Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2024

Psalm 23 Commentary

Across the years I have written sermon commentaries on Psalm 23 so often that I am fairly certain I have little new or creative to say that has not been conveyed in one way, shape, or form before!  It also does not help that this may be the single most familiar psalm of them all.  It is difficult not to cave in to the temptation to more or less tune out the poem when you hear it because many people can recite it from memory—or goodly parts of the psalm anyway.

As an Eastertide psalm selection, this certainly fits the bill for a season that focuses on resurrection hope.  This is definitely among those psalms that we could classify as being decidedly sunny-side-up reflections.  Everything is absolutely fine for this psalmist.  Green pastures, still waters, right paths, oil anointings, honor in front of enemies, surely, goodness, mercy . . . everything’s coming up roses.  It is all delightful stuff but as with any number of other psalms that similarly paint a consistently bright picture, reflecting on Psalm 23 is a good occasion to recall that about one-third of the 150 psalms are in the modality of Lament, providing across the Hebrew Psalter a more nuanced picture of the way life goes for even faithful followers of God.  Not every day, not every season is a Psalm 23 one.

But even within Psalm 23 we get some reminders of that larger truth.  Because even the sentiments in this poem do not deny some, literally, darker realities.  First there is the reminder near the end of the psalm that the psalmist does have actual enemies.  The mention of such foes comes in the happier context of God’s honoring the psalmist in ways that apparently are calculated to shame his enemies.  But that nevertheless does not deny the sad reality that enemies do exist.  Count that as one of Psalm 23’s nods to some realism even in the midst of a mostly upbeat poem on the never-ending goodness of God’s providential care.

However very near the exact middle of Psalm 23 there is that reference to a valley of darkness or the more traditional translation of “the valley of the shadow of death.”  That’s 7 English words that try to capture the meaning of what is actually a single word in the original Hebrew: tsalmavet.  It is a word that crops up 18 times in the Old Testament.  Fourteen of those occurrences are in either Job or Psalms.  And in all those contexts it is clear that whatever that word meant precisely, it points to the darkest realities in the spiritual world.  In Job and in other psalms it is darkness not in the sense of an absence of light but the darkness of death, of evil.  In some passages it may even refer to the chaotic formless void that existed before Creation (and that is referred to in Genesis 1) out of which God brought light and order and cosmos.  And since the tohu ve bohu referred to in Genesis 1 later in Scripture becomes shorthand for the chaotic dangers of the wilderness, this word is used in that connection too.

Anything that involves tsalmavet, in short, is the most perilous situation imaginable from which we need God’s saving deliverance.  If we are not saved from such places, we will perish.  So once again, give the otherwise up-beat poem of Psalm 23 credit for yet another nod to realism: even the most faithful of people will pass through some perilously dark and difficult times.  The good news of Psalm 23, of course, is that just passing through such a season is not an indication that God has abandoned you.  You do not find yourself in tsalmavet because God has gone on holiday.  Whatever the precise reasons may be why we have to face such grim realities, the good news is that our Good Shepherd is with us even there.  The prodding and protective curbing of our steps by God’s rod and staff are a reminder of who is walking right behind us all the way.

By the time you get to the New Testament, you begin to encounter the paradox of the One who is our Good Shepherd while ultimately also being a lamb himself—a slain lamb eventually.  Our Shepherd is also a sheep like us and who knows from the inside what it is like to pass through the valley of the shadow of death.  No, it’s more than even just that: he is the One who has passed through death itself and not just death’s chill shadow.

But as we know in Eastertide, that slain sacrificial Lamb is very much alive.  He bears the scars of death but he bears them as our Good Shepherd on a resurrection body that is itself testament to his victory over sin and death.  The primary reason why we have reason to hope for all the positive sentiments in Psalm 23 is just that resurrection fact.

Because our Good Shepherd is risen!  Risen indeed!

Illustration Idea

Years ago my colleague Neal Plantinga and I heard the late Rev. John Claypool deliver a sermon at a worship service that was part of a larger event surrounding the installation of Tom Long as the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler Divinity School in Atlanta.  At the end of the service Claypool used a benediction we had never heard before (though we have since traced it back to the breastplate of St. Patrick).  Neal memorized it on the spot and wrote it down and we have both been using it for years since.

I can testify that I regularly have people comment on how rich this blessing is.  At my former church people requested that this be the benediction I use at weddings and funerals.  And it very much speaks to the sentiments and emotions evoked by Psalm 23 and of the Easter hope for our slain-lamb-turned-shepherd Savior:

God go before you to guide you.

God go behind you to protect you.

God go beneath you to support you.

God go beside you to befriend you.

Be not afraid.

And let the blessing of Almighty God:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

Descend on you, settle in around you

And make its home in you.

Be not afraid.

Go in peace.


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