Scripture: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” ~ Psalm 23:1
If you were to say this verse to anyone that grew up in Canada or another part of the British Commonwealth, they would likely know the source and many could probably continue the passage at least a few more verses.
Whether you learned it in school, Sunday school or have heard it at countless funerals – the twenty-third psalm is easily one of the most recognizable passages of scripture. It has also found a place in our culture’s imagination, being used in countless movies, television shows and literature throughout the past many decades. There is just something about the words of the reading we just heard that resonate with people, no matter their religious affiliation.
Which on the surface, is pretty perplexing, if we’re being honest.
After all, most of us don’t have much experience with sheep or the pastoral imagery of the psalm. Living in a city like Toronto, in this day and age, most of us have probably never met a shepherd, especially one like the shepherds of the middle east. Most of us are far more familiar with lawyers, doctors, plumbers, and mechanics than we are with shepherds. We’ve had more experience with police officers directing traffic than we have had with sheep being directed along by a shepherd.
So by all rights, Psalm 23 should fall on our ears like a foreign phrase. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Is it merely nostalgia? Or is there something more going on here? Because when you stop to think about it, by all rights Psalm 23 should have another strike against it, too: in this society of rugged, self-made individuals where every person is encouraged to become his or her ethical referee, taking life as it comes and making up the rules as he or she goes along: in a society like this one, why would we want to have much to do with an ancient psalm that talks about being led around by someone else? We live by the customer mentality in North America. I want it my way right away (and while we’re at it, I will be the one to determine what my way is).
And yet Psalm 23 endures. Why? Because in the deep places of our souls, I suspect that we all sense that maybe everybody needs a shepherd. When times are rough, when the waters are choppy, and when life is full of turmoil and tumult, we recognize that a shepherd is what we need.
And the truth of the matter is that all of us have shepherds – whether we like to admit it or not. All of us are influenced and led by forces beyond our immediate control, whether that is cultural forces like individualism, economic forces like capitalism, political forces, and on and on. But ultimately these ‘shepherds’ are indifferent, they are not ‘good shepherds’ that look out for their sheep.
The opposite is true for the shepherd in our Psalm. David, our psalmist, emphasizes this point with the very first verses of the psalm. One of the features of Hebrew poetry is something called parallelism, in place of the rhyming schemes we usually see in our poetry, a practice whereby a first line is echoed by the second line but also deepens the meaning of the first.
So here in Psalm 23, David writes “The Lord is my shepherd,” and then in the second line “I shall not lack or want”. David is saying the same thing twice here – because the Lord being his shepherd means that he will never lack, that he will never be abandoned, and he will not have the guidance and presence of God.
For those who know God as their shepherd, then they will never lack for a God who loves them, they will never want for a God who cares for them, and they will never lack for a God who has prepared a place for them eternally. Even when the path of following that shepherd moves from the idyllic green pastures of the second verse of the psalm to the darkest valley and the shadow of the death of the fourth verse of the psalm – God the Good Shepherd is with us every step of the way, God’s goodness and mercy follow us every day of our lives.
And not just follow us but pursue us. This week during our bible study, Mennonite Pastor Ray Ahlgrim, noted that the Hebrew verb here in Psalm 23 for follow is much closer to our English word pursue, it is an active word, not just the passive act of following someone else.
How wonderful it is to know that God’s goodness and mercy, that God’s love and life, that God’s very own Son pursues us? No matter where we find ourselves – no matter which valleys, rocky paths, or darkest hells we might find ourselves in, God’s loving-kindness pursues us, seeks us out and ensures that we know life and light even amid darkness and death.
Is there any wonder then that Jesus laid claim to the imagery of the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, echoed in his discourse with the disciples in John 10?
After all, Jesus was the one who would forge the path through the darkest valley that the world could throw at Him on the Cross – a path that cut straight through death itself, a path forged under the shadow of sin and decay, leading us through to the other side of abundant and eternal life. Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow over us, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along – that is how you get a shadow after all: light shines behind something and a shadow is formed. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get to that light.
That is the truth of Easter which we celebrate, that we are reminded of when we read this familiar and comforting Psalm. There is no circumstance which separates us from the Good Shepherd of our lives, there is nothing that can ultimately separate us from the goodness and mercy of God which pursue us.
Even as we wander away – as doubt, busyness, or the distractions of this world draw our gaze away from the path – the good shepherd pursues us, finds us and brings us back to the security and safety of the fold.
Even as we traverse the darkest moments of our lives – as we are consumed with self-doubt; as we are abandoned by friends and family in our times of greatest need; as illness ravages us or those we love; as jobs are lost or financial trouble is met; as a pandemic rages for two years and war in Ukraine rages for over two months – no matter how dark or shrouded in death our journey is, the good shepherd remains with us, guiding us through to the light of his presence, pointing out to us the places where the light is breaking through the shadow, where life is overcoming death, where grace is covering over sin.
Even in the presence of our enemies – even amidst people who oppose and hinder you; even when you are oppressed for your gender, your race, for who you love; even when you are ridiculed or ignored for the faith you profess – the good shepherd prepares his abundance for you, showers the blessing of his table, a feast of rich wine, his very blood, poured out for you, of the richest bread, his body, broken for you.
Life is not easy. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. It’s not all still water and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
Thanks be to God! Alleuia! Alleuia!