Things I’ve Learned about Psalm 23
A psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long years. (NJPS)
• • •
For the last 14 1/2 years in my work as a hospice chaplain, rarely has a day gone by when I have not quoted, thought about, or prayed Psalm 23. In my work, and also in my life now, I find it to be like the “Swiss Army Knife” of scriptures. And even though I’ve always loved this psalm, and gone to it throughout my adult life and ministry, I have some regret that there were long stretches of time before I began to serve in hospice when it was a text that I kind of ignored.
Familiar scriptures can be like that, you know? Familiarity doesn’t exactly breed contempt, but it can breed a kind of taking for granted. Sure — Psalm 23 — the Lord is my shepherd — who doesn’t know that? It gets filed away and we pull it out when we think we might need it.
Let me tell you another secret: a lot of pastors, preachers, and teachers, frankly, think it is important to move on from simple and basic texts like this. In their view, they have become worn from use and have lost a bit of their punch. We are so enamored with finding something new that will get people’s attention, something that is fresh and novel, that we have a tendency to look down on texts like Psalm 23. What can we find new in an old text like this?
Friends, I’m here to tell you: I’m over all that. Maybe I’m just old and tired, but the longer I’m on this journey, the more I see how important it is to stay in vital touch with the basic truths of scripture, the fundamentals of our faith, the texts and traditions that keep us grounded and give us a clear path on which to walk.
Many people I meet, young and old, who are either in the final season of life, or who are caring for loved ones in that season — I find that they want “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” sung to them. They want me to quote Psalm 23. They want to hear words like: “Your sins are forgiven,” and “I will never leave you or forsake you.” They want to receive reassurance that “nothing in all creation can ever separate [them] from God’s love in Christ.” They want me to pray the Lord’s Prayer with them. They want me to hand them bread and wine and say: “Christ’s body, given for you; Christ’s blood, shed for you.” They couldn’t care less about an innovative worship service — they want to be with their family, they want friends to visit, they want to relive the story of their life, they want a pastor to sit with them and pray for them. They want assurance about “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” They want to hear “Grace to you, and peace.”
So, almost every day for me, I find myself returning to texts like Psalm 23.
There’s another reason the familiarity of a text like this can be a problem: We’ve heard it for so long that we think we’ve mastered it. However, I am finding all the time that there’s more to a text like this than meets the eye. I thought I would share a few of those things that I have learned as I have made this psalm a part of my daily life over the past 15 years or so. Perhaps this well-known and well-loved scripture can come to us today in new and fresh ways as well.
The first thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that it is a psalm about life, not about death.
I don’t think it’s wrong to say that most of us associate Psalm 23 pretty strongly with funerals and with life-threatening situations. I’ve already told you that my work has led me to go to this psalm on an almost daily basis. I use it at every funeral I officiate as well.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it is a wonderful psalm for the troubled times of life. It emphasizes God’s comprehensive care for us, and mentions specifically some of the most disturbing troubles we face. One of its most famous lines is, “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.” Another of its lines says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” which makes most of us think of heaven.
Actually, the first line is probably better translated, “Even though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness.” The picture is of a shepherd leading his flock to pasture and having to take them through shadowy, rugged ravines that were frightening because they were dark, the footing was difficult, and there were natural hiding places for predators.
As for the last verse, when it says, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” it is a reference to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and should be understood as, “I will find a home in God’s temple for years and years to come.”
Nowhere in this psalm is the psalmist talking about death. He is talking about various seasons and circumstances of his life. He talks about his need for nourishment and refreshment. His need to be set right when he falls down. His need for guidance along good paths. His need for comfort and reassurance in the dark and scary times of life. His need for God’s blessing and help when he is surrounded by his enemies. And so on. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what season of life he finds himself in, he knows that his Shepherd is with him, providing for him, helping him, directing him, strengthening him. God’s goodness and steadfast love pursue him each and every day of his life.
I think it is entirely appropriate to use this psalm at the time of death and at funerals, but I want to encourage you primarily to see it as a psalm about life, about every day of life, about every situation in life, about every need in life. You and I are not alone, and we do not lack resources as we go through different seasons and circumstances in our lives. No matter what we encounter, we can benefit from the life-giving, life-affirming, life-sustaining gift of this psalm!
A second thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that I have tended to view this psalm as serene and comforting, but I missed the rugged nature of its imagery.
