March 17, 2019
Any preacher who has more than a handful of sermons under their belt has probably shared a message or two on the 23rd Psalm.
It’s often considered the most well-known of the Psalms, it makes appearances in movies, television shows, plays… it’s one of the many verses that many of us had to memorize as kids. And it’s certainly one that every minister has to keep handy in case of an unexpected funeral call. I know I’ve read it, prayed it and referred to it many times myself over the years in those situations.
Being honest, I think sometimes we ministers use it without considering the comfort and beauty it should bring.
I may have shared this experience here before…
Back when I was Associate Pastor of a church in Eastern Kentucky, I got a call from the local funeral home to come conduct a funeral service for a woman that I had never met. She lived in our town, but no one else in her family did. And being in the rotation of local pastors, it was my turn to step in when the funeral home called to help a family that didn’t have a preacher.
When I arrived at the funeral to meet the family, I expressed my sorrow for their loss, then proceeded to ask some questions so I could prepare a meaningful service for them and their loved one. The interview didn’t go so well.
On the small obituary I had been given, it looked like their mother’s name could’ve been one of those first and middle combinations… sorta like Marsha Jean. Except it was something more like Wanda Sue. So I asked, “did her friends call her Wanda? Sue? Wanda Sue? No one had a good answer, so I did the more formal, but less personal thing and referred to her during the service as Ms. Evans.
None of my other inquisitions about things Ms. Evans enjoyed, hobbies, work, family, got much response either. The only thing I could get anyone to tell me was that momma loved Willie Nelson, so there would be a Willie Nelson song right after I read the obituary and pray.
When the service started, there were maybe a couple of dozen people in the room. I welcomed everyone, and thanked them on behalf of the family for being there to honor their loved one’s life. I read the obituary and prayed, then the song started… and they left.
Every single person in that room got up and walked out. While Willie blessed us with a song, the only people left were me and Ms. Evans. But I was there to be a help, so I sat there and listened to Willie sing about Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground.
I did glance through sheer curtains and noticed that all of them were out on the porch, doing their best to get in a whole cigarette before Willie wrapped up.
And sure enough, as soon as the song finished, they flicked their butts out into the yard, came in, and found their seats again. I knew I was in one of the moments that preachers talk about when they all get together.
As the service resumed, I read the fallback 23rd Psalm, said a few words about the comfort they bring, prayed another prayer, and the service was dismissed.
As the family passed by the casket one more time, I shook their hands, thanked them for allowing me to be a part of this special moment in their lives, and told them I’d be holding them in prayer.
Most of them didn’t even look at me. But one lady who did was very kind. She thanked me for being there and said that the scripture really spoke to her. She said she’d heard those words on a TV show once and always wondered where they came from.
“I need a shepherd,” she said. “Nowadays I really need someone to care.”
Her very few words reminded me that this scripture, these words are more than a handy piece of Bible to keep in our hip pocket. And as much as we have endangered it by making it common or referring to it like a nice piece of poetry, there is something beautiful and meaningful and thoughtful and even challenging in David’s words.
In preparing for this message, checked over a dozen different versions and translations of this Psalm. I wanted to see how they compared, how they were alike or different… how they conveyed the sentiment from these verses most of us have heard all our lives.
The American standard version says, “Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
The New Century Version says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”
The New International Version says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
The Living Bible reads it as, “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!”
The Common English Bible says, “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.”
The Contemporary English version declares, “You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.
The Message, which some argue is probably the loosest of the modern translations says, “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.”
The Amplified Bible, The English Standard Version, The Modern English Version, The New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, and even the Geneva Bible from 1599 – which pre-dates the King James version says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
And, of course, the version we read together today, the New Revised Standard Version says it the same way.
In the different versions there was variety in the way the Shepherd was viewed… Diety, Lord, Jehovah, God…
There were different ways of describing the end result, what the Shepherd provided… I shall not want… I have everything I need… I lack nothing… I will never be in need… I don’t need a thing.
But the one word that never changed, the constant that is found in every English version I found, says whether it is the Lord, Jehovah, God or the Mighty One, it is the Shepherd who provides.
It’s sorta like the Psalmist David put a clause in his writing agreement that said, “change anything else, adjust, modernize, translate, do what you have to do, but when it comes to the Shepherd, change it at your own risk.
The idea of God as a shepherd was pretty common in ancient Israel.
Seeing and understanding God in that role was a comfort to those whose lot in life was lower than the rest. Those who needed care and comfort during their distress and turmoil.
I remember as a young seminarian reading through W. Phillip Keller’s book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.”
He wrote, “When all is said and done the welfare of any flock is entirely dependent upon the management afforded them by their owner.”
[The Shepherd] is the owner who delights in His flock. For Him there is no greater reward, no deeper satisfaction, than that of seeing His sheep contented, well fed, safe and flourishing under His care. This is indeed His very 'life.' He gives all He has to it. He literally lays Himself out for those who are His.”
