The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
– Psalm 23 ESV, a psalm of David
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…” These words – and the words that follow – have touched peoples’ hearts for over 3000 years. Many of us learned the Shepherd’s Psalm as children and have returned to it for comfort as adults. The words give us a feeling of being home and at rest.
As a musician I can’t hear the 23rd Psalm without hearing melody. It’s been set to music many times… which is appropriate because the Psalter was ancient Israel’s hymnal. And King David was one of its greatest songwriters.
I believe there’s music to be found in the context of the psalm as well. It’s kind of unusual to talk about context in the Psalms… in fact Biblical scholars might think “there is no context in the psalms” and in a sense they’d be right. But even in our hymnals today songs are grouped together, with Christmas songs in one place, Easter songs in another, and so on. I think to some extent the ancient editors of the Psalter tried to do the same thing. So I think what we’re about to see is not so much coincidence as it is ‘God-incidence’. If you will, grab a Bible and follow with me and see if you can see what I’m seeing and hear what I’m hearing. Beginning with Psalm 22…
But first, a little bit of background: those of you who have ever been to the symphony might have heard a concerto while you were there. A concerto is a large work for orchestra in three sections or movements. And the movements are usually arranged: Fast –> Slow –> Really Fast. The first movement is usually upbeat, drawing the listener in. The second movement is usually quiet and introspective, and the third movement is a grand conclusion that sweeps the audience to its feet. And I think that’s basically what we have here in Psalms 22, 23, and 24: they’re like a three-movement concerto. Only this concerto is the greatest concerto ever written: it’s the song of our salvation.
OK so… a concerto usually opens upbeat and bright. Usually. But every now and then a composer will open in a minor key, brooding and dark. And when that happens it’s signal to the audience that what you’re about to hear is meant to be taken seriously and listened to carefully.
And that’s what we have here in Psalm 22. The psalm opens with a darkness that takes our breath away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words touch the depths of human sorrow. They describe the experience of someone who has been betrayed, put to shame, and who is in pain. And we recognize the speaker. Jesus quoted these words from the cross, identifying himself as the person King David was writing about.
Psalm 22 goes on to describe the scene at Calvary 1000 years before it happened. Look at verse 8: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.” These exact words are found in Matthew 27:43 – it’s what the chief priests and scribes said as Jesus was hanging on the cross. Look at verse 16: “they pierce my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones”. This describes crucifixion… something David had never witnessed. Look at verse 17: “they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing” – which is exactly what the Roman soldiers did in Matthew 27:35. Our concerto of salvation begins with the death of our Lord: in darkness and pain and suffering.
Psalm 24, the third movement, ends with a rousing conclusion of victory! Take a look at verse 7: “Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in!” George Frederick Handel quoted these lines in his oratorio Messiah. “Who is this King of Glory?” Who is the King of Glory? The same suffering servant we met in Psalm 22. God has restored his life and made him King over all creation. And so the greatest concerto ever written ends with the greatest victory the universe has ever seen.
And in between these two movements… in between the pain and darkness and the shining victory… is a tender song, Psalm 23, the song of the shepherd. Actually it’s a song sung by the sheep. It is a song we sing in between the cross and the crown. This is where we live.
Psalm 23 is a song of trust and quiet confidence. And it begins and ends with the Lord. Verse 1, “the Lord is my shepherd” and verse 6 “the house of the Lord”. That’s deliberate – it’s a device ancient Jewish writers used to use. Our lives begin and end with God, and the Lord Jesus is a shepherd who knows our lives first-hand so we can trust Him to guide us through.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. We are confident that God will provide all we need. This confidence is not a blind confidence: we are confident for the future because God has been faithful in the past. King David, as he was writing this psalm, could look over the scope of Israel’s history, from the Exodus to his day, and see God’s provision in the whole thing. And as he says in Psalm 37:25, “I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” Isn’t that our story too?
