I am embarrassed to say that I have never paid much attention to Psalm 23. Without thinking much about it, I felt that the psalm was syrupy and sentimental, like a greeting card verse.
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Only recently have I come to realize how relevant this psalm is, how deep and fundamental are the issues it raises. All human beings are concerned for their own welfare; we all want to know how to solve the problem of our own life. In Psalm 23, David uses a simple and evocative analogy to give his own answer: "The Lord is my shepherd." David believes that God cares for him, not with a vague goodwill, but with an active, effective intervention on David's behalf. Is David right? Did he seek help in the right place? Each of us must face the same questions that David did, and everything depends on the answer.
The image of the shepherd would be a particularly meaningful one to David, since he himself had spent his younger days watching his father's flocks. He knows that the shepherd's job centers around only one thing: the welfare of the sheep. We know from David's own testimony that he sometimes risked his life to rescue the sheep, wrestling to the death with wild animals. God is to David what David had been to those sheep: trusted guide, protector, and benefactor.
The image of the shepherd also tells us how David thinks of himself: if God is the shepherd, that would make David the sheep. Thinking of oneself as a sheep, among all the animals of creation, is probably one of the least flattering comparisons imaginable. (OK, maybe a slug would be worse.) Sheep are pretty clueless; that is why they need a shepherd in the first place. Without the shepherd, the sheep wouldn't last very long. David is miles away from the sentiment of "Invictus":
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
Obviously David cares about his own welfare and does whatever he can to pursue it. He does not believe, however, that he can do it alone. He is not ashamed to admit that he needs help. There is great goodness to be found somewhere, but it is not a goodness David can find on his own. He needs a shepherd, and in Yahweh, the God of Israel and Creator of the world, he has found that shepherd.
Because God is his shepherd, David believes that he "shall not lack." This is the most important statement in the entire psalm; it is so important that I want to put off talking about it until we have looked at the whole picture.
To understand this picture we have to think like sheep. We would all love to vacation where we can sit and contemplate verdant pastures and rippling waters. To a sheep, though, this is all about dinnertime. The shepherd has accomplished one of the important parts of caring for the sheep: he has brought the sheep to an oasis of lush grass and drinkable water. David is developing his analogy: what God is doing for David is comparable to a shepherd guiding the sheep to abundant pastures.
Psalms have a tendency to shift their focus throughout, and sometimes it is a little hard to tell exactly what is happening. I understand these verses to have stepped out of the analogy of the shepherd. Here David describes the reality for which green pastures and waters of rest are the picture. David's soul needs sustenance even more than a sheep's stomach needs grass. God has restored, "turned," David's soul toward the paths of righteousness. By itself, David's soul will wander into deadening, evil, life-quenching, soul destroying places. The Great Shepherd is leading him another way, back to the right paths, the paths of goodness which will truly sustain him.
God does this, in part, for the sake of His own name; that is, God demonstrates His character in His actions toward David, so that the whole world can see and understand God for who He is. One of the characteristics of this fallen world is that the people in it are suspicious of God. We accuse God of indifference, lack of compassion, even lack of existence. When God reaches out to David and turns his soul toward what is truly good, God is showing how false all such accusations are. In the end, the record will show that God has poured out such an abundance of grace on His people that we cannot even comprehend it all.
David now turns to another aspect of a shepherd's care for his flock: his protection. On their journey with the shepherd, the sheep must travel through dark and scary places. How should they feel? In this case, David pictures himself as a sheep who is smart enough to understand what the shepherd is prepared to do for him. The "sheep" derives comfort from thinking about how well equipped the shepherd is to protect him. He doesn't like being there, but he can feel confident: whatever may be lurking in those dark places, the shepherd is prepared to deal with it.
Again, David steps out of the analogy of the shepherd. The vague danger implied by the "dark and deadly shadows" can be seen for what it is: David has "enemies." In the Psalms, the enemies of David are more than just people who bear him ill will. The enemies of David, God's chosen king, are enemies of God. As David says in another psalm, "The reproaches of those who reproached You fell upon me." At times, David had enemies who cared nothing for his anointing as God's chosen king, enemies who literally sought to kill him. David pictures God as triumphing over those enemies. God has prepared a feast for David, a feast that his conquered enemies can only stand by and watch.
The image of the banquet is as much an analogy as the imagery of shepherds and sheep. The great table, the rich oils anointing David's head, the overflowing cup, the vanquished enemies looking on -these give us a picture of former danger and uncertainty turned to triumph and prosperity. We must not be simplistic about the nature of this prosperity. David shows in his psalms that he is not merely concerned with being as rich and as comfortable as possible. David doesn't spell out the reality behind this great banquet, but this much is clear: despite what David's enemies might do, God is looking out for David's ultimate welfare; every good thing comes from His hand.
David's confidence in God's goodness emerges clearly in his conclusion. Exactly what David is saying, however, is less clear. It is easy for us modern readers to hear the last line as something equivalent to "I will dwell with God in heaven forever." This is probably not what David meant. Numerous psalms speak of the joys of going to "the house of Yahweh," the temple (or in David's case, the tabernacle). Some commentators suggest that David wrote this psalm at the time he was fleeing from Absalom. David was confident that God would deliver him from his enemy, and that eventually he could return to Jerusalem. There he could go to the one place in the world that meant the most to him: the place where God dwelt. Today we may have trouble identifying with this feeling. We have not had the experience of God saying, "This building is My dwelling; this little room is the holiest place on the face of the earth, because I choose to show myself here." David sees the ability to go to that holy place as a great manifestation of God's care for him. God loves David and has protected him and welcomed him into His house.
