Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2017
Psalm 23 Commentary
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we are given a tough assignment by the RCL: preach on Psalm 23, the best known, best loved text in the entire Bible. Rolf Jacobsen summarizes the difficulty of such an assignment. We can run the risk of trivializing the sublime. Or we can turn the sermon into an autopsy on a beloved text by taking it apart and examining each word in minute detail. Or we can strain our homiletical muscles trying to wring some new profundity from the text. Perhaps we should forget about preaching on Psalm 23 and be content with using it as we always do—simply reading it at gravesides, in hospital rooms, and on other occasions of personal crisis.
On the other hand, it is a perfect choice for this stage of our Lenten journey. On the First Sunday of Lent, Psalm 32 gave us a good start by setting the right tone, a perfect mixture of penitence and joy. Psalm 121 assured us that the Lord is watching over us as we journey into his presence on the cross. Psalm 95 warned us that we must not harden our hearts when we hear God’s voice, even if the journey is difficult and his word is challenging. Now Psalm 23 assures us the Yahweh not only watches over us (as if from a distance), but he also walks along with us as a Shepherd. This is precisely the kind of thing we need to hear at this stage of our journey.
Notice how prevalent the language of movement is in Psalm 23: the Shepherd leads and guides, we walk, and Yahweh’s goodness and mercy follow us. And notice the movement from the meadows with green pastures and quiet waters to the mansion with full table and overflowing cup. Psalm 23 takes us from the wilds filled with enemies to the house of the Lord filled with love. And it assures us pilgrims that we are not alone. Our Shepherd will lead, and feed, and protect, and save us until we reach our destination. There is nothing we need for our Lenten pilgrimage that he will not provide.
So, let’s see what we can do with this overly familiar Psalm. I have four suggestions for some homiletical hooks. First, we should explore the metaphor with which it begins. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Theologians and ordinary believers have long struggled with how to describe God. If God is the “Wholly/Holy Other,” the Infinite One whom finite minds cannot comprehend, how can we say anything meaningful about God?
John Calvin always said that we know God through his works, through what he has done in history. More contemporary theologians say the same thing in a different way, preferring to emphasize story. We know God through the narrative of what God did in history. One of the ways we tell the Story is with metaphors. So, God is a Rock, a Warrior, a Judge, a King, a Light, a Fire. Obviously, God is not literally a Rock, but there are things about Rocks that help us understand God.
Here the metaphor is deceptively simple. “Yahweh is my Shepherd.” I say “deceptively,” because the metaphor is both pastoral and political, and even prophetic. The superscription says that this is a Psalm of David, suggesting that he wrote it. The Old Testament reading for today (I Samuel 16) reminds us that David was originally a shepherd. Thus, he was simply drawing on his own humble experience as he describes Yahweh’s care for him. But scholars also tell us that ancient Near Eastern Kings were often referred to as Shepherds. Thus, this metaphor points not only to God’s humble involvement in our lives, but also to God’s royal power and authority as he gently leads us.
Still other scholars suggest that the author of Psalm 23 merely used David’s name. It was actually written (or at least finalized) sometime around the Exile of Israel. If that’s true, then the use of the Shepherd metaphor was designed to remind Israel of those marvelous prophetic promises to God’s people as they walked through their darkest valley in the presence of their enemies.
Think of Isaiah 40:11, where the prophet uses these lovely words to comfort the exiles: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.” In Ezekiel 34:11.12, God speaks of to his people scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire. “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” Ezekiel 34 goes on in terms remarkably like Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. (I’ll say more about that later.)
The use of this shepherd metaphor evokes all of that rich pastoral, political and prophetic background. So it will pay rich dividends to explore the deeply personal, surprisingly political, and even eschatological implications of this deceptively simple metaphor. Everything that follows in Psalm 23 depends on that metaphor. It is because Yahweh is our Shepherd that “I shall not be in want.”
But (and here’s the second homiletical hook) that clause also deserves careful scrutiny, because it can be easily misunderstood. It does not imply the submersion of my desires in some kind of Buddhist River of the All. And it does not mean that I will get everything I want from my generous Shepherd in some kind of “Health and Wealth” abundance. The meaning of “want” is determined by what follows in Psalm 23. Because Yahweh is my Shepherd, I will not lack anything I need for my pilgrimage into the Presence of the Lord. He will get me safely home, in the same way that he got Israel safely home from Egypt and from Exile.
Indeed, that is exactly what Moses said at the end of Israel’s 40 year pilgrimage through the wilderness. “The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have lacked nothing.” (Deut. 2:7, and see the way Israel’s religious leaders used the words of Moses in Nehemiah 9:21). The wonderful old hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” sums it up in these simple words, “all I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.” Properly preached, the opening verse of Psalm 23 will provide deep, realistic comfort to the serious pilgrims in your congregation.
That brings us to my third preaching suggestion. Speaking of realism, a good sermon on Psalm 23 should direct people’s attention to the shift that happens in verse 4, because it signals a terribly important truth. In verses 1-3, everything is good. Yahweh makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside quiet waters, and restores my soul. In a word, he guides me in the right paths. This is the way life should be if the Lord is my Shepherd. He takes care of me.
