Psalm 23 – A Psalm for the living not just for the dead
If you were to describe God in one word what would you call him? David called him a shepherd but that also meant that David called himself a sheep. David had himself been a keeper of sheep, and understood both the needs of the sheep and the many cares of a shepherd. But David, (as should we) in admitting that he was a sheep also admitted the nature of the sheep and his own nature; weak, defenceless, and yes even foolish.
Sheep are not brilliant creatures. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.
David opens the Psalm with a noble tone of confidence. The Lord IS my shepherd; there is no “if” nor “but”, nor even “I hope so”; but he says, “The Lord IS my shepherd.” In doing so he declares that he has cultivated a spirit of assured dependence upon his heavenly Father.
But he also follows this declaration of faith with another; “I shall not want.”
That response, “I shall not want,” immediately puts us at odds with our culture, in which we are conditioned to be consumers who always lack something. If people lived by Psalm 23 (lacking nothing because the Lord is their shepherd) our economy would collapse. So, we look at the Hebrew text which is perhaps better translated as, “I shall lack nothing,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” Think about it, our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. So here is a question we need to ask ourselves. What do I lack? Well? Perhaps I lack the latest iPhone or a great job and lots of creature comforts. I lack a beautiful house and I lack… We can fill in the blank endlessly.
To live by Psalm 23 would mean ignoring the constant barrage of messages saying, “you are unhappy, you need more stuff.” Psalm 23 resets that consumer mentality. If we genuinely and in the marrow of our being believe that God is with us, then the only logical consequence would be, “I shall not want.”
But Psalm 23 is more than just a reset button on a consumer mentality, it reflects the confidence and the relationship that we share with God. Consider one four letter word in verse four: ‘thou’ translated in the RSV as “you” (for ‘you’ are with me). The second-person pronoun “thou” is old English, a relic from the 1611 King James Version and here is a fascinating thought. James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after, “Thou art with me.” Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very centre of our lives.
Notice also that in the first three verses of the psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd… he leads me… he restores my soul.” But once with the “thou” or “you” in verse four, the third person shifts to second person: “for thou art with me, thy rod… thou preparest a table…” Instead of talking about God, the psalmist begins to talk to God; instead of God in the head, God is a friend in the heart. A conversation happens, a relationship grows. This is faith!
This relationship does not guarantee the believer a world free of troubles. Being a Christian does not mean I am insulated from attack. The psalmist acknowledges a crisis that the he is going through. In Psalm 23, the crisis is described as “the darkest valley” he has to walk through; the “evil” is real and “the presence of my enemies” is not denied. This has been our experience too. We have experienced walking the dark valley and sitting at a table surrounded by enemies but we have also experienced his crook and staff with which we are COMFORTED and not defended or protected.
What truly helps us understand this better is when we understand the position of this psalm in the listing of Psalms. It follows the twenty-second psalm, which is peculiarly the Psalm of the Cross. In Psalm 22 there are no green pastures, no still waters. It is only after we have read, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” that we come to “The Lord is my Shepherd.” We must by experience know the value of blood shedding, and see the sword awakened against the Shepherd, before we shall be able truly to know the sweetness of the good shepherd’s care.
The Psalm ends with two hopeful claims. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me” and “In the Lords own house shall I dwell.” The first claim when read in the Hebrew is best translated as, “surely goodness and loving kindness shall pursue me.” The confidence of the psalmist shines brightly even while being stalked by his enemies. The goodness and love of God do not simply follow me but pursue me; it is relentless. This is blessed assurance. Yet it is the “house of the Lord that I seek to dwell all the days of my life.”
While this second claim often resonates loudest at funerals its rightful interpretation is not to be translated as ‘heaven’ but as Psalm 27:4 will tell us that the ‘house of the Lord’ is the temple of Jerusalem. This is why psalm 23 is principally a psalm of comfort for the living. It is a psalm for you and me who feel swamped by the world and the tragedies that have befallen us. In all of this, our relationship with the shepherd is unquestionable and, in his care, we entrust ourselves. Indeed, Psalm 23 essentially says that the best thing about having the Lord as shepherd is having the Lord as shepherd.
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