We return to the central assertion of the entire psalm: "I shall not lack." We should not pass over this lightly. Is what David says here believable? I doubt that any believer has ever lived a life free of suffering, disappointment, and "lack." Is David just making pious overstatements? Can I, as a believer today, confidently say "I shall not lack" and mean what I say?
The Old and New Testaments alike are filled with stories and sayings portraying God as a God of blessing, a God who pours out His lovingkindness on His people. The interesting, essential truth, however, is that not one of them lived a life free of suffering and lack. At least we can't charge the Bible with having lied to us: if our own lives are difficult at times, we are no different than any of the saints who went before us. Those whom the Bible clearly portrays as objects of God's favor are also portrayed as suffering great loss and disappointment on the way to the fulfillment of God's promises. Think of some examples:
Abraham was promised that he would found a great nation, that God would give him the land of the Canaanites for an inheritance, and that he would be both blessed and a blessing to the whole world. What happened to Abraham? Abraham's wife was barren, and they both grew to old age without children. Abraham lived as a nomad with no home of his own for his entire life. Yet none of these obstacles could thwart God or keep His promises from coming to pass.
Moses is truly one of the great prophets of all times. His life, beginning with his deliverance from the soldiers as a baby, was intended from the beginning for great things. What happened to Moses? His great advantage of being raised in Pharaoh's household seemed to come to nothing. His one attempt to strike a blow for his people failed miserably: his own people disdained him, and the Egyptians sought his life. Moses had to flee to the wilderness, where he had forty years to think about his disappointments. Yet none of these obstacles could thwart God or keep His promises from coming to pass.
The people of Israel were promised deliverance from slavery in Egypt and a home in a promised land of plenty. What happened to Israel? When Moses went before Pharaoh, Pharaoh reacted with anger and imposed even harsher demands on the Hebrew slaves. God poured out miraculous judgments on Egypt, but Pharaoh was not convinced to free the Israelites until the tenth one. The departing Israelites were terrified when Pharaoh's army pursued them. The Israelites had to travel through the wilderness, a place often lacking food and water. The land they were promised turned out to be crawling with warriors and dotted with fortified cities. Yet none of these obstacles could thwart God or keep His promises from coming to pass.
David, the author of Psalm 23, was chosen by God to be King of Israel and founder of the most important dynasty ever seen on the planet. This great blessing meant a great deal to David. What happened to David? After being anointed by God's prophet, David had to run for his life from the reigning king, Saul. In later years he had to flee from the political machinations of his own son, Absalom. David even proved to be his own worst enemy in falling into terrible sin. Yet none of these obstacles could thwart God or keep His promises from coming to pass.
Jesus was promised what no human being has ever been promised: to rule over all the nations forever as the greatest King and Lord the world has ever known. (We must not forget that Jesus was fully human, with fully human hopes and disappointments.) On the way to the fulfillment of those promises, however, the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to fast for forty days and to be tempted by Satan. During His ministry He experienced first-hand how many people were indifferent to Him and even hated Him. He traveled from town to town, proclaiming a message to which few responded with any lasting interest. The masses who first followed Him dwindled over time. In the end, when He was arrested and horribly executed, all His friends deserted Him. Yet none of these obstacles could thwart God or keep His promises from coming to pass.
These stories are not unfortunate exceptions; they show the pattern of God's dealings with His people: in the design and purpose of God, we struggle through to a glorious outcome. As James reminds us:
"As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we count those blessed who persevered. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. (James 5:10-11)
James sees the pattern, too: perseverance through suffering, leading to a desired outcome. The key word is "outcome": what counts in the end is the "outcome of the Lord's dealings." Yes, it is a tough road, but where does it lead? What has God done for us in the end? Indeed, I don't believe the glorious outcome can be separated from the sufferings which precede it. We are broken people in a broken world; part of the process of blessing must include the battle, the struggle with the evil in the world and in ourselves. God is an educator, and He knows that the most important lessons are learned with struggle and tears.
Can I say with David, "I shall not lack"? Yes, if I have the right picture. God's provisions are not much like the lottery: they are not instantaneous windfalls.
Other pictures are more helpful:
The painful process of childbirth, culminating in the adored child.
Recovery from a terrible disease, with all its discomfort and setbacks,
resulting in a newfound health and freedom.
Taking the courses at a tough school, with weary nights of study and
embarrassing corrections from the teachers, ending with the coveted
diploma in my hands.
And of course, the picture Israel showed us when they left Egypt: the
journey through the wilderness, concluding in the promised land.
What all these analogies have in common is a real suffering resulting in an even greater triumph. The outcome is real and worth the struggle. The Lord is my shepherd, not my banker; He will not pay me on demand. He has not promised I will not be scared or weary or sad along the way. But He has promised to restore my soul, to lead me in the paths of righteousness, and to give me a place of honor at His great banquet. The Shepherd knows what He is doing, and He is leading me well.
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