Saturday, 20 April 2013

Reflections on Psalm 23


Psalm 23

This is the most well known Psalm

It has been set to many musical settings: Crimond, The King of Love, The Lord's my shepherd (Townend), Brother James' air, Stanford – to name but a few.

It is a psalm that I use when I sit beside the bed of people when they are ill or even dying.
It is a psalm that is often used at funerals.
But it is also a psalm that people use to express their confidence and trust in God.

It is profoundly personal.

God has commanded the rulers and prophets of Israel to be good shepherds of Israel; but here David, who has been brought up as a shepherd, takes the illustration a step further and declares that the LORD himself is the shepherd of Israel [but note Gen 48:15, where Joseph calls God 'my shepherd'].

And David goes even further. He calls God ‘my shepherd’.  

And because David can call God shepherd, he makes four statements about himself.

1. 'I shall not want'

God will give you everything that you need for the eternal well-being of your soul.

He will give you rest, food, protection, guidance

'He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters'.

He makes me lie down. I was speaking to someone in hospital who told me that becoming ill was the only way God was going to get him to stop being frantic and make him look up.

We think that being busy is the sign of a worthwhile life. Being busy is actually a sign that sometimes we are not prepared to face up to the emptiness in or meaninglessness of our life.

There was an article in the New York Times, 'Busyness serves as a kind of … hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day …. [We're] busy because of [our] own ambition or drive or anxiety, because [we're] addicted to busyness and dread what [we] might have to face in its absence.'

There are times when God strips us of activity and busyness, when he makes us rest and - if we let him - he can help us to face up to who we are, and who he is.

The Bury Free Press had a report this week of a lady who was stuck in the lift for a night. I came across another story of a nun who was stuck in a lift for 4 nights and 3 days. No, this isn't the beginning of a joke! She had with her some water and some celery sticks - she'd been taking them up to her room for the night. When she realised she was stuck, she said she had a decision to make: she could either panic, or she could accept what had happened to her as a gift from God: a gift of space and time to be with him. So she treated it as a prayer retreat.

My divine shepherd, says David, gives me everything that I need for the eternal well-being of my soul.

He provides us with pasture: food to eat and water.

I was listening to some talks by Bill Hybels about simplifying your life. He was saying that one of the greatest destroyers of a living and joyful faith is lack of contentment with what God has given us. We always want more. And as a result we overstretch ourselves. We go into debt. And we lose peace and we lose rest.

The problem is not the lack of God's provision for us. The problem is that we are not prepared to trust him that what we have is sufficient for our needs. And we need to trust him when he takes us through the more barren pastures, knowing that he will lead us in time to the richer pastures.

Our shepherd will provide us with what we need: but we need to be prepared to trust him as our shepherd – even in the difficult times.

And our shepherd guides us; he shows us the way to go, how to live: 'He leads me in paths of righteousness'. If we listen to him, if we trust him – then he will guide us in the right way to live.

Do you have a decision to make? Look at what his word says – what are the general principals. Are you being disobedient? But if it still seems OK - pray, find out more, push doors. Let him be the one who guides you.

God will give you everything that you need for the eternal well-being of your soul and so that you live to honour him. That is why, if we are prepared to call God our shepherd, we will lack nothing. We may not have everything that we want, but we will have everything that we need.

2. ‘I will fear no evil’

I don't know what particular dark valleys you are walking through.

But I do know that all of us will go through incredibly dark places: illness or bereavement; maybe you are being bullied, you are confused, struggling because you feel trapped in a wrong crowd, threatened and out of your depth or in a wrong friendship and you see no hope; perhaps you are wrestling with pain from the past, with your identity or sexuality. Or maybe you had great dreams of what you were going to do - maybe even for God - but wrong expectations, the reality of life and your own failure has crushed those dreams. Maybe you are broken hearted, or battling with loneliness, or crushed: you've let down other people and you've let down yourself.

Or maybe, like our psalmist, you are facing the greatest darkness - the shadow of death.

The one who knows God as their shepherd does not need to fear the dark valleys. Psalm 23 speaks of his comfort: his rod and his staff.

The rod, they say, is more a club for bashing the enemies on the head. When the wolf comes, the shepherd clubs him.
The staff is the shepherd's crook. It is for pulling back the frightened scattering sheep.

So the monster comes for us. We panic and freeze or we panic and run. But God our shepherd pulls us back or moves us on - and he knocks out the beast.

Trust him. There are times in our life when we face things that are bigger than us, things that we cannot overcome or understand. God asks us to simply trust him. We're not going through them on our own. He is there. He will keep us on the right path with his staff; and he will overcome the enemy with his rod.

There are some famous lines from Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

3.  ‘My cup overflows’

David now changes his illustration. He has spoken of God as shepherd; He now speaks of God as gracious host.

God is the master chef who has invited you into his home as an honoured guest.

And David speaks how God has prepared a table, a banquet for him. It is as if he has come into the entrance hall. His host has welcomed him, and his coat is being taken. There is a wonderful smell coming from the kitchen. And just through the open door into the dining room, he can see the most amazing spread on the table.

And our host has not simply prepared a meal for us. He brings out some oil and he anoints, not our hands, but our head. That would be odd today, but then it was a sign of real honour. Kings were anointed with oil - it was a mark of being chosen by God and appointed for a task.

And when people are confirmed in our Church, oil is placed on their head. It is a way of saying to each candidate that you are incredibly special; that you are anointed for a purpose.

And God does all of this in the presence of our enemies: of those who say, 'You'll never get in there. You're not worthy enough. You're not clever enough. You're not good enough'.

And so David says, ‘My cup overflows’.

God, you see, takes your cup and fills it with a life-giving drink.

You ask him, 'What is in here?'

He replies, 'This cup is overflowing with mercy. Your enemy was right when she said that you don't deserve to be here - that you are not good enough or clever enough or successful enough or strong enough or famous enough. But she was wrong, because I don't let in people who think that they are good enough, clever enough, successful enough, strong enough or famous enough. I only let in people who come to me, who know that they need me and who are prepared to trust me as their shepherd.

But to those who do come to me, I give this cup. It is a cup full of mercy, forgiveness, acceptance and peace.

But there is a second ingredient. It overflows with goodness. There are so many flavours to goodness: beauty, contentment, fulfilment, happiness, delight and joy.

I am not saying that that joy is necessarily ours now. We may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But we know God as shepherd, we have been anointed, the table is prepared, the cup has been poured - to overflowing. And the hors d'oeuvre is being served - exquisite samples of the food that is yet to come.

4. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’

This is quite exceptional. There are very few references to eternal life in the Old Testament. The dead go to Hades, a place of shadows, and that seems to be that.

But David is implying that there is a very different destiny for those who call God their shepherd: 'they will dwell in the house of The Lord for ever'.

This remarkable host, who first invites us into his home as guests, now invites us to stay on as members of his household 'for ever'.


In his book Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton wrote a prayer (which has become known as the Merton prayer). It echoes many of the ideas in Psalm 23.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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