A Psalm of David.
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.
A shepherd was looking after his sheep by the side of a country road. Suddenly a brand new Porsche screeches to a halt. The driver gets out–he’s a young man dressed in an Armani suit, Ray-Ban sunglasses, Apple watch, Patent leather shoes, designer shirt, with a Versace tie. He says to the shepherd ‘If I can guess how many sheep you have, can I keep one?’ The shepherd looks at the large flock of sheep and says ‘Okay’.
The young man takes a few snapshots with his cell phone, uploads them to a NASA website, scans the field using satellite technology, opens a database in the cloud linked to 60 Excel tables, filled with logarithms and pivot tables, then downloads a 150 page report to his iPad. He studies the reports and says to the shepherd ‘You have 1,586 sheep’.
The shepherd replies, ‘That’s correct. You can have the pick of my flock.’ The young man packs away all his equipment, looks at the flock, chooses one and puts it into the back of the Porsche. Right as he is about to leave, the Shepherd says, ‘Wait! If I can guess what your profession is will you return the animal to me?’ The young man thinks for a minute and says ‘Okay’.
The shepherd says ‘You are a Management Consultant’. The young man says ‘Correct, how did you know?’ The Shepherd replied, ‘Simple. You came here without being invited, you charged me a fee for something I already knew, and you don’t understand a thing about my business. – Now, can I have my dog back, please?
The 23rd Psalm is one we all think we know pretty well. And we do, to an extent. We hear the words spoken at just about every funeral we go to; they are set to the music of countless hymns, they are printed on placards, refrigerator magnets, embroidered pillowcases, and wall hangings. Next to the Lord’s Prayer and John 3:16, it’s probably the Bible verse we are most likely to know by heart.
And yet, I wonder sometimes, do we really *know* this psalm? Or do we mistake familiarity for understanding? Psalm 23 is not quaint. It is powerful and profound, with a simplicity that belies its depth, its mystery, and its message. My hope is that today, we can look past the pretty picture frame that we often put this psalm in, and rediscover the bold and beautiful message that made this Psalm so famous in the first place.
Psalm 23 is described in the attribution as a “Psalm of David.” We have no way of knowing whether David actually wrote this psalm, or whether it was simply written “in the style of” David–like English prepositions, Hebrew prepositions can be pretty interchangeable, so this could also be translated a “Psalm to David,” or a “Psalm for David.” Regardless, the connection with David is not accidental. David was the Shepherd boy who became a King. This psalm tracks with David’s life journey, beginning in the shepherd’s pasture and ending at the royal banquet table.
Verse 1: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In English, that’s a pretty simple statement at nine words. In Hebrew, it’s just four. יְהוָ֥ה רֹ֝עִ֗י לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר (yhwh roi lo ehsar). God, my-shepherd–no emptiness. Except emptiness is a verb. No emptying, no diminishing, no wanting or lacking. I like how Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of the Bible, the Message. He says, “God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing.
Clearly, David (or whomever wrote this psalm) was not American. We want everything. We need everything. Every commercial, every billboard, and every advertisement reminds us how horribly unhappy and incomplete our lives are without this one more thing…which can be yours today for this limited-time offer of just $99.99 if you pick up that phone and dial right now–operators are standing by!
And we get so busy chasing all the money we need to chase all those things we need, that we think will somehow buy us more time to chase more money and more things, especially for our children, because we want them to grow up and have more money so they can buy more things, and maybe someday when we finally have enough we can stop all this craziness, but the more we get, the more we are told we need in order to keep what we already got, and it goes on and on and on and…
Do you know why I always read this verse to people who are about to die? It’s because they’re the only ones who can actually understand it. Only at the very end, when our time is up, do we realize how utterly pointless all those things were that we thought we wanted.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. This is the thesis statement for Psalm 23. But how do we do that? How do we get out? How do we let go?
Verse 2: He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.
In other words, get back to the basics. There are only a few things you really need:
The first is rest: He makes me lie down. For most of us, rest is the last thing we do–after we’re done with all the “really important” things (working, working, working) we collapse into bed and use whatever time is left over to rest, to sleep, and then right back to working, working, working.
But the first thing the Good Shepherd does is make me lie down. I don’t know about sheep, but for us, a healthy night’s rest is 8 to 9 hours, and it really is the most important thing. Everything else is built upon that.
The second thing we really need is physical nourishment for our bodies. For the sheep, it’s green pastures (in Hebrew, it’s actually grassy pastures) and water. “Still” waters is a horrible translation–no good shepherd would let his sheep drink from stagnant water. A literal translation of this verse would be “He waters me at the quiet, restful place. For us, this means simple, healthy food, and clean water. Not pizza, hamburgers, coca-cola and three helpings of desert! Not food that is rushed into our hands and rushed into our mouths and crammed into whatever space we can squeeze in between our work, work, work–but rather food that is eaten peacefully, at the quiet restful place.
