An Earth Day Psalm
A sermon based on Psalm 23
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 17, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A Sunday School teacher was giving a lesson on the 23rd Psalm to a group of young children. Most were too young to read so she had them recite the psalm aloud a few times until she noticed one of the boys crossed-armed and tightlipped whenever they got to the phrase “Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…” The teacher stopped everyone reciting and asked the boy “What’s wrong Johnny? Why are you not saying “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life? ” Frowning Johnny stomped his foot and said “Because I don’t want Shirley following me at all!” 1
Johnny is not the only youngster to misunderstand the wording of Psalm 23. For the longest time I misunderstood the first sentence. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” I could not comprehend why a church would have us say we did not want the Lord as our shepherd. It made no sense.
Psalm 23 may just be the most beloved Psalm, if not the most beloved scripture in the Bible. Every hospital chapel Bible I’ve seen has the page with Psalm 23 worn and smudged with so many readings. And I cannot recall a funeral where the family did not want it included in the service. Psalm 23 is America’s go-to-text for connection with God in times of trouble and concern.
Psalm 23 is really an amazing and simple Psalm, yet it provides so much comfort to us. A lot of the comfort is in the pastoral images that the first three verses conjure in our minds.
We moderns live in the world of pavement and concrete, of hustle and bustle, of traffic and long indoors work days. We have stress in much of our waking hours. On our time off many of us seek refuge or dream of seeking refuge– if even for a hour or two– at parks or other places with green pastures and still waters. The Psalm’s imagery leads us mentally to where we can experience earth in its calmer natural state so that we can we can rest and be restored and sit beside bodies of water or lay in a pasture of green grass or walk or play in such places that provide the tranquility of creation. In a sense the Psalm poetically transports us to the peace and quiet of the Garden of Eden in our minds, to places where we are protected from the din and bustle and hardships of life.
The Psalm serves to bring us closer to God, and to remind us that with God we can get a great measure of peace, that there is something bigger than us, the power of the universe, a power that cares so much for our seemingly little beings that it desires our tranquility. Indeed that creating power intended such places for us, and will– if we let it- lead us to them. God the maker of the vast universe has time and has care for us. And we can actually sense it in the psalm. It creates for the reader of any faith a rare written portal, a thin place of words and images, which can bring us to experiences God.
It’s great to hear and experience in Psalm 23 a closeness to God, not just read about it but to be transported to a greater sense of God’s presence through it. I love that, and the Psalm indeed can do just that. But I think we sell Psalm 23 short if we fail to take time to notice it is also rich with other meanings and lessons and Godly calls. Psalm 23 does more than mediate the Scared it can teach us much about God and us and this little place called earth that matters to God in a an expansive humongous universe.
Later this week is Earth Day, a day we set aside to honor and revere and consider this amazing planet, this incredible, abundant, beautiful biosphere that we inhabit. Psalm 23 honors and reveres the earth too. In addition to the call to return in our minds to images of Eden and the great and wonderful connection with God, in Psalm 23 we can also hear an ode to God’s earth . . . creation. So I was a bit surprised that my “Green Bible” which sets out in green ink Biblical texts that address care and respect for the earth, that that Bible did not have any of the 23rd Psalm marked in green ink. I was surprised because before the Psalm 23 served as a modern American portal, in times of trouble, to the divine tranquil pastures and placid waters, it was first and foremost about God providing creation in such a way that we shall not want.
The words “I shall not want,” the words I misconstrued, are actually misconstrued in a sense by most of us in our continued use of that King James translation of the phrase, “I shall not want.” The Hebrew version of that phrase isn’t about our not wanting, as modern Americans hear it. That is, it’s not about our every desire being fulfilled with God as our shepherd.
Prosperity Gospel is a new theology that hopes we will all believe that God will give us whatever we want if we follow the Prosperity Gospel preacher’s way of understanding the Bible. That’s a spin not very likely intended by Jesus, God, the Gospels or more to the point today, the Psalmist.
The Hebrew words translated as “I shall not want” are much better translated into modern English as
“I shall lack nothing.” The point is not that [we] will get everything [we] ask for or desire, but rather God will provide all that is needed to live securely. 2
In Psalm 23 “God as our shepherd” is meant to imply that we are God’s sheep, that should be obvious. And the green pastures, that is the healthy earth God leads us to, gives to us, is a tranquil, safe place where we can safely lie. We tend to get that. But what we miss is, it also meant in the Psalm– properly first and foremost– that the green grass is a place with enough food and clean air. Sheep eat green, that is, new grass. A green pasture is to lambs what a prepared table and overflowing cup is to humans. It’s a banquet of abundance. The Psalm’s reference to green pastures needs to be heard as God providing enough air and sustenance, our daily bread, and guiding us to it.
