First Mennonite Church
July 17, 2016
A Profession of Complete Dependence
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 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 is certainly the most familiar passage in the whole Bible. William L. Holladay calls Psalm 23 “an American Secular Icon.”
Its widespread familiarity of Psalm 23, however, poses some challenges to read it afresh. To begin with, although Psalm 23 is a poem, the imagery used to relay its message is simple. The setting, such as the open field, streams, and grassy valleys, and its use of everyday activities, such as shepherding, eating, drinking, resting, and seeking security make superfluous any attempt at interpreting this psalm. On the other hand, this passage is frequen3tly read in funerals services. We can easily understand why and that is because it overflows with God’s assuring presence in times of death and dying. Familiarity with this Psalm often dissuades attempt at further exploration for new meaning or message. On the other hand, its frequent use in funeral services makes it difficult to see how this Psalm could speak to daily life. But, however important it is that this Psalm should be heard in times of death and dying, the main reason it was written was to affirm life—a life dependent on God for our everyday necessities. The main focus of Psalm 23 is to show how God is concerned with our everyday life leading to eternal life. Another way to put it, Psalm 23 not only shows that eternal life is dependent on God’s grace, but also that our everyday activities such as eating, drinking, working, and seeking security are dependent on his grace. Psalm 23 presents life in a radically God-centered perspective that challenges our usual way of thinking.
We all need a Shepherd
For David as a king to write this Psalm reveals his deep dependence on God. Kings were supposed to procure adequate living conditions and safety for their people. But as we will see, David acknowledges his dependence on God to provide these things for him and for his people.
David begins with a simple profession, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .” What follows seems to portray a tranquil and peaceful world, like that of a beautiful meadow where streams of water flow, where birds sing in tree branches and where shepherds, free from all worries, watch their flocks. But the imagery presented in Psalm 23 although being one of life-sustaining environment, is not without its cares and life-threatening conditions. In fact Psalm 23 portrays God as provider and protector precisely because of the dangers that threaten life. This psalm is David’s witness to God’s faithfulness in sustaining his life even when it is surrounded by lurking dangers. In order for the sheep to “lie down in green pastures,” certainty that there is enough food must come first. In order for the sheep to be led “beside still waters,” availability of the vital liquid must be secured. Furthermore, “still waters” in the Hebrew cosmology is the complete opposite of “the rush of mighty waters” (Psalms 32:6) or the “deep waters, and sweeping floods;” (69:2) or “raging waters” (124:5). Chaos, danger, and every kind of life-threatening conditions or situations are compared to something other than “still waters.” In this case, the image of “still waters” is presented to assure God’s protection and sovereignty over chaos and danger.
Again, in order for the sheep to be led on the “right path,” disposition of the sheep to follow the shepherds is a must if they want to avoid danger.
We should take notice of the sheep/shepherd relationship. The one who is actively securing life-sustaining necessities is the shepherd. And those who follow, rest, and are provided for are the sheep. There is clear dependence of the sheep on the shepherd.
For us, the issue here is not to abandon ourselves carelessly to good luck but to acknowledge that above all it is the Shepherd who will care for us. Yet, as happens so often, in the pursuit to procure for ourselves we forfeit the protection of our Shepherd. Then we end up having more wants. The rejection of God’s “green pastures” often leads to chronic restlessness. Roaming away from the “still waters” often leads to quenching our thirst in danger-infested waters. And in the end we get lost in the paths we choose for ourselves.
Sometimes, even our best plan fails. Sometimes, we are confronted with the unexpected. Suddenly, we come to realize that nothing we have is enough to take us through what we come to face. We finally come to realize that in the end nothing we have or have depended upon provides for the deep needs of our soul.
Verse 3 speaks to this very truth: He restores my soul. A better translation of this verse should read: He keeps me alive. This indicates that despite the dangers and the forces of death that are prowling around us, God is there to keep us alive. We all can agree with David. I am alive today, not on my own; it is God who keeps me alive! It is God who keeps you alive! He restores my and your soul!
