Last week I met with a friend who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She has been receiving hospice care. Before we prayed together, her husband, she and I joined hands and recited Psalm 23 as we remembered it from our childhoods. There was no better spiritual therapy for us in that moment.
This is why the 23rd Psalm is a favorite of many people. It is a source of strength for people who are troubled by anxiety, overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, or facing the reality that life is coming to an end.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” the psalm begins. This is personal. This is relational. King David, who wrote the psalm, wrote from his personal knowledge of the Lord. He had been a shepherd boy in his youth, and he knew what it was like to care for sheep. He knew how dependent the sheep were on the shepherd’s care. As king of Israel, he knew he needed the guidance and care of his (“my”) heavenly Shepherd.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” The sheep need nourishment, rest and protection. God’s people need spiritual nourishment from the Word and regular times of fellowship with the Lord in prayer. David knew this and his psalms are filled with prayers and praises. “He restores my soul” expresses the healing, renewal and forgiveness we experience when we come to God in transparent faith and honest confession.
“He guides me along the right paths.” I have read that there are animals that have a homing instinct and they are able to find their way back home even over many miles of separation. This is not true of sheep. They have no internal compass, no sense of direction. Sheep can only find the right places if they follow the shepherd. The psalm is teaching us to follow in the steps of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
“I will fear no evil.” When facing the last enemy, death, that lonesome valley will hold no terror for the believer who knows and follows the Shepherd. Even people who do not think of themselves as especially brave, are promised supernatural courage because in that in that dark and lonely place they discover they are not alone. The Lord Jesus himself is with them.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” The believer who lives by faith and daily dependency upon God will find that his promises are faithful and true. He takes care of his own sheep, loves them and provides for them. David is describing the personal relationship of the sheep to the Shepherd. All through this psalm we see the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my,” teaching us that the Shepherd wants us to know we are significant to him and that the concerns of our lives are important to him.
“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This assurance of an eternal home with the Lord is the reason the psalm opens with the phrase “I shall not be in want.” I shall not want for provision, guidance and care throughout life. I shall not want for the protection and presence of the Good Shepherd in the hour of death. And after death, I shall not want for the comfort and security of a home with the Lord.
I enjoy singing in the choir at church. We are preparing an anthem based upon Psalm 23, “Shepherd Me, O God,” by Marty Haugen and Mark Hayes. It is beautiful and its message is strong: “Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”
One reason this is important to me right now is that just this week I received the unwelcome news from my doctor that I have Parkinson’s Disease. Obviously this means that Connie and I must begin to learn a whole new way to live. To paraphrase Michael J. Fox, I have no choice about whether I have Parkinson’s, but Connie and I have lots of choices about how we respond to it.
I choose to respond by following and trusting my Good Shepherd. His goodness and love have accompanied me for 75 years, and I know he will be a faithful Presence in the major adjustments and limitations that lie ahead. I shall not be in want.
Pastor Randy Faulkner