“Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!
He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He gives me new strength. He helps me do what honors him the most.
Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.
You provide delicious food for me in the presence of my enemies. You have welcomed me as your guest; blessings overflow!
Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.”
This translation of the 23rd Psalm is from the Living Bible. For many people this psalm holds a special place. The peaceful, trusting words, the lovely images of pastures, still waters, dark places, all work to show how God leads us and follows us and keeps us safe, even in dark places, through dark times. I find these words very soothing and calming. While Christians may associate the 23rd psalm with funerals, this psalm has a central place in Jewish life, being sung every Saturday afternoon at the third Sabbath meal.
There are 118 references to shepherds in the Bible, 23 of them in the New Testament. This psalm is important to Jesus because he refers to it repeatedly, especially in John’s gospel.
Robert Ketchum tells about a Sunday school teacher who asked her group of children if any of them could quote the entire twenty-third psalm. A little four-and-a-half-year-old girl was among those who raised their hands. A bit skeptical, the teacher asked if she could really quote the entire psalm. The little girl came to the podium, faced the class, made a little bow, and said: "The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want." She then bowed again and sat down. She may have overlooked a few verses, but I think that little girl captured the heart of the psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This first line sets the tone for the entire psalm. It makes me want to sigh - all is well, I am a sheep, the Lord is in charge, I want for nothing. Did you know that the Latin word for shepherd translates as pastor? The shepherd, the pastor, stubbornly protects and cares for his sheep. The flock knows and hears and follows the voice of the shepherd. We know that sheep are not very smart and they are really lost without a shepherd. So when we say “The Lord is my shepherd”, we announce that we are in need of someone to help us.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” He makes me. The shepherd makes us lie down in the grass, leads us to still, cool waters. A Hebrew translation of this verse is “He makes me sprawl in green pastures.” Don’t you love the image of a bunch of sheep sprawling in the green grass? God restores our souls as we rest in the pasture, rest by the stillness of the water. Psalm 46 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God”. Our souls need the restoration brought by stillness. God the shepherd leads us down the right paths, with right relationships, right choices, right values and when we choose to follow, we are honoring God, we honor his name.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me.” God doesn’t promise that we will never have tough times or that life will always be fair. We will walk through dark places but God promises that he will walk right by our sides through those dark places. Listen to the preposition: Even though I walk THROUGH the darkest valley, I fear no evil. It may feel as if there will be no end to whatever dark time you’re in, but God doesn’t leave us in those places, he stays with us through the valley. There will always be an end to the dark times.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Now everything changes. We are no longer sheep in grassy places, by cool waters. Now God sits us down for a feast with our enemies, a great feast with no end of food, oil, blessings. Who can fight in this environment? This is not a confrontation but a true feast.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” For almost thirty years I’ve lived with Border Collies, sheepherding dogs. Perhaps that’s why I am so fond of this sheepherding psalm. I’ve been happily herded by these dogs so I imagine two Border Collies named Goodness and Mercy following me all the days of my life!
Do you see how the psalm opens with God the shepherd leading us to good places, then walking beside us through dark places, then following us as goodness and mercy?
There is a beautiful Irish prayer that says, in part: “May Christ shield me today. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left”. Christ is surrounding us, keeping us safe. That’s how the 23rd Psalm strikes me.
This Psalm lets us know that God is with us. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus promises, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This psalm shouldn’t be so closely associated with funerals but with living, a psalm to apply to our every day.
Dr. Charles Allen, a Methodist minister, tells the story of a friend who came to see him one day. His friend was nervous, tense, and he had literally worried himself sick. The man's doctor had suggested that he see his minister. They talked for awhile, and then Allen took a pad of paper from his desk drawer. "If you went to see a doctor, he would give you a prescription, and that's what I want to do," Allen said. "Take the prescription exactly as I write it. Five times a day for seven days I want you to read prayerfully and carefully the twenty-third psalm. When you awaken, before each meal, and at bedtime, read the psalm." Dr. Allen says that in a week his friend returned literally a different person.
St. Augustine tells us “the best way to praise God is to seek the way of praise in the Scriptures of God.” God has taught us to praise Him in the Psalms, not so that God may get something out of it, but in order that we may be made better by it. Praising God in the words of the Psalms, we can come to know Him better. Knowing Him better we love Him better, loving Him better we find our happiness in God.