If we ponder a little more on the words of David, “He keeps me alive,” we will be able to see how much meaning there is to this statement. It is more than just being alive and breathing, as important as these are. Think of your marriage. How many marriages do not survive? The Lord keeps your marriage alive. Think of your relationship with family and close friends. He keeps your relationships alive. Think of your spiritual life these many years. The Lord keeps your spiritual life alive. Think of your everyday commitments you are able to keep, like being able to pay your bill, work in your backyard, or being able to stay physically mobile and mentally fit. He keeps your life’s commitments alive. It is so wonderful to have the Lord as our shepherd, because he restores our soul. He keeps us alive!
Verse 4 talks about walking in the valley of death where not even fear can consume our heart. In fact, it is while walking in such life-threatening circumstances that the Shepherd’s comfort is experienced more intensely. Although we might have never been in a literally treacherous valley, we certainly might have experienced in our heart like being in one. Haven’t you?
- The valley of loneliness and loss
- The valley of despair and disillusionment
- The valley of guilt and regret
- The valley of sickness and death
- The valley of sorrow and grief
- The valley of helplessness
Yes, the comfort of God is only experienced when we walk in such kinds of valleys. Comfort is only experienced when we are sorrowing, grieving, or despairing. When we are happy and surrounded by loved ones or friends, comfort seems unnecessary. But when we walk in the valley of shadows of death, comfort is like a ray of light in a dark night. Comfort feels like a cup of water to the thirsting mouth.
From verse 1 to 4 David speaks of the Lord in the third person: he leads me, he makes me. . . , but in verse 5 David addresses the Lord in the second person. You prepare table; you anoint my head with oil. Why did David change his way to speak of the Shepherd? One thing is certain about our relationship with God. We can talk about God when we praise and worship the Lord. We can talk about God when we give witness of his love and protection. But when it comes to walking in the valley of death, we need to know God intimately. When we are in the valley of despair, guilt, sickness and death, we need to know God in a personal way. It is in those moments and situations that we learn to speak to the Lord in the second person—you Lord are my shepherd. You anoint my head with oil. You serve me a banquet in the presence of my enemies.
Let me repeat myself as I do every time I comment on verse 6. David had experienced God’s goodness and mercy countless times in his life. God had protected him. God had forgiven him when his conscience burned with guilt. God had been extremely gracious during his reign. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” indicates God’s active pursuit to bless David. A literal translation of this verse should read: Goodness and mercy are in pursuit of me all the days of my life. It is as if God is desperately seeking to give away his goodness and mercy to those who choose him as their shepherd. James speaks of this readiness of God to bless when he encourages us to pray for wisdom. In James 1 verse 5 says, “God will give generously without finding fault.” Verse 6 emphasizes God desire to bless, to protect, and to provide. God is ready and willing to give of his goodness and mercy to everyone, but especially those who choose him as shepherd.
The end of verse 6 reads: And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. The temple was considered the place where heaven touched earth. The temple was the house where the presence of Yahweh resided. In times of crisis, both national and personal, David had stayed overnight in the temple of Jerusalem. There he pleaded for mercy, protection, and for the people. David was certainly not speaking of heaven. He was confessing that with Yahweh as his shepherd he felt like being permanently in the house of God.
So what shall we say about Psalm 23? It indeed speaks about God’s providence and protection for daily life. However, in a consumer-oriented society, it is extremely difficult to make sense of Psalm 23, even when the text is so well-known. To rely on God or to be satisfied with the basic necessities of life: water, food, and shelter, might not look appealing to many. We are bombarded with messages that we should want more and more. The clever advertisers often succeed in convincing us that we need more things. They tell us we deserve luxuries and should not settle with only the basics. Thus to profess that God is our only necessity will sound like a hopeless and god-forsaken condition to our consumer-oriented society. Psalm 23 not only reminds us that life can be lived to its fullest even with only the basics, but also that God is in active pursuit to give us of his goodness and mercy and to keep us alive. God desires to make us to live in peace, to give us rest and the ability to live without fear. God wants to bless us today and to keep us in his presence forevermore.
It is a wonderful confession: The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want! Amen.
 William L. Holladay is Professor of Old Testament in Andover Newton Theological School
 William L. Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress 1993) p. 359.