The 23rd Psalm may be one of the most familiar pieces of religious writing there is. Perhaps you memorized it in Sunday School, back in the days when we did things like that. You’ve probably seen it embroidered or rendered in calligraphy and framed on a wall.
Beyond these representations, my experience is that this psalm is the scripture which I am most likely to be asked to read at a hospital bedside, or a funeral – settings in which many of you have undoubtedly heard these words. It’s almost as though it is a kind of Biblical last rites, meant to comfort at the end of life. But what about all our other days, when we wander through the world, flat-footed and often lost.
This last week, Ivy asked me, as she often does, what I was preaching on. I said, “The 23rd Psalm.” She thought for a couple seconds, then began, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I agreed, this was the one. She then said, “Well, that will never work.” “What do you mean, ‘it won’t work’?” I asked. “I mean the part about not wanting,” she replied. “Everyone always wants lots of things.”
As if to illustrate the point, she handed me the mail that had just arrived, which included a catalogue from a company that sells high-end writing implements. I adore fountain pens, and I have four of them, which is more than I can write with at one time. I cast longing eyes on the catalogue thinking,” It wouldn’t hurt the world if I had just one more pen, would it?” But the 23rd Psalm was in front of me, so I walked the mailing directly to the recycling bin.
Thus in the very first line of this psalm we meet the Word coming to us in the middle of our upside down, pressurized lives, coming with the promise that under God’s care and guidance we lack for nothing that we need.
This is a very counter-culture declaration in our society where almost the first thing we learn is our identity as ‘consumer’. Every day, almost every hour, we are bombarded by the siren song of all the things that we lack, and surely must have – new and amazing products and inventions that are presented, not as things we might want, but as things we actually need if our lives are to be fulfilled.
As David Lose writes, “Think, for a moment, about how powerful “wanting” is in our culture right now. Consumer spending accounts for nearly 70 percent of our gross domestic product. This is significantly higher than most other industrialized nations (European countries average closer to 50 percent). More then ever before, our economy is powered by our collective nights out to dinner, trips to specialty grocery stores, and occasional shopping sprees. We are encouraged at every turn to want. To want more stuff, to want nicer stuff, to want lots of stuff.”
I would suggest that this flood-tide of ‘wanting’ is a kind of tyranny which rules us. Even if we have passing thoughts of a more ‘simple life’, the great American consumer machine will refer us to dozens of magazines and books on the subject, available at check-out counters everywhere. It’s as though reading about simplicity is the same as having it.
And the cost of all this is overwhelming – not just financially, but in the wounded centers of our being. The pressure of all that we’ve been taught to want, crowds our lives, drives us to run ever faster – working, producing and earning so that we can have the things we apparently need. When this treadmill of life creates a sense of being lost and alienated, we work harder yet, to acquire still more things, that might finally fill the hole in the center of our lives. As the late psychologist, Rollo May, said, “Humans are the strangest of all of God’s creatures, because they run fastest when they have lost their way.”
The 23rd Psalm shows the exit from this trap. It is when we finally place our trust in the shepherd who cares for us, that we will be led to true well-being. We read of the one who will guide us with deep and sacrificial love. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall want for nothing.
To see this more clearly, we probably need to know more about shepherds. Contrary to our usual image, shepherds in the Middle East don’t walk behind the flock, pushing the sheep ahead of them. Rather, the shepherd goes in front of the herd, to call it toward safe paths and to protect it from attack. There is no place the flock can go that the shepherd has not gone first. There is no enemy lying in wait, that the shepherd has not already confronted. The 23rd Psalm sings to us of God’s leading us in this way, bringing us to places of lush grasses, calm waters where it is safe to drink our fill and to rest, freed from the constant drive of wanting.
And God’s guiding steps are not primarily directed toward bringing us, comforted, to our funeral. Our walk after the Good Shepherd is actually a pilgrimage, a day-to-day, every day journey through our real world. And as with any pilgrimage, this is not just a stroll in the park. There are inevitable times of darkness and despair: the death of a beloved spouse; the shattering of dreams for our life work; the tearing apart of a marriage in divorce. There are no promises here that suffering will not be part of the life journey. But the psalm tells us that even in times of deepest darkness, the shepherd will not abandon us.
If you were to read the entire book of 150 Psalms, as I would encourage you to do, you would find that they are profoundly realistic. They are about human suffering, and complaints against God for not preventing catastrophe; about release from bondage, and rejoicing in being saved by God. So let me close with another translation of Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack anything. He makes me lie down in lush grass; he lets me rest beside calm waters; he restores my very being. He leads me in protected paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in times of deepest darkness, I fear no evil; for you are with me; because your rod and your staff fend off danger— I am comforted in safety.
You prepare a feast for me while my enemies are watching all around; you anoint my head with oil as though I were a king; my cup is never empty. Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall return again and again to God’s presence my whole life long.