The Blessings of our Shepherd
Rev Elaine Graham
The Hebrew people called the collection of the 150 psalms the 'book of praises', and this ‘book of praises’ has become one of the most widely read portions of the Hebrew scriptures.
And understandably so, for the Psalms are a wonderful collection of poetry, prayers and songs that were composed throughout Israel’s history. The psalms are not doctrinal statements, creeds, or history - they are poetry and prayer, poetry intended to be set to music and prayed in worship services. They are beautifully written pieces that speak of people and their sorrows; people and their disappointments; people and their fears; people and their loneliness.
While prayers of lament make up the largest portion of the psalms there are also psalms of joy and thanksgiving and the wonderful love of God that surrounds and sustains us. The Psalms speak of human relationships; urgent requests for God to overthrow the wicked; words of repentance and the coming of the Messiah. The psalmists speak honesty to God showing us the importance of building an open and true relationship with God through prayer, meditation and music.
David is traditionally thought of as the author of most of the psalms. Scholars suggest that we see the psalms as the writings of a community of faith who composed, collected and passed on their prayers and hymns as a witness to their experience as the people of God, rather than the work of one individual. It is believed that the psalms were written over an extended period of time and it is estimated that King David wrote seventy-three of the psalms.
Over the years the 23rd Psalm has been a source of comfort to people from all walks of life. It has been taught in Sunday school classes, recited at funerals, beside hospital beds, during times of war, during times of exile and during times of extreme stress. Like all great works, it has crossed the barriers of time, race, age, social status and language.
I wonder just how many people have found comfort, courage and peace from the psalmist’s words.
The fifteen lines of the 23rd Psalm shower us with wisdom, grace and a peace that is so comforting that it penetrates our very being. This state of deep contentment and security is truly a blessing, a blessing that the psalmist points out can come only from God.
Through the poetry of the psalm, we are able to see and experience the reality of the world that we live in in a less frightening way. It teaches us how to deal with the loss of people we love; how to deal with conflict; how to deal with people who don’t like us or people who treat us badly.
The 23rd psalm can be seen as a story, a journey that begins with the psalmist living a comfortable uncomplicated life, a life filled with security and contentment. Then something unexpected happens and the once happy and carefree life shatters. It may have been a life-threatening illness, it may have been a betrayal or rejection; but most likely it was the death of a loved one that prompted the author to write this psalm.
Through the familiar words of the 23rd psalm people throughout the ages have been able to deal with their fears, their doubts and their sadness because the psalmist assures us that regardless of what is happening in our lives we need not face it alone.
The 23rd psalm plainly tells us that in all times, in all places, in all situations God is with us, even when we can’t feel God’s presence, we are told that God is with us.
While the familiar words and images are a comfort to us the message of the psalm goes far beyond comfort, it enables us to live courageously and faithfully in our broken and often lonely world.
Let’s lean into the words of the psalm together as we face the world through the lens of COVID-19.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.
How reassuring for us to know that each and every one of us has our own personal shepherd. A shepherd who provides for us, who guides us, and knows each one of us intimately.
Our shepherd loves us with a love that knows no bounds. Our shepherd will never leave us, nor let us be in want.
In Elizabethan English, to ‘want’ means not to desire, but to lack. In other words, the Lord is my shepherd I shall not be without God and God’s love, I shall lack nothing.
It is believed that the idea of not being in want was inspired by the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Scripture tells us that during their time in the desert God provided for their every need, they had food and water, and miraculously not even their clothes wore out. The Israelites in their time of exile lacked nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
The soothing image of resting in green pastures by cool waters is one that instantly brings down my blood pressure and releases the built-up stress in my shoulders. We live in unprecedented times: a worldwide pandemic, social distancing and, for many, isolation.
The psalmist reminds us that it is important for all of us to take time to be with God. One of the many things that a shepherd does for their flock is to make sure that they rest, as God’s flock, we need to take that time to be still and listen to our shepherd so that we can be restored.
Our souls are nourished in a variety of ways and finding our way is critical.
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.
Like many of us who have lost loved ones, the psalmist feels an overwhelming sense of sadness, a heaviness and an emptiness that is almost unbearable. The world has become a joyless place, bringing forth images of shadows and darkness. In despair, the psalmist cries out to God and a miracle happens.
The miracle is not that the dead come back to life, or that the brokenness in the psalmist’s life is returned to its previous state of wholeness; the miracle is that the psalmist is touched by God. With God’s presence the sadness, the loneliness, the emptiness begin to lift and healing begins.
While the past had not changed for the psalmist a shift takes place. Held in God’s tender care the psalmist is able to take those first small steps that eventually lead through the valley and out into the waiting world of sunlight.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Regardless of what is going on in our lives, whether we are surrounded by people who truly care for us or surrounded by people who could care less for us, our God prepares a table for us.
Again we look to the Israelites living in exile surrounded by unfamiliar customs, and often hostile people, and we can see through the scriptures that their faith and determination were strengthened because they gathered to worship together. God provided them with a worshipping community.
At God’s table, we receive faith, strength, comfort and nourishment.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
In healing services and baptismal services we take oil and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one being anointed or baptized as a symbol of God’s healing powers and God’s protective care.
The mark of the cross on the forehead is also a sign that we belong to God, a sign that we are special in God’s eyes, a sign by which God recognizes us.
As God’s beloved people indeed our cup overflows. All that we have been given in this world has been a gift from God. Our cup overflows every day, for every day we wake up to a God who loves and cares for us.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Goodness and mercy, kindness and compassion, gentleness and forgiveness, courage and strength is what God has to offer to us.
In this last section of the psalm, the author has come full circle, his world is once again a place of peace, God has stilled the raging waters, God has led him through the valley of the shadow, God has prepared a table for the psalmist, and God has promised to be with him for the rest of his days.
Like the shepherd who watches over his flock by day and by night, God has proven to be steadfast and faithful in times of sunshine and in times of doubt, in happy times and in tragic times.
The primary message of the 23rd psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us. It is that we will not have to face those bad things alone. We will hurt, but we will heal. We will grieve, but we will grow whole again. All because God is with us.
“In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.” (New Creed)
Thanks be to God.