This psalm was chosen by Robin Ostermann. Keith read Nan C. Merill’s version of this psalm in Psalms for Praying.
Now that was a little different version than most of us grew up with, but it has all the elements of knowing this is psalm 23, like shepherd, green pastures, still waters, and overflowing cups. It leaves no question that it is psalm 23. So, how many of you have Psalm 23 memorized or at one point in your life had to have it memorized? If we were playing a “name that psalm” game, how many of you think you could say it was psalm 23 from just a snippet? Looks like most, if not all of you, have some familiarity with this psalm. I would argue that psalm 23 is probably the most popular and well known of the all the psalms. Actually, Robin and I were surprised that no one else put in a request for it.
So, what is it that makes this psalm so popular? And I would argue, probably the most popular and well known of all the psalms. Any ideas or theories?
My own personal feeling of why this psalm touches our hearts is it speaks to a deep feeling of trust and reassurance in a powerful and comforting God. When the psalms are categorized, Psalm 23 actually gets its own class. It isn’t a lament or praise psalm, it doesn’t fit the wisdom or royal psalm type of psalm. The biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel called it a Song of Confidence because of its overarching motif of trust. And it is that trust in our shepherd and Lord Jesus Christ, especially during times of crisis or loss, that really speaks to us.
Whenever we are planning a memorial service, we always ask if there are particular passages of scripture the family would like to have read during the service. Now, sometimes the family grew up in the church and someone might know the Bible inside out. What passage usually comes up? Psalm 23. And even if the family doesn’t know the Bible and none of them have stepped foot in a church since Grandma died 20 years ago, someone will usually bring up Psalm 23, probably because it was read at Grandma’s memorial. And even if they don’t bring it up, usually if I just say, “Well, Psalm 23 is a good scripture for a time like this.” Someone will say, “I know that one. Let’s have that one read.” In our times of loss it speaks to us about our situation in life but more specifically, it speaks to who our God is.
The Lord, our my Beloved, in Merrill’s translation we read, is my shepherd and I shall not want. The nice thing about reading this Psalm is that being here in the Grande Ronde Valley and Eastern Oregon, we at least have a basic idea of shepherding and how difficult of a task it is and was. Even in ancient Israel, sheep couldn’t find grass or water on their own. Predators were a constant threat. The shepherd had huge responsibilities to take care of his flock. And that image of the shepherd is given to God. In our culture, which clings to the myth of “rugged individualism” and “self-made” people, the psalmist instead proclaims the truth—none of us is self-made. We are God-made, utterly dependent upon God, as sheep are dependent upon the shepherd. Yes, we should work, save, study, and plan, but God is ultimately the one who meets our needs.
I think these words help us realize what our needs really are. I read somewhere that 50 years ago Americans had a basic list of about 10 needs such as food, shelter and family. Today Americans have a list of over 100 needs! This scripture points us to green pastures and still, clean waters. For a sheep to be satisfied enough to lie down in green pastures, Phillip Keller in his book, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” says that the sheep must have four conditions met. Now, he goes so far to say you can’t get them to lie down unless these conditions are met. I’ve been around cows a lot more than sheep, so someone will have to tell me if this is right. First, they must be free of all fear. Second, they must be free of torment of flies and parasites. Third, they must have a full belly, and last, they must be in harmony with the rest of the sheep in the flock. And the green pastures the sheep were taken to didn’t happen by accident. Generations of shepherds moved stones from areas so that their sheep would find contentment. The water must be slow flowing as Keller says they won’t drink from fast flowing streams.
The shepherd leads the sheep to those places where their basic needs are met and souls and bodies are restored. Our needs are simple, food, drink, family, and community. We need our shepherding God and the security he provides amongst the community of the faithful. When we thank God for placing these things in our lives, those several dozen other so called needs, like TV and I-Pad’s, don’t seem as important.
The psalmist continues, “He leads me in the paths of goodness or right path’s for his name’s sake.” Despite simplistic imaginings about our own goodness, God is the one who enable us to be good and to do any good at all. Any right paths we take in this life are the result not of any particular wisdom on our part but of the wise direction of God.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; your rod and your staff—they comfort and guide me.” The shepherd had to move the sheep from place to place, and I’ve read that the word here for valley is deep ravine, a place where predators watched from above and the sun only shined in briefly. And the word “death” doesn’t quite get at what the Hebrew is striving to say. It means more like a deep, overwhelming darkness and shadow. But the key word here is ‘through.’ When these dark times happen, God is there and will not leave us in the shadow of the valley. Though God is a vulnerable God, a crucified Lord, the psalmist also reminds us that God is also a powerful protector. Yes, God suffers with us in our pains, sorrows, and losses, but like a shepherd with a rod and staff, God also guides us and fights off the predators that would harm us.
In fact, God’s protective power and presence is so great that the psalmist has the audacity to proclaim, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies and my fears, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” We are invited to imagine entering a room filled with our deepest fears, our enemies, and all those things that haunt us. And God turns to us and says, “Right this way, I have a table for you. A banquet has been set in your honor. Please be seated.” We take a seat and begin to eat the feast that God has prepared right in front of our enemies. Remember that the sheep wouldn’t even lie down if there was a threat nearby. What this says that there are no threats or dangers when we are in the presence of God. And if that is not enough to say those threats, fears, and dangers are nothing compared to God’s protective power, God anoints our head with oil and fills our cup until it overflows. Christians facing physical and spiritual enemies can call this image of God’s protection and grace to mind and rejoice.
Then the psalm ends with “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and I like how Merrill finishes it off, “I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.” Another way I’ve read this based upon the Hebrew is that God’s goodness and kindness shall dog me all my life. Imagine that every moment of your life God is there pursuing you, hounding you, with goodness and kindness. What kind of God is this? The psalmist says this God is our shepherd, who grants our needs, causes us to rest and be restored, leads us in the right way of living, protects us from evil, honors and blesses us, and never stops pursuing us with goodness and kindness. What does that say about us? That we are in need of a God who freely provides those things because we are dependent upon God’s moving in our lives, protecting us, and receiving his goodness and kindness. We cannot obtain these things on our own.
Psalm 23 is not merely for moments of death, suffering or loss. It definitely speaks to those times, but it also speaks to a way of life. It needs to be read, heard, and understood more importantly as a psalm about living, living a life full of trust in God. This psalm puts our daily activities and basic needs, like eating, drinking, and security, in a God-centered perspective and puts our lives literally in His hands. This doesn’t mean we live on the bare essentials, because our table is filled with the goodness of God and our cup overflows. God provides and He provides abundantly to his entire flock. To live the message of Psalm 23 with our Lord Jesus as our shepherd means we will not worry about our lives or our deaths. God will provide, and God’s provision is grounded in the reality of God’s awesome reign. We dwell in house of the Lord, and we rejoice in the constant presence and vigilance of a God who has cared for us and will always care for us, not just as individuals, but as a community of the faithful.
Amen and Alleluia.