My Mother’s introduction to Scripture was Psalm 23. She learned it when she was around the age of 12. Having been raised in a non-church going family, this was new to her. Where did she learn this precious prayer? Public school! There was actually a time when prayer, Scripture and God’s moral values were taught unashamedly in our schools. Ethics seminars in the workplace were unheard of and unnecessary. Why? You had already been instilled with these values and the respect which they demand. Did everyone follow these guidelines? Of course not! But, the line between right and wrong was clearly delineated; unlike today.
So, what was it that made this one Psalm; this shepherd’s song, so relevant? I decided to take a closer look. Praying through these words, the LORD opened my eyes and heart in new ways. Let me share a few of these thoughts with you now.
“The LORD is”. Notice that it doesn’t say “a lord”. There is no room for new age thinking here. Just as Jesus said; “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life” “The LORD” Points us in One direction; towards Him. “is” is one of those little words which doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It brings a sense of continuity; an unchanging attribute. That was exactly the idea God wished to convey when He told Moses; “I AM What I AM”. It isn’t that He was, or will be. He is!
“LORD” also forces us to admit two things: He is in control and therefore we are not. He cannot be our LORD, if we do not admit being subservient to Him. Notice that I said “our” LORD. Regardless of our response, He is “The LORD”. Jesus brought us into the right relationship with The LORD, when He taught us to pray “Our Father”. What a wonderful privilege! THis thought is carried on in the next part of the verse with “our Shepherd”.
We are wonderfully blessed in a relationship with “our” Shepherd. Yet, the title of shepherd doesn’t seem to garner the sense of respect which it should. Most of the folks I asked “what is your view of a shepherd?”, seemed to think it was a lowly position, long extinct. Apparently they have never looked at Scotland, or other countries where the shepherd still plays a vital role in the economy. Others related it to the non-speaking, worst part you could be given as a kid in a Christmas pageant. These demeaning perspectives are far from the truth.
Jesus said that “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep”. He goes on to point out that “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away… The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” What a difference! The shepherd owns the sheep and cares for them enough to give his life to protect them. Jesus wanted us to know that sense of security in Him, as the Good Shepherd.
I guess that means we must see ourselves as sheep. Hmm…. That could take a bit of getting used to, since sheep are known for being, well… sheep. Not the most intelligent of God’s creatures, sheep need a shepherd. Otherwise they scatter, wandering into thickets, over cliffs and pretty much any other trouble a sheep can get into. Am I really like that? In all honesty, yes. I need a Shepherd, the Shepherd, to guide and direct me. If you are at all honest, you do as well.
“I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures“. God provides for our every need. We have no need to want more. Contentment. Isn’t that a wonderful state of mind! How can we achieve contentment? Look around you. Isn’t God providing for your needs? “Green pastures” are a sheep’s “heaven”. They eat the nutritious green grasses; finding far more than they need. They sleep in the comfort of the soft blades. Yet, being sheep, they see another hill afar off and want to wander there. The shepherd, knowing that there is a rocky ravine ahead, makes them lie down. Here, he says is a safe place, sufficient for their needs. Sometimes, like strong willed sheep, we balk at being made to lie down where we are. “The grass is always greener on the other side”, should always be understood as “the grass simply appears to be greener”. How many times, I’ve gotten “there” only to be disappointed by what had seemed bigger, better, … greener than it truly was.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul“. Leading indicates the shepherd going first. We’re not heading into unknown territory. We, like sheep need to simply allow ourselves to be led, trusting that our Shepherd will chose the safe path. “Still waters” is a place where the sheep would stop for a refreshing drink. The noise would upset the sheep and the possible danger of trying to drink water from a rapids, just isn’t a good idea. Where or what are your still waters? Perhaps, like me you find solace in walking along a river or lakeshore. Likewise, I find peace in reading Scripture, especially the Psalms. Maybe your “still place” is in the woods, doing a puzzle, driving a country road… Regardless of the how and where, the why is the same. We all need to quiet our minds and have our souls restored. God knows our need and leads us into that place; soothing, comforting us.
“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake.” In a simultaneous manner God leads us in other paths as well. Notice that this is plural. Life’s journey is comprised of many paths. He leads us in those which are right. Righteousness literally means “pleasing”. Sometimes we might disagree with God’s opinion on what seems pleasing. However, that is because we have a tendency to take things out of context. These pleasing paths are to be trod “for His name’s sake”. This journey, this life is meant for us to commit to and serve our LORD. Remember, we are the sheep and He is the Shepherd. Don’t let this put you off. Following, trusting and pleasing the LORD makes for a wonderful, promise filled life. He goes before us to show us the Way. That was why Jesus lived among us. He demonstrated the Perfect walk with the Father. He didn’t just demand it – He lived it.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” can be a toughie to deal with. As a kid, I recall thinking; “Yea!?” Why would anyone cheer at the prospect of dying? Yeah, well, considering some of my other misunderstandings, this one wasn’t all that bad! “Yea” means “yes”. It is an affirmation. Of what? That I will have to deal with some unpleasantries in my life. That’s reality. Some people enter Christianity with the false belief that once saved, life is a rose garden. Quite the contrary! Once you turn towards Jesus, you have turned your back on Satan and it ticks him off. Tests and troubles will pop up. But, as we’ll see; “He that is within me is greater than he that is in the world.”.
