In the past weeks we have been considering the Psalms and how they can help us to pray and to worship. We have heard how some of them focus on praise to God for his might and goodness. Quite a few Psalms deal with problems and questions to God. They invite us to be honest to God and not keep our problems and doubts to ourselves. If we cannot find the right words to pray, we can use those of the Psalms. There are also Psalms of gratitude, for a particular blessing or solution which God has provided or for an inner transformation, a change of heart. You can see evidence of such inner changes even in the Psalms of lament, those that are full of complaints and sorrow. Surprisingly, most of them end on a positive note. Once some burden has been confessed and laid out before God, there is often renewed trust that God will listen and answer.
This is precisely why it is difficult to classify the Psalms. Many attempts have been made. The Psalms have been grouped into five books, each of them ending with a doxology. Then there are the three types I just mentioned, but there are also divisions into 5, 7 or even 10 different types of Psalms. Some types worth mentioning are the wisdom psalms, the royal psalms, the psalms of pilgrimage and the ones of remembrance. But there is considerable overlap.
The Lord is my Shepherd
The Psalm I want to speak about today, number 23, is very well-known and has been called a psalm of confidence. As we will see, there are many other aspects in it as well. And together, these themes make for a very rich Psalm which has a much wider application than to pray or sing it at funerals. Let’s have a closer look.
David starts with a unique analogy from his own life. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It’s a personal testimony. He has come to a point in his life that he recognises that God looks after him in much the same way as he himself, as a young man, used to care for his sheep. Even as a grown up man, an intelligent adult, a king, he knows that he has not reached this point only by his own actions. It is the Lord who guided him all along.
In the Old Testament there are many similar references to God the Father as a leader and a guide. For instance Psalm 31:3 – “For you are my rock and my fortress. So, for the sake of your name, lead me and guide me”. And in the New Testament there are many references to Jesus as our shepherd, leader and guide. So the very first verse of this Psalm can be regarded as Messianic. On top of that, the Messiah would be a descendant of David, with both of them being shepherds.
But what does it mean when David says, I shall not want? Today we hardly ever use that expression. It doesn’t mean there is nothing left to desire, but that there will be no shortage, no lack. In the end, we will not be deprived. Because that is another thing worth pointing out: this sentence is in the future tense. I hope that this does not take away the magic of this Psalm too much. But there is a definite promise for us here. Because this is more than a personal testimony.
In ancient Hebrew, stories were often told by just listing the events. The words “and” and “but” occur very often, but we don’t find many instances of “because”, as we would in Latin or English. The listener or reader would have to deduce the connection between the events in the story. Most of the time, fortunately, it is still clear what the author meant. Here David clearly wanted to say that because the Lord was his shepherd, there would be no shortage. And this also means that if we have the same Lord as our shepherd, we do not have to despair or fear shortage.
Now there are still three important questions to be addressed. First of all, what kind of shortage are we talking about? Secondly, if we behave like sheep, and expect everything from the Lord, what does this do to our own responsibility and behaviour? Would it not lead to our taking unacceptable risks or lazily sitting back to see how God will solve our problems? And finally, how can we know and make sure that God is our shepherd?
What we can expect
What was it that David received by having the Lord as his shepherd, and that we can expect as well? The Psalm uses a number of analogies, like green pastures, still waters, right paths and a protective rod and staff. They seem to point at physical food and protection, as does the table that is prepared in the presence of David’s enemies. David indeed received these things during his life. A few weeks ago I was preaching in the Scottish church in Rotterdam and a refugee, who had become a Christian, gave a wonderful testimony of how the Lord had blessed him several times and saved him from poverty. I know I have been blessed in similar ways. So these things actually happen.
At the same time, that is not where the emphasis should be. Christ says, seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these (i.e. physical) things will follow. Please note that He does not say, this is what you should do in order to get these physical rewards! That would be a kind of prosperity gospel. It is rather about changed priorities, of focussing on Christ and one’s neighbour.
Psalm 23 has this same emphasis on spiritual things. David speaks about the restoration of his soul, about overcoming fear, about comfort, about being anointed, about mercy and about dwelling in the house of the Lord his whole life long. The latter cannot even be taken literally, for nobody would be in the temple permanently, except the high priest. And David was many things, but not a priest. So he was speaking about a state of mind, of being conscious of the presence of God as his shepherd. So, as you can see, the references to spiritual things outnumber the references to food and water. One commentator even claims that the green pastures or “pastures of tender grass” are not so much about food, but are places of cool and refreshing rest, as are the still waters.
Our second question was about our own responsibility. This is not diminished when we have Christ as our shepherd. On the contrary, when we see his guidance as primarily spiritual, the greatest gift we receive is lifelong learning, spiritual direction. He leads me in right paths, for his name’s sake. Not once, but time and time again, in every new situation. But he doesn’t pluck me up, or teleport me to a different situation or course of action. No, he gently leads me there. But this means I will have to listen, to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit and be prepared to question my own wisdom. Being led is a process. It is a rewarding path, but not something automatic or one-off.
A personal Shepherd
Finally, how can we know and make sure that God is not only David’s, but also our shepherd? The Psalm offers us some simple queues. Do we experience that our souls are restored after every crisis? Is that not only an emotion, but are we actually led to do the right things, the things that correspond to the teachings of Christ? Perhaps it is first necessary to recognize that we have been going astray like sheep, as Peter calls it in 1 Peter 2:25; that we need to return to the shepherd and “guardian of our souls”. This text echoes what David said about the restoration of his soul.
Another indication is being satisfied. Do you know what happened when David lost connection with the guardian of his soul? He felt a great shortage in his life, which he thought could only be filled by grabbing another man’s wife. From there it went downhill. It even made him commit murder. Fortunately David repented and learnt from his mistake. And God had mercy on him. During the temptation in the desert Jesus did not allow the devil to arouse in him a feeling of shortage and dissatisfaction. And it is wonderful to see how people who have very little, are often still joyful and satisfied. They can be an example to us, who have so much.
Another sign that we are guided is that we are not paralysed by fear. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”. Modern translations just speak of a dark or gloomy valley, but the Hebrew word for dark, salmawet, contains mawet, which means “death”. And indeed our darkest fears are often related to death. The shadow of death is like the anticipation of dying or of losing your health, your money, your livelihood, friends or relatives, etc.
In the first letter of John we read, “Perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love”. Fortunately the necessary love comes from Christ, who conquered death, forgave our sins and abolished any punishment. There is no more reason for fear. And it doesn’t even depend on us, but on Gods goodness and mercy.
In conclusion, this beautiful Psalm shows us the way to a spiritual peace and development that would be impossible without the divine shepherd, later supremely revealed to us in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. When we seek Gods guidance, we will only want more, and like David, wish to dwell in the house of God, in His presence, all the time. God will anoint us, too, granting us various spiritual gifts for use in His kingdom. We are a new creation, a royal race and priesthood, while at the same time remaining humble followers of Christ, the good shepherd, still seeking his guidance and correction. Thus will be fulfilled what Christ came for. According to our gospel reading that was that we should have life, and have it abundantly. In the words of David, “my cup overflows”. So may God make you and me strong to follow Him in bright and in dark times. His comfort and healing will be there when we need it. Amen.