The Lord is my Shepherd.
What does that bring to mind? Funerals? A long-ago Sunday School class when you had to recite the psalm for your teacher? A time when you found comfort in the middle of crisis? When you recite that psalm, what are you saying about yourself?
The Lord is my shepherd
; You, Lord, are my shepherd.
You must need a shepherd, if you’re putting God in that position. You must not be able to go it alone. You’re also professing that you believe in one God, a God, that you are not an atheist.
Shepherds are associated with authority, but also with violence. A shepherd had to protect himself and his sheep from bandits and wild animals.
It is not a sit-down job. Maybe you imagine a shepherd sitting on a rock catching a few rays. In fact, a shepherd has to be constantly alert, constantly moving, watching both over his sheep and for danger.
I like to think of myself as a cuddly little lamb being caressed on God’s lap, but in reality, God has a much tougher job taking care of me. Like most sheep, wandering comes naturally to me. I don’t see danger or I ignore it. I need my shepherd for my own survival.
I shall not want.I will never be in need. (KJV/CEV)
You are admitting that you don’t need anything, that you have everything you need when God is your shepherd. What do you need right now? I think I need some flowers to plant in my flower bed. I think I need a new dress before Thursday when I have to make a speech in front of people I don’t know. I think I need to take a trip to Colorado and another one to California. I think I need to win the lottery. But if I think about it, I don’t need anything. Here, I have to say that there are plenty of people–in fact, most of the people in this world, who are in need of what I take for granted: food, shelter, health care, dignity and respect. What does the Psalm mean to a Christian living in Palestine or Syria or Indonesia? I cannot say with any authority, but I believe that this Psalm still brings comfort to people, no matter what the situation. One of the gifts of scripture and of faith is that it looks forward rather than back. The promise is still there and sometimes a promise is enough to live on. Amazing but true for those of us who have this peculiar faith.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: You let me rest in fields of green grass. (KJV/CEV)
Two things: First, if sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves.
We are declaring that God makes us feel safe.
Second, what is the big deal about green grass? Think about the pictures you have seen of Israel and Palestine and Egypt. Do you visualize green grass…or rocks and sand? Sheep were the main livestock in Biblical times because they knew how to find food when there wasn’t much of anything growing in the rocky landscape. So, God gives something beyond the bare minimum we need for existence: lush green pastures. We are pretty special.
he leadeth me beside the still waters. You lead me to streams of peaceful water,
Again, God provides us with the necessities, like water. Speaking metaphorically, God gives us the luxury of still waters, not some muddy puddle, not some rocky torrent that requires risking falling into rapids. We drink from still, clear water, safely.
3 He restoreth my soul: and you refresh my life. (KJV/CEV)
God does more than keep us from starving or drowning. God restores and refreshes us. Again, look at how God goes above what is required to keep us alive. One of the benefits of worship is that we are refreshed to make it through the next week. We get a shot of hope, a shot of love to send us on our way.
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. (KJV/CEV)
God is not watching from afar; God is actively involved not only in rescuing and protecting us; God is a hands-on God, helping us to be the people God created us to be.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. (KJV/CEV)
Yes, even with God on our side, we walk through bad times, dangerous times, fearful times…but we have this amazing ability to trust God, to actually know that God will find ways to keep us strong, even when we are not safe. In fact, we often come through that valley even stronger and wiser. Another thing that amazes me is that we can face our battles without fear. That is not true for everyone. We all know people who face illness or loss with fear, rather than trust. We walk through our valleys with pain and discomfort and anger, but fear is strangely absent when we put our trust in God..
for thou art with me; You are with me, (KJV/CEV)
Again, God is with us. God doesn’t work part-time or play favorites. If we can’t find God, it’s not because God is hiding. If we can’t find God, it is because we are emotionally or physically blinded. Nonetheless, God sticks by us, no matter where we wander.
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe. (KJV/CEV)
Having spent a part of my lifetime with sheep, I’m always interested in the husbandry as it is practiced in different parts of the world. I never used a rod or a staff; about the only tool I had was a five-gallon bucket full of oats, which was a good way to get all the sheep in one place. However, the rod and the staff both have specific uses. My favorite book about Psalm 23 is A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 By Phillip Keller. As well as spending time as a shepherd, he also observed shepherds in the Middle East. Here is his description of the rod and the staff.
The rod was what he (the shepherd) relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. And it was, furthermore, the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away.
There is a second dimension in which the rod is used by the shepherd for the welfare of his sheep — namely that of discipline. The club is used for this purpose perhaps more than any other.
There are three areas of sheep management in which the staff plays a most significant role. The first of these lies in drawing sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they become parted. He does this because he does not wish to have the ewe reject her offspring if it bears the odor of his hands upon it.
…the staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd.
