Psalm 23 Sheepish

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Questions: Why would a king need a shepherd? Why do we? Do we want to walk in paths of righteousness? Through the valley of death? Even if goodness and mercy are following? Especially if our table is surrounded by enemies?

“Read More” to pursue answers in the Psalms.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Psalms 23:1-6

This Psalm is so familiar — and so beloved — I’m almost nervous about analyzing it in depth. But (to my wife’s chagrin:-), I have virtually no shame, so let’s get to it!

The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.

The first thing that struck me was how David drew on the most thankless, sole-responsibility job he knew. Sure, being king is tough, but at least there is some glory in it, and people eager to share in the burden (or at least the glory :-). But sheep are notoriously ungrateful for their shepherd’s ever-watchful care, forever wandering away to their own destruction. To be a shepherd is to assume total, never-ending responsibility for someone that is incapable of being responsible for themselves.

Ouch.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

This first descriptive (vs. declarative) verse seems pretty straightforward, a lovely poetic image of how God provides David’s daily bread. There may be some subtleties here — finding tender shoots would presumably require extra-special attention in a parched land, while non-still waters might drown a sheep — but I suspect the primary point is just David luxuriating in God’s goodness.

He restoreth my soul:

Now, this (shuwb [07725]) is an interesting word. I usually read it as ‘refresh’, referring to the prior verse. However, it can also be translated as “repent”, which adds weight to:

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

When I was younger, this seemed such a sweet picture: Jesus leading the lambs like teachers herding kindergartners. As I’ve grown older, and learned more about the perversity of sheep (and myself!), I realize a better picture might be John Wayne leading a bunch of naive, stiff-necked pioneers through enemy territory — without them appreciating it.

For the reality is that we, like sheep, really want to go astray, completely unaware of the fatal dangers surrounding us. That is why He leads us for His name’s sake — in accordance with His character and compassion; not our own. It is a bitter pill to swallow, realizing how ruinous it would be for God to merely give us what we think we want.

But it gets worse:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:

This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of David’s faith. It is one thing to trust God by green fields and still waters. It is surely more impressive to welcome his gentle nudges that keep us on the narrow way. But to joyously and fearlessly affirm God’s continuing protection even within death’s shadow — that borders on insanity! Why?

for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Huh. It is like walking through a tunnel filled with deadly scorpions — while being blind and deaf! By rights, I should be petrified, unable to move, knowing that any step could prove fatal. But, suppose I had a friend — an experienced, Indiana-Jones type adventurer — walking behind me. Jones uses a couple of sticks to keep me on the path, and even hook me back milliseconds before stepping on a deadly arachnid. With a friend like that — and knowing that freedom lies on the other side — why not be joyous and unafraid?

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

This is a strange verse; neither the Hebrew nor the Septuagint offer much insight into why our table is in “the presence of” my enemies. I prefer the idea of “despite” — that no matter how much our enemies seek to cause us turmoil, God isn’t going to let that disturb family dinner:

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.

Rather than a trio of angels, David is in fact celebrating God’s over-arching protection and provision. You can almost hear the homesickness in his voice, as if remembering a place he’d never been — to which he can’t wait to return.

Prayer

Father, sheep are geniuses compared to me. If they know nothing else, at least they recognize the existence of shepherd far wiser and stronger than they. Lord, I long to rest within the circle of your love, to be guided (even prodded) by you. Saviour, lead me on; whether through green pastures or deathly valleys, as long as I walk in your name. I care not if I am surrounded by enemies, as long as I can rest secure at your table. Make me your sheep, O my God, for I am lost with you. To you alone I cry, O my shepherd, O my Jesus. Amen.

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