“The King of Love My Shepherd Is”Lawrence E. Webb Psalm 95; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46. Year A – Reign of Christ – Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
With celebrities in movies and on television, you can go to the Internet and find pictures of them in various roles and at different stages of their lives. For example, the British actor Roddy McDowall was well-known in the 1940s as a child star in My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home. He survived the difficult transition from child actor to adult star in movies and on the stage in London and New York.
He and Elizabeth Taylor were together in Lassie Come Home when they were children and again in adulthood in Cleopatra. In the 1970s, McDowall’s looks were completely disguised in the series of Planet of the Apes movies: He was one of the apes. Still later, he had his own television series and also was a recurring guest with Carol Burnett, playing Carol’s brother in family skits along with Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicky Lawrence.
With those different roles across the years, you might have difficulty realizing these were all played by Roddy McDowall.
In perhaps a similar vein, the Bible offers many different pictures of God. Sometimes we may not readily put the pictures together. In readings for today from the Revised Common Lectionary, God is presented both as King and as the Great Shepherd. We think of a king as a person of grandeur and authority, while a shepherd is usually associated with loving, protecting care. Both king and shepherd at times also exercise judgment and punishment.
Both figures have significance in two different events in current national and Christian calendars: the shepherd in agricultural and pastoral aspects of the traditional Thanksgiving season in the United States and today as the last Sunday of the liturgical year, celebrating Christ the King.
EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24
Ezekiel, as God’s spokesman, offers reason for thanks as he writes to his fellow exiles, using both the shepherd and king figures:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 34:11-14).
In these verses, we hear echoes of the beloved Shepherd Psalm (Psalm 23), in the promise, I will feed them with good pasture and make them lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture.
Perhaps the Shepherd’s protection through the valley of the shadow of death is reflected in verses 16 and 22a: I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice . . . I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey.
David is both king and shepherd in verses 23-24:
And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Thus, David, the shepherd lad who became the king over the United Kingdom, is at once the embodiment of the earthly ruler and the reflection of God the eternal ruler. David’s reign was long remembered as the golden age of Israel. So the prophet here looks back across the centuries to the ideal king as he declares, my servant David shall be prince among them.
Ezekiel continues the shepherding analogy as he announces God’s judgment on those who abuse the weak in verses 20-22:
“Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
Margaret Odell says these verses remind us: “. . . the world is overrun with bad shepherds and greedy goats and rams, whose claims to govern in behalf of their constituents often mask other, less altruistic interests. God’s resolve to rescue the sheep from such as these constitutes a repudiation of those powerful entities that consume the resources of the earth only to enhance their own strength, while cloaking their aims in the rhetoric of stewardship and service.”
[Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2005, p. 433.)
In the American tradition of Thanksgiving, we offer thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. At the same time, we also must be aware of the weak who are pushed aside and scattered abroad by powerful forces, within our own homeland.
Judgment also is the dominant aspect of Matthew 25:31-46 with Christ portrayed both as King and shepherd. This is an all-encompassing judgment, involving every mother’s son or daughter:
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left” (vv. 31-33).
As with Ezekiel’s message, the issue at stake is the care given to those who cannot help themselves — or care that has been withheld from those in need.
Jesus uses the figure of sheep and goats as the basis for distinguishing two groups. But from that point on, our Lord makes it clear, He’s talking about people like you and me rather than farm animals. Sheep and goats don’t provide clothes for the naked or visit prisoners, but people do those things, or at least should do them to fulfill God’s purposes.
We know the story: Those on the right hand have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and went to see prisoners. Christ says these people ministered to Him as they ministered to their fellow men, women, and children. Because of their deeds, these righteous people are eternally blessed. By contrast, those on the left neglected the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. Through neglect of their fellow humans, they also neglected Jesus Himself.
The prayer hymn, “Others,” reflects the spirit of those on the right hand:
Lord, help me live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray
My prayer shall be for—Others.
Help me in all the work I do
To ever be sincere and true
And know that all I’d do for You
Must needs be done for—Others.
Others, Lord, yes others,
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.
