Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd (ESV)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 23 (22 in some translations). Many years ago, I was introduced to it by my teacher in a public elementary school. Our teacher began the day with our saluting the flag and then reciting Psalm 23 together. It has remained a source of inspiration and comfort throughout my life.
While I ministered in the Navajo Nation, I was blessed with the privilege of observing shepherds caring for their sheep. I also remember one shepherdess sharing that she was getting older and did not know how much longer she could care for her beloved sheep. She was discerning which one of her family members to whom she would entrust the care of the sheep when she could no longer give them the love and attention they needed. Her concern was that she choose one who would become a good shepherd or shepherdess who would be watchful, patient, and have a special, caring relationship with each individual animal.
Sheep are very dependent on their shepherds and sheepdogs (sometimes llamas) because of their limitations. Sheepdogs, e.g., Australian Shepherd dogs, are very intelligent. I have observed them helping the sheep cross a road safely.
Psalm 23 is believed to have been authored by David around 1000 B.C. Let us pause to listen carefully to the words:
The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want He makes me lie down in green pastures. The shepherd seeks out good pastures for the sheep to graze and leads them there.
He leads me beside still waters. Since sheep are easily frightened, the shepherd avoids loud waterfalls and finds quiet waters so they can drink peacefully. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Then, the psalmist says the Lord also guides him in the ways of “righteousness” (goodness).
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.
Some of the paths the sheep have to travel to be pastured are very dangerous. There are steep mountains to climb and treacherous valleys, but the sheep are never alone.
The staff, like a cane with a rounded hook, is used by the shepherd to test the ground ahead of the sheep to see if it is secure. Sometimes the brush on the side of the mountains hides the danger of loose rocks and the edge of the cliffs. The shepherd guides the sheep away from the precipices. However, sometimes a wandering sheep loses its way and becomes caught in the brush or slips into a crevice. The shepherd can sometimes rescue the sheep, using the hook end of the staff. (Today, Bishops carry a staff to symbolize that they are to be shepherds of their flock.)
The rod, a thick stick or bunch of twigs, is used to ward off dangerous animals who might attempt to harm the sheep. It can also be used to push back thick brush in the pathway: the rod and the staff help to make the sheep feel safe. The shepherd provides a safe and pleasant pasture for the sheep by watching for dangerous animals and being prepared to get rid of them so the sheep can graze peacefully.
You anoint my head with oil;
Unlike some animals, the sheep cannot rid themselves of insects who might attack their heads, so the shepherds rub their heads with oils that ward off insects.
My cup overflows.
The sheep’s hearts are overflowing with happiness.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
Having such a loving and caring Shepherd as the Lord, he trusts that he will be cared for in this life.
And I shall “dwell” in the house of the Lord forever.
When called to his heavenly home, he exclaims that he will live joyfully with his Shepherd Lord forever.
Pat Chiaffa, ASBS
Psalm 23 has been a source of comfort to me since I was a child. My parents divorced when I was eight-years old; my world was turned upside down. I had to get used to living without my dad and shortly thereafter, adjust to living with a stepfather. The situation left me very frightened. I would close my eyes and call to mind the gentleness of the shepherd and pretend I was the sheep he placed on his shoulders. It brought me great peace. That same meditation comforts me today as I struggle to grasp the fragile reality of our world. I find myself distressed over the lack of leadership across the globe, the growing violence, shattered economy, crushed dreams and the plight of so many displaced people. I am saddened beyond words at the fear (of Covid 19) that is paralyzing countless people, contributing to anxiety and depression and the loss of bonds of connection and spiritual nourishment. This past weekend I was on a retreat which annually welcomes three hundred participants, the majority of whom have been coming for decades. This year the count was under thirty. Two hundred, seventy women missed powerful messages of God’s tender love, compassion and mercy, and the opportunities to relax, reset and receive the dynamic inspiration that is palpable in such a Spirit-filled environment.
I believe that the Good Shepherd is calling us to co-shepherd our fellow “sheeples” during these turbulent times. In spite of masking up, we need to speak out of the Presence of God and reach out with words of encouragement and hope. The Presence of God is invisible as is the virus. Yet, the media sustains fear by bombarding the public with details of the virus. It is a challenge to turn off the media info etched in our heads long enough to enter into a quiet place to pray and find rest and hear the gentle whispering of the Holy Spirit to soothe our troubled souls. We need to communicate the message of faith by focusing on and expressing the love, Presence and power of God. Faith drives out fear. The image of the Good Shepherd as described in Psalm 23 is a very effective meditation to foster peace, restore calm and trust in God’s loving Providence.