The Lord as Shepherd Means More Than We May Think
A sermon based on Psalm 23
given at Mount Vernon, OH on March 30, 2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As a Lenten practice a few years ago I rode my bike four miles to a Florida beach for sunrise prayer and meditation. Lots of people walked the causeway– a long, steep bridge over a huge river– that I rode on and I went out of my way to cheerily greet others with a “Hi” or a “Good morning” during my rides. One day I left the beach after my prayers, I put my helmet on, hopped on my bike and I cheerily greeted folks going home. I noticed that the responses seemed much more enthusiastic and smiley on the way back that morning. I was particularly impressed as I was peddling hard up the causeway when a very attractive co-ed looked up from her run and gave me a huge smile. To my amazement right after her greeting four teenage boys also responded with a unison “Good Morning” and big smiles. As I was passing the teens I thought “Wow! this cheery greeting thing for Lent sure brightens folks up, especially after prayer!” As I went by the last teen I had to change my thinking because he kindly whispered to me “Your helmet is on backwards.”
All of a sudden the uplifting responses on my way home that day took on a whole new meaning. It was not about my being rather cheery, looking but, about my being rather goofy looking that cheered folks up. Sometimes a little nudge can make us see things in a new light. “Your helmet is on backwards.” was such a humorous epiphany that I slammed on my brakes, pulled over, had a good laugh and fixed my helmet. And I had a whole different way of understanding what was going on during my bike ride that morning – some details got filled in.
This morning we are taking a look at Psalm 23. We are going to look at it in a different way by filling in some details. I appreciate that it can be kinda touchy to hold beloved text up to a new light, but, I am not doing it to take away old meaning, I am doing it to suggest that we can add deeper meaning to this beautiful and hallowed text.
The 23rd Psalm may be the most beloved text in all the Bible, it is the one that most of our neighbors know. We especially turn to it in times of trouble and sorrow and despair, it is used in funerals more than any other text.
I love reading Psalm 23 and I love preaching on it. Our usual interpretation – perspective– is that it has a very calming, serene, hopeful and helpful nature. I believe that interpretation and I love it, so any of you who are worried that I am going to deconstruct Psalm 23 and destroy its comforting affect, you can relax. The Psalm is fairly interpreted that way. It’s a good and time honored way to hear it and use it. But – and I think this is a good thing– like looking through a diamond we can turn the Psalm over in our palm and look at it from another angle. We can add more meaning to it, and we may be pleasantly surprised that something so familiar to us can have more meaning.
Psalm 23, no matter what angle we look at it from, is of course focused on God. The first line makes that clear. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” In modern America we mostly hear this to mean that God’s tending to us as we picture a shepherd tends to a flock – in this case out in a rolling serene green pasture beside calm waters of a lake. That is a nice picture and good image and, like I said, a fair meaning for us to derive today. But that is not the only image that was likely intended when it was written and it is not the only image that other cultures get when they hear Psalm 23 today. At the time the Psalm was written “shepherd” was a well known metaphor for kings. Royal leaders like the kings of Israel and Judah, were known as shepherds. 2. So we can hear God in Psalm 23 as more than just a shepherd in a pasture, we can hear it saying God is our sovereign, the preeminent leader of us as devout people.
And unlike most earthly royalty and other governments in history, God is into taking care of the basic necessities of life for all God’s people. God wants that no one wants. God’s sheep are to be fed and watered and guarded and secure as they should be when God is the Shepherd. The first verse in fact can be heard to say this when it notes that with God as our shepherd we shall not want. “Want” means be in lack of. So the psalm tells us that with God we shall not lack. This does not mean that we get everything we want when God’s ruling our lives, it means that we get what is needed. God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but leads them to necessities. In short with God’s in charge none of God’s sheep are to want for essentials.
Verses two and three are about this need tending. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” These two verses in our culture provide a great sense of comfort. We picture sweet cool grass to sit on and a soothing body of water to look at. A lake near a pasture where we can go and experience peace and quiet. It’s great image.
And we do experience God as a calming presence, so this image helps. It’s a good and a right way to hear the words. And hearing that certainly seem to be a part of the psalmist’s intent. Sheep need rest. And God as our shepherd leads us to places of rest and comfort and a sense of serenity. But the words and images were meant to have more meaning than we modern folks, especially city dwellers, hear. Those green pastures that the shepherd leads us to are not just idyllic and good for needed rest, but to sheep, and people who know about sheep (like the ancients), green pastures provide the necessity of food. Sheep eat the grass that makes the pastures green! So one thing we tend to miss in the line about the green pasture is that with God as our Shepherd it is not just about a peaceful place to rest, but that we shall not want for either rest or food. God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but as our leader leads humans to necessities so that no sheep are in want.
The Shepherd in Psalm 23 also leads his sheep to “still waters.” Still waters are, of course, idyllic. But they serve another function too. Sheep are afraid to drink from moving water, they need their water to be smooth and calm. It is still water that quenches their thirst. See with God as our shepherd we shall not want for what we need, rest, food and water. God is a ruler who does not just tend to sheep, but if they will follow, God leads all the sheep to a place with all the necessities so on one wants. 3
Pretty cool stuff. How many years have we heard Psalm 23 and not known these meanings of God getting all sheep in God’s care all necessities? Those meanings have been there for thousands of years.
