the verb behind the translation dwell is from the same root as the one translated “restoreth” in Psalm 23:3a. The verb at issue is extremely common in the Old Testament; it is quite often used in the sense of returning (examples: Psalms 6:10; 18:37). But commonly used words are particularly subject to taking different meanings, depending on context (see discussion on soul, above). The old Greek version of the Old Testament affirms dwell to be a proper translation. Even without that version, we recognize that return better fits a context of a journey home, while dwell suggests a final destination.

As David expresses his conviction about where he will dwell, we wonder if he is referring to an earthly location or a heavenly one. The house of the Lord is the same as the temple (note interchangeable terminology in Ezra 3:8-12), although that structure does not exist in David’s lifetime. After it is built, people of that era view God as dwelling both in it and in Heaven (1 Kings 8:13, 27; Psalm 27:4; etc.). Therefore to try to determine with certainty which is meant here is probably to miss the main point: the psalmist desires to be in the presence of God, wherever that may be, for ever.

What Do You Think?

What specific things can we do to prepare better to dwell with the Lord forever?

Talking Points for Your Discussion

Regarding the imperative of holiness (1 Peter 1:15, 16; etc.)

Regarding the imperative to love (John 13:34; etc.)

Conclusion

 

A. Not an Icon, but a Test

The metaphors of shepherd and host remind us that God is our trustworthy provider. For all physical and spiritual needs, He is the source.

The ultimate question, then, does not concern God’s trustworthiness, but ours. Do we yield to His shepherding leadership, or do we rebel? Do we accept His provisions with a sense of accountability, or with a sense of entitlement? Do we walk only in His paths of righteousness, or do we take little “side trips” occasionally? Think carefully—living eternally in His presence is at stake!

B. Prayer

Heavenly Father, refresh our lives with Your Spirit as we gladly walk in the paths of righteousness You establish. Let us realize that those paths lead us to enter Your presence and dwell with You forever. We pray this in the name of the good shepherd, Jesus. Amen.

C. Thought To Remember

The shepherd is trustworthy, but are the sheep?


April 9

Lesson 6

Saving Love

Devotional Reading: Titus 3:1-7

Background Scripture: John 3:1-21

John 3:1-16

1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Key Verse

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.—John 3:16

Lesson Aims

After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:

1. Recite John 3:16 from memory.

2. Explain why Nicodemus had difficulty comprehending what Jesus said.

3. Write a prayer of commitment to love the world in the sense of John 3:16 while avoiding love for the world in the sense of 1 John 2:15.

Lesson Outline

Introduction

A. A Mystery and a Love Story

B. Lesson Background

I. Nicodemus Meets Jesus (John 3:1-3)

A. Encounter at Night (vv. 1, 2)

Nighttime Adventures

B. Truth About Rebirth (v. 3)

II. Nicodemus Engages Jesus (John 3:4-8)

A. Birth, Age, Womb (v. 4)

B. Water, Wind, Spirit (vv. 5-8)

The Uncontrollable Wind

III. Jesus Critiques Nicodemus (John 3:9-16)

A. Contrast (vv. 9-13)

B. Comparison (vv. 14, 15)

C. Compassion (v. 16)

Conclusion

A. The Mystery of God’s Love

B. Prayer

C. Thought to Remember


Standard Lesson Commentary 2016-2017 (KJV): StandardLessonCmy2016KJV.

"Suggestions for families are taken from Standardlesson.com,

Standard Publishing Group, LLC. Used with permission. More resources for families are available at Standardpub.com.


God Bless