Visiting Hours

Visiting Hours

Psalm 23

Edward Sheeran is one of the world’s best-selling music artists of our time with more than 150 million records sold worldwide.  He has a total of 43 singles and five albums he has recorded and two of those albums are in the list of the best-selling albums in UK chart history. 

As a child, Sheeran sang at a local church choir, learned how to play guitar at eleven, and started writing his own songs while in high school.  In 2004, his classmates voted him “most likely to be famous.”  They were right.  In 2008, Sheeran moved to London where he played in small venues.  Through videos he posted on YouTube he accumulated a large fanbase and caught the attention of Elton John.  In 2010, he released his first EP and by 2011 reached number two in the iTunes chart with little help from anyone but his own natural talent.  Since then, Sheeran received four Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, and the Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2018. 

One of the men who is credited with Ed Sheeran’s rise to stardom is Michael Gudinski, who was a highly respected and influential Australian record executive and promoter. Gudinski was a longtime friend and father figure to Sheeran; on March 2, 2021, Gudinski died during his sleep at his home in Melbourne at the age of 68.  His autopsy report revealed cocaine, oxycodone, and morphine in his system at the time of his death. On March 24th, a memorial service (concert) was held in Gudinski’s honor.  It was the wish of Gudinski that Sheeran play at his memorial service.

Because he had to travel from Britain to Australia to participate in his mentor’s memorial service, Sheeran was required to quarantine for two weeks upon entry into the country.  It was while in quarantine that he wrote “Visiting Hours.”  There is a line in Sheeran’s heartfelt song that echoes what many believe about the afterlife:

I wish that Heaven had visiting hours
And I would ask them if I could take you home
But I know what they’d say, that it’s for the best
So I will live life the way you taught me
And make it on my own

I will close the door, but I will open up my heart
And everyone I love will know exactly who you are
‘Cause this is not goodbye, it is just ’til we meet again
So much has changed since you’ve been away.

In a study done by Barna, most Americans expect to go to heaven after death and about 5% expect to come back in another life form and another 5% believe that there is no life after death.  Of the many funerals I have done, it has been my experience that most people assume that a person’s suffering ceases to exist after death and that they will look for the slightest bit of evidence of faith in the life of the loved one who has died.  What most people clearly understand is that there are no visiting hours in heaven. 

Psalm 23 is not only the most familiar chapters in all of the Bible, and is often heard in a funeral or at the bedside of the sick.  But how many have thought about the words it contains?  David begins with a description of who God is, he then shifts to focus on him as a person: “He makes…. He leads…. He restores…. David then addresses God more intimately in the second person: “You prepare a table before me…”, “You anoint my head…”.  This Psalm, like all of the Psalms, teach us something about God and what it means to belong to him. 

Who The Shepherd Is

David begins: “The LORD is my shepherd…”. The first time we encounter LORD (Yahweh) in the Bible is in Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God in the burning bush that did not burn (see Exod. 3:1ff.).  God called out to Moses from the burning bush and when Moses responded, he was told: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (v. 5).  Then God said to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6).  Moses did not come looking for God, God sought out Moses.

After Moses asked God how he was to explain to the Hebrew people who it was that sent him to them, God answered: “I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14).  In other words, God is the self-existent one, the creator and sustainer of all things, the one who changes not, who has no beginning or end.  He does not sleep, slumber, slack off, or slip into a stupor.  This is the one David identifies as his LORD. 

It is Yahweh who is David’s shepherd.  Yahweh is who God is, shepherding is what he does.  The world of a shepherd was dirty and was not something most people aspired to do the rest of their lives.  David was familiar with the world of a shepherd because it was typically the duty of the youngest son to manage the sheep his father owned.  Shepherding was something that had to be done all of the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The Shepherd essentially had to live with the sheep to feed them, guide them, and protect them.  Yet, we learn in this first verse of the 23rd Psalm that Yahweh, the all-powerful, all-sufficient, Creator… of whom there is no beginning and no end, who spoke with the power of his word and the heavens, and the earth were formed out of nothing.  It is this LORD who has chosen to live with the sheep of humanity.  So, what is the Psalmist’s response to this?  “I shall not want.”  The NIV translation of this verse is better: “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” 

What the Shepherd Does

 What does the shepherd do for his sheep?  He does four things that lead his sheep to life and not death: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (vv. 2-3).  I learned that for sheep to lie down, four things need to happen: They need to be free of fear, free of friction from each other, free from pests, and free from hunger.  All of these things, the sheep are dependent upon the shepherd to provide. 

It is interesting that the place that the shepherd leads his sheep first is the place of rest.  Do you remember Psalm 46? It is a psalm that begins with a reminder of who God is: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (v. 1); it ends with these words: “Be still, and know that I am God…” (v. 10).  The place of safety is not busyness but resting in Yahweh as the Shepherd of your life and soul.  There is a New Testament word that is the equivalent of where one finds rest, and that word is “Abide”, and it means “to take up residence in.”  Jesus used this word in John 15 when he said to his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5).  The word is also used in 1 John 3:24, “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.  And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit whom he has given us.”   

