A Study of the Twenty-Third Psalm (Part 1)

Almost every Sunday we recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, saying it by memory or rote and often not really thinking about what we are saying. I thought it might be a good idea for us to think about what we were actually saying, so for the next three weeks we are going to look at the history and meaning of the psalm and the importance when we recite this famous and beloved biblical passage together.

A psalm is defined as ‘a sacred song, hymn, or poem of praise’. The collection of psalms a sacred song or hymn are often referred to as ‘The Psalter’ in some Bibles.

The Twenty-Third Psalm is probably the most know scripture in holy books. It has be modified to address all kind of special needs; there is a

    “The Lord is my programmer, I shall not crash” for computer users;

    “The pro is my shepherd; I shall not slice” for golfers;

    And there is even a Psalm of ‘Plenty Me’ by a person who thinks he can take care of himself, saying “I am my own shepherd, thank you! If I’m in need or want, then it’s down to me”.

But for us, we know the psalm as a statement of confidence in God’s grace and love for us. Who wrote the Twenty-Third Psalm? We know that those who assembled the Bible believed that this psalm was written by David – of David and Goliath fame and the first king of Israel, and the first king to lead the Israelites to power and glory in the eighth century BCE. Along with Abraham and Moses, David is the source of much of what we know about the civilization and religion that most influenced Jesus. This is supported by the fact that the first line of the psalm (which we usually do not say) is: “A Psalm of David”.

When was it written? Some think that David wrote Psalm 23 while he was a shepherd guarding his father’s flocks out on the Judean Hills. Some think he wrote it while in exile, when King Saul was hunting him down to murder him. Others think it was written while his son, Absalom, was trying to take over his throne. Still others say David wrote it as an older, wiser king looking back over his life and recalling God’s goodness and protection. No one knows for sure. No matter when he wrote the psalm, he had been greatly influenced by his life experiences.

What is clear is that David wanted people to understand that the Lord is always with us. And when we have troubles God will see us through moments of turmoil and tests in life.

It is interesting to note that both the Christian and Jewish faiths share the Twenty-Third Psalm, each using it frequently in praise and as a prayer.

Today, we will look at the first two verses of the Twenty-Third Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Psalm 23:1-2)

“The Lord Is My Shepherd”
There are many references in the Bible about shepherds and the care they take of their sheep. You might remember the Parable Of The Lost Sheep found in Luke 15:3-7, in which the shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep safe to find and rescue the one lost sheep.

In John 10:11, we hear Jesus say:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10:27 we hear Jesus say:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me

Psalm 100:3 reminds us:

Know that the LORD is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s ;we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Sheep, in reality, are some of the dumbest of animals – they follow blindly the sheep in front of them, and can be lead astray and must constantly be watched and herded toward safety. We humans are not much different – there are far too many temptations that easily draw us away from the right path. . . we too need a shepherd to grab us around the neck and pull us back to safety.

A shepherd can’t afford to lead his flocks into dead end canyons or into an area with no water. He can’t take them into grassless fields or treacherous lands where they will be trapped. He can’t backtrack with them, or get lost, or wander in circles. He has to know where he is going, and he has to know the route. He has to go before the flock, check out the area, and lead them in the right paths.

Jesus wants us to know who he is: the Good Shepherd who protects and cares for the people of God just as a shepherd does his sheep.

“I Shall Not Want”
If the Lord is our shepherd, then we know that if we follow the teachings of Jesus, we will be safe. He will provide for our needs. When the Israelites were running from Egypt, God not only parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22) but provided manna in the morning and meat in the evening (Exodus 16:8) for them to eat on their journey.
In Luke 12, we are reminded that neither the lilies of the field of the birds of the air (Luke 12:22-32) worry about what they will have to eat or to wear, but have been told,

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32)

Again we hear that we are sheep and the Lord will take care of us.

“He Maketh Me To Lie Down In Green Pastures: He Leadeth Me Beside The Still Waters”
I get a weekly email called ‘Kids Talk About God’ and one was about the second line of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Some of their thoughts about this verse really explain a lot:

T.J., age 6 said:

    “If we follow the Lord beside still waters, “we won’t fall into rushing waters”.
    Did you know that sheep have died of thirst standing beside rushing waters? They won’t drink unless the water is calm.

Colton, age 9 said:

    “By following God, we will find our green pastures,”. “Only God knows what our still waters are. We must obey God to find these places.”

Marcus, age 8 said:

    “I think it means to take some time off and talk to God,” says “God loves us, and we drink from him because he is the still water.”

Haleigh, age 9 believes

    “He leads me beside still waters could mean he brings peace if you put your trust in him,”

These young kids certainly have a deep understanding of what it means to be sheep that God leads. And that God and Jesus are our shepherd. Out of the mouth of babes come the real truths of faith and belief.

There have been times in our lives when the path before us seemed perplexing and we didn’t know how to proceed or where to go? In those times, we need to remember:

    The Lord is our shepherd
    And he will take care of us.

Here is a poem by Anne Steele entitled The Heavenly Shepherd which should be our prayer:

“While my Redeemer’s near,
My Shepherd and my Guide,
I bid farewell to anxious fear,
My wants are all supplied.

To ever-fragrant meads,
Where rich abundance grows,
His gracious hand indulgent leads,
And guards my sweet repose.

Along the lovely scene,
Cool waters gently roll,
And kind refreshment smiles serene,
To cheer my fainting soul.
Here let my spirit rest;
How sweet a lot is mine!

With pleasure, food, and safety blest;
Beneficence divine!
Dear Shepherd, if I stray,
My wandering feet restore,
To Thy fair pastures guide my way,
And let me rove no more.

Unworthy, as I am,
Of Thy protecting care,
Jesus, I plead Thy gracious name
For all my hopes are these.”(Anne Steele)

Amen.
 
 
Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH 17 Feb 2014

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