The Psalms: Songs of Our Hearts - Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is, perhaps, the most loved and most familiar of all the psalms. It is, perhaps, the most well-known scripture in all the Bible. Even people who never read the Bible, or are not even religious, are aware of the 23rd Psal
m. They might be able to receipt it all, or at least in part, from memory.
Why does this psalm stand out among the 150 psalms? Why does it stand out from every other part of the Bible?
When do we usually hear Psalm 23? At the time of death. This psalm has brought comfort to many at such times. It is not uncommon to have Psalm 23 read at funerals, or have it printed on the bulletin. I’ll bet many of you when you hear this psalm think of someone very close to you who died, because this psalm was read at their funeral.
Perhaps one reason Psalm 23 is often associated with death is because of the way the psalm ends - “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We imagine our loved one going to be with the Lord forever in death.
Or it could be the reference to walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
While I am glad Psalm 23 speaks to grieving and heavy hearts, I believe Psalm 23 is not a psalm of death but a psalm for life. It is a psalm for here and now, not just when we are six feet under, or in an urn, or weeping at a graveside.
Psalm 23 expresses a trusting, confident relationship with God.
It is spoken and prayed from the perspective of a sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the
Lord is my shepherd then I must be a sheep.
And sheep are helpless, needy animals. They don’t take care of themselves. They require endless attention and meticulous care. Sheep are fearful, stubborn, and not real bright. Could that be us? We are such self-centered creatures.
Psalm 23 could be called “David’s Hymn of Praise to God’s Diligence” because it is about the Lord’s care, attentiveness, and devotion to our care.
Yes, the psalm assumes our neediness, but it is about the Lord who is our shepherd.
The verb tense is in the present. The Lord is my shepherd, here and now. And because the Lord is my shepherd in the present I shall not be in want. The New International Version of the Bible clarifies the old King James Version. “I shall not want” means “I lack nothing.”
Can you say that? Can you honestly say, “I lack nothing”? What are your needs and wants and how do you determine what you need and want?
Moses told Israel after the Lord led them through the wilderness, “The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. (Deut. 2:7) That is the same word as in Psalm 23, “I will not be in want.”
It is an expression of contentment, and confidence that God will provide our needs. We may have things we want. We might want a different car, more fashionable clothes, that electronic gadget, a nice vacation, a bigger house. God provides for our needs, not necessarily our wants.
That he makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me beside quiet waters, restores my soul and guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake speaks of how our Shepherd leads and guides.
No one knows us like the Lord. He made us and knows where the pastures that feed us can be found,
…where the quiet, still waters that will restore us are,
…and he knows the best paths for us to take.
One of the books I often share with people on Psalm 23 is, “The Song of a Passionate Heart” by David Roper, who says,
“God knows our pace. He knows when grief, pain, and loneliness overwhelm us.” Our Shepherd knows our limitations, “when we’re shamed and broken and unable to go on. God does not drive His sheep; He gently leads them. He allows for hesitation and trepidation. He gives credit for decisions and resolutions that are strenuously tested; He understands courage that falters in the face of terrible odds; He can accommodate a faith that flames out under stress. He takes into account the hidden reasons for failure; He feels the full weight of our disasters. He knows our pain as no one else knows it. Our bleating reaches His ears; He hears even our inarticulate cries.”
Such is the care of our Shepherd.
Green pastures and quiet waters and right paths are all good, but what about when we are walking through the hard places, even the valley of the shadow of death?
When we get to verse 4 David begins to speak in the second person. The psalm moves from being about the Lord and now is to the Lord. David says “You are with me.” “Your rod and your staff…” We can only speak of someone in this way who is present.
The shepherd’s rod was a club to protect against enemies and attacks. The staff was used to help sheep who were struggling up a difficult path, or who were moving in darkness and needed guidance. Perhaps you are struggling on a difficult path right now. The staff of our good Shepherd is there.
“The valley of the shadow of death” can also be translated “through the darkest valley”. Whether the experience is death, or whether the darkness is so great it feels like death, David affirms that he will not fear any evil because the Lord is with him. The presence of the Lord is so overwhelmingly greater than whatever the darkness can bring, that he has reason for courage and strength.
Last week I told the story of Anatoly Scharansky, the Jewish dissident who spent nine years in the Soviet prison system during the Cold War, who held onto and treasured a little book of Psalms while suffering all those years.
