‘Two guys are walking through the woods and come across this big, deep hole.
‘“Wow…that looks deep.”’
‘“Sure does…toss a few pebbles in there and see how deep it is.” So, they pick up a few pebbles and throw them in and wait…no noise. “Dude. That is REALLY deep…here…throw one of these great big rocks down there. Those should make a noise.”
‘They pick up a couple football-sized rocks and toss them into the hole and wait and wait and wait. Nothing.
‘They look at each other in amazement. One gets a determined look on his face and says, “Hey…over here in the weeds, there’s a railroad tie. Help me carry it over here. When we toss THAT sucker in, it’s GOTTA make some noise.”
‘The two men drag the heavy [railroad] tie over to the hole and heave it in. Not a sound comes from the hole.
‘Suddenly, out of the nearby woods, a sheep appears, running like the wind. It rushes toward the two men, then right past them, running as fast as it’s legs will carry it. Suddenly it leaps in the air and into the hole.
‘The two men are astonished with what they’ve just seen…a running, flying sheep. Then, out of the woods comes a farmer who spots the men and ambles over. ‘“Hey…you two guys seen my sheep out here?”
“You bet we did! Craziest thing I ever seen! It came running like crazy and just jumped into this hole!”
‘“Nah,” says the farmer, “That couldn’t have been MY sheep. My sheep was chained to a railroad tie.”
You know, I am sure many of us have days like that when we feel like the sheep chained to the railroad tie. Someone is jerking our chain, maybe into some dark hole. Sometimes we’re the folks trying to discover how deep a hole really is. Heck, some days we might even be the farmer whose lost his sheep in a silly way.
Any way you look at it, many times we find ourselves in need of a shepherd, and that is what we hear in Psalm 23. We hear someone who not only needs a shepherd, but someone who knows the Good Shepherd.
the Lord is my shepherd
At it’s simplest, that’s what Psalm 23 affirms. “The Lord is my shepherd….” It’s an old image, one that is pastoral, caring, powerful. In those ancient days, the king of a people was often called “the shepherd” of the kingdom. So, we hear these words, we see a particular kind of image — one of care and concern, one of guidance and help — someone who cares for their kingdom people.
But, why is this Psalm so powerful, so enduring, so assuring? It’s probably the best known, most memorized piece of scripture next to the Lord’s Prayer. Some folks pray it every day. And, it’s most popular version is, of course, the KJV. You know, in most of the funeral services that I’ve done, the family requests this particular psalm to be read at the service — and usually in the KJV translation. There is something about it that sounds so familiar, so reassuring, so strengthening.
So, listen to what we hear, those images verbally drawn in the first three verses:
- “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We hear about complete provision for our lives, here. Simply, the Lord provides everything we need.
- “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” The shepherd brings us to a place of peace and provision. We rest in a place of provision.
- “He leads me besides still waters.” These are the burbling, reassuring waters of rest that are so needed in our busy lives.
- “He restores my soul.” Our souls find refreshment and restoration with the shepherd who not only provides for our physical needs, but our mental and spiritual needs.
- “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here, the shepherd guides in all the right paths, the paths of the Lord. We can follow the paths of righteousness because of who God is — God leads us on these paths for his own name’s sake.
These are powerful pictures that bring us deep senses of help, trust, and presence. You know, Stonewall Jackson was famous for his calm in battle. His sense of trust came from knowing this kind of truth about who God is. He said, and it’s hard to imagine,“My faith has taught me to be as at peace in battle as I am in bed [sic].” Amazing.
Powerful images of comfort and strength and provision come in these affirmations of who God is, how God gives, how God loves. At one time or another in our lives, we’ve experienced this kind of God — one who cares for us is ways where we will lack nothing. “I shall not want” are deep words of trust, which is good as we head into the valley.
heading into the valley
As many green pastures and quiet waters we have in our lives, we also have valleys of the shadow. When pilgrims would come to Jerusalem to worship and sacrifice, they had to travel through valleys, places where bandits might attack. So these words of traveling through the valley of the shadow of death were very real words of protection and assurance. For us it might be, “Though I have to drive through the traffic of a huge city, I will fear no evil.”
But, please hear this, the valley of the shadow is not just about the shadow of death, it’s about sin, too. Truth is, it’s about facing the hostiles in this world however we name them.
- “I will fear no evil for you are with me….”
