Presidential funerals always draw a huge television audience. We have seen it for Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and most recently for George H.W. Bush. But when you watch such services, you need not have the funeral program in your hands to guess that probably at some point some pastor is going to read Psalm 23. It seems all-but required. It is one of the few passages of Scripture that—even in this day of ever-growing biblical illiteracy—many people still know pretty much by heart.
Can you even remember a time when you were not familiar with this ancient Hebrew poem? It is hands-down the most famous of the 150 psalms in the Psalter. In terms of recognizability, Psalm 23 is probably right up there with popular ditties like “Roses are red, violets are blue,” with Shakespearean sonnets like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” and well-known song lyrics like “Happy birthday to you.” If you hear even just a snippet or two of such well-known poems and songs, your mind fills in the rest automatically.
It was 1969 in Mrs. Luyk’s Kindergarten room at Seymour Christian School that I first saw Psalm 23 written out on construction paper and tacked up above the blackboard. My first homework was to memorize those same words. Since then, I’ve seen these words chiseled onto headstones, set into stained glass windows, calligraphed onto greeting cards, embroidered onto numerous wall hangings, and set to many different tunes. In fact, most hymnals include multiple settings of Psalm 23.
That’s quite amazing given that the pastoral imagery of this poem is quite remote from our everyday life. We can understand why the song “Happy Birthday” is so well-known: we all have many occasions every year to sing it for someone. Similarly love songs and sonnets are things we can relate to because most of us know what it’s like to be in love–plus, Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversaries, and marriage ceremonies give us any number of chances to reach for famous romantic poems and songs.
But Psalm 23 is mostly all about a shepherd and sheep, and very few of us have ever even met a shepherd. Certainly we don’t have regular contact with sheep (wool sweaters notwithstanding). Speaking for myself, my primary contact with lambs comes when I’m tucking into a rack that is nicely crusted with a mustard-thyme coating of bread crumbs! In terms of imagery, Psalm 23 doesn’t seem to have any natural connection to us in the modern world. Most of us are far more familiar with lawyers, doctors, plumbers, and mechanics than we are with shepherds. We’ve had more experience with police officers directing traffic than we have had with sheep being directed along by a shepherd.
And yet the popularity of Psalm 23 persists. Why is that, I wonder? Psalm 23 has about it all the hallmarks of an echo from a bygone era. Our lack of contact with the pastoral world makes these words on our lips sound like some kind of anachronism. It’s like hearing a teenager saying he’s going to “dial” his friend’s phone number. That’s a funny, out-of-time expression seeing as very few people under the age of 20 have ever even seen a rotary phone with a dial on it. We don’t dial phones anymore, we punch the numbers in. Yet the old language hangs in there.
So here: by all rights Psalm 23 should fall on our ears like a foreign phrase. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Is it merely nostalgia? Or is there something more going on here? Because when you stop to think about it, by all rights Psalm 23 should have another strike against it, too: in this nation of rugged, self-made individuals where every person is encouraged to become his or her own ethical referee, taking life as it comes and making up the rules as he or she goes along: in a society like this one, why would we want to have much to do with an ancient psalm that talks about being led around by someone else? We live by the customer mentality in America. I want it my way right away (and while we’re at it, I will be the one to determine what my way is).
As thoughtful writers like Eugene Peterson and David Wells once noted, even the church has been affected by this wider cultural mentality. Church leaders are still referred to as “pastors,” which means “shepherd,” of course. But more and more seminaries are training pastors not so much to be shepherds but leaders, facilitators, vision-casters, spiritual managers and CEOs.
And yet Psalm 23 endures. Why? Because in the deep places of our souls, I suspect that we all sense that maybe everybody needs a shepherd. Way down deep in places we don’t talk about when we’re laughing it up at a party, we long for someone bigger, wiser, and stronger to take care of us. In these days when we think so much about Homeland Security, we all realize again how much we’d enjoy more security than we usually have any given day.
Psalm 23 evokes this for us and in us. Everybody needs a shepherd because no one gets off the planet alive. But if we need a shepherd in this ultimate sense, it seems only natural to want to start being led by this same shepherd as soon as possible. We need someone already now who can restore our often troubled souls.
