' The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.'
--Psalm 23 (BCP translation)
Throughout this COVID-tide, I, like many of you, I suspect, have been searching for strength and hope. The place where I tend most often to find those things is in the words of Scripture. Perhaps there is no greater piece of Scripture for this unusual and often frightening season of our lives, than the 23rd Psalm.
An Orthodox icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd
This is actually the third time we have read Psalm 23 this year, the first was back on March 22 on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and the second was on May 3 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. I didn’t talk about Psalm 23 on those days, but as we enter our 8th month of COVID-tide it seems like an appropriate Scripture to unpack. Maybe, once again, it will give us the strength and hope we need right now.
I remember back in my days as a hospice chaplain that no matter what mental or spiritual state folks were in, they always managed to remember one prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—one song—Amazing Grace—and one Scripture—Psalm 23. There really seems to be power in this Psalm. It is believed to have been composed around 1000 years before the time of Jesus by King David, who wrote it as a hymn of praise to the God who never seemed to abandon him, even when made some pretty terrible decisions or when people were literally trying to kill him. It is a song of trust on the part of David—or whoever wrote it—and assurance on the part of God.
It happens in the very first line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” This has some radical implications when we consider that we live in a culture that teaches us to want everything. Power, prestige, possessions. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages that tell us what we want, and what we want is just about anything but God. It is particularly revolutionary for us to proclaim that because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want; that is, by making this statement we claim that God is the only real necessity of life. In this time when we have an awful lot of wants—I want to go to a movie theatre, I want to see this church full again, I want to hug my father and sister the next time I see them—it takes a lot of trust to say that the Lord fulfills all my wants. The rest of the Psalm, then, expands upon this statement of trust.
That trust is itself revolutionary when we consider that rulers in the ancient world were known as the shepherds of their people. Their job was to use the power and resources they had to protect and provide for their subjects, but they very often failed to do so. For the Psalmist to declare God to be their shepherd also means that “Fill in the blank corrupt ruler in power this moment” isn’t. For folks in Jesus’ day who prayed this Psalm, it meant Caesar wasn’t their shepherd. For us, even now, as we pray this Psalm our declaration is the same, that no president, governor, monarch, or ruler of any kind is our shepherd except God. In this time of partisanship that is so incredibly volatile, this is Good News, which we especially need to hear at a time when public health and basic human need are increasingly politicized. In contrast to the failure of earthly rulers, God is the one the Psalm declares who will be what a shepherd and ruler should be. As shepherds convey strength and give courage to their flock, so does our God, and the rest of the Psalm tells us how.
Verses 2 and 3 show how God provides all that we need. For sheep, green pastures mean food, and still waters mean drink, and to be in right paths for sheep means that danger is averted and proper shelter is attained; thus, God is the shepherd who provides food, drink, and shelter, the basic necessities of life, to all of God’s flock. Nobody goes lacking for any of these in a world where the Lord is the Shepherd.
Verse 4 is both the structural and theological center of the Psalm. At the moment of greatest threat, and peril, God still provides, even if all God provides is a presence through the valley of the shadow of death. I suspect this is the verse that tugs most at our hearts, especially now. Honestly, brothers and sisters, it sure feels like a deep, dark, long valley that we are in right now. Sickness and death lie all around us, and there seems to be little consolation or guidance from those in authority. It is in times like these that we need to be reminded of God’s promise to us reflected in this Psalm. It isn’t a promise to magically fix our problems, but it is a promise of an abiding, everlasting presence that tells us that, even when we are in the deepest valley, God is there with us. This is absolutely true right now!
Then the Psalmist addresses God directly, reinforcing the closeness and familiarity of God: YOU are with me, says the Psalmist. The word we translate often as rod also means scepter, connoting God’s majesty and power, again reminding us that where human frailty is lacking, God’s strength abides. Yet even in that strength we find care, as the Psalmist declares “your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” which is odd to say about two objects of authority sometimes used as weapons. We come with our fears and anxiety before God and find them quietened because in God’s strength we find rest. God’s provision is reliable because God is the sovereign we can depend on when all others fail, and not even the darkest, most deadly threat can separate us from God’s presence.
In the 5th and 6th verses the metaphor shifts from shepherd to a host that brings the Psalmist to a meal in the ever-welcoming house of the Lord. Perhaps this line tugs at our heartstrings right now because it foreshadows not only Jesus’ ministry around various tables but our own sacred meal of the Holy Eucharist, which many of us have been unable to physically partake in during COVID-tide. Nevertheless, we are still invited, even if it is simply through the meditations of our hearts, to come to the table of the Lord, where we are still fed by God in our hearts by faith. The earliest followers of Jesus remembered his table ministry and believed that whenever they shared a meal—literally, ANY meal, not just the Eucharist—Jesus was there, that ANY table could, in fact, be the Lord’s table. Right now you may not be able to gather at your favorite restaurant with your closest friends, but even if you are with your family who are quarantining with you, or even if it is a table for one, the same banquet is still laid out for you, and God still fills you with the very bread of heaven. And you may not be able to go to your church and get the Eucharist, but that’s why we celebrate Spiritual Communion, even when we can’t share in this meal physically together. What’s more, this Psalm offers us the greatest of hopes, that through the reconciling and transformative power of the love of God, even our enemies will sit with us and share in that holy table fellowship. In a time of such divisiveness, we need to be reminded of that.
The Psalm concludes with the image of anointing. As David was anointed with oil on his head, we are anointed, physically at our baptism and spiritually each day, with the Holy Spirit. That anointing gives us power to know the goodness and mercy of God—which the Psalmist says follow us, though a better translation is that they pursue us. When we pause long enough to take a deep breath from and rest from the insanity of the world, that goodness and mercy catch up to us and remind us of our place in God’s family, of our dwelling forever in the house of the Lord.
We need this Psalm right now, brothers and sisters. I pray that, as you face your own valleys, as you look at the state of our country and our world, you will remember who the real shepherd is, who will always provide, always comfort, always give you the gift of an everlasting presence. May this Psalm strengthen your trust in God and provide God’s assurance for you during your most vulnerable times.