The staff is also used for guiding sheep. Again and again I have seen a shepherd use his staff to guide his sheep gently into a new path or through some gate or along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast. Rather, the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. (KJV/CEV)
As far as I know, I’ve never had to eat a meal while my enemies watched me. I think that would be extremely uncomfortable. I’ve led a privileged life in that I’ve always been able to do what I wanted when I wanted. But there are plenty of people who are often surrounded by danger, from the bullied kid on the playground, whose teacher won’t let him stay inside during recess, to the teenager who lives among gang members, to the whistle blower who gets fired for reporting mismanagement in the work place. In other words, there are lots of people who don’t feel safe, whether it’s in the home, the classroom, or the workplace. The bullies, the gang members, the co-workers may not consciously think of themselves as enemies, but they are certainly not friends to someone who is abandoned. How does God pack a lunch for us or protect us from people who want to harm us? We all know that there are some horrible examples where God does not seem to be present. Maybe those are the times when God is trying to lead us in the paths of righteousness, so that we can be the hands and feet of Jesus. That’s above my pay grade. I don’t like it and I don’t pretend to understand it. If I rationalize, it’s because I’m want God to be omnipotent. In other words, God disappoints me sometime. But that works both ways, so I’ll hang in there.
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows. (KJV/CEV)
I’ve always focused on “my cup runneth over” as a sign of abundance. But the important gift here is the anointing. To be anointed is to be honored, to be given the gift of respect. God honors me…of all people! I’m not just a lowly subject; I’m important!
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, (KJV/CEV)
In verse 6, goodness and mercy do not just “follow.” They pursue. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the Hebrew verb…has the more active sense of “pursue.” God is coming after the psalmist. The bad news is, we have enemies. The good news is, God has our back. Ordinarily in the psalms, it is precisely the enemies who “pursue” the psalmist….Here the enemies are present but have been rendered harmless, while God is in active pursuit.”
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. and I will live forever in your house, Lord. (KJV/CEV)
Based on how this psalm is used and on the most popular translation, the King James Version, I’m guessing that most people interpret this “house of the Lord” to mean “heaven.” However, listen to the New Revised Standard Version.
“I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV)
Joel LeMon, Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, points out that because of “the prevalence of images of traveling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.”
Because so much of the Psalm is about protecting us in our daily life, it makes sense to me that our expected reaction should not be a passive waiting to die, but an active engagement with God each day of our lives, daily connecting with God, to praise God, to talk with God, to act with God.
This Psalm is well-known, not just by Christians, but by people who hang out with Christians, by people who watch television and movies and read books and magazines.
Here are a few examples from the media:
- 1961: In The Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man”, the Psalm is recited by an “obsolete” librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), while awaiting capital punishment in his apartment.
- 1997: In the film Titanic it is recited while the ship is sinking.
- 1997: In the film Paradise Road, the WWII story of a group of European women held prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp on Sumatra, the missionary Margaret, played by Pauline Collins, recites the King James version as she dies in the arms of Adrienne Pargiter (played by Glenn Close)
- 2002: In the film We Were Soldiers, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” is referenced multiple times
- 2006: In the ABC series Lost, in episode 2.10 “The 23rd psalm” Mr. Eko recites the Psalm when the plane with the drugs and his brother is burning, and in episode 2.12 “Fire + Water”, he recites it while baptizing Claire and her son Aaron.
- 2009: In the film Terminator Salvation, verse four is read by a preacher to Marcus Wright, before the latter is executed via lethal injection.
- 2010: In the film True Grit, Mattie, the narrator, recites part of the psalm
- 2011: In the film War Horse, a British soldier recites the beginning of the Psalm whilst crossing no-man’s land.
Of all the thousands of pieces of literature in the English language, this is the one that has established itself as an anchor in times of trouble. Not Psalm 51. Not the Beatitudes. Not John 3:16. Psalm 23, over and over and over.
Musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Judy Collins, U2, Bobby McFerrin, Cissy Houston, Marilyn Manson, Kanye West, Megadeth and Jay-Z have referenced Psalm 23 in their lyrics.
Todd Beamer was a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked as part of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He was one of the passengers who tried to reclaim the aircraft from the hijackers, leading them to crash it into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Just before the crash,Beamer recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm …. prompting others to join in.
Later, President George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23 in his address to the nation after the September 11 attacks.
Scott Fitzgerald, John Milton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Edgar Allan Poe all used the image of the valley of death in their literary works.
The Lord is my shepherd. How many people even know what a shepherd does? Many people live in cities far removed from pastures and hillsides and sheep. Yet somehow, this Psalm endures. It is woven into our culture as well as our faith history.
Even if we know nothing about sheep or enemies or pastures or rods or staffs, this Psalm tells us clearly and beautifully that we are protected. It is no wonder that it is shared in so many venues, no wonder that so many people can recite it from memory. Six lines of poetry have passed over the lips of millions of people for thousands of years.
The Lord is my Shepherd. I am the sheep who gets lost, who goes in the wrong direction, who puts myself in danger. I am the sheep who is always protected, never forgotten, always found. Amen.
1 King James Version
2 Contemporary English Version
3 http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-the-kings-shepherd-psalm-231-6/The Politics of the King’s Shepherd—Psalm 23:1-6 20 Apr, 2015 Alastair Roberts
Psalm 23 Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 23 Author: Doug Bratt
6 Excerpts from: A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 By Phillip Keller
7 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2175Nancy Koester Adjunct Professor Augsburg College Minneapolis, MN
Associate Professor of Old Testament Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Ga.