Recently, I had one of those sleepless nights in which I was wide awake, staring into darkness, with seemingly tons of thought pressing on me.
My mind was whirling on overdrive with all gears greased with worry. I’m sure we’ve all shared that common pillow of despair. Sometimes when people reach this point of sleepless frustration, they commence with the well-known exercise of “counting sheep,” imagining one after another bounding over the pasture fence. But there’s a better way to peaceful slumber.
Long ago, I learned something in the still of the night. I stopped counting sheep and focused on the Shepherd! It was that simple and yet that profound. I began to simply repeat the 23rd Psalm with its opening line that centered my thoughts: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”—that is, “not lack.” What a difference! Everything else melted into insignificance.
Stay focused on Him
Just like a restless night’s sleep, this wayward age of man with its 24-hour news cycle of despair can disturb our spiritual life’s rhythms and “do a number on us” if we don’t keep “looking unto Jesus. . . the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 12:2; 13:20), also called “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). Make no mistake about it. Where and on whom you focus makes all the difference when it comes to meaningful outcomes.
And we might as well get a head start before matters heat up even more. The book of Daniel and Jesus Christ, the ultimate foreteller of future events, both prophesied a time of coming worldwide trouble that will be the worst ever—imperiling all life on earth (Daniel 12:1; Matthew 24:21-22). Now reading such prophecy without proper perspective from the whole of God’s Word could keep you wide awake for multiple nights on end. Again, right focus is essential.
Let’s be honest and recognize that, as students of the Scriptures, while peering into prophecy we can become sidetracked with numerous items that seem to be sure-cure fixes to calm our hearts. Sadly, some sincere folks spend countless hours diligently going over and over (just like counting sheep) the study of some obscure biblical personality, place name or time sequence to somehow assure themselves that they can rest at night—because they know something no one else is privy to except them and, in their mind, God.
One problem though: God sees matters differently! Some things just can’t be known at a given time—being reserved to God alone (compare Acts 1:6-7). Moreover, Jesus criticized those who focused on smaller issues while ignoring “weightier” or more important spiritual matters (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). The apostle Paul warned Christians regarding such issues as “endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (1 Timothy 1:4).
To be frank: Those who are always pursuing the arcane and unknowable will always remain spiritually exhausted and exhausting to others. They have not settled for the true peace that comes by centering on the Chief Shepherd, the Good Shepherd of prophecy, Jesus Christ—but, rather, have settled for a substitute gospel of esoteric biblical conjecture.
Christ in the midst
As students of the gospel, our proper prophetic focus needs to center where the Bible clearly and loudly focuses, directing our attention to the Shepherd in whom we shall not be in want. Have you ever considered how the book of Revelation opens with this centering narrative? “. . . And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man” (1:12-13). These lampstands represent “the seven churches” (verse 20), seven signifying completeness and thus the totality of God’s Church. And in the imagery here we discover Jesus Christ in the midst of His Church down through the ages. A central and centering figure, He dominates the prophetic landscape. Christ is figuratively revealed as no stranger to His flock and is not distanced from His followers even when it might seem darkest in our lives.
The recorder of this revelation, the apostle John, in another of his writings presents this self-disclosing statement of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; and I know my sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). This proclamation introduces the sacrificial key that unlocks the prophetic realm of Revelation, as the Good Shepherd is extolled in the heavenly realm with these words: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God” (5:9, English Standard Version). His sufficiency is without question, and His provision for those He loves is met with one answer: “I died for you.”
What is fascinating with the fullness of scriptural revelation is that Jesus Christ is simultaneously the “Good Shepherd” and the “Lamb” of God (mentioned 27 times in Revelation). He understands both the role of guide and follower. In Him, they become one. He is indeed a Shepherd in whom we shall not want or lack.
The beloved 23rd Psalm is meant for more than word filler in funeral folders. It’s offered as a guide to our day-by-day walk into the future—in both the succeeding chapters of our personal lives and the unfolding tapestry of prophecy. Written by King David, who had worked as a shepherd in his youth, the psalm presents life as a follower of the ultimate Shepherd.
