|Psalm 23: My Forever Host
October 18, 1998
This is the first sermon I have ever preached on Psalm 23. For someone who has been preaching longer than he has been alive, that may seem like a near-impossible statement. From all the records I have kept and to the best of my recollection, however, it is the truth.
I have read Psalm 23 – often at the request of families involved – many, many times at funerals. It seems to communicate God’s comforting love in a unique and powerful way. Because of that power, I seldom make comments when I read Psalm 23 to broken-hearted souls. My fear is that I would detract from it by trying to comment on or explain it. To be perfectly honest, that is my fear today as I "break my silence" on this psalm.
I don’t want to mess up this wonderful passage for any of you. It is too majestic, too powerful, too inspiring. It is such a meaningful text to so many of you that my insecurity as a preacher makes me flinch from attempting a sermon on it. In order, then, to buffer myself from failure and to draw on helpful resources for a task beyond me, I have asked three people to help me with today’s presentation. Their task is to help me make Psalm 23 come alive for you by testifying to its meaning for them under some life circumstances some of you know only too well yourselves.
In order to approach this familiar text in a fresh way for you, I’ve decided to offer it to you under three headings: (1) David’s third-person testimony to God’s sufficiency and faithfulness, (2) his second-person testimony to God’s sufficiency and faithfulness, and (3) his communal testimony to God’s sufficiency and faithfulness.
Let me explain how this approach to Psalm 23 works. Without stretching a point of grammar too far, I trust, this view of the psalm allows us to read it as if David were answering three important questions: (1) David, who is Yahweh? (2) David, what does the Lord mean to you personally? (3) David, how does Yahweh communicate his presence to you in the daily routine of life?
Who is Yahweh?
In the first three verses, David speaks of Yahweh in the third person. It is as if he were explaining Israel’s God to a pagan inquirer. Or maybe you would prefer to envision him telling one of his children about his understanding of the Lord. It is intensely personal – for he speaks in terms of "me" and "my" – but everything spoken of Yahweh here is in the third person.
Just read the verses and emphasize the words "he" and "his" as you do so.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
David, who is Yahweh? He is my all in all. He is the one who meets all my needs. He is the one to whom I turn for everything. He is the one who keeps me alive. Indeed, he is the only thing truly necessary to my life.
Contrary to the usual understanding, the sheep/shepherd imagery is not aimed primarily at communicating a sense of peace and tranquility; it is intended rather to say that God keeps the psalmist alive. For a sheep, to "lie down in green pastures" means to have food; to be led "beside still waters" means to have something to drink; to be led in "right paths" means to avoid falling in a hole or to avoid falling prey to wild animals. In short, God "restores my soul," or better translated, God "keeps me alive." As sheep owe their very lives to the shepherd, so the psalmist affirms that she or he owes her or his very life to God.1
People tend to learn that God means everything only when we have lost something else we considered indispensable. Has that ever happened to you? Has God ever had to restore your soul? Come alongside when something you thought you could not live without was taken from you? Show you his faithfulness when someone else had been faithless? Keep you alive?
[At this point in the sermon at Woodmont Hills, Dr. Beth Burgos gave her videotaped testimony to God’s faithfulness in "restoring her soul" following a painful divorce a year ago.]
David had a sense of having to depend on his Lord for everything. He could not survive without Yahweh. It was God who kept him alive tending sheep in his father’s fields when predators were all about. It was the Lord who preserved him when rebels in Israel – including his own son, Absalom – rose up against him. David, how did you survive it? The Lord, as a shepherd does for his sheep, met all my needs and kept me alive – even through some moments of desperation.
Beth has a sense of having had to depend on her Lord for everything to get through the heartache of a failing marriage. It was God who got her through the moments of desperation. It was the nearness of Jesus that gave her the strength to get through, to take care of Alexis, and to carry Josh to term while the divorce was being filed and finalized. God met every one of her needs. And he will be as faithful to you in your needs as he was to her in hers.
David, what does the Lord mean to you personally?
Because King David had experienced the faithful mercies of Yahweh, he could declare with humble confidence at verse four:
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
The language has shifted now from third-person (i.e., "he," "his") to second-person (i.e., "you," "your"). The meaning I attach to this transition is not terribly profound. As he describes his God to someone in the first three verses of the psalm, his heart overflows with joy. He can restrain himself no longer. His eyes move away from the face of a searching pagan or questioning child toward heaven itself. No longer telling about the All-Sufficient God, he now addresses the Shepherd of his soul to declare his absolute trust in him. No matter what the future may bring, he knows Yahweh is with him in life’s dark valleys.
