There’s a special variety of stress that comes over us as the year draws to a close. It’s not the good kind of stress that makes us perform better and think sharper. It’s that numbing, make-you-crazy kind of stress caused by excessive worry, hurry and too many choices and demands. Perhaps some loss, regret and conflict is also thrown into the mix. According to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression and substance use . Our daily newspapers report increasing numbers of murders committed out of blind rage, and every year the levels of aggression, anger and hostility seem to intensify. With our official unemployment rate of 27% (6.2 million people) and retrenchment figures rising by more than 5% in the last year, it is no wonder so many South Africans feel a sense of frustration, fear and powerlessness . If driving in the traffic is a reliable gauge of the mental state of our nation, things don’t look good! The hard truth is that stress damages our emotional, physical and mental health. But King David knew all about that kind of stress when he wrote Psalm 23 three thousand years ago. It was a prayer to settle his own fears by declaring the Lord as the Shepherd of his quivering heart. Let’s meditate on how each verse of this timeless Psalm counters a stressor we face today.
A Psalm of David
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Verse 1 is a powerful image of God as our great provider. David was himself a shepherd and likened his relationship with God to a shepherd and his sheep. God is my provider and will give me everything I need (Phil 4:19). I can trust Him completely (2 Cor 9:8). I am under His constant care and provision (Matt 6:34; Luke 12:24; Ps 34:10). He will supply all my needs (Phil 4:19). He will never abandon me (Heb 13:5). The only antidote to worry is to trust in One infinitely more powerful than myself, Jehovah-Jireh, my provider (Gen 22:14).
I love that God makes us lie down! It’s not an option. God commands us to rest so that we can be restored. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the top ten commandments for a reason. God has made us to work for six days and rest for one. It is a rhythm built into our human DNA which we defy at our peril. The Sabbath is God’s gift of love to meet our deepest needs, not an oppressive burden to make us miserable. Jesus also invites us to come to Him to find rest every day of our lives. When we feel frantic, we need to be still and ask ourselves two honest questions:
- Do I know that my fruitfulness in life depends on God’s labour rather than my own?
- Am I striving too much on my own and resting too little in Jesus?
It may be time to recalibrate our rhythm of work and rest.
My Great Counsellor
The modern world considers it progress that we have many more choices available to us. But more choices require more decisions, and that translates into more stress. What do we hold onto and what should we let go of? Which school, which job, which house, which investment, which vitamin is best? Most people have hundreds of decisions to make every day, but moral choices are the ones that have the most far reaching implications. Verse 3 reminds God’s children that we have a Shepherd who will lead us along the “right paths” if only we follow his guidance. The Bible is God’s voice and becomes useful when we apply it to our lives. But how long do we spend in God’s word to grasp its meaning and respond to its message? Do we first spend precious hours worrying about a choice before getting on our knees to ask God for wisdom for the way ahead? The “mighty counselor” knows each of us intimately and the future is not uncertain to Him. He promises to guide us “for his name’s sake” and we can be sure that God knows what is best for us.
Do you steamroll ahead with your agenda? Or do you commit to the Lord whatever you do, and trust that He will establish your plans? (Prov 16:3). Regular consultation with the Great Counsellor is the only way to be free from anxiety in a world full of problems and pressures.
Fear No Evil
Verse 4 reminds us that in the darkest valleys of loss, disappointment, hurt or injustice, we do not need to be ruled by fear. Our Shepherd God will never leave us alone. He will fight for us with his “rod” and pull us back into the safety of the sheep pen with his “staff”. Fear is a paralysing emotion which can convince us to give up and withdraw from life. Or it can cause a flight or fight reaction which wreaks havoc in our lives and relationships. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” is a deeply personal declaration of trust in God. Immersing ourselves in the Psalms is a God-ordained practice to build courage and faith when we are afraid (Ps 27:1; Ps 115:11; Ps 118:6). Declare these verses out loud (Isa 43:1; Isa 35:4; John 14:27; Josh 1:9) and allow the truth of God’s word to seep courage into your bones and banish fear from your heart.
David had many enemies who conspired against him, even his own friends and son. Nothing is worse than betrayal. David closes his Psalm by placing vengeance in God’s hands and focusing on the bigger picture and his place in eternity. God sometimes intervenes miraculously and saves us from harm (2 Sam 22:3) and it is right to pray for protection (Ps 140:4). But in God’s infinite wisdom and sovereignty, He sometimes defends us in other ways: He gives us his peace and joy that defies our circumstances. In another Psalm, David says, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy” (Ps 94:19). He protects us from Satan (2 Thess 3:3). He stands with us and will not leave us (Deut 31:6). He upholds and strengthens us through our ordeals (Isa 41:10). He gives us refuge under his wings until the disaster passes (Ps 57:1). Two things are certain—
- No one can snatch us out of our Father’s hand (John 10:28; 29; 30).
- Nothing in all the world can separate us from our Father’s love (Rom 8:38-39).
A Song for the Surrendered
This Psalm reminds us that although we cannot avoid the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to be driven by fear and anxiety as we walk through it. Jesus did that for us as he died on the cross and bore the sin and evil of the world. For three hours darkness covered the whole land (Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44; Matt 27:45) as Jesus walked alone through the valley of the shadow of death, forsaken by his Father, abandoned by his friends, rejected by those who should have recognised him and hated by his enemies.
There may be times that people will oppose or hate us, but we do not need to defend or justify ourselves. Jesus did not even open his mouth to defend himself in the great miscarriage of justice that sentenced him to be crucified. Instead, he entrusted himself to his Father who judges rightly (1 Peter 2:23). Our Shepherd will defend us and His approval is the only approval we should seek. He is the one who prepares our place at the great banquet of heaven. He anoints us with the oil of gospel blessings because of our status “in Christ”. Our cup overflows with his generous gift of forgiveness and grace, because Jesus drank the cup of God’s judgment and wrath for us on the cross.
As you end today’s devotion, pray Psalm 23 aloud to God and personalise each verse. Surrender each one of your stressors today to the Shepherd of your soul, Jesus Christ. Let Him lead you beside quiet waters and refresh your soul.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thess 5:23-24).
In Jesus’ name,
Worship as you listen to Chris Tomlin’s Whom shall I fear? (click on this link)