Most of you have had the opportunity to meet our grandson Eric who lives in Tennessee. He’s in the 6th grade this year and is doing well, but when he started kindergarten, there was a little bit of concern on our part about how he would do in school, because intellectually, he is well-advanced, but socially not so much. Before school started, our daughter Charity encouraged Eric with stories about how he would make lots of friends and he was very quick to let her know that he didn’t want lots of friends – he only wanted “just a couple”.
Well, after school got started, Charity was very happy to hear Eric report every evening about the other children he was meeting in his class. But after about a week at school, Eric came home and he said, “I made some more friends today — Riley and Quentin. That’s six friends now. Way more than I wanted.”
I have to admit that that’s how I often feel about the way that God has blessed me throughout my life. There are times when I ask God for things, but what I find myself saying over and over as I look at all the blessings in my life is, “That’s way more than I wanted.”
Which is exactly how the scriptures describe God. In Ephesians 3, Paul offered a prayer “to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20). Whenever God blesses us, it’s always “way more than we wanted”.
In fact, there’s a name found in Genesis chapter 22 that describes God well. The name of the place is Jehovah-Jireh, or more accurately, Yahweh-Yireh, which means “The Lord will provide”.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the story in Genesis 22 where God called Abraham to take his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved, and offer him as a sacrifice in the mountains of Moriah. We’re not told what Abraham was thinking as he prepared for that journey. But he got the supplies together, cut the wood, saddled the donkeys and he, Isaac and two servants headed out. Abraham was silent before God, but his mind must have been churning with all sorts of questions…
- “I waited for so many years for this son to be born. Will Sarah and I ever have another son?
- “What’s going to happen to all those promises that God gave me? How can he possibly keep all those promises if Isaac is dead?”
- “How will I ever be able to look Sarah in the face again?
How can I possibly return home with the
stains of Isaac’s blood on my clothes?”
But despite all of his concerns, Abraham was steadfast in his faith and in his determination to obey God.
When they finally arrived at Moriah, the servants were left behind and the silence was finally broken by Isaac’s question — “Father, I think we’ve forgotten something – where is the lamb?” And Abraham’s answer showed the extent of his faith. He said to Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8)
The word that is translated “provide” here is actually the Hebrew word ra’ah which means “to see”. It’s the same word used back in verse 4 where Abraham “lifted his eyes and saw” the mountain as they approached it. It’s the same word used in verse 13 where Abraham “lifted his eyes” and saw the ram caught in the thicket.
And so what Abraham was literally saying was that God will see the lamb. And what he meant by that is that God will see what we need and he will provide it for us. Because, after all, God is God, and so he sees everything, he knows everything and because he sees it, he will provide it for us. And that’s exactly what God did.
You know how the story ends. Abraham built an altar, he laid his son Isaac on the altar, and then took his knife in his hand to sacrifice him. But, at the last moment, an angel of the LORD called out to him and stopped him. When Abraham looked up, he saw “a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:13).
And then, in verse 14, “Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide” (Yahweh-Yireh); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
And what God did for Abraham, he continues to do for his people. He provides for us. And God is the perfect provider because he knows exactly what we need, where we need it and when we need it. He always provides the right thing at the right place and at the very right time. Yahweh-Yireh, the Lord will provide.
Yireh is a form of the Hebrew word ra’ah. And remember that that word means “to see”. We have a God who sees what we need. And in fact, yesterday, God saw what we need today.
Have you ever thought about where that ram came from? Did it just pop up out of thin air? And I suppose that’s possible, but I don’t think that’s what happened. I think it’s more likely that a few days before Abraham arrived at that spot, a shepherd lost a ram. Not just any ram, not a wild ram that was unkempt and scraggly, but a perfect ram – one that met every single qualification for sacrifice to a holy God. God knew that Abraham was going to need a sacrifice at that particular moment and in that particular place and he provided that ram. God started to provide even before the need became apparent to Abraham.
What a beautiful thought that God often provides before we even realize there is a need. We don’t have any record of any prayers being offered by Abraham while he was on the way to the mountains of Moriah. It’s certainly possible that Abraham did pray, or maybe he just didn’t know what to pray for and so he said nothing. But just because we don’t ask doesn’t keep God from providing for us. He is a loving Father who knows what we need before we even ask.
In Isaiah 65:24, God said, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.” Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “I will answer them before they even call to me. While they are still talking about their needs, I will go ahead and answer their prayers!”
And so, we have a God who sees and provides – Yahweh Yireh! He provides all that we need and so much more. In Philippians chapter 4, Paul is thanking the Christians in Philippi for all that they had done to help take care of him while he was in prison. Then Paul says in verse 19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
There’s an interesting contrast between verses 18 and 19 in this chapter. In fact, you could paraphrase Paul saying to the Philippians: “You met my need, and God is going to provide your need. You met one need that I have, but God will meet all of your needs. You gave to me out of your poverty, but God will supply your needs out of his riches!”
Jesus made reference to this in the prayer that he shared with his disciples. You know the prayer – “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:9-11)
Jesus included this phrase because he acknowledged that God is the one who provides for us. God is the one who gives us our daily bread. But Jesus’ prayer is about so much more than just bread. It includes all of our needs.
