May 8, 2022/Psalm 23
On any given Sunday during the course of worship, we find ourselves repeating ancient words that have been inscribed on our hearts through years of church-going, study, and prayer. The Apostles’ Creed. The Lord’s Prayer. The laudatory, thanks-filled words of the Doxology and the Gloria Patri. Providence Presbyterian’s own covenants. We say them so often, so routinely, that the words become lost in a mumbled drone, milked dry of any meaning, no longer carrying the deep spirit or import they originally held.
The same is true of certain scriptures – including the very familiar 23rd Psalm, which I just read. If you memorized any scripture as a child, you likely memorized those six verses. And even if you never set out to commit them to memory, you probably could recite them with just a little prompting because you’ve heard them so often. Chaplains pull this one out when they’re called to the bedside of someone near death. Preachers pull it out when they’re preparing a funeral service. And we follow along, repeating the words under our breaths, holding them a little closer, but maybe not really sure why.
In the ancient Near East, gods and kings were often called the shepherd of their people. In the biblical texts, YHWH “is called the shepherd of Israel, his flock. The title had special associations with the Lord’s leading and protecting in the wilderness and in the return from exile.” Saying “The Lord is my shepherd” invokes all of this rich background, even if we aren’t fully aware of it. More than that, though, this psalm invokes the Lord as shepherd in a very personal way.
Scripture that is personal touches us differently than the stories of Genesis or the parables of Jesus. To say “The Lord is my shepherd” is to lay claim to God as personal protector and provider and to declare that with total trust. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Engaging in scripture in a personal way is different than the way we engage scripture for study. This is not exegetical analysis – this is poetry and prayer.
Perhaps for that reason the best way to engage this psalm is as poetry and prayer. To hear it, tumble the words over in our minds, roll them about our tongue, close our eyes and envision the pictures being painted. And having heard it, to tease out the words or phrases that resonate with us most deeply, that assuage our sorrow and lighten our loads.
The first reading this morning was the very familiar language of the King James Version. Listen to Psalm 23 as translated by Eugene Peterson for The Message:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
Maybe Peterson’s language is too colloquial, too jarring. But maybe it causes you to hear some phrases differently, more loudly, more startlingly than before. Like the opening of verse 6: “Your beauty and love chase after me.” There is something thrilling and reassuring about a God who doesn’t wait for us to seek him out. “John Calvin saw in verse 6 an expression of God’s prevenient grace, which anticipates our unwillingness to turn to God and yet, like the ‘hound of heaven,’ follows steadily, tirelessly after us and brings us home.”
That is the God of whom Jesus spoke in parable to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke. Remember the story of the lost sheep?
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:1-7).
We marvel at the notion of a shepherd so intent on finding the one lost sheep that he would leave the others behind. But if I am the lost one, I rejoice in knowing that the Shepherd will seek me out.
Listen to another reading, this time from the Contemporary English Version:
You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe. You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows. Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, Lord.
Through the centuries, people have rested in these words of comfort, of promise, of trust. They have responded with verse, with song, with art. They have answered with soul talk – with deep, abiding spirit responding to Spirit. Several years ago, I responded with this free verse:
I am like a sheep. I am dumb stubborn focused on the blade of grass in front of my nose ignorant of the rest of the world ignorant even of the others in my flock. But you shepherd us all, even me, worried about my own stuff and blind to everyone else’s troubles. You take my hand like the small child I am, leading me away from the tempest the rapids the roiling waves, walking with me, beside me, through new green grass, along calm waters. And even when the waters grow rough, you’re still there, still holding my hand, still guiding and protecting. You unfurl a checkered cloth place it on the ground for me unpack an overflowing basket of my favorite foods and pour new wine into my cup until it pours over the sides. With you beside me, even the hard times will not be so hard, and the good times, well they will far outweigh the bad. And if I stray – when I stray – you will chase after me to bring me home.
Commentators make much of the uniquely personal nature of this psalm. It touches us in ways other scripture does not. It speaks to us in ways other scripture does not. When once we have heard it, we carry it with us, nursing certain words or phrases, or perhaps latching onto the full message of the text. God, with us, for us, protecting us, nurturing us, chasing us, never letting us go. In 1719, English preacher and hymnist Isaac Watts adapted the psalm for a hymn later set to an American folk melody. The simple text reinforces the psalm’s message and closes with the comforting picture of returning home.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home.
“What God has done for the psalmist is what the psalmist trusts God will continue to do.” Rest in the words of this psalm and ponder: What is God doing in your life?
 James Luther Mays, Interpretation: Psalms, 117
 John B. Rogers, Feasting on the Word C/2, 434
 Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” Glory to God, 803
 William F. Brosend, Feasting on the Word C/2, 437