As we center on the Good Shepherd in whom we “shall not want” (verse 1), we are immediately reminded that He directs and enables us “to lie down in green pastures” (verse 2). Thus, our faith in Him is immediately challenged by whether we will obey His direction. With the Shepherd’s help, we respond by faith-filled action to “lie down” where He sets us to feed and grow spiritually. I’ll be the first to admit that “spiritual green pasture” doesn’t always match our human color charts. Our circumstances don’t always look so lush. But the Shepherd knows what is best for us.
Psalm 23 then mentions that He leads us “beside the still waters” (still verse 2). Drinking in of the “waters” of God’s Spirit and Word quenches our spiritual thirst and clears up our thinking (see John 7:37-39; Ephesians 5:26). Taking in of God’s mind and what is written in Scripture gives us continuing assurance, beyond personal anxiety or global trepidations, that God’s purpose, plan, promises and provisions are true and right on schedule— His schedule!
Like scattered sheep, the flock of God can become spiritually disoriented by fear of predators, tension with other sheep, or hunger. God’s Word says: Trust where I place you and enjoy the still waters. It is only then that you can “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Restoration: now and ever
The next famous phrase in Psalm 23 describes how the Good Shepherd “restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (verse 3). Sheep are creatures of habit, and if not properly led they will turn good ground into ruts and turn pastures into deserts by overstaying their welcome—and they will pollute the ground beneath them with their own waste. The most important function of a shepherd is to keep the flock on the move!
Sometimes as sheep we forget this. We don’t like the new path, or we stare at the sheep rather than focusing on the Shepherd and bolt. It’s here we’re reminded that the spiritual walk is not a quick escalator ride to salvation, but at times has detours of our own making. Yet we have a faithful Shepherd who restores us on course and puts us back on the path of His choosing. Restoration is not marginal to the Christian experience but central. What Christ told Peter just before he was to veer from the right path for a while, confident in “when you have returned to Me” (Luke 22:32), should echo down to us today.
Jesus was always blatantly honest, then as now, as to where the path might lead. He never said the journey would be easy, but He did promise it would be worth it. Acts 14:22 echoes, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” Psalm 23 bluntly describes periods of our own walk with God as well as the forward motion of the Church down through the ages: “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” (verses 4-5).
It is noteworthy that Jesus never said that “evil” would not be visited upon His followers or the Church as a whole. But as the psalm encourages, we need not fear it. What Jesus did say is: “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Take a careful look at this verse! The ultimate fulfillment of prophecy is not a church on the run, but the doors of Hades, death itself, being broken down and surrendering its grip on us.
The living Christ, at the right hand of the Father on high, shepherds and rallies His elect, proclaiming: “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Revelation 1:17-18). The Good Shepherd of prophecy has traversed both life and death and emerged triumphant!
And yet, despite knowing this, the knees of our heart can get a little wobbly along the way. Consider, please: When His precious flock is on the move down the path of history, it is here that the Great Shepherd is at His most intense and intimate best in guiding the flock over challenging terrain to the good pasture He has already gone ahead to prepare.
It is here in “the valley of the shadow of death” that the cry of the sheep down through the ages can be heard echoing through the canyons of time: “How long, O Lord. . . ?” (Revelation 6:10). It is here that the flock must know that the Shepherd it follows never sleeps (Psalm 121:4). He is dedicated to preserving all who would follow Him into the abyss of darkness. Of His sheep who hear His voice, He declares: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. . . And no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
“I am with you always”
Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd of prophecy, is guiding His flock through the winding twists of history and prophecy to one ultimate destination—the great culmination at “the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24). This unique moment in time, as time itself passes away and melts into eternity, is the sublime experience we are being led forward to. It will fulfill the grand crescendo of the 23rd Psalm’s final words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (verse 6).
We still have some paths to walk down and valleys to pass through in the seasons of our personal lives, along with the unfolding chapters of prophecy. I don’t know how long the journey is, but I know what’s been promised if we stay on the trail and stay focused on the Good Shepherd of prophecy. As we do, let’s remember that the will of God will never lead you to where the grace of God cannot keep you. The encouraging directive of, “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21) is refortified in the sureness of the Chief Shepherd’s promises. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” He said (John 14:6). “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The remedy for those sleepless nights is right here. “For so He gives His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). Sleep tight!