The darkest valley in Israel’s life had been the captivity in Egypt as a nation of slaves. The darkest valley in David’s personal life was the mess he created by making a baby with Bathsheba – an event that devastated his own family and eventually split the nation in half. And you could probably stand where you are to tell of some dark valley you have traveled – or are passing through today. Here is one such story from a young brother of yours in this church.
[Here Ward Boone told his story of a "dark valley" in fathering a child outside marriage and looking to the Lord for a way of passing through that valley without being overcome with fear or destroyed by his enemy, Satan.]
David could face a personal life crisis and declare, "You are with me!" Ward, the same God who walked with David through his dark valley has vowed to go with you through yours. Jesus is your Emmanuel, God with you. He carries both a "rod" and "staff" for the journey; the former is his power to fight off and defeat your enemies, and the latter is his gentle shepherd’s crook to snatch you out of harm’s way and gently keep you on path for the life you are committed to living as a Christian father. And all the things God has promised to Ward are available to the rest of us as well.
How Does Yahweh Come to You?
Finally, David shifts the metaphor from God as a shepherd to Yahweh as the gracious host – the Forever Host of his people. Thus the final two verses of Psalm 23 come into view and offer a vision of the Lord seating his people at a great banquet table inside his own house.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Much about this second figure simply reinforces the first. The Lord provides shelter inside his own house. He provides food (i.e., a table) and water (i.e., an overflowing cup). And there is abundant protection, for all these provisions are made "in the presence of [the writer’s] enemies." But there is something new here. The second metaphor moves beyond the first with the introduction of a communal concept. All these good things are happening because one is "in the house of the Lord" – a member of the chosen people, a child in the family. For Christians, God is hosting his children and meeting their needs through the community of his people known as the church.
Our relationship with God is not only individualistic but communal. To be sure, one cannot be saved just by church membership. And one may be saved in spite of holding membership in a very poor – even reprobate – church. But the norm in God’s plan is for every saved person to find his or her place within a supportive and nurturing community of faith. Among others who are longing for God, one finds encouragement and strength in his or her own quest for the Lord.
God comes to me through you, and he may well speak to you via my voice. As we huddle together against the cold winds of unbelief, sin, and indifference to holy things, we warm one another. We hold one another up. We carry one another’s burdens. One of the ways we rise above our fears and find the courage to keep doing is in having people around who are willing to help bear some of life’s heavier burdens.
One of the members of this church has received some unnerving information about his health within the past couple of weeks. He shared it with the shepherds last Tuesday evening, and they surrounded him in prayer and support. Today he wants you to know what lies ahead for him. And he is asking for your fellowship in his anxiety, your support during his treatment, and your prayers for his healing.
[Here Martin Meyer told the church of his recent cancer diagnosis, of his prayers for courage, and of some things he has learned already from his disease.]
A family is warmth when the world is cold, safety when the world is hostile, and light when the world is dark. A family is a group held together by the bonds of blood and the glue of love. Being part of a family is no guarantee against storms, but it is a friendly port when the waves of life become too fierce. No person is ever alone who has a family.
For those who do not have functioning families by human blood, the church is their family by Christ’s blood. And, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote of families: "All of us are we – and everyone else is they." That is why the church is more than any one congregation or tradition. It is all those who have been touched, washed, and bonded by the blood shed on Calvary.
Because we are God’s family, we belong not only to him but to one another. My world is different because of you. Your insecurity is to be mitigated by our presence with you. If you have to face the heartache that comes with divorce, we will be there for you. If you are left to pick up the pieces from a mess you’ve made, we will help you. If you get frightening news from your doctor this week, God is going to come to you through this body of people.
One final point on Psalm 23 has to do with an issue in translation. In the standard translations, verse 6 says: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life . . ." I’m not sure one can say this is an "incorrect" rendering of the original text. It is simply a bit weak.
[T]he Hebrew verb rdp has a more active sense. The revised New American Bible is more helpful: "Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life." God is in active pursuit of the psalmist! This affirmation is particularly striking in view of "the presence of my enemies." Ordinarily in the Psalms, it is precisely the enemies who pursue the psalmist (see 7:5; 69:26; 71:11; 109:16; etc.). Here the enemies are present but have been rendered harmless, while God is in active pursuit.2
I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message here: "Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life."
If you need proof that God’s activity as the shepherd and host of his people has put him in the initiative on our behalf, simply remember the career of Jesus who came to seek, save, and secure us. "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls" (1 Pet. 2:24-25).
Psalm 23 is not a funeral psalm, then, but a life psalm. It challenges us to know the Lord as David knew him – to see him as the single necessity to life, to experience him as the sustaining presence through our dark valleys, to be part of the spiritual family that belongs not only to him but to one another.
Will you accept the challenge? Will you accept the Shepherd?
1 J. Clinton McCann Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 128.
2 Ibid., pp. 131-132.
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