“He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” God’s provision is not only abundant, it’s good, and we eat and drink in safe places. “He restores my soul” – at the end of a long week when we’ve had the mud of the world tramped through our souls we can come to the Good Shepherd and He will restore us. Our souls are his masterpiece, the work of his hands, so he knows how to smooth the rough edges and clean off the dirt of the world and restore us (for lack of a better phrase) to factory specs. Granted, being restored to factory specs is a process that will take a lifetime… but we see progress and we can trust God to finish what he has started.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” – for his name’s sake. Not because we’ve done anything to deserve his attention, but because God is our creator, full of sympathy and mercy. He leads us in what’s right because doing so is a part of who he is.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Notice David doesn’t say “if” I walk though the valley of the shadow of death. He says “though”. He’s already there… and so are we. We live in the valley of the shadow of death, because everything in this world will someday die. People, animals, plants, trees, corporations, institutions, nations… everything will someday die, including us. That’s the reality of living in a fallen world. What’s worse, if you think of death in terms of separation from God, we live in a world that promotes death, that revels in it. We live in a world that says ‘god is dead’ and ‘do whatever you feel like’ and ‘my reality isn’t your reality’ and ‘here, spend more money on stuff you don’t need’. We live in a world where addiction and abuse and prejudice and persecution have reached epidemic proportions. It’s as if people want to die, or at least are afraid to live. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death every day.
BUT (David says) “…I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod in those days was a club for fighting off wild animals and the staff was the crook used to guide the sheep. As we pass through the darkness of this world, we have nothing to fear as long as we are with the Shepherd. It’s the Shepherd’s job to protect the sheep, even at the risk of his own life – which Jesus has done. Notice too that David doesn’t say he’s not afraid… he says “I will fear no evil for you are with me”. It’s a decision on David’s part to focus his attention on God instead of on his fears. It’s like the saying, “don’t tell God how big your troubles are, tell your troubles how big your God is!” That’s what David is doing. “I shall fear no evil for you are with me.”
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” And what a what a feast that’s going to be! Remember our reading from Isaiah this morning: (Isaiah 25:6) “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees…” In other words, we’ll be dining in a 5-star restaurant while the fat cats of this world are outside pressing their faces against the glass like street urchins. (Which by the way is a really good reason to pray for our enemies. Do we really hate anyone so much that we would want to see them excluded from God’s feast? Our enemies may end up excluding themselves, but before the feast-day comes we can at least pray they’ll change their minds.)
“You annoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In ancient Israel, annointing the head of dinner guests with oil or perfume was considered proper etiquette, at least among the upper classes who could afford it. So all these things – the protection, the green pasture, the banquet, the perfume – represent that God will provide so richly for us, the cup of our joy will run over.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” One of my heroes of the faith, the English pastor Charles Simeon (1759-1836), commented about God’s goodness and mercy. He said, “‘goodness’ to supply my wants and ‘mercy’ to cover my defects.” I like that. Simeon goes on to ask: “are you bold enough to carry this confidence beyond the grave?” If so (he says) “while all the rest are following after happiness and it eludes their grasp: those who believe in Jesus have happiness following after them.” [italics in the original] That is the correct translation of this verse: the words ‘shall follow me’ actually translate more like ‘shall chase after me’. Goodness and mercy will chase after me all the days of my life. God’s lovingkindness runs after us like the father of the Prodigal Son ran to meet his son. As His children we couldn’t escape his goodness and mercy if we tried (not that we would want to). And when our time on earth is done, by his goodness and mercy we will move from Psalm 23 into Psalm 24 – ascending the hill of the Lord, celebrating his victory.
So Psalm 23 is the gentle, quiet second movement in the concerto of salvation: a song of confidence and trust. No matter what happens, no matter what we see around us, no matter who lets us down, we can trust Jesus. The Good Shepherd has given his life for our protection, to restore our souls, and to give us a place in his house forever. Trust Him. AMEN.
~ Preached at Church of the Atonement, 10/9/11, 8:00AM service ~