Have you found yourself taking notice and appreciating things that only a few weeks ago we took for granted? Let me give one small example from my own life. We are a two vehicle household. Since I’m working from home and my wife has been laid off she’s been running the errands in the van, her vehicle. My car has sat idle. A couple of weeks ago having read that cars should be driven at least once per week, I did something that pre-pandemic I wouldn’t have done—I went for a drive for the sole purpose of driving. It was strange, strange the feeling of happiness and contentment I experienced unexpectedly. Something that only a few ago I barely gave a thought to was now a source of comfort and yes even a little healing for my soul.
Psalm 23 is a bit like that. It’s right up there as the most familiar of all biblical passages. It’s the funeral scripture. In my sixteen years of ministry I have never preached on it outside of a funeral service. In a liberal church we tend to see it as imbued with nice sentiment but it’s words and analogies are a bit simplistic and theologically unsophisticated for a people who’ve mastered life, succeeded at much, feel secure and can look to the future with a sense of predictability. Times have changed, we’re not those people any more.
Perhaps now we can relate more to the Psalmist and the Psalmist’s people. In the ancient world, kings were known as shepherds of their people. So, to profess “The LORD is my shepherd” is to declare your loyalty to God and intention to live under God’s reign. In return for this loyalty it was the responsibility of kings to provide for and protect the people, but they frequently failed at this. In contrast to the failure of earthly kings, God does what a shepherd is supposed to do: provide life and security for the people. So the psalmist can affirm, “I shall lack nothing,” The rest of the psalm explains how God fulfills the role of a good shepherd.
We usually understand the imagery in vv. 2-3 as primarily communicating a sense of peace and tranquility. It does this, to be sure, but its primary intent is to say that God keeps the psalmist alive. For a sheep, to be able to “lie down in green pastures” means to have food; to be led “beside still waters” means to have something to drink; to be led “in right paths” means that danger is avoided and proper shelter is attained. In short, God “restores my soul,” or, better translated, God “keeps me alive.” The sheep lack nothing, the shepherd provides the basic necessities of life—food, drink, shelter. Thus the psalmist professes that his or her life depends solely on God and that God keeps the psalmist alive “for his name’s sake” (v. 3b)—that is, because that is what God does, that is God’s fundamental character.
Psalm 23 is a prayer of gratitude and praise for the underpinnings of life—food, water, shelter and the sacred source of those provisions. Perhaps the gift, the grace of this time, like the people of the Psalmist’s audience is to be re-acquainted with, to be grateful for, to render praise for the underpinnings of life, to become re-acquainted with the things that are actually essential. The basis things the Psalmist names definitely but also relationships, beauty and nature—the touch of a loved one, a song, clean air. This is the core of faith—to see our lives and the provision of all that is essential for living as pure
gift. Theologian and writer Diana Butler-Bass reflects on this relationship… (watch to the 2 minute mark https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/grace-gratitude-and-gifts)
If life and it’s provision are not gifts then we are our own gods, and look where that’s gotten us. But, if the “Lord is our shepherd” we know that we walk through the dark valleys accompanied. For it is in the dark valleys that we discover the power of this psalm. It’s in the dark valleys that distractions fall away, that the myth of self-sufficiency falls away and we discover there a gentle, persistent, loving power that sees us through with what is essential. I want to share a song with you about this but first I want to tell you a little bit about it’s composer, our own Gillian Hobson. As you listen to the words I want to remind some of you, because Gillian and Trevor shared their story last summer, and tell others for the first time that Gillian and Trevor had a daughter, Desa-Janay that died at five years of age some years ago. Yet, Gillian is able to write these words that her son Quinton sings… https://www.facebook.com/keyofgstudio/videos/300318730932173/
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff comfort me—your authority in my life is my comfort. When we come out of this may we continue to remember what really matters, what is essential. May we look upon these things with gratitude. May we remember and praise the Giver, that we might dwell in the house of the Lord forever. May it be so.