Similarly still waters are not just a healthy place to be by. They are that, but we need to also hear that good water provides the rest of what a shepherd’s flock needs from the earth; good, clean, safe water. Sheep drink best from still water, there’s less risk of falling in or not hearing a predator, and it is also easier for the shepherd to watch the flock and insure the water is clean and calming.
And that same shepherd keeps us on the right paths, so we do not get hurt by dangerous things, or hurt ourselves or others or creation.
In their book Preaching the Psalms Professors McCann and Howell address our modern misreading of the “I shall not want” part of Psalm 23:
How will our “I want” generation ever comprehend the first line of their own favorite Psalm, the Twenty-third? “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” . . . The line really means “I shall lack nothing.” Because the shepherd, God, provides food (green pastures), drink (still waters) and protection (right paths so as to avoid getting lost or killed), the Psalmist can say “I shall lack nothing,” just as “Restores my soul” means that the shepherd, God, keeps me alive. 3 p 123 ///
It’s important to note that God leads us to these things, to green pastures and still waters, on right paths. We are to follow. And following a lead requires effort. The Psalm from an Earth Day perspective is not about God magically fixing things, shepherds work hard, they do not bend natural law to fix what wanton sheep might sully. They also do not do all the work, they lead, and sheep follow.
This is not to be heard as God doing all the work to protect us from our own refusals to follow, or our actions or inactions, that lead us not to green pastures or still waters or right paths, but to paths of desecration of the water or pastures or air or onto dangerous paths that hurt ourselves, others or creation. God leads us. When we do our part and follow, God gives us good things. And God wants us to have them. They are what we need. But we have to do our part. If we as sheep show up get off the good paths and turn the grass brown or stir the water up with pollution, that is not God’s doing, and it is not what God wants or leads us to.
We do not have to be tree huggers to know that trashing up the planet or polluting the waters is not a good thing. I am pretty sure that most people across the political spectrum are equally offended by people who toss bags of trash and beverage cans out their car windows in our neighborhoods and our roads, or leave full diapers on our beaches or dump motor oil in our waterways’ drains or burn plastics into our air in backyard ash cans. A big part of the offense, maybe the biggest, is the tranquil green pastures and still waters and clean air God gives us and we try and maintain, are fouled by such misconduct by those on paths of gross disregard for creation. Who wants to see, let alone pick up, someone else’s cigarette butts or beer cans or hamburger bags or diapers. Few of us want to live with that pollution. It’s not right to foul our refuge. On a small scale most of us seem to get this.
Logically it’s not right to foul our food or water or air on a bigger scale either. Ironically on a bigger scale it seems a little murkier to us. A lot of us think the evidence out there is we are not following God’s lead to green pastures and still waters and right paths, that instead we are going down wrong paths of fouling of the earth, threatening God’s pastures, God’s waters and God’s air on a large scale.
Many, but not all, believe that these wrong paths have led to fundamental changes in the biosphere which threaten not just the neighborhood, but large portions of the human habitats and the habitats of other living organisms, all of God’s green pastures and still waters. And regardless of whether we think there are catastrophic consequences on the horizon, we need to be worried that we might not be properly tending to the green pastures and still waters and clean air that God wants for us, and has made and intended for us to be led to and to lead future generations to.
Theologically Earth Day can be understood as a secular reflection of our wanting those poetic images in the 23rd Psalm to be there for us and for posterity in real forms, not just left to imagination, but to be places we can really go for tranquility and peace addressed in the Psalm.
But also for the food and the water and the air and the protection intended by the psalmist for us to consider, those intended by our Creator for us to properly use and be stewards of, so that those resources can provide tranquility and sustenance, so that all may eat and drink and breathe and exist peacefully.
The Lord is our shepherd and if we let that be true none shall want. All shall lay in green pastures and be led beside still waters on paths of righteousness. But we have to follow God’s lead to be good stewards of the those resources. We must follow God’s lead to green, not fouled, pastures, to still, not polluted, water.
The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want, if we follow God’s lead down paths of righteousness for all creation, and for generations to come.
1. I modified a version of this joke that I found on the internet at
2. McCann, Clint, Great Psalms of the Bible, p 48
3. McCann, Clint, James Howell, Preaching the Psalms, p. 123
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