The passage begins, "The Lord is my shepherd..." The metaphor of the shepherd is used sixty times in fifty-four different verses of the Bible. It speaks of God's care and compassion for his beloved flock – of how God provides for our needs, protects us and steers us along safe paths, if we but trust and follow him. In his mercy, God seeks us out when we go astray and will lead us back to the fold with a sure welcome.
"…I lack nothing." There are two ways of understanding this phrase; one is having what you need or desire, and the other is being content with what you have and wanting no more. The psalm doesn't say that God will satisfy all our appetites; only that he will give us the things we truly need for a full and abundant life. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Give us today our daily bread." He also said, in Matthew 6:19, "Don't lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth." It seems clear that God would have us trust him to supply our needs and be grateful.
"He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He refreshes my soul." The Judean wilderness is mostly sand and rocks with a little scrub brush here and there. Yet, there are wadis in the wilderness – creek beds, we would call them – where, often, a tiny stream of water flows. Around these wadis there are trees and green grass thriving in fertile soil. In seasons of barrenness, in times when it takes all our strength to keep going, God is especially attentive to see us through. Even though we may not always be able to see it, God's grace will sustain us – no matter how dry the experience or how difficult the outcome of our journey. His living water truly is living water that refreshes our souls.
"He guides me in the right paths for his name's sake." The shepherd leads the sheep along right paths, not for the sheep's comfort and pleasure, but because it's what a good shepherd does. A fine, healthy flock is a testimony to his good name. As Christians, when we keep Gods commandments and share his love with others, we reflect the true image of God in which we are created. Thereby, his name is glorified. In this translation (NIV) – and the NRSV, which is the version of our pew bibles – the term “right paths” is used, rather than the word “righteousness.” Some may think the psalm means that we are “always to be right, correct.” According to exegetical scholars, the verse means that we are to follow the Lord along paths that he would have us choose.
"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." If we’re honest about it, the darkest valley (or the valley of the shadow of death, as the term used in the KJV) is a place we're all a little squeamish about. Death and the other dark places of this life are mysteries we don’t fully comprehend. Both are realities over which we have little control, and it is faith that gets us through. God is with us through every twist and turn, and – even when we do not understand, and at the end of this life – he is by our side. His grace is sufficient for our need.
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." When you closed your eyes, did you see a banquet hall filled with tables groaning with tasty foods? I did! And everyone is there…loved ones, friends…and yes, enemies. Those enemies are not just people who don't like us, but enemies such as sickness and unmet worldly needs. God's promise is that, through faith, our enemies will not prevail in the end. We are to love them, and in fact, we can celebrate the riches of God’s grace in his Kingdom today…and tomorrow.
"You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows." In the Bible, anointing refers to the practice of sealing a covenant and bestowing a blessing. In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel, poured oil over Saul's head to signify that God had chosen him to be king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). In the New Testament, Luke speaks of Jesus as the Anointed One of God, the Christ (Acts10:38). And, in his letters, Paul encourages the early Christians to carry on Christ's ministry as those who are anointed in his name (2 Corinthians 1:21). We are God's anointed. We are the ones with whom God so freely shares His grace and love. Our mission is to welcome that grace and love into our own hearts and then to share it generously – and with joy.
The 23rd psalm truly is a powerful teaching, a message of strength and sweetness. It concludes by saying, "Surely your goodness and love shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." God did not bring us into this world to abandon us and put us out on our own. He created us in his image and bestowed upon us the gift of life in order that we might live in a loving relationship with him and with each other. God is love, and the love of God is everlasting. Wherever the Spirit leads us, we have the assurance of God's blessings along the way –and the promise of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ.
This psalm is a reminder of who we are and whose we are, of where we've been and where we're going. Let it remind us of the love of God which enfolds us, the peace of Christ which surrounds us, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within us which promises to teach and sustain us, now and forever more.
O Heavenly Father, Whose Son Jesus is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him, and follow where he leads. Amen.