(C. D. Meigs, “Others”)
William Wordsworth also depicted a person whose daily life was spent doing good without stopping to think about it or calculating the cost or personal benefits from such actions: . . . That best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and of love.” (William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”
Those on the left did nothing to meet human need because this had no place in their thinking. They thought only of themselves. By excluding the needs of others from their concerns, they also excluded God. And for that, they stood eternally condemned.
On this Christ the King Sunday, our final reading about kings and shepherds and thanksgiving and judgment is Psalm 95.
The psalm is a call to worship God that is to include singing, giving thanks, acknowledging God as the great King, seeing His hand in the created order, bowing before Him, acknowledging Him as Shepherd, and heeding His warnings.
Sing—O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
You’ve probably heard those opening words many times: O come, let us sing to the Lord. Whether your musical preference is anthems, hymns, gospel quartets, or praise choruses, singing can set your soul on fire.
But as we hear the command to sing, we need to know the word behind that word. The psalms were written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews. And the Hebrew word for sing really means to cry out, to shout for joy.
If you’re afraid of the sound of your voice in church, you may hide behind the explanation or excuse: “I’ll just make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Well, the word behind that command in Psalm 95 to make a joyful noise means lusty, gutsy, full-bodied noise, like the war cry of soldiers charging into battle. It can be a shout of triumph, a shout of applause or approval.
Whatever the music of your soul, if you followed the commands of this psalm, you would startle your fellow worshipers. You might wake some of them up.
Music can stir emotions, negative as well as positive, within us. A high school or college fight song can stir deep emotion and outward expression at a football game. The singing of the national anthem at a public event can bring hands to the hearts and tears to the eyes of the audience.
You can see an example of negative emotions stirred by carefully chosen music in a clip from the movie Cabaret on Youtube. The film is set in Germany at the rise of Hitler’s power. A blond-haired mid-teenage boy sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” for the crowd in a German beer garden. He sings with a cheerful tone and a pleasant facial expression in the first two stanzas to the relaxed crowd. But his voice becomes more strident and his brow furrows in the third stanza, and customers in the beer garden jump to their feet and sing harshly as you see swastikas on sleeves. This gives a sinister edge to the song whose lyrics otherwise are optimistic and uplifting. In our last glimpse of the youthful singer, he extends his right arm in the “Heil Hitler” pose as he continues his song.
On the other hand, Christian music also can stir us deep within our spirits. Consider Handel’s Messiah. For more than two and a half centuries [since 1841], the oratorio’s performances have filled churches and public auditoriums. Tradition has it that King George the Second stood when the “Hallelujah” chorus was sung midway through its London premiere, and the audience followed his example. Some have suggested King George actually stood to stretch his legs, rather than as an expression of respect or devotion. Nonetheless, the king’s example has been followed ever since. But British king or no king, we are stirred by the lyrics directly from Revelation, chapter 11, that Jesus Christ is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”
Give Thanks—Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.
The psalm offers reasons for giving thanks, especially God’s greatness and His work as creator of the depth and height of the earth, the sea and the dry land. In America, football, turkey dinners, and getting a jump on the shopping season often obscure the stated purpose of the designated fourth Thursday in November. But community interfaith Thanksgiving services in many communities provide opportunity for Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths to bear a common witness to God’s greatness and His mercy toward us all.
Acknowledge God Above All Gods—For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
The Israelites lived among nations who worshiped many gods. Some who worshiped Yahweh didn’t want to take any chances, so they also went to the altars of other deities. So the psalmist calls them away from the lesser gods.
A woman who was active in her church got acquainted with another woman who was not currently involved in church. The church-going woman asked whether the other woman’s husband was also a Baptist. Her reply: “Oh, no. He’s not a Baptist. He doesn’t even know how many gods there are.” Perhaps not unlike the people the psalmist had in mind.
Worship, bow down, kneel—O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
The psalms are poems, songs that often include repetition. Here we have three terms with basically the same meaning: worship, bow down, and kneel. As we reflect on the greatness of God, who He is and what He has done, we are awe-struck, prostrate before the Lord our Maker. Not only did He make the world, He made us, and He cares for us as the Shepherd cares for the sheep.
