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.
A story is told of a young man from China who went to Bible study for a couple of months and found the Lord. When the time came for him to become a member in his church, he went to a store to have a T-shirt made that he wanted to wear to celebrate his being born again.
He didn’t speak English and, because he didn’t want to look foolish, when they asked what wording he desired, he pointed to the first sign on the wall he could see. He ordered his T-shirt and paid.
A few days later he picked it up, put it on and left for church. When he went up to the altar in his freshly pressed new T-shirt, the congregation read the words emblazoned on his chest: ‘UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.’
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” In verse 1 the psalmist tells us under whose management he is. He describes himself as one who belongs to the Lord, his shepherd, and he confesses that belonging to this Lord means that he shall not want.
In a number of masterful metaphors, the six verses of the psalm spell out those wants. First, there are three basic necessities; and, finally, there is one necessity that is beyond all the others.
FOOD. The first of the three wants is food. In verse 2 we read, “He makes me lie down in green pastures…” and in verse 5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Green pastures in Israel’s wilderness actually look like rocky, barren hillsides. Scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a little tuft of grass can sprout. The job of the shepherd was to find these grassy places so that his sheep could have a few mouthfuls to eat at a time.
The green pastures of which Psalm 23 speaks of give enough for now, and only the now. Tomorrow’s green pasture would be something the sheep would encounter tomorrow.
Every creature knows hunger. As sheep of this shepherd we can be sure that we will be led to the best nourishment possible, for our physical and spiritual well-being. In addition, we will not have to fear being cut off from nourishment by our enemies because we are protected.
DRINK. The second of the wants discussed in our psalm is drink. In verse 2 we read, “he leads me beside still waters,” and in verse 5, “my cup overflows.”
The most frequent cause of death in the wilderness is not starvation, thirst or heat exhaustion—it’s drowning. Because the limestone mountains cannot absorb rainwater, the water runs into the desert, creating sudden and violent floods that fills the wadis, within moments and without much warning. Shortly after a flood, a wadi becomes dry again.
Sometimes a bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the bottom of the wadi, and these “still waters” are attractive to the thirsty wilderness flocks. Wise shepherds know that walking through a wadi can be dangerous; they know where to find springs of water where the flocks can drink without the danger of a flash flood.
Every creature knows thirst. As sheep of this shepherd, we are led to still waters. Still waters mean places where we can quench our thirst safely. Also, our cup is said to overflow. This reminds us of the gospel verse where Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
HAPPINESS. The third of the wants discussed in our psalm is happiness. In verse 3 we read, “he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake,” and in verse 5, “you anoint my head with oil.”
When I hear about “right paths”, I think of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. It includes a sequence of areas that need to be taken care of: right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand the value of focusing mindfully on that sequence of “rights”; if you get all of those areas of your life right, then you’ll be in harmony with everything that is.
Every creature wants some level of happiness. As sheep of this shepherd we have our lives restored as we are shown the way. God is looking out for his sheep. The word in verse 5 that is often translated as “anointed” has nothing to do with ceremonial anointment; we are talking of hair well rubbed with olive oil to make it luxuriant.
NO FEAR. The central metaphor of Psalm 23 is found in verse 4 where we are told, “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.” It’s fair to say that throughout history people have found that this verse helped them to feel whole again when they were falling apart.
“Though I walk through the darkest valley…” Imagine a deep, dark valley surrounded by cliffs, filled with a dense forest so that even the top of the cliffs is out of sight, let alone the sky. This is a place where we are “hemmed in”, where we cannot even see the sun. A place of no escape.
The psalmist paints a vision of what could be the worst time of our lives. Maybe death itself. Or intense sickness, or paralyzing fear. Even in those times, or especially in those times, we have nothing to fear if we have already submitted to God.
“I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” A shepherd’s primary weapon is his rod. With it he fends off attackers and protects his sheep; with it he clears the path of obstacles, and ensures his sheep can get through unhindered. A shepherd’s tool to guide his sheep is his staff. With this crook he pulls or pushes the sheep where they need to be, when they need to be there.
People often choose to call on God only when times are bad and they feel that their backs are against a wall; but we are invited to submit our lives to God now—in the good times!
Living in a country where exercising our faith doesn’t put us in danger, we sometimes forget that Scripture has political consequences. Christians in Africa and Asia read Psalm 23 as a political tract, a rejection of unjust secular authority. For them, the psalm offers a stark rebuttal when unjust regimes claim that they care for their subjects. Christians reply simply, “The Lord is my shepherd—and you are not!”
Seen this way, Psalm 23 is a text of surrender. Surrender means to acknowledge the Lord as your shepherd. Surrender means a radical new beginning. Surrender means to suspend the incessant talk of your mind and to let your heart lead you.
Many people have trouble with surrender. They like the idea of a good shepherd, but when it comes to following their hearts, their egos tremble, and they run. Surrender makes people think “weakness” and “powerlessness” and “giving up control”. They run in great fear and in search for someone, anyone, who will allow them to be God’s without giving up control. Usually they run into the wide-open arms of certain false prophets that come under the name of “positive thinking”, or, more recently, “prosperity gospel”.
Advocates of positive thinking claim that your attitude will shape your destiny and that if you think positive thoughts, positive results will occur. Positive thinking is self-manipulation. No matter how much we pretend that everything is positive, real life doesn’t work that way.
If the power of their thinking could have made their followers so influential, rich and happy, why do so many of them look so miserable? Their answer: you just didn’t have enough faith in the power of your thinking! People who knew they couldn’t afford to buy a house have bought one because their prosperity pastors told them that “God wants you to have it”—only to find that when the banks foreclosed on them, their pastors turned their backs and told them that they had failed in their faith.
When we bind ourselves to our loving God, we find freedom beyond all freedom. UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT: it’s the perfect way to describe people who have been born again as children of God. Nothing will stay the same in your life: Your complaints will turn into wonderment; your growls into praises; your tears into joy; your sadness into dancing; your self-loathing into self-love; your fears will turn to love and more and more love. And none of this will have happened because you followed the hogwash of “positive thinking”; it will have happened because you surrendered your ego.
When, as in our society, 40% of the nation’s wealth is owned by only 1% of the population, and the social contract is being destroyed by our own government, the words of the prophet come to mind: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezekiel 34:2) When leaders/shepherds only care to enrich themselves, the people are like sheep who are scattered all over the place.
We are not that far from the reality of the Christians in Africa and Asia, after all: we are dealing with an unjust regime that must be challenged. Gifted with all that we need, enabled by our surrender to the Good Shepherd, we are perfectly equipped to take on our bad shepherds and their creed of greed. We are called to hurl at our leaders the words they fear most: “The Lord is my shepherd—and you are not!”, and then we must act in the name of our Good Shepherd. We are called to stand up for justice and equality, for a world in which everyone has a chance.
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people; grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.