Psalm 23 starts out with what looks to be an overly rosy picture. The images of green pastures, still waters, and righteous paths sound very nice but not necessarily like a description of an average day. Similarly the banquet imagery to which this psalm switches near the end doesn’t apply to every moment of our lives, does it? Sometimes our cups overflow and we have a table prepared in the presence of our enemies, but at other times our cups dry up and it seems like our enemies are feasting on us!
But the center of the psalm introduces that necessary element of realism, too. Psalm 23 does a good job covering the spectrum of our lives from good times to bad ones, from sunny seasons to death’s darker valleys. The constant in life needs to be the presence of that shepherd. The statement of faith contained in verse 1 does not deny that sometimes we experience hardship, fear, loss, and even death. The point of that opening verse is that in good times and bad, in times of great gain and great loss, if the Lord God Yahweh is our shepherd, we have what we need.
In fact, the Hebrew of verse 1 is intriguingly left open-ended. The verb “to lack” does not have any object. The new translation says, “I shall not be in want,” but the older version may have been closer to the Hebrew original: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .” what? If someone says, “I think I am missing . . .” the logical thing to ask is, “You think you’re missing what.” So in Psalm 23:1: if the psalmist wants to say he is not lacking, you might wonder what specifically he’s talking about. But instead it’s left open-ended as if to say that if the Lord God is with us, whatever else in life we may wish we had, the bottom line is that we are still OK so long as we are under this shepherd’s care.
In Hebrew poetry lines don’t rhyme but use parallelisms. A first line is echoed by a very similar second line yet the second line usually deepens the meaning of the first. As Tom Long once pointed out, we do the same thing when we speak parallel lines such as,
My son is thirteen.
He’s a teenager.
In a sense both lines mean the same thing but the freight gets loaded onto the word “teenager” in the second line, deepening the meaning behind the number “thirteen” in the first line. It’s the second line that let’s everyone know that you are conveying more than the chronological age of your child. He’s not just thirteen, he’s a teenager replete with all the adolescent Sturm und Drang and struggle that can go with that.
The opening verse here does the same thing.
The Lord is my shepherd.
I will not lack.
This poet just said the same thing twice but the second line now fills in the meaning of the first line. What kind of a shepherd is our God? The one in whose presence we will never finally be lacking. In his presence and under his guidance, we’ll never be alone, never be abandoned, never travel down a path where he cannot follow in his goodness and love. So what is it you will not lack? You’ll never lack for a God who loves you, who cares for you, and who has prepared a place for you. That is who your shepherd is. And he abides with you even when you enter that place none of us can finally avoid: the valley of the shadow of death.
Is it any wonder that the Lord Jesus who entered death ahead of us in order to blaze a trail to eternal life picked up on this pastoral image to say, “I am the good shepherd and my sheep know my voice.” Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along–that’s how you get a shadow after all: a light shines behind something. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get at that light.
The world and our culture have changed much since that era when Psalm 23 was composed thousands of years ago. But we still like it. We like it because we need it. Everybody needs a shepherd. And the good news of the gospel is that we now follow that most remarkable of all shepherds: the one who is himself one of us, a Lamb–a Lamb that looks to have been slain at that. This Shepherd-Lamb walks with us, his shepherd’s crook now in the shape of a cross leading us on, prodding us, protecting us, and taking us home in the end. When we were in Kindergarten and the teacher had us memorize these words, our young voices sweetly intoned that line about a banquet “in the presence of mine enemies.” Truth is, back in Kindergarten we didn’t know what an enemy was and probably we didn’t have any real ones.
But we’re older now. Now we’ve got enemies and we are altogether too acquainted with that final enemy named death. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. Life is not easy. It’s not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
I am told that unlike cattle who like to be driven from behind, sheep prefer to be led. Sheep apparently have an uncanny ability to form a trusting relationship with their shepherds. I read sometime back that a sleeping flock of sheep will not stir if their own shepherd steps gingerly through their midst. But let a stranger so much as set foot near the flock, and the sheep will startle awake as though a firecracker had gone off. In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2022
Psalm 23 Commentary