Maybe it’s the green pastures and still waters, but I think most people hear Psalm 23 and they get a sense of peace, comfort, quiet, serenity. It’s pastoral. It’s soothing. In some cases, we might even think of it as soft and sentimental.
Let me ask you a question: Have you ever met a shepherd? A rancher? A cowboy? A farmer? Someone who works with animals, tends them, builds fences for them, clears land for them, fights away predators, leads them up mountains and down through valleys to safe pasture? Even if you haven’t, can you imagine what such a person is like? I doubt the words “soft and sentimental” come immediately to mind.
From my earliest days as a pastor, I have had assignments in rural congregations full of people like this. And I’ll tell you what: I dreaded shaking hands after Sunday morning worship! One guy I used to know regularly teased me about my soft “pastor’s hands,” as his huge, calloused paws swallowed mine when he left church.
If Psalm 23 gives us peace, it’s only because its main character is a strong, rugged, wind and sun-weathered, hard-working Shepherd who doesn’t take vacations and rarely even takes a break because he has animals to care for, a flock that depends on him for every need. When I officiate a funeral now for one of these kinds of folks, I speak on Psalm 23 and express appreciation for people who work hard and lay down their lives to provide for their families, their property, and their flocks and herds. They’ve followed the example of the Shepherd.
So, as you think of Psalm 23, let it lead you to appreciate the strength and rugged love that keeps us fed, keeps us going, keeps us safe, and keeps us in the way of Christ.
A third thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 is that I have often missed the Jewish and royal nature of this psalm.
The final product of what we call the Old Testament took place during and after the Babylonian Exile, when God’s people watched their own homeland devastated and then were taken forcibly to another land to live in captivity. I doubt that few of us can really understand the impact of that on the Jewish people for generations. That’s when synagogues were born, and that’s when they began collecting and working on putting together their sacred scriptures.
When this psalm was read during the Exile, I would imagine that its second part became even more important to those captives. Have you ever noticed how the imagery changes in verse 5?The psalm goes from being about a Shepherd guiding his flock to being about a Host providing a banquet. This matches the setting of captivity that the people were in. No longer were the people of Israel being led and provided for in their own land, in their own homes. Now they were living in the presence of their enemies.
But even there, Psalm 23 says, in the presence of my enemies, God spreads a table for me, God honors me as his guest by anointing my head with oil, God sees to it that my cup is kept filled to overflowing. Even in exile, even in captivity, the Jewish people who read these words were reassured of God’s presence and care.
The psalm also has unappreciated royal imagery. The term “shepherd” was what Israel called their king. When Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it is confessing that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who led them out of Egypt, the God who raised up David and Solomon and the prophets, this God is my King. The nation of Judah had seen the downfall of their human kings in the Exile. But they still had a King.
Also, when it says “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for many days” at the end of the psalm, it’s talking about the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed and leveled in the Babylonian invasion. The word “temple” means “palace” in Hebrew — it was where the King lived and ruled. The final line of Psalm 23 was a confident statement of hope that God’s palace would be restored, that God would once again rule as King in Jerusalem, and that God’s people would be with him there.
Knowing these things gives me a background and life context for Psalm 23. It helps me understand how real people of faith in real circumstances gained comfort and strength from this psalm. It also helps me appreciate even more what Jesus meant when he came along in John 10 and said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” When Jesus said those words, he was not just using a familiar metaphor, he was claiming to be the promised King of Israel, who would shepherd his people out of exile and restore their life through his own death and resurrection.
In that same passage, he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” That looks forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles, people like you and me. The Lord is our Shepherd-King as well, and he has brought us out of the captivity of our sins.
Let me share one final thing I’ve learned about Psalm 23 — I’ve learned to appreciate the shift from 3rd person to 2nd person in this psalm.
The psalm begins in the 3rd person: The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down. He leads me. He restores my life. And so on.
But there is a point in the psalm where this changes. And I think it’s significant. Right where the psalmist begins to talk about going through the valley of deepest darkness, it’s as though it’s no longer sufficient for him to talk about the Lord in the 3rd person. Instead he begins to address the Lord in the 2nd person. “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.” From that point on, the person who had been talking about his Shepherd, now talks to his Shepherd. At that moment, a statement of faith is transformed into a prayer of trust.
And that I think, my friends, is the greatest lesson of all that I have learned from Psalm 23.
Don’t just acknowledge the Shepherd who cares for your life.
Talk to him, look to him, trust him.