THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

The following meditation is taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on March 22, 2020.

The twenty-third psalm is the most beloved of the one hundred and fifty psalms in the Psalter and possibly the best known and most memorized chapter of the Bible.  

The KJV version of the Psalm has been read and recited by generations of Christians whose language is English. The Psalm originally was written as a prayer in poetic form in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry does not depend on rhyming, as many poems do in English, but on the rhythms of the verse and the parallel structure of the verses that build upon one another.

The opening verse of the twenty-third Psalm is composed of four words. The Hebrew name of the Lord God of Israel, the “I am who I am”, is the first word.  “My shepherd” is the second word.  “Not” is the third. And the last word is the verb that means,” I lack.” So literally it reads, “The Lord God is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” 

When you look closely at the psalm you will note that it begins with the pronouns “I” and “my.”  It switches next to the pronoun “he” when talking about God. Then suddenly and without warning the psalmist addresses God in the second person familiar, “you” (or “thou” in the KJV). Finally, it returns to the first-person pronoun, “I” of the psalmist and the second person familiar, “you,” referring to God.  

This is what gives the 23rd Psalm its particular character. It is a poem that is at the same time a prayer and a statement about the faithfulness of God even in the most difficult and trying of times.  

The Psalms may be categorized into several categories.  It may surprise you to learn that this Psalm is usually categorized by biblical scholars as a “psalm of lament.” It is an individual lament, that is the prayer for help of an individual.   

The biblical commentator Jerome Creach offers this helpful analysis of the psalm as a prayer of lament. Psalms of lament or complaint:

“have faith and trust as their cornerstones. Those who are praying feel free to haul all their baggage to God because of their intimate relationship with the Lord. They are certain God will hear and answer. The complaint psalms move swiftly from plea for help and description of enemies to assurance that the Lord will deliver. Though Psalm 23 contains no complaint and is thoroughly a statement of trust, it still belongs to the category of lament. Behind the confession of faith in Psalm 23 are trials that required the psalmist to seek the shepherd’s staff and tent for protection and shelter. All that we have of the psalmist’s experience, however, is the beautiful poetic expression of confidence in the aftermath of threat and danger. That is, surely the psalmist experienced an unspecified threat, survived, and then composed this poem.”[i]

Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, worked for eight years as a shepherd. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, he illuminates the meaning of the Psalm for us in a more practical way Sheep, notes do not lie down easily. 

“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.”[ii]

“The sheep must be free of fear, friction, flies, and famine to be contented.”[iii] And as Keller notes. The shepherd is the only one who can “provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that is needed to free the sheep. God is that shepherd. God is our Shepherd. God is your shepherd.  

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his work and ministry as being the shepherd of God’s new covenant people saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” 

Jesus is our Shepherd. Jesus is your shepherd. 

Notice that Psalm 23 begins with rest and not with frantic activity. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

We sometimes assume that our work for God and in response to God depends on our own activity. But here is a reminder that whatever we do for God or in response to God begins with us trusting God so that we might rest.  From that deep rest and refreshment comes the energy for us to do the work to which God is calling us.   

The biblical commentator J. M Boice observes:

“It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.”[iv]

Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to that fear? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties. 

At the beginning of the Psalm, we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But at the end, we read, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [v]

“We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[vi]

We are living in extraordinary times. The normal order of our everyday lives has been disrupted.  The social fabric that holds us together is stretched as we keep a certain bodily distance from one another so that we might protect not only ourselves from infection but also those who are the most vulnerable to it. 

We are passing through one of life’s valleys. Our shepherd is the one who can protect us, God’s sheep, and calm our anxieties and fears as we traverse that valley full of so many unknown dangers. In this difficult time, may you seek rest and comfort from the good shepherd who is with us always in every circumstance of our lives. 

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”  (Psa. 23:1–6 KJV)

Notes

[i] Jerome F. D. Creach, Psalms. Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville, KN: Geneva Press, 1998), 34.

[ii] W. Phillip Kellner, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, (Zondervan, 2007). See J. M. Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 209.

[iii] J. M Boice, 209.

[iv] J. M Boice, 211.

[v] J. M Boice, 211.

[vi] J. M Boice, 211.

One Reply to “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD”

  1. Thank you, Craig, for reminding us of the source of our comfort and reminding us that calling on our God for comfort and guidance is what we should be doing on a regular basis.

    Stay well.

    Like

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