And the last thing is, of course that quiet, restful place. We need time and space for silence in our lives in order to think, contemplate, figure ourselves out, and listen for the voice of God. For what it’s worth, the shepherd can make the sheep lie down, but can’t make it sleep. He can lead it to the grass and to the water, but can’t make it eat and drink. We have to do our part as well. But if we put these three things first, before all others… then what happens?
Verse 3: He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. The word soul is actually a Roman concept that found its way into the Bible later. Ancient Israelites did not believe in any kind of soul as a detached entity from your body. A better translation of the Hebrew word here, נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh) is “self” or “life.” He restores all of me, restores my life. It’s amazing what rest, nourishment, and peace can do for a person.
Notice, however, that the Good Shepherd does not just restore our lives so we can graze in the pasture all day. We eat and drink our fill, but there is a journey ahead of us. The shepherd leads us in “right paths” or “paths of righteousness” for his name’s sake. The health of the sheep reflects the reputation of the shepherd. God wants us to be whole and healthy, to journey through life as an example to others. If all I ever meet are tired, unhealthy, frantic, busy Christians…why in the world would I ever want to become one?
Verse 4 marks a transition: We’re still sheep, but something has changed. 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.
The truth is that rest, nourishment and peace, while a good start, won’t prevent us from all adversity in life, especially if we follow the path God has laid out for us. The NRSV translation calls this the “darkest valley” but I think the old King James translation is more accurate. The Hebrew word צַלְמָ֡וֶת (tsalmaveth) is made up of two parts: צֵל (tsel), or shadow, and מָ֫וֶת (maveth), death. Literally, death-shadow. Not death itself, but when death is so close to you that it casts a shadow over you, so near death, or things that are life-threatening.
These things happen. Our promise is not that they won’t happen, not even that we won’t die, but that in the midst of the worst life has to offer, we will not fear. Why? Because you are with me. This statement is in the very middle of the psalm (25 words on either side in Hebrew). It’s the heart of Psalm 23. You are with me. This is also the transition: Up to this point, the psalmist has been talking *about* God. When things are great, we talk about how great God is. But when everything goes south, in our darkest hour…we talk directly TO God.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. What’s the difference between a rod and a staff? Nothing. Both Hebrew words loosely translate as “stick.” Repetition and variation is a key feature of Hebrew poetry. But ancient European interpreters of this verse didn’t know that, and they wrote entire sermons on the difference between a rod and a staff. One interesting theory was that the rod was for correction (push the wandering sheep back into the flock) and the staff was for protection (to strike predators). Either way, the rod and staff do not ultimately promise protection. They promise comfort. The comfort is not in knowing for sure that we’ll make it through. The comfort is knowing that we do not walk alone.
Verse 5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Now the metaphor changes, from shepherd, sheep, and pasture, to royal host, honored guest, and banquet table. We have come through the valley of the shadow of death, and have arrived at the court of the king. Notice that what threatens us–adversity, our enemies–is still present, but we are no longer under its shadow. According to ancient laws of hospitality, when you sit at the King’s table, you come under the King’s protection.
Out in the pasture, we had enough–rest, food, water, peace. But here, closer to the king, there is abundance. Oil is costly. Our cup (we have a cup!) isn’t just full, it’s overflowing. The Lord, now as Good King, is generous his welcome and hospitality.
Verse 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.
Here the Psalmist goes back to speaking about the Lord, rather than to the Lord. Goodness and Mercy are more or less the same thing–like rod and staff, this is poetic repetition and variance.
The word “follow” is a pretty toned-down translation of the Hebrew word רָדַף (radaph). Strong’s Hebrew dictionary defines it as to chase, pursue, or persecute. So it’s another way of saying “No more enemies or adversity–the only things chasing me now are goodness and mercy.”
The last phrase is, in my opinion, the most famous and the most misunderstood. The King James translation says “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” First of all, there’s no Hebrew word for forever. לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים (L’orek yamim) literally means a length of days. A long time, something parallel to the previous phrase “all the days of my life.” Or maybe “forever” in the teenage sense–that class lasted forever!”
What it certainly doesn’t refer to (and I’m sorry to burst any bubbles here!) is heaven, after you die. First, because the idea of an afterlife wasn’t even a thing in Jewish religion until centuries after this psalm was written, and second, because the “house of the Lord” in the Hebrew scriptures always refers to one thing only: The temple in Jerusalem. If David is the author of this Psalm, then it reflects his yearning at the end of his life to build a magnificent house for God, and show the same kind of generous hospitality God had shown him. If the psalmist is a later writer, perhaps a temple priest, it reflects the culmination of the Jewish pilgrimage: From the pastures and farmlands across the dangerous valleys and highways, up the mountain of Zion, safely into the city gates, the shelter of the King’s table, and finally into the sacred temple itself, where one stays as long as is absolutely possible.
But there’s another way to look at this last phrase. Up to this point in the Psalm, all of the commitment has been on God’s part. God makes the sheep lie down in green pastures. God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. God prepares a table for us and anoints our head with oil. And so here at the end, in recognition and gratitude for all that God has done, the psalmist makes his own commitment: I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. It is a faithful response to all that God has promised, and all that God has done. May it be our response as well.