In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
George Will has an excellent column in praise of what some disparage as “old war horses” like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Will declares that we don’t enjoy them because they’re familiar, but that they’ve become familiar because they are great.
So it is with the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd” – these words speak to us on a deep level: what tenderness and strength these few six verses promise us of God, what needs and fears they answer, what hopes they rouse in us and what blessed assurance they give our highest hope… Think about, ponder, this short Psalm’s right great-ness – not least of which is its brevity, which doubtless have helped make it (together with the equally-brief Lord’s Prayer) the best-known two passages of Scripture.
Though I’ve been exposed to all manner of ‘academic’ ‘literary’ opinions, I find that ordinary people, over the years and in the aggregate, are very keen judges of literature – and the 23rd Psalm, like Beethoven’s Fifth, is most rightfully beloved not because it is familiar but because it is great – beloved by Jesus as well, for surely He couldn’t say in John 10:11 that “I am the good shepherd” without conscious awareness of this Psalm, and awareness that it resonated with his hearers.
In connection with this teaching image of His, and of the psalmist, you’ve heard me about sheep: sheep are dumb beasts, unable to find their own way safely, given to straying, easily lost – dirty, smelly, simultaneously recalcitrant and bewildered – at times eager to follow anyone even off a cliff, at other times refusing to be led even though it be to needed water and nourishment. Sheep must have a good shepherd just to survive, even as you and I must lest we wander to grief amongst the cliffs and pitfalls, the barren wastes and ravening beasts in this world from Genesis 4:7 to First Peter 5:8.
Therefore to say that The Lord is my shepherd is both a statement of trusting fact and a prayer: fact, to admit that I am but a sheep and therefore in desperate need of good-shepherding; prayer, as we just sang, “Saviour, like a shepherd lead us / Much we need thy tender care.” Much indeed – the glory is, we are offered that care.
Think deeply, ponder the words: The Lord is my shepherd (a tremendous affirmation of humble trust) therefore can I lack nothing – I prefer that translation to I shall not want because these days we use ‘want’ to mean ‘desire’ rather than ‘lack’ – as a sinner I want all manner of things I don’t need and shouldn’t for my soul’s sake have. The point is that with the Lord as my shepherd I will not lack anything I need for salvation – the rest is transitory.
Note the realistic details: He shall feed me in a green pasture – not true to the Hebrew original, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, but we need feeding as well as lying down, spiritual nourishment as well as repose for our weary souls mercifully proffered us as a respite and refuge amidst the pathless wilderness of this naughty world – in the very midst of which perils He leadeth me beside the still waters, an image of God’s peace as a clear and limpid pool, and a reminder of the ongoing nature of thirst: we may drink off a quart of water at one time but soon we will thirst again, our physical thirst must be quenched continually even as our spiritual health requires the continual refreshment of God, leading right into verse 3, He restoreth my soul – the stresses we endure in human life, stresses from outside us and from within, constantly drain our energies like batteries in a flashlight left on – thanks be to God for continually offering us his recharging restoring power, even as the good shepherd gives his sheep the sustaining blessings of food, water, and rest by leading them in the right paths, in the Hebrew implying the paths that lead straight home. We need guidance, leadership: our own shortsighted desires can lead us astray, we need the good shepherd’s right guidance to find and to persevere in the right straight path in the right direction, home to God.
Not that the right path is trouble-free: on the contrary, the psalmist knows, as Jesus later told His followers, that finding the one safe way through this torturous life is very difficult -- precisely why we need a good shepherd. This is no Pollyanna-psalm all sweetness and light – it faces facts: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The first three verses depicted comfort and safety, but verse four reflects life as we must face it including certain physical death, though the Hebrew here shows broader dark vistas by saying the valley of deep darkness so that we know God’s comfort and strength is with us through all kinds of ‘darkness’ of which death is but one.
God is with us through times of depression and of temptations to despair, through serious illness of our own or others; God is with us through alienation from loved ones, through inner devils whispering that we’ve missed our chances and wasted our lives, through the horror of confronting the disloyalty of others and of our own hearts; God is with us though all these darknesses and more, through every valley however deep, every gathering shadow clouding our future way, every dark in which we stumble and every defile in which we lose our way – yet God Himself is with us, our good shepherd still shepherds, Thy rod and they staff they comfort me, the shepherd’s staff with which he gently disciplines and steers us, prods us back when we stray too near the edge, and his rod, the stout stick with which to beat off the wild dogs and wolves that would gleefully savage us if we give them half a chance…
And then, with breathtaking poetic audacity, the psalmist envisages the good shepherd as the gracious host, verse five, Thou preparest a table before me [now it’s individual, personal, human: sheep don’t eat at tables] in the presence of mine enemies – I prefer them that trouble me, because all manner of people who aren’t actual “enemies” still “trouble” us, don’t they? Here God takes on the sacred responsibilities of a host, which even today in the Middle East requires full protection of a guest who has eaten one’s salt, and here goes beyond the basic rites of hospitality to provide a sumptuous feast, foretold in today’s reading from Isaiah 21:6 “the Lord of Hosts shall make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined,” a feast foretold by Jesus in Luke 6:38 “well-filled, shaken down, running over,” far exceeding our needs in his total, giving, welcome, prefiguring Jesus’ final Messianic banquet in Heaven, Revelation 19:9, where “The angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are they who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.’”
Even you and I are all invited, the Master of the Feast wants us all because He loves us all, but His invitations are always R.S.V.P., we must either accept them or have the bad manners not to respond at all – may the Good Shepherd give us Grace to accept His personal invitation, that each of us may know that 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! Wherefore, as today’s Second Lesson exhorts us in Philippians 4 verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always – again I will say, Rejoice!”
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.