Scharansky, when allowed to walk into freedom after those nine years, would not leave after the guards tried to confiscate his little Psalms book. Those words had sustained him, strengthened him, and brought courage amidst the darkness of the Soviet gulag.
After his freedom he wrote his autobiography which is entitled “Fear No Evil”. He took the words right out of Psalm 23. He had walked through the valley.
David knows the Lord will spread out a banquet for him and all his enemies will see it, and he will be vindicated.
His head will be anointed with oil, which was a sign of blessing, of being chosen, of belonging to God.
His cup overflows, what the King James Version gives us as “runneth over.” The Lord has blessed him with abundance. God is not stingy. He gives us more than we can digest. More than we can handle. If we think our cup is empty or not full enough it isn’t because he doesn’t give us enough. It is probably our own uncontrollable appetite. Our lives runneth over.
In the final verse of Psalm 23, David is convinced that goodness and mercy will follow him all the days of his life. “Follow” means “pursue”. David believes the Lord’s goodness and love will chase after him. He can’t get away from the Lord’s goodness and love. And that will be true “all the days of his life”.
This is one of the reasons I believe Psalm 23 is a psalm for life. David is talking about when he is alive. The Lord’s goodness and love pursue him while his heart is beating, his lungs breathing, and his blood flowing. He doesn’t have to wait until he is dead and buried. All the days of my life!
Don’t put off using this psalm until your funeral. You won’t be there anyway. Use it now. Live it now. Apply it now.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I’m not sure when people began to think of this as being with the Lord in eternity, but when David speaks of the house of the Lord he probably means the place of worship.
The word for dwell has the sense of coming back, as in I will dwell again or I will return in the house of the Lord. We keep coming back to the house of the Lord. To give him thanks and praise and worship. “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” it says in another psalm. That is the main reason worshippers of the Lord have always come to his house.
Our American consumer society has conditioned us to always get something for ourselves, and that includes church. But the Bible never speaks of coming to the house of the Lord to get. Biblical worship is about giving to the Lord.
How would your experience of worship and church change if you came with an attitude of giving thanks and praise to the Lord instead of getting. I do hope we all receive when we come, but might receiving come when we first give?
The last word of Psalm 23 is “forever” and it literally means “length of days”. So the final verse is “I will dwell and live and be found in the house of the Lord for many long years.” David wants to be in the place of worship for as long as he lives.
Yes, a day will come when we will be with the Lord forever, and will live in his light, love and peace in a way we cannot here. And we long for, hope for, and rejoice in that day. But Psalm 23 is about now.
Psalm 23 is a psalm for your life and my life, today.
The Lord is my shepherd right now.
I lack nothing in this life.
God provides, leads and guides me in this life.
God is with me in the dark and desperate times of this life.
God’s comfort is for me now.
God vindicates me, and blesses me in this life.
God’s goodness and love is chasing me everyday of my life, and I am going to dwell in his house – keep returning, again and again - with his people, as many days as I have.
Jesus called himself “the good shepherd” and the meaning was not lost on those who heard him. They knew Psalm 23. Jesus said that the good shepherd knows his sheep and will go so far as to lay down his very life for them. Our Good Shepherd laid down his life on the cross for us.
Psalm 23 is brought to life in Jesus Christ. Jesus has made the Lord personal and has come to say, “I love you and want you to know me, your Shepherd. The Shepherd you read about in Psalm 23 and in the prophets is me.”
I think one of the reasons Psalm 23 has such an attraction for so many people is that it speaks of a personal relationship between the sheep and the shepherd, between us and the Lord.
If you don’t have a relationship with the Lord, believe in him and take this Jesus as your Lord today.
May he be your Shepherd right now, in this life. Be one of his sheep, so that you will know his care, leading and provision all the days of your life.
Prayer: Good Shepherd, our Shepherd, we don’t need a thing. You allow us to lie down in rest. You give us drink. True to your word, you let us catch our breath and send us in the right direction.
Even when our way goes through Death Valley, we are not afraid because you walk beside us. Your staff makes us feel secure.
When we face enemies you feed and refresh us.
Your goodness and love hunt us down every day of our life. We seek to make our home in your house for the rest of our lives.
Thank you, Jesus, for being our Good Shepherd, and for knowing us. Help us to know you more and more, each day of our lives.
 Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, p.21. I attribute other insights to Keller as well.  P.33  Unashamedly stolen from J.W. Gregg Meister, The Psalms: The Prayerbook of Jesus, p.25  See Peterson’s translation in The Message.