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 right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I 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 my whole life long.Psalm 23 (NRSV)
Think for a moment of all the generations of people who have found comfort in the words of this incredible psalm. Our grandparents, perhaps, and their grandparents, too. People of faith, like you and me, facing times of great uncertainty, have for countless generations turned to the words of Psalm 23 and found a powerful message of hope. Whether during times of war, or in the midst of recessions and drought. Those in the midst of pandemics of old, like the Spanish flu or the Bubonic plague. And countless others have found comfort in these words in the midst of personal trials, too. I know that I personally have shared these words with people facing surgery, at the bedsides of the dying, and at many funerals as well.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Just speaking these opening words brings comfort to me. In fact, I have used these words myself as a kind of “breath prayer,” where I pray the words, “The Lord is my shepherd” as I breathe in, and pray the words, “I shall not want” as I breathe out. You might try that when you are facing a stressful moment in your day.
Psalm 23 is a psalm that has always been beloved, for good reason. In this reflection, I want to share with you three reasons why I believe this psalm is so important to us.
The first reason is that this psalm is very honest. We crave honesty in our lives and in our world, and this psalm is nothing if not honest. There will be dark valleys in life, the darkest of valleys, of shadow and death. We know that, most of us, from personal experience; and we are almost relieved to hear God’s word acknowledge it. We all face dark valleys. We all face trials. We all suffer. There is no easy way to get through this life, as I have sometimes put it. And a message of hope that doesn’t start with the truth seems almost artificial, and untrustworthy.
And not only dark valleys. But enemies, too. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Yes, this psalm acknowledges this truth, too. And in the last month we have met a new enemy: COVID-19. It is a hidden enemy. But deadly. And disrupting our world more than anything else in my lifetime. This enemy has now invaded our county. And it is not finished with us yet, unfortunately. This virus is indeed an enemy, and it won’t be easy to defeat. And Psalm 23 is also this simple fact, that we all face enemies in life.
But in the presence of our enemies, this psalm reminds us, our Lord prepares a table before us. In the darkest of valleys, we need not fear evil, because God is with us. And that is the second reason why I believe this psalm is so beloved: because it is clear about God’s promise. The promise above all promises from God is to be with us: To lead us, to guide us, to restore our souls, to help us find the still water; and to follow us with God’s goodness and mercy all the days of our life.
God doesn’t promise us an easy life. We are not promised a life free of suffering. What we are promised is that God will be with us through it all, come what may. God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life. There is no valley so dark that the light of Christ cannot penetrate it. We are promised that, and reminded of that, whenever we pray this psalm.
But there is a third reason why I believe this psalm is so beloved, among Christians. And that is because it points us to one who is our good and faithful shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus identifies himself as the shepherd who guides us through life, and protects us from danger. And whenever we Christians pray this psalm, we can’t help but think of Jesus.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus tells us in John 10. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Jesus is our good shepherd, who lays down his life for us. He knows us. He loves us. And he promises to be with us every step of this life.
And that is why we shall not want, as this psalm puts it. Because all that we truly want, at the end of the day, can be found in Jesus. The one who leads us beside still waters; who restores our soul. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, as some of us are doing now, we fear no evil; for Jesus is with us. His goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life.
And because he died for us, and has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven, we know that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. That is a promise that we need to hear, now more than ever. In this dark valley in which we find ourselves, let us continue to trust in the one who promises to be with us, to guide us, and to shepherd us to safety, now and forever. Amen