A deeper look at the 23rd Psalm

Good morning, Friends!

I always think it’s good to go back and study things when we think we know all about them.

Psalm 23 is one of the psalms traditionally attributed to David. David started out as a shepherd boy, and he finished up as a king. Along the way, he was also a song writer. He wrote songs and psalms we still enjoy, 3,000 years later.

Psalm 23 is one of everybody’s favorite Bible passages. A lot of us know it by heart. Hands up – how many people think you’ve got it memorized? A lot of us learned it in Sunday School. Some of us like to say it to ourselves as a quiet prayer. I get a lot of requests for me to say it when I’m visiting in the hospital. We say it at funerals and memorial services.

But there’s always something new for us to learn in these great Bible passages. So, today, let’s take a deeper look at the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

– Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd. . .”

David didn’t invent the idea of God as a shepherd. We find it all over the place in the Bible.
“God will feed his flock like a shepherd,” said the prophet Isaiah, “and will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them close to him, and gently lead the mother sheep. . .” (Isaiah 40:11)

The prophet Ezekiel put it even more strongly: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and I will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered. . .I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries. . .I will feed them with good pasture. . . I will seek the lost, I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . .I will feed them with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

So, David didn’t invent this idea. The prophets often talk about the whole nation of Israel as a flock of sheep. That’s not always a compliment, either. I have kept sheep, and they’re not the smartest animals around. The nation goes astray, and God brings us back.

But Psalm 23 is more intimate. It’s in the first person. In a way, the 23rd Psalm is written from the sheep’s perspective.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. . .” Part of why we love the 23rd Psalm so much is that we identify with the writer.

Later on, Christians read the 23rd Psalm together with sayings of Jesus. “I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “I know my own, and my own know me. . .and I lay down my life for my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. And so there will be one flock, and one shepherd. . .” (John 10:14-16)

In the gospel, it says that when Jesus saw the crowds who came to him for teaching, he had compassion for them, “. . .because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34) Jesus cares for us. Jesus loves us.

Jesus once told a story about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. 99 of them were safe, and well-behaved, and didn’t get lost. But one got lost out on the hills somewhere. No one knew where it was. They wrote it off. Just another casualty of life. Just one more lost sheep.

But Jesus said that to the shepherd, it mattered. It mattered a lot. Jesus said that the shepherd left the whole flock of 99, and went out to look for the one that was lost. The 99 may have been puzzled. The people looking on may have been puzzled. But to a shepherd, one lost sheep is important.

Jesus said that the shepherd searched all over, looking through hills and valleys and briar bushes, till he found the one that was missing. And when the shepherd found it, he didn’t scold the lost sheep. Jesus said that he put it on his shoulders, and brought it home rejoicing!

That is how Jesus himself acts. Jesus cares about people who have lost their way. He cares about the stranger. He cares about people who have gone missing.

Jesus said that there would be more rejoicing in heaven, over one lost soul, one lost sheep, than over all the ones who were safe the whole time. (Luke 15:3-7)

Anyway, back to Psalm 23. It’s personal, and we like that. It talks about being cared for, and we appreciate that.

“I shall not want. . .There is nothing I need. . .” That’s an important statement. We need food, and we need clothing. We all need shelter, and safety. Those needs are all legitimate.

But there’s another sense – if God is our shepherd, then we don’t need anything else. It’s taken care of. We’re OK. If you think about the relentless advertising we live with today, the endless hype that says we need to buy more, more, more, Psalm 23 says something very different. “I shall not want. . .I have everything that I need. . .God is my shepherd.

Then we come to some poetry. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. . .” Those words aren’t literal. But they’re powerful. They’re calming. They’re resting. But there’s also a message in there, about who’s in charge.God leads us to safety. God brings us to a place of rest and peace.

“God restores my soul.” That phrase is the heart of what Psalm 23 is all about. There is something in the center of our lives, in the core of our being, which gets hurt. From time to time, it gets lost. We can call it a soul, or a spirit, or a self. We know it’s there, whatever word we use to name it.

God restores my soul. God helps me to re-discover my center. God heals my heart. God goes to that place of innermost truth where I even try to hide from myself. And God restores it. God lays healing hands on it. God meets me, in my heart of hearts, and God is God, and I am simply – myself. My true self. God and I are together, and that’s all that needs to be happening. God restores my soul.

“God leads me in paths of righteousness, for the sake of God’s own name. . .”

That word, “righteousness” is interesting. We know about self-righteousness, and we don’t like it in other people. A lot of people are turned off by the church today, because they identify it with self-righteousness. We don’t like it when other people are stuck up and full of themselves. So why should folks like us, if the church is full of self-righteous people, too?

“Righteousness” – the Hebrew word is tzedekah – is something very different. It doesn’t mean being stuck-up. It has to do with justice. It has to do with truth and fairness.

When the Bible talks about God’s righteousness, the examples the Bible uses are that God helps people who can’t help themselves. Righteousness means helping the poor. In the Bible, righteousness means giving equal justice to immigrants and to aliens who live in the midst of God’s people.

The Bible talks about caring for widows and orphans – in today’s world, I think that extends to caring for kids who don’t have two parents. It’s not the kids’ fault. They deserve the same care, from Christians and from society, as every other child.

There are people who are widowed – their life partner has died – and there are also people who have lost partners or had broken relationships. We need to care for all of them. Hurt is hurt. Broke is broke. God cares for everybody. And we should do the same.

That phrase, “the paths of righteousness” is not just poetry. It’s a way of life. It’s a discipline, to stay on the path that God has marked out – the path of sharing and caring, the path of justice for everyone, the narrow and difficult path that leads to life, rather than the broad and easy pathway that condemns other human beings to death. The path of God’s righteousness. It isn’t easy.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .”