It is the place of stillness and abiding that the shepherd, “Restores my soul” and “…leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3).  The Hebrew word for “soul” can also be translated “life.”  What it is that the shepherd restores is “my life.”  According to James Montgomery Boice, the Psalmist wants you and I to understand that the Shepherd restore us to life or salvation.  In his commentary on the Psalms, Boice shares that shepherds need to be aware of what is known as “cast (or cast down) sheep.”  He shares an insight from Phillip Keller, who tended sheep for eight years:

What happens is this. “A heavy, fat or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in some little hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out or relax. Suddenly the center of gravity in the body shifts so that it turns on its back far enough that the feet no longer touch the ground. It may feel a sense of panic and start to paw frantically. Frequently this only makes things worse. It rolls over even further. Now it is quite impossible for it to regain its feet.”6 In this position gases build up in the body, cutting off circulation to the legs, and often it is only a matter of a few hours before the sheep dies. The only one who can restore the sheep to health is the shepherd.[1]

We can become like the “cast down sheep” when we give into sin and find ourselves on our backs in what seems to be a helpless state.  The “cast down” sheep reminds me of Micah 7:8-9, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication” (Micah 7:8–9).  The enemy wants us become stuck in our shame so that we stay on our backs, but the LORD who is our shepherd is able to lift us up onto our feet.  The purpose of putting us back on our feet is to lead us in paths of righteousness. 

Why does he put up with us even when we prove time and time again that we are faithless?  We are told at the end of verse 3, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”  What is it about his name that assures me that he will not leave me on my back?  His name is Yahweh; he is the faithful God who keeps his covenant with his people.  Again, Boice makes the following observation about sheep:

Sheep are foolish creatures. In fact, they are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. They can have a good shepherd who could have brought them to the best grazing lands near an abundant supply of water, and they will still wander away to where the fields are barren and the water undrinkable. They are creatures of habit. They may be brought to good grazing land by their shepherd, but, having found it, they may keep on grazing until every blade of grass and every root is eaten; the fields are ruined, and they themselves are impoverished. No other class of livestock requires more careful handling than do sheep. Therefore, a shepherd who will move them from field to field yet always keep them near an abundant supply of water is essential for their welfare.[2]

What the Shepherd Promises

If God is the one who keeps his promises and is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore, and it is this God who is the faithful shepherd who is for my good, then what do I really have to fear in this life?  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” (v. 4).  What is the shadow of death?  It is not exclusively referring to the last moments of our life leading to death.  The Psalmist is referring to the shepherd’s commitment to sustain me and keep me.  He will guard his sheep from any threat that seeks to rob the sheep of the shepherd. 

What is in the valley?  The danger of flash floods, predators, and outlaws.  The shepherd’s staff leads and corrects the sheep while the rod serves as a club to defend the sheep from predators and outlaws.  It is also important to note that apart from the shepherd is danger and death.  The point is that apart from abiding with the shepherd, there is no safety but only imminent destruction.  So long as the sheep are with the shepherd there is life.  Because the shepherd is committed to his sheep, his faithfulness to them will lead to blessing.

Because David was a shepherd, he understood the parallels between God’s people and sheep well.  In light of this what is up with the shift in David’s metaphor in verses 5-6?  The cup that overflows is a picture of wine and oil that was used to heal the skin.  The point is simply this, in this life filled with trouble and an enemy who wants nothing more than to destroy God’s sheep, God promises to lead and guide us to the prosperity and blessing of his presence that will ultimately be experienced when we take that last gasp of air into our lungs. 

This, my dear brothers and sisters is what the Psalmist means with his words: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; 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” (Psalm 23:5–6).  When John Newton wrote his famous hymn, Amazing Grace, he included in his original poem these words that were no doubt influenced by Psalm 23,

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.


So, my dear friends, what is it that Psalm 23 is pointing us to?  Perhaps a better question is who is Psalm 23 pointing us to?  Who is this Psalm ultimately about?  Remember when I began this sermon, I explained how God introduced himself to Moses.  To Moses, God said, “I AM who I AM.”  You need to know something about God’s description as the “I AM who I AM” and eight things Jesus said about himself that enraged some of the most religious people of his day.  Here is what Jesus said:

  1. Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58)
  2. I Am the Bread of Life (John 6)
  3. I Am the Light of the Word (John 8)
  4. I Am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11)
  5. I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14)
  6. I Am the True Vine (John 15)
  7. I Am the Door of the Sheep (John 10:7)
  8. I Am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11)

Each of these “I Am” statements Jesus made was an intentional declaration he made about himself as one who was equal with God the Father.  It is his statement about being the good shepherd I want to focus on in conclusion to this sermon.  In light of everything you now know about Psalm 23, listen closely to Jesus’ words in John 10,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11–16)

How do we experience Psalm 23?  We experience it by abiding in the good shepherd who is Jesus.  How do we abide in him?  By taking up our residence in him.  What does this look like?  It looks like…

His life is now your satisfaction.

His light is now your light.

His resurrection is your changed life.

His truth is now your truth.

His teaching is your foundation.

His rod and staff is your compass.

His leading is your thriving. 

6 Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 61.

[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (pp. 209–210). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (p. 210). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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