Psalm 23: A Psalm for the Living

The 23rd psalm is the most beloved of the Psalms and is, perhaps, the most loved chapter in the entire Bible. It is a shame then, that we tend to only hear sermons on Psalm 23 at funerals. It is a shame because Psalm 23 is a psalm for the living--it is a psalm for you and I to apply every day of our life.

There is a danger, that when a biblical text becomes particularly familiar to us, we begin to believe that we know all that there is to know about the text. When this happens we tend to overlook messages and applications that are quite obvious.

For instance, have you ever noticed how David changes the form of the psalm in verse 4? In the first three verses, David refers to God as "He": "The Lord is my Shepherd . . . He makes me lie down . . . He leads me . . . He restores my soul . . . He guides me". Then in verses 4 and 5, David refers to God as "You" or "Thou": "I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me . . . Thou dost prepare a table before me . . . Thou hast anointed my head with oil". Then, finally, in verse 6 he switches back to the third person: "I will dwell in the house of the Lord".

The lesson I have learned from this form change is that we should not talk for very long about God without talking to God. The first lesson that this psalm teaches me is that my study of theology should always lead me to prayer.

What shall we say about the first line, "The Lord is my shepherd"? A phrase so familiar that we probably are missing the magnitude of those words. David is saying that the eternal God of the Universe is his personal shepherd. David could have rightly said, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our shepherd', but he does not say this, he says, "The Lord is my shepherd". There is a personal relationship here.

This is a reminder that Christianity is not as much a religion as it is a relationship. Being a Christian means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus calls Himself, "the good shepherd" in John 10, verse 11. The nature of Psalm 23 then, becomes even more personal. The Christian reads Psalm 23 this way, " (Jesus) is my shepherd, I shall not want".

What exactly does that mean, "I shall not want"? The meaning here is not that we won't desire or want anything, the meaning is that we won't be left wanting. We are being told that the Lord's sheep are not lacking anything.

But how is this true? We don't even have to leave Psalm 23 to see that the Lord's sheep do indeed lack things. When we are told about walking through the dark valley it is safe to assume that the valley lacks light, and I presume it lacks the green pasture and the quiet waters.

In what sense then, can it be said that the Christian shall not lack anything? I like John Piper's answer to this question, "what David means is that God's sheep never lack anything that the Shepherd thinks is good for them."

What this means is that God is all we need. What this means is that Jesus is enough. Whether we are in the green pasture or the dark valley, the Shepherd remains at our side and that is what we need. If we have Jesus, we lack no good thing.

While it is true that Jesus is all we need, this is not to say that Jesus is all we get. David reminds us that it is our Good Shepherd who "makes (us) lie down in green pastures" and "leads (us) beside quiet waters"(v.2).

Phillip Keller, a pastor and author who for eight years was himself a shepherd, writes, "It is almost impossible for (sheep) to lie down unless (certain) requirements are met". Keller explains that before sheep will lie down they need to be free of 4 things. Because of their timidity, sheep "refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear . . . Sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with other (sheep within the flock). If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down . . . Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food"(Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 35).

There must be freedom from fear, friction, flies, and famine before sheep will lie down. Translate this into our context, and I hear David saying that the Lord often removes obstacles in our life for the purpose of giving us rest--and rest of a certain kind.

You have heard me say that the Bible does not give us a prosperity gospel, but this is not to say that it gives us a prosper-less gospel. The green pastures and the quiet waters represent a type of prosperity that the Shepherd gives to His sheep. And the reason we are given this prosperity is stated in verse 3, it "restores (our) soul".

What ultimately matters is not physical comfort, but spiritual restoration. When our Shepherd provides physical blessings, the goal is spiritual refreshment.

And being spiritually refreshed means to walk "in the paths of righteousness"(v.3). Notice that this is not something we can accomplish on our own. Like sheep, we are prone to go astray if left on our own. David recognizes, and we must recognize, that we need to be "guided" by the Shepherd if we are to walk the righteous path.

Now, before we unpack the transition verse--verse 4, I want to offer you an observation. Psalm 23 begins with rest and comfort. Psalm 23 does not begin with activity. This is a reminder of how the Christian life is to be lived. We begin by resting in Christ and out of the restoration of our soul comes activity.

Many Christians, and many churches, have this backwards. Many Christians run around, busily doing ministry until they are too tired to continue. And only when they have no strength left do they stop and rest. This misses the point that Christianity is primarily a relationship, not a religion. To have activity without a relationship misses the entire point.

Let me give you an illustration from my thanksgiving dinner. The family member who hosted our thanksgiving dinner is someone very dear to me. I love this person very much. When we arrived, the host properly greeted me, but we never exchanged words again until it was time to leave. This family member of mine was very busy. She made sure that every part of our meal was just perfect--and it was.

But this family member missed the point of the dinner. The reason for the dinner was supposed to be our relationship. The meal was not supposed to be the point. A casserole would have sufficed.

This is the error many Christians make. We run around attending church meetings, executing programs, planning budgets, teaching the Bible and we forget the reason we are here in the first place.

We are here to enjoy our relationship with Jesus Christ. A sure sign that we have missed the point is when our activity in the church becomes a replacement for prayerful devotion to the One who called us here in the first place.

Jesus has called you first to worship, and secondly to work. We must never reverse this order. Psalm 23 is about the blessings of being in a relationship with the Shepherd. And what is the primary blessing of the Shepherd? The primary blessing of the Shepherd is Himself.

You read about the green pastures and quiet waters and you might think they are the primary blessing of the Shepherd, but they're not. The green pastures and quiet waters eventually give way to "walk(ing) through the valley of the shadow of death"(v.4). The constant in this psalm is not the green pastures--they are temporary. The constant in this psalm is not the valley of the shadow of death--David says we eventually walk "through" it. The only constant in Psalm 23 is the presence of God, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me."

The blessing of the Shepherd is not an elimination of our problems. The blessing of the Shepherd is not an elimination of our enemies. The blessing of our Shepherd is a table for two prepared in the presence of our enemies(v.5). And the table, of course, is symbolic of our fellowship with Him.

In the midst of trials, our source of joy is our fellowship with the Shepherd--He prepares a table for us, He anoints our head with oil, our cup overflows(v.5).

Whether we are looking at the shepherding imagery, or the imagery of table fellowship, the main theme of Psalm 23 is plain to see: David is describing the joy of being in a personal relationship with God--a relationship that has no end, "Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever"(v.6).

The 23rd Psalm portrays life as a pilgrimage--it is a pilgrimage with God, to God--and our final destination is "the house of the Lord". Our final destination is unhindered fellowship with Jesus Christ. And it is our final destination that should define everything we do in the meantime.

Whether we are talking about Bible studies, building projects, or children's programs--these things are not the point. And any church program or project that does not move us toward an improved relationship with Jesus Christ is a misguided project and misses the point.

It is time for us to examine the purposes that are behind the church projects we undertake. It is time for us to prioritize passion over programs. We want a quality ministry, yes, but not at the expense of a quality relationship.

When we reach our final destination, when we get to the house of the Lord, there will be no more programs, but what will remain is passion. When we get to heaven there will be no more religion, but what will remain is our relationship with our Shepherd.

Don't miss the point of Psalm 23. Our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, calls us, not to ritual, but to a relationship. It is in the relationship that He gets the glory due to Him and we get the joy we so desperately seek. Amen.