“I walk through” tells us that we are led not around, bypassing these things; but “through”. Doesn’t seem like very good news, does it? But, it’s reality. Knowing it is ahead, is preparation of sorts. What stimulates fear more than anything else in this life? The unknown. Okay, now we know that there are things out there. But, where do we encounter them in life’s walk? “the valley“. You know what I like about valleys? They are like tunnels; they have an entrance and an exit. We have to walk through. But, now we know that there’s a Way out! This isn’t a box canyon we’re being led into. The LORD is promising that whatever looms ahead and around is not the end. He is the Light at the end of the valley.
In this valley is the “shadow of death“, not death itself. What is a shadow? it is a dark, insignificant, insubstantial replica. Seeing a shadow can cause fear and anxiety. You wonder what it is. Again, the unknown grabs you. Your imagination runs rampant and fear takes over. How can you overcome this fear? Examine what is causing the shadow. Shadows are the result of something standing between you and a light source. As a Christian, your Light Source is Jesus. If you believe that, then you must also believe that the light is bigger, brighter and more powerful than that which casting a shadow. That includes death.
Perhaps the shadow of death is not referring to physical death. What about the fear of the loss of a job, a relationship, the ability to feel productive. Shadows can seem more real than the actual situation. Shadows can paralyze. We need to look at the Light.
“I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Easier said than done, isn’t it?! But this portion of the Psalm points out our need to trust. Faith is only as good as the Object of our faith. As we’ve already discovered, our faith is in the unchanging, love of the LORD of all creation. Evil is real. But, God is with me. He’s armed with more power than I can imagine. A shephered’s staff was; is not only a great tender for the sheep, but a formidably weapon. Another use for the staff was its place at the gate. Quite often the sheep were herded into a simple corral for the night. The shepherd would then place his staff across the opening. Doesn’t seem like a very good security system. Then you realize that the sheep know this staff. They have been guided and perhaps on occasion whacked by this familiar stick. They look at it and have no desire to go past it. God sets boundaries for us as well. These are not to restrict us, but meant to free us from fear. Why would we desire to challenge such loving protection. Our Shepherd set the cross before us. Find comfort and peace in knowing that He would “lay down His life” for us.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Oh, my! The conversations this has struck up! Let’s start with “Who is Thou”? Well, since God has been the Object thus far…. “But, that would mean that God prepares a table for me?!” Jesus said; “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve”. “What is this table?” The word used indicates a king’s banquet; a feast. The problem with accepting all of this seems to be with the visual image of a literal banquet. To best understand this, let’s look at; “Who or what are my enemies?”. There are folks who don’t much like me, for one reason or another. But, I can’t really say that they are enemies. Satan surely is the enemy of God and therefore mine as well. But, there are also less obvious enemies; fear, anxiety, bitterness, envy, pride. They are all things which steal my peace and therefore are enemies; present and accounted for. So, in the midst of these things, God sets before me a wonderful banquet. The table is filled with His promises, His love, His provision, His wisdom and most wonderfully of all; His Presence.
In a vision, the prophet Ezekial was given a scroll, as was John in his vision of the Revelation. Both were told to eat the scroll and “it tasted like honey”. That’s the word of God! When we read His Word, we are digesting a wondrous feast which He Himself has set before us!
“Thou anointest my head with oil“. In the case of David, Samuel anointed him to be the future king of Israel. Jesus, was anointed in Bethany. We are God’s chosen, anointed by His Holy Spirit. Being anointed means to be set apart for a purpose. Our purpose is not to be king; but to serve the King. What an honor!
Not only does God prepare a table before us and anoint us for His purposes, but “My cup runneth over“. In many cultures, it was tradition to fill a welcome guest’s wine cup to overflowing. Note, I said “welcome guest”. This was to indicate that they were welcome to remain and that there was more than enough wine and hospitality for their stay. The wine served in such an occasion would have been “the good stuff”. When Jesus turned water into wine, remember that the guests were impressed that the best had been saved until last. This has the same connotation as overfilling the cup. Now, relate that to our situation. God is telling us that we are welcome and is inviting us to stay and partake of the very best, which He is offering freely.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the LORD forever“. “Goodness” is the same word as “grace”. Grace is God’s unrelenting, unchanging love. It does not depend upon what we do, or whom we are. It is how God feels about us, regardless. Mercy is everything we are given, which we don’t deserve. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” and “The wages of sin is death.” tell us what we deserve – death – separation from God and His Perfection. Mercy is Him offering us salvation through Jesus Christ. Placing our faith in His death and resurrection is us accepting the Gift. Then we will indeed “dwell in the House of the LORD forever”! Jesus said; “In My Father’s House are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.”. If you know Him, you have a reservation. The banquet is set and the welcome cup is overflowing. I look forward to meeting you there!
I’m sure that I’ve only touched the surface with these thoughts. My hope is that I have encouraged you to look at not only this Psalm, but at Scripture in a new way. Read, ask questions, pray and search. This is God’s Living Word. Ask Him to open your heart and mind. I think you’ll be amazed. I know you’ll be blessed.