And any fear that God might not meet our needs is unfounded. As we saw last week in Matthew 7, Jesus assured us that God feeds the birds, so he’s not going to neglect us. God clothes the flowers, so he’s going to provide for us as well. God is committed to taking care of us. As David said in Psalm 37:5, “Depend on the Lord; trust him, and he will take care of you.” (NCV)
And we’ve all seen this in our own lives. We may not have always had a feast, but we’ve always had food. There are times when there may not have been a banquet, but at least there was bread. And sometimes there was a banquet.
In fact, many of us here in the United States have trouble relating to the phrase, “give us this day our daily bread” because our pantries are so packed and our bellies so full that we seldom even ask for food. Instead we ask for self-control. We don’t pray, “God, please give me something to eat today.” We pray, “God help me not to eat so much.” But we are still able to recognize that everything we enjoy is by the hand of God. As David said in I Chronicles 29:14, “Everything comes from you.” (NCV)
But it’s not just bread that God provides, it’s daily bread, bread enough for today. And here’s where I think it’s so easy for us to get the wrong impression. Because when we read verses like Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”, we tend to envision our lives just overflowing with all of this wonderful stuff. But I want to paint a little different picture for you this morning, and I want to do it by looking at a very familiar passage in a fresh way.
The passage is Psalm 23 and I’m sure you’ve read this psalm and heard this psalm read hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times. It’s a psalm that gives us great comfort as we acknowledge our great shepherd who provides for all of our needs.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, 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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I will dwellin the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:1-6)
It is that very first verse that sets the theme for this psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.”
We don’t know the exact occasion for the writing of this psalm. There are some who believe that this psalm was written when David was a young lad tending his father’s sheep. But I think David must have been older. For one thing, in verse 5, David was old enough to have enemies. In verse 4 he was facing the fear of death. And so, most people believe that Psalm 23 was written about the same time that a lot of David’s other psalms were written – while he was running away from King Saul.
Imagine David in the Judean wilderness, fleeing from Saul — the king of Israel and a madman, pursuing David with an army intent on killing him. David had been anointed king of Israel by Samuel, but King Saul, in a fit of rage and insanity, drove David into the desert, to flee for his life.
For years, David and his men lived off the land. At one point, David hid in what he referred as “the stronghold” (1 Sam 24:22). Some scholars think that he was referring to what we now know as Masada.
I want you to imagine David writing Psalm 23 while he was hiding at Masada from Saul’s armies. Take a look at the picture above. Do you see any green pastures? See any still waters? It doesn’t seem to fit at all, and yet this may well be the situation in which this psalm is written.
It was in the Judean wilderness that David was pursued by his enemies — and it’s in the Judean wilderness that shepherds fed their sheep.
You see, we tend to picture Psalm 23 like this (which looks something like sheep out in an Irish pasture). That’s always been the image I’ve had in my mind. We picture “green pastures” as vast, rich, and knee-deep in grass — not just barely enough food, but overwhelmingly enough. I mean, that’s the American way.
But you may not be aware of this, but David didn’t live in Ireland, he lived in Judea. And if you were to ask a shepherd in Judea to show you a “green pasture,” he’d show you something more like this —
It’s hard to imagine that many sheep and goats live on such dry and barren land – in the wilderness. But in Israel, you need to understand that farmland is far too precious to waste on sheep and goats. The fertile land is used for crops — to feed people.
The farms are on the western side of the mountains and on the coast, where the rains come. But east of Bethlehem, the land becomes wilderness. We would call it a “desert.” And this is where the sheep have to stay.
And so, the green pastures in the Israeli wilderness look like rocky, barren hillsides from a distance. But scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a little piece of grass can sprout up. The shepherd’s job was to find those grassy places so that his sheep could have a few mouthfuls to eat at a time.
Now this may not be an image of prosperity but I think it’s a beautiful image. Because the green pastures David was talking about gave the sheep enough food for right now and only right now. In the afternoon, the shepherd would lead the sheep to the afternoon’s green pasture. Tomorrow’s green pasture was something they would be taken to tomorrow. The sheep never landed in a place of lifelong luxury but the shepherd always made sure that they had all the food they needed to eat for today.
And, when you think about it, isn’t that exactly the way that God took care of the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness? God supplied enough manna for one day at a time.
And isn’t that what Jesus taught about God’s provision? He taught us to pray for our “daily bread”. And he taught us that we’re not to worry about tomorrow and we can take comfort in the knowledge that the God who takes care of us today will take care of us tomorrow as well.
This image is significant. Because if you were in a field knee-deep in alfalfa, you wouldn’t need a shepherd to help you find green pastures. A sheep could just lie around in the same field for months and be well fed. But in the Judean wilderness, the sheep must stay on the move because the food won’t last for long.
And that was true of David as he ran away from Saul. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long. There wasn’t much food and the enemy was always in pursuit. And yet he praised God for “green pastures” because he always had enough food to survive — just enough food to make it one more day.
