Living with the Shepherd
Psalm 23 May 12, 2019
King David, the purported author of Psalm 23, would be shocked to learn that it is commonly read at funerals.
That was not his intent.
As powerful as it is to hear this psalm when we confront death, it is even more powerful as we confront life.
Most of us are so familiar with the 23rd Psalm that we might easily gloss right over some hidden gems buried in its text.
To understand one example, you must remember how the Hebrew people placed emphasis on the structure of their writings – for example, they wrote acrostics where the first letter of each line spells out a word or message.
Psalm 23 is not an acrostic, but it is structured to reveal a message within the message.
If you count the Hebrew words you find that the center word is what we translate as “with”.
Verse 4 … God is with me ….
Psalm 23 pivots on the word “with”, which just might be the most important word in the Bible because it understands God in a radically new way.
God is with you, unlike the previous gods that were distant and demanding endless sacrifices for good crops or fertility.
The Hebrew people had discovered that the true God is for us and with us.
So, it’s not a coincidence that the word “with” is the centerpiece of the psalm, because this, in a nutshell, is its message.
Centuries later, when the angels announced Jesus’ birth they said (Matthew 1:23) “… and they shall call His name Emmanuel” (which means, “God with us”).
And Jesus parting words to us?
Matthew 28:20 “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The psalm begins with a hopeful claim, The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing, pointedly using the same verb, haser, for “lack” as found in Deuteronomy 2:7.
This is where Moses reminds the people of how God had been with them through their forty years in the wilderness.
Deuteronomy 2:7 … These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.
God did not give the people everything that they wanted when they wanted it, but they traveled the wilderness and lacked nothing because God provided.
But think how powerful “want” has grown in our culture.
At every turn, we are told to want newer, nicer, improved.
Nearly 70% of our gross domestic product is driven by consumer want – more than any nation at any time in history – even as our closets, garages and self-storage units are packed with purchases that ultimately failed to satisfy our earlier “wants”.
We are driven to endlessly seek more rather than to celebrate what we have.
So, this ancient psalm carries a powerful counter-cultural message for today.
Here’s an idea for living this psalm: try reading it before you log on to Amazon, or to pray it before you step foot in the mall.
The more I’ve learned about sheepherding, the less I like thinking of myself as a sheep.
I think that I’d rather be Roger the Eagle, soaring over mountains.
Or maybe I could be Roger the Lion, whose strength and skill guarantee my safety and wellbeing.
But, according to the 23rd Psalm, I am Roger the Lamb, one of those animals with the knack for getting confused, distracted and lost.
Of course, much of the history of Israel is about its people becoming confused, distracted and lost
As you know, the choice of names was very significant in the Ancient Near East because people believed that names highlight important traits of the person.
So, what does it mean for the Hebrew people to be called “Israel”?
Israel means “those who have struggled with God”.
These are people who struggled to keep their faith … people who got close to the Lord but then pulled away, people who were saved but soon forgot.
These are people who for centuries dreamed of a homeland that they were trying to get into, then to hold on to, and then to get back to.
While in Babylonian exile the psalmist wrote:
Psalm 63:1 You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
The people called Israel yearned to live in green pastures but when life became hard or confusing, they became impatient or afraid.
We understand because when we become impatient or afraid it is hard to believe that a Shepherd is watching over us and leading us anywhere good.
So, the “people who struggled with God” latched-on to more tangible and accessible gods: golden calves and wooden statues they could touch and that promised plentiful crops and fertile wives.
Will Willimon, who was Methodist Bishop of North Alabama, has seen his share of modern people heading down the wrong paths towards today’s false gods.
He writes, “The way to tell the difference between the true God and false gods is this: false gods will never shock you (that is, they will look like the gods you want them to be, and they’ll not demand many things of you).”
But of course, they never deliver on their promise of green pastures or the protection of the loving and protecting shepherd … in fact, they eventually take more from you than they give to you.
As Hebrew authors chose words carefully, they also carefully ordered their collection of psalms.