He will go to no end of trouble and labor to supply them with the finest grazing, the richest pasturage, ample winter feed, and clean water. He will spare Himself no pains to provide shelter from storms, protection from ruthless enemies and the diseases and parasites to which sheep are so susceptible.
Keller’s book was intriguing to me because it not only spoke to the character of the Shepherd, but also of the sheep.
He wrote, “The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met.
Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear.
Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind.
If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax.
Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.
It is significant that to be at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom from fear, tension, aggravations and hunger.
That is a lot of responsibility for the Shepherd. But as Keller goes on to reiterate, “A good shepherd feeds their flock and leads their flock.”
But what about those of us who read about the loving Shepherd even while we were being taught to fear the angry, petulant, punishing version?
For those of you who grew up as I did in a more conservative church, were you ever told that the reason sheep and shepherd symbolism was used so much in the scripture was because, well, sheep are dumb?
Seriously! I remember hearing a summer church camp preacher once tell a few hundred young campers that it was no good thing to be thought of as a sheep. He said they were dumb, aimless, careless, without reasoning ability or any kind of common sense, and are just overall ignorant.
He made it sound like sheep weren’t worth the trouble.
May I say that as a sheep, I’m not just a little offended.
And Jesus agrees with me.
Remember that dynamic passage of scripture in Matthew 18 when Jesus is teaching his disciples? He touched on being humble as a child; he warned them not to be a stumbling block to anyone who is seeking to know God; he spoke of discipline and prayer and forgiveness.
And he said this, “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of [God] who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.
That’s a lot of love, care and concern for something so ignorant and worthless. And now that I’m thinking of it, I’ll go further and say that that young church camp preacher was getting dangerously close to being one of those stumbling blocks Jesus warned about.
Jesus teaches that even as sheep, God longs for our safety, our well being, our ability to rest.
Psalm 23 teaches that God is generous. Not in a name-it-and-claim-it sort of way. Not in a health, wealth and prosperity sort of way either.
My all time favorite writer Brennan Manning says it this way: “Jesus reveals to us a God who does not demand but who gives; who does not oppress but who raises up; who does not wound but heals; who does not condemn but forgives.”
Friends, this is completely opposite of our world and in many cases what our churches are preaching and teaching. That is why it’s so hard for people to truly believe and embrace the fact that God loves them and wants them and longs for them.
I’ve always thought that one of the peculiarities of the 23rd Psalm is the poor writing style with the sudden switch from third-person to second-person…
For the first three verses of the Psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: "The Lord is my shepherd... God leads me... God restores my soul." But with the You, the third person shifts to second person: "for You are with me, your rod... you prepare 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.
I believe this is what God is longing for… for us to have the conversation and cultivate that relationship that brings God closer, moves our talk from the distance of third-person to the closeness of second-person.
When you know someone that well you trust them more.
They’re suddenly close enough to walk through dark places with you. They are with you, they comfort you, they don’t hesitate to walk into enemy territory with you, they soothe your wounds and comfort your anxiety.
That’s exactly what the Psalmist was feeling and saying as he leapt from who God is to what God does.
We established early on that the shepherd imagery is pretty important to this story. But please indulge me just a bit here.
The Lord is my protector and provider, so I trust that I’ll be fine. He makes sure I am fed and have something to drink. He calms my anxieties and points me in the right direction.
And Even though I end up in lonely places, I don’t have to be afraid because you walk with me. Your wisdom and guidance give me comfort. You show the way to peace with my enemies. You soothe my hurts and remind me of my blessings.
walk through the darkest valley, I 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 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.
Psalm 23 portrays God as a good shepherd, feeding (verse 1) and leading (verse 3) his flock. The "rod and staff" (verse 4) are also the implements of a shepherd. Some commentators see the shepherd imagery pervading the entire psalm. It is known that the shepherd is to know each sheep by name, thus when God is given the analogy of a shepherd, he is not only a protector but also the caretaker. God, as the caretaker, leads the sheep to green pastures (verse 2) and still waters (verse 2) because he knows that each of his sheep must be personally led to be fed. Thus, without its Shepherd, the sheep would die either by a predator or of starvation, since sheep are known for their helplessness without their shepherd.
It must’ve been important to note and remember that in this passage, if the Lord, Jehovah or God were anything, it had to be a shepherd.
Jesus teaches that God is generous – the exact opposite of the “earning narrative.” Brennan Manning says: “Jesus reveals to us a God who does not demand but who gives; who does not oppress but who raises up; who does not wound but heals; who does not condemn but forgives.” This is completely opposite of our world and in many cases the way our religions operate. That is why it’s so hard for people to truly believe and embrace. Do you agree that God is generous and gives to us freely? Why or why not?
Psalm 23 NRSV
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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.