But notice how the tone shifts in verses 4 and 5. Now I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (or the darkest valley, according to recent and allegedly more accurate translations), where there is evil. And there are enemies all around me, even at the table God sets for me. Yes, God is with me; his rod and staff comfort me; he prepares a table for me. But the Psalmist is honest about the presence of danger and evil and crisis in the life of faith. That is an important truth for our people to hear, if they are to stay on the path up to Jerusalem and the cross. If we don’t know that God’s beloved sheep can have very hard times, then hard times might make us lose our faith in the Shepherd and we’ll stop following. So it’s important to note the shift in mood as we move from verse 3 to verse 4.
But it’s more important to highlight the shift of pronouns. While life is all good in verses 1-3, Yahweh is “he,” third person singular. I believe in him; he is an article of my faith. But in verse 4, Yahweh is “you,” second person singular. Now, in the valley of the shadow, in the presence of my enemies, God is not just someone I talk about; he is someone I talk to. He is not merely someone I believe in; he is someone I walk with. He is not just someone whose existence I confess; he is someone with whom I commune in even the worst of times.
Rolf Jacobsen summarizes what has happened in Psalm 23 and what happens in our lives. “According to the Psalm, the place where God turns from an ‘it’ about which we memorize creedal statements into a ’you’ with whom we have a relationship and in whom we trust is in the darkest valley.” Is it accidental that Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22, which opens with those famous words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Can it be that the only way we can come to the kind of faith voiced in Psalm 23 is to pass through the dark valley described in Psalm 22? This is a profound truth that must be shared with our congregants who might be struggling through the darkness like the blind man in the Gospel reading for today (John 9).
This profound truth leads us to the cross where our Lord took those words of Psalm 22 on his own lips. This is my fourth suggestion for preaching on Psalm 23. It is precisely because Jesus walked through that dark valley for us that he deserves the name he gave himself in John 10. Can there be any doubt that he was thinking of Psalm 23 when he said, “I am the Good Shepherd… and I lay down my life for my sheep.” Whatever else you do with Psalm 23 on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, be sure to preach Christ from it. He is the personal Shepherd we all need on our pilgrimage. He is the great King who will Shepherd the nations. He is the fulfillment of all the prophetic promises. We cannot preach Psalm 23 properly unless we make it all about Jesus.
That may sound like an a-historical simplification, but it is precisely how the church read Psalm 23 from the earliest days. In his Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Henry Reardon goes to some length to show that a Christ centered reading of Psalm 23 was “absolutely universal.” “For instance, in Matthew, written in Syria, the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was especially related to evangelism and the sending out of the Apostles (9:36-38). This emphasis is consonant with the parable of the Shepherd’s searching for lost sheep in 18:12-4.
In Mark’s Gospel, written in Rome, the theme of the Good Shepherd was especially associated with the multiplication of the loaves, where Jesus had his flock recline on the green grass (6:39, an echo of Psalm 23).” Reardon goes on to point out that pictures of Jesus as shepherd are scattered through the catacombs, that letters written from Rome mention that metaphor (I Peter 2:25 and 5:4, and maybe even Hebrews 13:20).
Of course, we find the most profound references to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, written in Asia Minor. John 10 makes that Christological interpretation of Psalm 23 unassailable, he says. Reardon shows his Orthodox convictions when he goes so far as to claim that the “quiet waters” are a reference to baptism, that “anointing my head with oil” is about the sacrament of ordination, and that “the table set before me” is the Eucharist. Clearly, Reardon is enthusiastic about preaching Christ from Psalm 23. I hope that you will be too.
I must say one more word about Christ as the Good Shepherd. Verse 6 has been translated “goodness and love will follow me…,” as though goodness and love are like a pair of puppies that come tripping along on our heels. But the Hebrew word translated “following” is much more powerful than that. It really means “pursue,” evoking an image of a sheepdog chasing down wandering sheep. Indeed, that Hebrew word is often used of enemies pursuing the righteous. Here it means that even when enemies pursue, even when the path leads through the darkest valley, God in his goodness and love will continue to pursue his harassed and perhaps lost sheep.
One cannot help but think here of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15, where the good shepherd leaves the 99 in the open country and risks life and limb to find the one lost sheep. Out into the wilds he goes until he finds the lost one, takes it in his arms or slings it over his shoulders and carries it home, where it will dwell in the house of the Lord. Scholars wonder about David’s reference to that “house,” because, of course, the Temple hadn’t been built yet. But as we preach this Psalm, we must keep in mind Jesus’ claim that he was the new temple.
Psalm 23, read in this Christological light, is a deep assurance that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, providing all we need for our journey, so that we will arrive at last in his presence in the Father’s house. Jesus said in John 10:27-30, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Even if we wander away and get lost, his goodness and love will pursue us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
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The newer reading of Psalm 23:6 reminded me of Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” It begins like this.
“I fled him down the nights and down the years.
I fled him down the arches of the years.
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Then, after several more verses come these memorable lines:
Still with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following feet, and Voice above their beat:
‘Nought shelters thee that will not shelter me.”
Those are the words of our Sheep Dog/Shepherd Savior, who will not stop pursuing us until we find our shelter in the house of the Lord.
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