Psalm 23 is a response to the lament of the preceding psalm which opens with these haunting words:
Psalm 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
In reply Psalm 23 assures us that while the land may look desolate, the Shepherd has not forsaken us.
But do you hear how that is different from just saying that everything is OK?
Psalm 23 does not sugarcoat, say “everything is okay” or shrug that it’s no big deal to be lost in the wilderness.
The Hebrew people were familiar with shepherding, so tranquil scenes were not the first thing that came to mind for them.
Their first thoughts would be parched land and hidden dangers.
What Psalm 23 promises is a Shepherd to lead you past lions and bears that stalk, over treacherous trails from which you could plummet to your death, and to paths that eventually arrive at sweet streams.
The 23rd Psalm promises a Shepherd for real life – but we want the shortcut to green pastures, still waters and overflowing cups so we try heading straight to those places on our own… and, like the Hebrew people, we get lost again.
Psalm 23 is frequently recited at funerals, while one of the most popular songs at those sad events is “I Did It My Way”.
Two opposing messages, two different journeys through life.
Doing it “my way”, most of us have been able to cultivate a patch of green pasture on our own.
Of course, it isn’t quite as green or as wide as we’d like – but if we only work harder, then we believe we could enlarge it and make it greener.
And of course, we never can quite feel secure on our little patch of pasture because a lost job, a health crisis, or a broken marriage could all turn to weeds.
These are anxious times … but maybe all times have been anxious.
When we are afraid, we behave very much like startled sheep, who mindlessly run and scatter.
When people are scared it doesn’t matter so much where they run, they just have to keep moving, and this is how we get ourselves into deeper trouble …running when we are lost.
This is when we make our biggest mistakes, fall back into old habits and addictions, vent our anger and stir up relationship problems, compulsively overwork, or go on a shopping spree.
The psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
We are used to hearing Psalm 23:6 as, Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.
But most scholars insist that Hebrew verb “radaf”, follow, could better be translated as pursue.
The Good Shepherd pursues us when we’re lost, actively seeking to engage us and refresh our lives.
When we act like startled sheep, we dart this way and that rushing down whatever trail appears before us, hoping this is the short-cut to the pastureland.
Confessing that we are frightened and lost is the first step toward hearing our Shepherd.
In John 10, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.
He says, (3b-5) (The Good Shepherd) calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice…. (28) I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.
The key to the peace and wholeness for which we yearn is that midpoint in the psalm, “Thou art with me.”
The key is trusting that our Shepherd knows our voice … and learning to distinguish our Shepherd’s voice from the seductive calls of strangers.
Cattle herders steer their herds from behind, pushing them forward.
But shepherds mostly lead from the front, knowing that their flock will follow.
There are still Bedouin shepherds today in Israel, although government policies and land grabs are threatening their ancient ways of life.
At the end of the day, you can see several shepherds arrive at a common resting area where a hundred or more sheep spend the night all mixed together in a huge dusty pen.
But in the morning, each shepherd just calls his flock and what appeared like mass confusion separates by the flock.
Following the Shepherd was how the Hebrew people escaped Pharaoh and entered the Promised Land.
Following the Shepherd was how David survived the valley of death when Saul pursued him.
Following the Shepherd was how the exiles returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple.
But in between, they lost their way over and over again.
It doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Often, we run because we allowed some wolf to scare us, but that just means we put more faith in the wolf than in our Shepherd.
Or maybe we just haven’t gotten to know the voice of the Shepherd well enough.
Here are a few things we can do this week to not just remember the promise but to better recognize the Shepherd’s voice:
First, remember I lack nothing before you log on to Amazon or step foot into the mall.
Second, look back over the years and see where the rod of the Shepherd has protected you, and the staff of the shepherd has guided you.
My invitation is to not just remember Psalm 23’s promise, but to catch yourself before venturing off alone onto dangerous short cuts …where we often get into trouble before we even know it.
My invitation today is to learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd who never abandons you but pursues you throughout your life.