psalm-23-staffThere is an old Spiritual that goes like this:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory hallelujah!

When we find ourselves in times of trouble and when we experience moments of sorrow, invariably we find ourselves reading the twenty-third Psalm. It is a source of comfort for us, a place of refuge. We read the Psalms weekly, Sunday in and Sunday out. However, we don’t often take the time to reflect on them during worship. This morning we all read Psalm 23 together, a well-known and a well-loved Psalm. I imagine that perhaps many of you memorized this Psalm in Sunday school. It is a Psalm of comfort, one that we often turn to during our darkest moments. Often used during funerals and memorials, Psalm 23 provides us with the ever present reminder of God’s love for us. Psalm 23 is deeply engrained in the devotional life of the church.

As I was reflecting on the Psalm this week I realized that Jesus himself very likely prayed this Psalm. That these words are ones that were spoken by our Lord, who in John’s Gospel reading from this morning refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. That the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. To me it is profoundly comforting to think that this Psalm brought our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the same comfort that it brings us. That just as we confess that the Lord is our Shepherd, Jesus also uttered those very same words some 2000 years ago.

What I think is so comforting about Psalm 23 is the personal nature of the Psalm. This is not a Psalm about Israel, or kings. Rather this is a personal prayer. Did you notice that most of the verses are in the present tense:

  • The Lord is my shepherd
  • Who leads me
  • Who restores me
  • And I fear no evil
  • Your rod and staff comfort
  • You prepare a table
  • You anoint my head

All in the present tense. In fact the only verse that is not in the present time is verse 6 which is in the future tense: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, my whole life long. A promise of things to come, God’s promise to us.

The opening lines of this Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” This passage speaks of God’s manifest goodness and mercy. That God will take care of me all through my life. It is a profound source of comfort that God desires to care for us in such a way.

Of course the metaphor of God and of Jesus as a shepherd is an interesting one. The shepherd was tasked with protecting the flock. Shepherds were not part of societal elite. They were a little rough around the edges, uncouth. And the shepherd carried two implements, the staff and the rod. The staff, it normally had a crook in it, a bend so that the sheep could be guided should it wander off. This is one of the ways that the shepherd kept the flock together, not allowing one to wander off or get lost. Then there is the rod. The rod was a tool of violence, its function was to ward off any attacking predators or bandits who might try to attack or steal sheep away. You see the shepherd made sure the sheep did not run off and the shepherd made sure that the sheep were not stolen away.

While the rod was used to threaten or to attack the Psalmist writes “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” And it is a comfort to know that God does not want us to go astray and that God is protective of us. That God wants to comfort us. The Psalm is uniquely personal, it is full of Gods promise to us.

Which leads us to the question, what are you and God up to these days?

What are you and God up to?

Psalm 23 reminds us of God’s promise to us. It puts into perspective our relationship with God. It reminds us that God is an ever present presence in our lives. Psalm 23 has a very leading nature to it. God leads us beside still waters. God leads us in paths of righteousness. This one is interesting. Our reading from the NIV today and from the King James version would say God leads us in paths of righteousness. However, Bernhard Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at Princeton offers a different interpretation. Anderson writes that the New Revised Standard Version is actually the better translation of the Psalm from the original Hebrew. Many of us know this Psalm from the King James version which reads:

  • He leadeth me in paths of righteousness.

The New Revised Standard Version translates it as follows:

  • He leads me in the right paths

The difference is subtle, but it is there. To be righteous is to be characterized by uprightness or morally just. However, right paths is different. You see to be righteous is to have a character trait, one that I imagine is desirable. However, to walk down the right paths does not necessitate being righteous. I think that the distinction is interesting and it reminds me that judging others, who is righteous and who is not, isn’t our responsibility. The Lord is my shepherd; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. That’s what matters, trusting in the Shepherd, our relationship with the shepherd.

Psalm 23 is a piece of scripture we turn to during our darkest moments. When we are hurt, helpless, lost and alone. When we are sick, when we are grieving. Times when we fail to sense the presence of the Shepherd, even though he is always near at hand. We turn to this Psalm because it lifts us up. It empowers us with God’s great love for us. Because in this Psalm is contained Good News.

Think of the imagery that is provide about what God does for us? In Psalm 23 we read that God will lead us. We don’t have to guess about what we are to do, we have a guide in God, in the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. God will restore us. How often have we been hurt and broken? How often have we been weary from our chores? Yet, we follow a God who will restore us. What a marvelous promise.

God will protect us and comfort us. God will feed us. We pray in the Lord’s prayer for our daily bread and in Psalm 23 we are reminded once again that God will feed us. Indeed, that God will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies.

Finally, God anoints us. God raises us up and we join the Priesthood of All Believers. The promises that are embedded in Psalm 23 are wonderful. They speak of God wanting to be in relationship with us. They speak of God’s love for us. Those are amazing promises of love. Promises of love that are made to us by God. Of course the promise continues into the future as we learn that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives!

Goodness and mercy.

Where would we be without mercy?

It is Gods mercy, manifest in Christ on the cross that sets us free. That is the goodness and mercy that we have been promised.

Friends, I will finish with a story. A story about a banquet. There was a famous actor and a banquet was being held in his honour. Over the course of the night the actor was asked to recite favourite excerpts of literary works.

An old preacher was in attendance and he asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed, on the condition that the preacher himself would also recite it.

The actor’s version was beautifully intoned and had all the great dramatic emphasis that made such an impact. When he concluded the room erupted in applause.

The preacher then stood up. His voice was rough and broken from years of preaching and his dictation was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room.

Afterwards someone asked the actor what made the difference. The actor replied, “I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”

Friends, what are you and God up to these days?

Get to know the Shepherd. Know that the Shepherd is always nearby. Know that the Shepherd loves you. Know that the Shepherd will come when you call on him in prayer. When you are alone, afraid or in pain. The Good Shepherd knows our trouble, the Good Shepherd knows our sorrow.

In knowing the Shepherd, we can affirm the promise that He has for us. That surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord … forever. Amen.

Text: Psalm 23

My thanks to Rev. Sean Foster for insight and advice on preaching Psalm 23.