The valley of the shadow of death is something I know about. I have been there, this past year, with my own family. I know that valley, and I have been in that valley. I’ve walked it together with many of you.

Sometimes the valley is dark, and scary, and filled to overflowing with fears and hideous shapes. Sometimes the “valley of death” is empty, and gray – it feels like there’s just not a whole lot of life around.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the “valley of the shadow”. It’s different things at different times to different people. For some people, it’s the threat, or the reality, of physical death. For other people, it’s depression, or addiction. It’s all the deadly conditions and situations we find ourselves in. And it’s real.

And then come the great words: “I will fear no evil; for you are with me. . .”

Those words are the tremendous gift of Psalm 23. And again, they’re personal. Not just, “God is with us”, but “You are with me.” It’s not general. It’s personal. God isn’t a distant force, or a faraway being. God is right here beside us.

There’s also another important level to those words. “I will fear no evil; for you are with me. . .”

Being afraid of evil is not compatible with the presence of God. If God is present, we’re going to be less afraid. One crowds out the other. When God is present, we’re not as afraid. We can stand, we can live, in the very face of evil, and we can be filled with peace. We can be filled with love. Because God is here.

There’s a parallel saying that we’re familiar with, in the first letter of John, where it says:
“. . .there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. . .” (I John 4:18)

Some things are mutually incompatible. God’s light, and darkness. God’s peace, and violence. Loving God, and hating our brother or sister.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. . .”

The original meaning of that phrase probably had something to do with a victory celebration, when the enemies of David were defeated. The army of David’s enemies were lined up, on the battlefield, in plain sight – and David sat down, and ate his picnic, in perfect confidence, because he knew that God was on his side. It’s a kind of a pthbttt! against all the bad guys in the world.

That’s probably the original meaning. But there’s always an opportunity for us to re-interpret the psalm.

What if this business of “a table in the presence of our enemies” could be about reconciliation? What if our enemies become friends? What if all that stuff we hear about swords and plowshares, forgiveness and peacemaking is true?

Could we sit down, in the presence of our enemies – together – at a table that God has set, at a banquet that God has provided? What if we understand the psalm that way, instead?

I had a lot of fun with that line about anointing, because it’s not something we do very often. About the only things I anoint my head with these days are sun screen and bug repellent.

Does anybody here remember Bryl-Cream? I was back in junior high the last time I used that stuff. I think of Bryl-Cream as something that I’ve been saved from! Maybe we could think about anointing as massage oil, or moisturizer.

Anointing, in the Bible, could be done for a lot of reasons. It could be done for healing in the case of illness. It could also be done as a symbol of God’s favor – David was anointed with oil when he became king. Anyway, in Psalm 23, anointing is definitely positive.

“My cup runneth over. . .”

You know that old joke about people who see the glass as being half-full or half-empty? That’s not the issue here. It’s full.

The problem is that too often, we live as though our cup were empty. We die of thirst, when our cup could be overflowing. We ration the joy of living, we drink it in tiny little sips, as though joy is something we’re going to run out of, when all we have to do is scoop up joy by the bucket-full, or plunge our whole head into the well or into the stream, and drink all we want. God wants our lives to be overflowing with joy!

There’s a lot of that water imagery in the Bible, you know. Justice like an ever-flowing stream. The river of life, that flows from the throne of God. Peace like a river. Joy like a fountain. The infinite ocean of light and love.

Instead of rationing the joy of life, the real problem is that there’s more than we can handle. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. . .” (John 10:10) Psalm 23 says, “My cup runneth over. . .” Same thing. Drink up, there’s more where that came from!

We’re almost done.

“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. . .”

Those words feel warm and fuzzy, but they actually mean something.

“Goodness,” of course, means the goodness of God. God is good. The created world is good. The good news is good. God’s love is good. God wills good, to all people.

Goodness is the constant theme we need to listen for. It’s like God’s goodness is a symphony that’s always playing in the background. Even if I don’t pay attention to the music, it’s still going on, all the time.

“God is good. God is so good. God is always good, even when everything else has gone wrong. Deep in my heart, I believe that God will always be good.” That’s what it’s saying.

And the other theme music that’s always playing, is mercy. Goodness and mercy, are what God is all about. If we don’t know about mercy, we know absolutely nothing about God.

Mercy is such an important part of the Christian life. We find it everywhere in Jesus’ teaching.

  • “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. . .”
  • “Have mercy on me, a sinner. . .”
  • “The measure you give will be the measure you get. . .”
  • “Do not judge, or you yourself will be judged. . .”
  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. . .””

We cannot talk about God, without talking about these things. We can’t get away from them. They are the theme we hear, again and again. Goodness and mercy follow us, wherever we go, all the days of our lives.

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. . .”

I don’t know what heaven really looks like. I don’t think anyone really does. I’m not into pearly gates, and fluffy clouds, and streets of gold.

Jesus once said, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. . .I go to prepare a place for you. . .and I will come again, and take you to myself, so that where i am, there you may be also. . .” (John 14:2-3)

That is the picture of heaven that I like the best. A big house, with room for everybody. A home with a table where everyone can sit down. A home with a front porch where people passing can stop by and sit and visit and sing songs in the evening. A home where strangers instantly feel welcome. A home where all the generations live together. A home where we serve generous meals to everyone.

My job is to live into that vision of heaven – to live now, the way I would like to always live. With faith. With integrity. With pleasure. Welcoming. Loving. Learning. Listening. Singing. It sounds like heaven to me.

Let’s take all this into worship together.

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