And just as a sheep relies on its shepherd to provide that food, David relied on God to provide his food each day. “He makes me to lie down” means that it’s God who finds the pastures. David couldn’t do it by himself. Only the shepherd knows where the next morsel of grass will be, where one more day’s food will be found. And the sheep’s job is to follow the shepherd — not to go looking for a better field.
And that means constant change in our lives because God leads us all to green pastures. Now, we would often prefer that the pastures be greener than they are, and we would prefer that we could stay in the same pasture a lot longer. But that’s not how it works with a Judean shepherd or sheep. Every day or so, it’s time to move on. It’s time to find a new place to eat and lie down.
Not only does our Shepherd provide for us by making us to lie down in green pastures, but he provides for us by leading us beside the still waters. You may know that sheep are afraid of running streams. Sheep can’t swim. And if their coats get soaked with water, they become far too heavy and they sink.
But in Judea, the problem is even worse. Because much of the water in that region is found at the bottom of a wadi — in the American west they’re called arroyos — dried river beds.
And it may surprise you to learn what the most common cause of death is in the Judean wilderness. It’s not starvation, it’s not thirst, and it’s not heat exhaustion. The most common cause of death in the Judean wilderness is drowning.
Because when the snow melts in the mountains or the rains come, the ground is so hard and dry that it can’t absorb the water, and so the floods come rushing down the wadi. And because very often the rain is too far away to see or hear, there is often no warning of the flood until it’s too late to climb out. And anyone who is standing in a wadi when the flood comes is swept away and drowned.
But then, immediately after the flood, that wadi becomes dry again. Sometimes a little bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the wadi floor and those pools of water are incredibly tempting. But it’s a dangerous place to be. And so, a good shepherd will leads his sheep away from the dangerous waters — no matter how appealing they may be — and he leads them toward still water. And, of course, that means the sheep has to follow the shepherd.
The sheep may think the shepherd is foolish because he refuses to lead them toward what seems to be a beautiful pool of water. They don’t understand that it’s not safe down there. They may question the judgment of the shepherd, and but they still follow him.
And here’s the difference between sheep and goats. The shepherd walks a path and the sheep follow precisely on the same path the shepherd walks. They follow the shepherd.
But goats think they’re smarter than the shepherd, and so they refuse to follow. And they’re more agile than sheep. They have gifts the sheep don’t have. But sometimes the goats miscalculate and they get too close to a cliff, fall down and die.
Which explains why, in Matthew 25, Jesus takes the sheep to heaven and he condemns the goats. It’s not because goats are evil. It’s just that they refuse to follow the shepherd. They think they’re too talented, too gifted to follow someone else.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The Judean desert is mountainous. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in the mountains before, but here’s something that I wasn’t fully prepared for. I should have been, I suppose because it makes sense, but it still came as a bit of a surprise.
The mountains tend to block the sun when it is low on the horizon. Now when we lived in Boone, where our house was located, we had a mountain on our east side, so what that meant was that we didn’t see any sunshine until about 10:00 in the morning.
Well, in the Judean wilderness, the mountains are on the west. And what that means is that, in the evening, the valleys turn dark very early. And in the desert, when it’s dark, it’s very dark indeed. The air is so dry that the humidity doesn’t scatter the light the way the air does here. It can become very dark all at once.
And so if you’re walking through a desert valley and you step into a shadow, it can almost be like someone turning out the lights — and robbers, lions, and hyenas like to hide in the shadows. It’s a scary place to be.
But sheep with a shepherd have no fear because they trust their shepherd to keep them safe.
You can imagine what it was like for David. He was running away from Saul and his army. At dusk, whenever he turned a corner from light into shadows, he could’ve been stepping into an ambush. And yet he had no choice but to flee through the shadows. He could only count on God to keep him safe.
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The shepherd carried two sticks – first of all, a rod which was used to defend the sheep against predators and, secondly, a staff to prod any straying sheep back into line. The shepherd’s job was both to defend against wolves and to discipline the unruly sheep.
And David was thankful for both of those things — for God’s protection and for his discipline. Now, of course, we all love God’s protection — but when we’re in the dangerous valley among the dark shadows, God’s discipline is just as important. Because, if we stray, the shepherd can’t protect us. Safety is found by staying with the flock. If we wander off on our own in dangerous places, we pray that God’s staff will pull us back into the flock.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Even in midst of running from his enemies through the desert, David recognized the bountiful blessings of God. My cup overflows.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
You see, David’s ultimate goal was not to live in his palace surrounded by riches with servants to wait on him hand and foot. David’s desire was be with God. That was, to him, the greatest blessing in the world.
The lesson for us this morning is simply this – God will provide for us. You don’t need to worry, you don’t need to fret. You simply need to trust in the love of a heavenly Father who has promised to take care of you.
Sometimes he puts us knee-deep in alfalfa and we have more than our heart desires. But sometimes our green pastures look like this, and we don’t know where our food is coming from tomorrow. But as long as our eyes are on the shepherd, he will take care of us. One day at a time. Not necessarily everything we want, but he will provide everything we need. Our job is to trust him, not to worry, but follow him wherever he may lead.