The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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.
The 23rd Psalm is one of the best known chapters of Scripture. This familiarity has given it a spiritual power that has accrued over the ages– when people hear it read at funerals, weddings, baptisms, or regular worship, they recall other heavy moments when they heard it. It has a way of reminding us that God connects with us during special moments of remembrance in life, and also that God gently leads us back home when we stray from God like lost sheep.
Sheep get hungry and sometimes eat for long periods of time with their heads down. When they finally look up they realize that they have wandered a long way from home. David wrote this Psalm because he sees humans portray similar behavior. Sometimes we go for long periods of time focused upon our worries without looking up for God. That is when we need God the most, when we are weak and lost.
God seeks us like a shepherd that seeks lost, hungry sheep and brings them to safety and proper nourishment. I love the way the Psalm shows this movement and progression from the dark valley to a gracious dinner.
If we truly lived the fact that God is leading our lives out of chaos toward rest, our lives would be so much more productive, wouldn’t they? In 1937 as the Golden Gate Bridge was being built, 22 workers fell to their deaths. The world’s biggest net was made to stretch under the workers. It immediately saved more than 10 lives. Productivity in general increased by 25%. We can understand why! I am certain our daily work would improve and our spirituality would deepen if we lived with the confidence that God was more involved in the process of life than we presently imagine. Wouldn’t we risk more, produce more, reach out more, if we knew that God’s everlasting arms are underneath us? The 23rd Psalm reminds us that God’s presence and power surrounds and never leaves us throughout life. It reminds us that we can begin and finish the job to which we have been called by God.
My favorite part of the Psalm is that God “restores my soul.” Our soul is that part of ourselves that seeks to connect with God. It is the part of us that is hungry for a pure, unbroken connection with our Creator. As we journey through life we have an opportunity to strengthen our souls, or we may experience what Donald Capps of Princeton Seminary describes as “soul loss.” It is my favorite part of the Psalm because it reminds me that God is bringing our lives to fulfillment. We will one day be complete, healed, and restored to what God intended. Whatever is broken, God is repairing it, whatever is hurt, God is healing, whatever is incomplete, God is making complete. Remember that beautiful Bible verse from Revelation, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Life becomes bearable when we know we are heading for that.
You may have encountered a paraphrase that puts this Psalm into the language of a banker, a lawyer, a doctor, a musician, or another vocation. Here is some homework for you. This week translate the Psalm into the words of your life. Some phrases may translate straight across and not even change, but other phrases may reveal how our fears and worries can be replaced by courage and hope.
Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion told the story of a mother who did not want her son attending a rock concert. She did not like the music of the band and felt uncomfortable with her son going to the concert. Yet he did travel to St. Paul and waited in the ticket line with his friends. The next morning she saw the tickets on the kitchen table. So many thoughts went through her head. What should she, as a responsible mother, do? Should she take the tickets, rip them apart, throw them away, or leave them there? After a long pause, Keillor signed off with his usual, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon this week, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” That was it. He did not finish the story.
The next week he opened his radio program by telling how many phone calls and letters he had received all saying the same thing, “What happened? What did the mother decide to do?”
Keillor answered, “I don’t know how it is with most of you out there, but there are a lot of unfinished stories in me.”
Psalm 23 points us toward the end of our unfinished stories. My wife Christine was sitting next to a friend at a play that featured two runners talking during a marathon as other runners raced by behind them. Her friend said that her husband ran marathons. “He just keeps going. Even when there are miles to go, he knows he is going to finish. He’s a finisher!”
God is finishing the portions of our lives that need resolution. God is putting the pieces of our lives back together again. God is making the incomplete complete again. Like a lost sheep, there may come a day when we may suddenly look up after having wandered far from where we should be. It may seem as if there is too much roadway ahead to ever return home, but let us remember that God is our finisher. God returns us to the place where we should be. Every unfinished story will be finished by God.
Let us conclude with a theologian’s one word meditation on each phrase in the Psalm:
“The Lord is my Shepherd” –
“I shall not want” –
“He makes me lie down
in green pastures” – REST
“He leads me beside the still
waters” – REFRESHMENT
“He restores my soul” –
“He leads me in paths of
righteousness” – GUIDANCE
“For His name sake” –
“Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the
shadow of death” –
“I will fear no evil” –
“For thou art with me” –
“Thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me “-
“Thou preparest a table
before me in the presence of
mine enemies” – PEACE
“Thou anointest my
head with oil” –
CONSECRATION “My cup runneth over”
“Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me all the days
of my life” – BLESSING
“And I will dwell in the
house of the Lord” –