- “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The rod is a kind of cudgels for protection and a “paddle,” if you will, for correction. On the one hand, the Lord protects from enemies, and the Lord guides and directs through discipline. On the other hand, the staff is about guiding and saving. A shepherd’s crook is a long stick with a hook to guide and to save.
And, we have to notice, here, the power of God’s presence. We are able to travel through the valley of the shadow because God is with us. Presence makes all the difference.
God sets the table
The psalm then moves from protecting and saving to this table with God as the generous host: images of the table, food, cup. He prepares these for us in the presence of our enemies, again, however we might name the hostiles. The point is not vindication against those trying to tear us down, whether it’s people or situations or sickness; the point is that God provides for those who trust him in all circumstances.
Bible commentator James Mays states, “The psalm’s confession is based on the salvation history of the people, and expresses the individual’s participation in God’s ongoing salvific activity. The trust expressed is not just a matter of mood. Strength must be found, a way must be walked, harm and evil threatened. Enemies persist. That is the environment of trust. Trust is not a rosy, romantic, optimistic view of things,” Mays says. “Its foundations are prayer and thanksgiving and the story of salvation. ‘There is a great difference [Mays quotes John Calvin] between this sleep of stupidity and the repose which faith produces’ (Calvin, 1:395).” And, interestingly, that little quote from John Calvin which Mays uses sounds remarkably like old Stonewall Jackson.
So, it’s not being stupid, smelly sheep, which we are sometimes; it’s about being faithful, trusting followers of this kind of God — the Shepherd, the protector in the valley, the provider at the table. The God at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives.
We must have faith in this kind of God who gives provision and protection in the ebb and flow of life. It’s just a characteristic of God. God can do nothing else but be God. And, we see those characteristics of God, we understand those images in an intimate and powerful way.
don’t forget the pronouns
And, let’s not forget the pronouns. Right? It wouldn’t be Sunday morning without some kind of grammar lesson. Remember all the personal pronouns, “I,” “me,” “my,” or “mine,” we hear in the Psalm. These tell of ownership, connection, and, in a word, relationship. When we use these words, we attach ourselves to those characteristics of God’s presence in our lives. So, God becomes our shepherd, our protector in the valley, our provider at the table. No matter what happens. That’s my God, that’s our God.
The verbs are important: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. God does all those things so we can live. God is the one who provides and protects through all our lives.
The point: God is the One who keeps us alive, now and forever. God is deeply and intimately attached to us. God is attentive and present with us at great risk, and there is no greater risk of God’s attention to our lives than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All this is done for the well-being of the sheep.
Jesus tells us in John, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It really is that simple, that powerful, that life-giving. God can do nothing but be God; that’s who God is: righteous, good, loving, merciful. It’s in God’s character, and when we pray this Psalm we attach ourselves to the provision and protection of this God.
God at the start, middle, and end
You know, these truths are in God’s name, too. The name of God in vv. 1, 6 comes from Exodus 3.14 (“I am”); and the divine pronoun “for you are with me” in v. 4 again points to God’s name. We get it. Right? God at the start; God at the end; God in the middle.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, “The name Yahweh [I am] is uttered only twice, abruptly at the beginning and the end, so that the poem, like this trustful life, is lived fully in the presence of this name which sets the parameters for both life and speech….It is God’s companionship that transforms every situation.”
God is God in these images, pronouns, and verbs. God not only follows in these adjectives, these characteristics we’ve heard, but God pursues. And God pursues us right here, too, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God pursues us at this table. Maybe that’s why is this Psalm so powerful, so enduring, so assuring. All these images and words make the difference because they point to the presence of this God who provides and protects and pursues.
Here at this table, when we celebrate communion, the sense of “I shall not want” is richly and deeply fulfilled for our lives. It is most certainly about living life well under the provision and protection of the good shepherd; it’s about living a life full of trust, now.
No matter what we face, we can trust the Lord who is our Shepherd. The one who is our shepherd is with us. God is present to provide and protect.
It’s a song of trust to the One who will preserve and protect our lives, now and forever. We need not worry over our lives or our deaths, for the Lord, our shepherd will provide. The only proper response to the simple good news of Psalm 23 and our Savior Jesus Christ is to abandon ourselves in complete and utter trust.
The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd. I am a sheep, you are a sheep, we are the sheep together. All of God’s people, all around the world, yes we’re the sheep together. And that is good news in a hurting and hurtful world. Yep. Amen.
A text for the table: Psalm 23.
Image Credit: “Leading Like the Good Shepherd” and “The Good Shepherd Icon.”