Most of the factual information and a lot of the ideas I’m discussing can be found in a wonderful book by Clint McCann. The book is called Great Psalms of the Bible it covers way more than I can today, but I am touching on some highlights. For instance, Dr. McCaan has this interesting observation about the end of verse three, about the restoration of our souls. He writes:
the shepherd provides the two basic necessities that support animal life– food and water. It is the provision of these basic necessities that, from the sheep’s perspective, “restores my soul,” or better translated, “keeps me alive”. . . 4
God as our sovereign leads humans to what is needed to keep us alive; food and water and rest. But that is not all we find in these initial verses, verse 3 ends by noting that God leads us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. We tend to picture this as God showing us some nice trails out there in the park by the green grass and calm lake which is nice, but as Dr. McCaan goes on to note, the words also mean that God leads us in right paths and (I am quoting)
For sheep, right paths literally mean the difference between life and death. To take the wrong path means to be separated from the shepherd and the flock and thus subject to being lost or attacked by predators . . . To be led in “right paths” means safety, security, shelter. 5
That is an awesome Shepherd. That’s an awesome God!
And here is the best part: the ending words of verse 3, indicating that this is done “for His name sake,” mean God provides all these necessities because that is the nature of God. For God’s sake we get taken care of– we do not want. When we let God watch over us, when God is in charge we will all have what we need and we will all be guided down safe paths. 6 That is a broader, deeper meaning Psalm 23 can be heard to be about. In fact, that is what the Bible can be heard to by and large be about. Letting God be in charge and take care of creation, including humanity– so that no one wants!
And this holds true even when we are in rough and bad times. Verse 4 shifts the conversation from being about God, to a conversation with God– a prayer. “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.” In those times when we, like sheep, wander out of the calm pastures to dark places, the valleys of the shadow of death, the shepherd never leaves us– the shepherd never leaves us. God is with us always.
A shepherd’s staff is for use on sheep to guide and prod and rescue them. A shepherd’s rod on the other hand is a club used to ward off predators. It is to defend the sheep from harm. Interestingly a rod was also the nickname for a royal scepter, so it has a double meaning, the shepherd wields the rod so no sheep get hurt and the king wields the scepter (the rod of state) so no subject gets hurt. 7 That’s the hope of God.
From these rich images of the Lord as shepherd, the psalm moves next to images of guest and host, at a royal banquet. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” God in this part is understood in the image of a host and humanity are all God’s invited guests. And did we all hear what happens at God’s table when we accept God’s invitation? We sit with our enemies. At God’s table all are invited and served. We can hear Psalm 23’s table taking place in the presence of our enemies as a parallel to Jesus’ later teaching to love our enemies. At God’s and Jesus’ table we sit in the presence of our enemies. They too are at the table with us, and that all of God’s invited guests are not just nourished at that table but honored by God at a banquet. In short, it is a grand banquet for all of humanity. There’s a table so large all fit, all need for food is met and, those of us who thirst, have got great news at God’s table our cup runs over, it’s filled beyond the brim.
And God not only feeds and fills us, but honors us by anointing each of our heads. All are God’s special guests!From these images of the Shepherd’s care, and the host’s honoring and meeting everyone’s needs, we can hear that all are respected, no one is in want. That is how God wills it!
Psalm 23 concludes with the wonderful words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” The phrase “surely goodness and mercy will follow me” is actually better translated as “‘surely goodness and steadfast love will pursue me all the days of my life.” 8 See God is not only good, but God’s steadfast love is so big and so awesome and so vibrant and enduring and dynamic, it follows and hunts us. God’s love hones in on us wherever we are and pursues us. It follows us everywhere– all the time . . . relentlessly. God soaks the universe– including us– that means we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. To paraphrase Paul, we live and move and have our being in God!
And Christianity has at it’s heart the amazing Truth that our being-ness can incarnate God in the world. Not just in Jesus the Christ, but in each of us as Christ’ actors on earth in both the giving and the taking of necessities. As we discussed last week, Christ is in our hands as we give and Christ is in our hands as we accept from those who give. In that respect we can hear that our role in Psalm 23 is not just as sheep being taking care of, but as the Shepherd’s helper helping to provide necessities and protection to everyone.
It can be the God in us who helps leads the God in others to green pastures and still waters for food and drink and respite.
It can be the God in us who helps shepherd folks to good paths in God’s name, who makes it so no one wants.
It can be the God in us who protects the God in others from the dark things in the valleys of the shadow of death.
It can be the God in us who helps the Host prepares tables with food and drink for the God in others.
It can be the God in us who honors God in others helping to anoint their heads with oil and ensuring that their cups runneth over.
When we do these things as God’s actors we help God become incarnate and we become living proof that goodness and mercy have not just followed us all the days of our life, but that we have let them catch us that we have let God know we know that we dwell in the house of the LORD and that we intend to act like it – forever. AMEN
* This sermon is based in large part on a sermon I originally preached in 2011.
1. McCann, Clint, Great Psalms of the Bible, 2009, p 45. This wonderful book on the most popular psalms of the Bible inspired many of the ideas in this sermon. (But not the incorrect wearing of my bike helmet). If you are interested in studying the Psalms I heartily recommend that you consider checking out this book, obviously I think it is a great book to preach from too!
2. Ibid., 47-48.
4. Ibid., 47.
5. Ibid., 48.
7. Ibid., 50
8. Ibid., 51
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