<A Psalm of David.>
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 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.
To attempt to write about the best-known Psalm and one of the most loved pieces in all the scriptures is a challenge because of these words have such an emotional resonance in my memory and the memory of many others. Yet, sometimes slowing down to meditate upon these words that I and many others know by heart can be beneficial. These words of trust have been spoken, prayed and meditated on for millennia and the image of the LORD as shepherd and generous host echoes in many places in the bible, in art and in song.
The metaphor of the LORD being one’s shepherd resonates in multiple ways. Primarily the images evoke the literal pastoral image of a shepherd guiding and watching over the sheep and the words of the Psalm (at least in the first four verses) are told from the sheep’s perspective. In the more literal reading of the metaphor the shepherd is the one who continually provides for the needs of the sheep as it seeks food, water, and safety. The shepherd seeks out an environment where the sheep may thrive and provides protection from the threat of enemies (either wild beasts or men). If, as the Psalm indicates in its attribution, this is a Psalm of David it makes sense that the pastoral image would be a readily available metaphor as David himself begins as a shepherd. Yet, within the world of the bible the shepherd also has a metaphorical linkage to those entrusted as rulers and kings. Jeremiah 23:1-7 and Ezekiel 34, for example, can use this metaphor as a condemnation of the rulers who have not cared for the people they ruled and then later in John 10 Jesus can pick up this language by claiming ‘I am the good shepherd’ which would have both the pastoral image as well as the kingly image.
The LORD leading the sheep into an environment where they might prosper for ‘his name’s sake’ reflects upon a long tradition of honoring the name of the LORD the God of Israel. While the Hebrew people lifted the honoring of God’s name as a commandment it also was used as a claim upon God’s identity. For example, in Psalm 79:9 the Psalmist can cry out, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.” To call upon the name of the LORD is to call upon the character of God. In many ways, this Psalm, and many other Psalms and prayers, call upon the name of the LORD to ask God to act in a way that is in the character of God’s provision and care for the sheep of the LORD’s field and the people under the LORD’s care.
One of the most memorable parts of the Psalm is the darkest valley, or as I remember it growing up ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ God’s presence amid the dark and difficult moments of our life is both a source of great comfort for the sufferer and a challenge to many simplistic theologies that can only find a place for God in the times of joy and prosperity. God’s presence provides security in every part of our lives and the faithful one can lean upon the protective rod and staff in a time of insecurity. The journey of the follower will not always be a time in green pastures and still waters and yet they shepherd leads the sheep through the dangerous and scary places to places where the flock can once again thrive.
In the final two verses the metaphor shifts from the LORD as shepherd to the LORD as host. The follower becomes one welcomed into the LORD’s hospitality, and as one extended hospitality the host also provides protection. In this way, a banquet table can be spread even when one’s enemies may be nearby for the host provides the security which allows the feast to be peaceful. The traveler is welcomed, anointed with oil and given food to eat and rich drink. Goodness and mercy become personified and follow the traveler, pursuing them throughout their life to provide a safe harbor.
Ultimately the one who has led the sheep/follower throughout life is finally the destination. Dwelling in the house of the LORD is far more than just residing there as a priest, but ultimately goodness and mercy have pursued the Psalmist and the LORD has led the Psalmist like a shepherd back to the LORD’s house. St. Augustine’s famous words, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you” resonates with Psalm 23. As the book of John loves to use a set of images in John 10: I am the gate for the sheep (10:7); I am the gate (10:9) and I am the good shepherd (10: 11, 14) can ultimately lead in chapter 14:6 to “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Just as John can develop the imagery of the Psalm in a way that points ultimately to Jesus being the destination of the journey for Christians, the Psalm can point back to the LORD the God of Israel being both shepherd, host and destination for the Psalmist and those who would echo these words.