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Psalm 23

Psalm 23:1-6

1   The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2        He makes me lie down in green pastures;
     he leads me beside still waters;
3        he restores my soul.
     He leads me in right paths
          for his name’s sake.

4   Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
          I fear no evil;
     for you are with me;
          your rod and your staff —
          they comfort me.

5   You prepare a table before me
          in the presence of my enemies;
     you anoint my head with oil;
          my cup overflows.
6   Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
          all the days of my life,
     and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
          my whole life long.

 

Shepherd Song,               Psalm 23,     May 15, 2011

Psalm 23 is probably the best-known passage from the Bible. Even many people who don't read the Bible at all can quote at least a line or two from it, if only because they've heard it so often at funerals.

Ps.23 is a comforting passage to mourners, but if we think of it only as a funeral text, we miss the fact that the Psalm is mostly about living.

In the ancient world, as in ours today, shepherds were herders and tenders of sheep. But back then, "shepherd" was also a metaphor for the role kings were to play. They were to tend their subjects, providing for them and protecting them.

Problem was, many of the kings were lousy shepherds of their people. They were either inept or more concerned with their own aggrandizement.

In that day 2 to 3,000 years ago, for someone in that culture to say, "The Lord is my shepherd" was similar to saying, "The Lord is my king," --  the point being that God does what a king/shepherd is supposed to do.

The person was declaring an intention to live under God's rule, and the rest of the Psalm then becomes a description of the good things that come to that person as a subject of this king. A good king. The good shepherd.

Thus, because the Lord is a good shepherd and I am a member of his flock, I shall not be in want. I will have what I need, because a good shepherd looks out for the care and welfare of the sheep.

The references to lying down in green pastures, being led beside still waters and fearing no evil in the valley of the shadow of death are poetic ways of saying the Shepherd-King provides what I need to stay alive. The image is one of tender care, of an established relationship and deep trust.
 

Sometimes when we read or hear scripture in the same translation we are accustomed to, it’s possible to let our minds skip ahead because we know the words so well. For me, going back to the German helps. Let me read to you the Good News version of Psalm 23 as I understand it in the German (translation in brackets).

 

23 Psalter:  Der HERR ist mein Hirt (The Lord is my Shepherd)

1 Ein Lied Davids. (a song of David)

Der HERR ist mein Hirt;  (the Lord is my shepherd)
darum leide ich keine Not.  (therefore I fear no evil)
2 Er bringt mich auf saftige Weiden,  (he brings me to lucious pastures)
lässt mich ruhen am frischen Wasser  (he lets me rest by fresh water)
3 und gibt mir neue Kraft.  (and gives me new strength)
Auf sicheren Wegen leitet er mich,  (along a sure/secure way he leads me)
dafür bürgt er mit seinem Namen.  (thereby his name is glorified)

4 Und muss ich auch durchs finstere Tal –  (and if I go through the valley of darkness)
ich fürchte kein Unheil!  (I fear no danger/disaster)
Du, HERR, bist ja bei mir;  (you, o God, of course are by me)
du schützt mich und du führst mich,  (you protect me and lead me;)
das macht mir Mut.  (that gives me courage)

5 Vor den Augen meiner Feinde (before the eyes of my enemies)
deckst du mir deinen Tisch;  (set your table for me,)
festlich nimmst du mich bei dir auf  (as a guest you take me unto yourself)
und füllst mir den Becher randvoll.  (and fill my cup to overflowing)

6 Deine Güte und Liebe umgeben mich  (your goodness & love surround me)
an jedem neuen Tag; (every new day)
in deinem Haus darf ich nun bleiben  (in your house I am welcome to stay
mein Leben lang.  (my whole life long.)

 

Although we're used to hearing verse 4 in the KJV as "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...," the underlying Hebrew can also mean simply "place of deep darkness."

The NRSV renders this verse as "Even though I walk through the darkest valley. ... “In that reading, the Psalm becomes a statement of God's shepherding us in the difficult, troubled and hard stretches we go through in life itself.


"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ....” It does not say we die there, or stop there, but rather … I walk through.” Even in the face of death, when death comes knocking at our door, we go through the valley; we do not stop there.  

Philip Keller who wrote the classic “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” observes,

"It is customary to use this verse as a consolation to those who are passing through the dark valley of death. But even here, for the child of God, death is not an end but merely the door into a higher and more exalted life of intimate contact with Christ.

Death is but the dark valley opening out into an eternity of delight with God. It is not something to fear, but an experience through which one passes on the path to a more perfect life."


Explore the road of life. You may discover all sorts of bears and lions on the road, but as Peter Matthiessen warns in The Snow Leopard (New York: Viking Press, 1978), "the lions never get out of the road of the person who waits to see the way clear before starting to walk."

Jesus is the good shepherd. God is our protector and provider. Sometimes the road is rockier than we would like, the valley is darker and more foreboding than we’re comfortable with, but as Psalm 119 says, Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. The Shepherd leads the way one step at a time.

We not only have the good shepherd leading us, but as Christians, we have the additional insight of the Scriptures to guide us, which continually point us to the Good Shepherd if we stray or lose our way.

The Psalm continues in that mode, talking about life, and it concludes, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life ...." That's because the Lord is my shepherd.
 

Take comfort, my friends, no matter how difficult life’s circumstances may be right now, God walks through the valleys and through the pastures right beside us. Like the Allstate slogan, we’re in good hands with God. Once again, let's focus on the intimate care God offers his children as we consider the Amost beloved Psalm in the world.

23 Psalter:  Der HERR ist mein Hirt (The Lord is my Shepherd)

1 Ein Lied Davids. (a song of David)

Der HERR ist mein Hirt;  (the Lord is my shepherd)
darum leide ich keine Not.  (therefore I fear no evil)
2 Er bringt mich auf saftige Weiden,  (he brings me to lucious pastures)
lässt mich ruhen am frischen Wasser  (he lets me rest by fresh water)
3 und gibt mir neue Kraft.  (and gives me new strength)
Auf sicheren Wegen leitet er mich,  (along a sure/secure way he leads me)
dafür bürgt er mit seinem Namen.  (thereby his name is glorified)

4 Und muss ich auch durchs finstere Tal –  (and if I go through the valley of darkness/forboding)
ich fürchte kein Unheil!  (I fear no danger/disaster)
Du, HERR, bist ja bei mir;  (you, o God, of course are by me)
du schützt mich und du führst mich,  (you protect me and lead me;)
das macht mir Mut.  (that gives me courage)

5 Vor den Augen meiner Feinde (before the eyes of my enemies)
deckst du mir deinen Tisch;  (set your table for me,)
festlich nimmst du mich bei dir auf  (as a guest you take me unto yourself)
und füllst mir den Becher randvoll.  (and fill my cup to overflowing)

6 Deine Güte und Liebe umgeben mich  (your goodness & love surround me)
an jedem neuen Tag; (every new day)
in deinem Haus darf ich nun bleiben  (in your house I am welcome to stay
mein Leben lang.  (my whole life long.) 

And now, may you go in the peace of the Lord. Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz 

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