The 23rd Psalm is perhaps the most beloved of all the psalms and perhaps the best known of all the chapters of the Bible. Indeed, the 53 words of this Psalm (in the King James’ Version) may be the most memorable words in any language.
The LORD is my shepherd ; I shall not want .
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 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
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 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 .
The Psalmist makes two points: First, life is both delightful and difficult and second, though our circumstances change, God does not change. God is with us, his people, throughout life and beyond.
The most profound poetry - describing our joy and our suffering in all their dimensions and giving us a vocabulary in which to give voice to the cries of our heart - is the poetry of the Bible.
Close to one third of the Old Testament is poetry. That includes not only the Psalms but also the Prophets. Much of the prophetic literature is also written in the idiom of poetry.
John Calvin said that the book of Psalms is "an anatomy of all the parts of the souls, for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not represented in the psalms as in a mirror. The HOly Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities... with which the human mind is agitated."
The Psalms provide us with thoughts to think and words to speak when we don't know how to think and what to say.
Psalm 23 is a "psalm of David" which could mean "to David" as a dedication or "of David" ie, belonging to David, or "for David" - to be used by David in worship.
But we do not have to know the historical context of Psalm 23 nor do we have to understand sheep and their ways to appreciate its significance.
The opening statement of Psalm 23 - "The Lord is my shepherd" - tell me who God is and who I am. We are not "the ultimate measure of things, the controller of our world, or the determiner of our destiny." God is in control; I am not.
Then the shepherd leads his sheep into pleasant and refreshing places: "...he maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."
From beginning to end, the Bible empties creation of divinity. In other words, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is a polemic against the pagan religions of the ancient world. The Bible tells us that nature is the creation, not the creator.
But creation is also a symbol of the divine. And nature has been an inspiration for poets from the time of Psalm 23 to the present.
Poet/farmer/theologian Wendell Berry wrote:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The first three verses of Psalm 23 describe the delightful experiences of life: green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness. But in v. 4 the picture suddenly changes and we find ourselves in the shadow of death.
John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress follows the Christian pilgrim through a varied landscape. There are "Delectable mountains" but there is also the Slough of Despond. There is House Beautiful but also the Hill Difficulty. There is the Country of Beulah - where birds always sing, flowers always bloom, and the sun shines night and day - but there is also the valley of the shadow of death.
The valley of the SHADOW of death is not death itself but a place of darkness, sadness, affliction, and trial.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, went through a terrible time of suffering during which he wrote:
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
this night! what sights, you, heart, saw; ways you went!
and more must, in yet longer light's delay.
I understand the words, "valley of the shadow of death" to mean that death can cast a shadow over life. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only beings who can anticipate our own death and this knowledge can take the joy out of life.
Death itself is less a problem than the fear of death.
But what comforts us when this shadow falls over life is that there is someone who walks with us through this valley of the shadow, someone who has been there before us and knows what we are experiencing.
There are many ways of saying, "I will fear no evil, for you are with me." In one of her books Dorothy Sayers speaks through Balthazar, a wise man who has experienced famine, plague, wars, and "the burden of fear." But Balthazar does not fear because he is convinced that God is with him.
If He is beside me, bearing the weight of his own creation;
If I may hear His voice among the voices of the vanquished,
If I may feel His hand touch mine in the darkness,
If I may look upon the hidden face of God
Adn read in the eyes of God
That he is acquainted with grief.
The 23rd psalm assures us that we are pilgrims, not wanderers. We are not lost; we are led. The shepherd knows the best path for us to take.
Sometimes life seems disconnected and erratic. We may find it difficult or even impossible to see any pattern. But there is a plan, a pattern. But the day will come when we will look back and be amazed. Time spent in the valley is not wasted. It is a part of the plan.
We are blessed with God's presence, comforted by his rod and staff, and will learn what it means to be "his people and the sheep of his pasture."
Psalm 23 assures us that death is not the end. There is something more and something better.
Following the words "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" there is not a period but a comma followed by the word "and".
My last day on earth is not my last day. The road will end but it ends as the runway does when the plane takes off. We will die but we will dwell "in the house of the Lord forever."
For Christians death is the dawn of an eternal day, the gate to life, a home coming or as C.S. Lewis says, the beginning of Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
John Donne wrote:
Since I am coming to that holy room
Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore I shall be made Thy music, as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.
By God's grace, we shall see a greater light, a light that shall never face, a light of which all our glimpses of glory are faint reflections, the light of the New Jerusalem, a city that has "no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb." (Rev. 21.23).
In that light the problem of pain will disappear and sickness and suffering will be no more "for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21.4).