Heed God’s Warning—O that today you would listen to his voice!
To this point, the psalmist has called worshipers to sing robustly, to give thanks for all the Great King has provided, to consider the grandeur of the created order, to bow in adoration. Sometimes we can get so caught up in awesome wonder and forget the nitty gritty.
Now, immediately after being together in heavenly places, singing with all our souls and thinking of being led through green pastures by the Great Shepherd, we are called to listen closely to God’s voice. “Don’t lose your direction. Don’t harden your hearts to the mercies of God.”
The psalmist reminds the Israelites of an incident when their ancestors were wandering in the wilderness. God had miraculously delivered them from Egypt, but they soon forgot this deliverance and began to complain that things were much better back there, even though they had been slaves.
As Moses led their ancestors, they reached a point where there was no drinking water, and they began to complain. So Moses called that place Massah and Meribah. In Hebrew, both those names mean striving or contending. Meribah is also translated as the Valley of Bickering* God provided for their need by having Moses use his rod to strike a rock and bring water from the rock. So the psalmist challenges them not to be like their ancestors who seemed to complain almost incessantly as they forgot Yahweh’s frequent provision. (John I. Durham, “Psalms,” The Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 4. Nashville, Tenn.,, 1971, page 366.)
Through it all, the call is to acknowledge God as the Great Shepherd and King above all gods.
Katherine Hankey described our common forgetfulness in her song from 1866:
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
(Kate Hankey, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story”)
KINGSHIP OF GOD
In the ancient Near East, it was common for nations to hold annual enthronement ceremonies in connection with their religions, in effect, reestablishing their kings as representatives of their gods.
Several Old Testament psalms give strong emphasis to God as King, and this may indicate Israel also had such an annual event, recognizing their king as the special representative of the Lord Yahweh and acknowledging the Lord Himself as the King of heaven and earth. The ceremony may have been held during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration each autumn.
Psalm 24 begins with the declaration,
The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein (v. 1).
Then the closing verses use royal language:
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory! (vv. 9-10)
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne (47:6-8).
The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength.
Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
thy throne is established from of old;
thou art from everlasting (vv. 1-2).
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise thy great and terrible name!
Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice (vv. 1-4a).
As we climax the liturgical year with the coronation of Jesus Christ as King, many hymns come to mind, including “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “O Worship the King,” and “Come Thou, Almighty King.” One lesser-known hymn, based on Psalm 23, can sum up our message of God through Christ as Shepherd and King: “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”:
The King of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
And he is mine forever.
Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me
And on his shoulder gently laid
And home rejoicing brought me.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me,
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spredst a table in my sight;
Thine unction grace bestoweth;
And, oh, what transport of delight
From thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never.
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
Within thy house forever.
(Henry W. Baker, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”)
About the writer: Lawrence Webb is an emeritus professor at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. He teaches a weekly radio Bible class from Anderson’s First Baptist Church where he and his wife Pansy are members. Lawrence and Pansy also minister to retirement homes in Anderson. He was pastor or educational associate in New Windsor, New York; Toccoa, Georgia; Sanford, Florida; Paducah, Texas; and Anderson. He wrote and edited for the Georgia Baptist Convention, the national office of Woman’s Missionary Union, and the Citizen Newspaper in Waco, Texas; and he is a long-time freelance writer. His latest book is Revelation, A Book of Hope. Lawrence and Pansy have two adult sons and two grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
All People That on Earth Do Dwell
Now Thank We All Our God
We Gather Together
Come Ye Thankful People, Come
All My Hope Is Firmly Grounded
Let All the World in Every Corner Sing
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
The Solid Rock
Rescue the Perishing
Here Am I
All My Hope in God Is Founded (Herbert Howells)
Come Ye Thankful People, come (arr. Harland)
Jubilate Deo (Handel or Paul Leddington Wright)
Give Thanks (Martin)
Hallelujah (Handel from Messiah)
The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (arr. Douglas Wagner)
My Tribute (Crouch)
Let All the World (Vaughan Williams)
Savior Like a Shepherd Leave Us