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.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful
and treasured passages
in all of our Holy Scriptures.
And yet, when we encounter it in worship,
because it is so beloved
and therefore so familiar,
we run the risk of glossing over it,
having it become mindless
or even stale.
Once in a while,
it can be helpful to look at it with fresh eyes.
But how does one do this?
One way is to turn to the artists
who have been inspired by this psalm.
Those 6 verses have captured the imaginations
of poets and painters,
composers and choreographers,
and generations upon generations
of faithful worshipers of God.
The poets love it for its elegant language—
those powerful phrases
that get etched in one’s vocabulary.
“the valley of the shadow of death”
and “my cup runneth over”
From traditional poets
like George Herbert,
to more modern interpretations,
such as that of Japanese poet Toki Miyashiro.
This version is called
the 23rd Psalm for Busy People, and it begins:
“The Lord is my Pace-setter, I shall not rush.”
Or William Gaultiere’s adaptation
for people in 12 Step Groups,describing
the journey of recovery from addiction:
The Lord alone is the Shepherd I need
For without him I can’t manage my life.
In his greener pasture my soul does feed;
In him I trust and lay down without strife.
I drink from the still waters of his love
Then I look close to see me as he can.
When I fall I call for help from above
And he restores me to my feet again.
He guides me to the path that’s right for me;
To all the other paths I must say “no.”
Though the path goes through a long dark valley
I won’t fear since he’s there to help me grow.
And so on.
Then there are the composers.
They love the psalm for its gentle cadence.
From Isaac Watts,
who lived around the turn of the 18th century
to more contemporary composers
of prominent choral music,
like John Rutter and Howard Goodall,
everyone and their mother
has set this psalm to music.
Speaking of mothers,
We can’t forget Bobby McFerrin’s
take on this psalm.
He’s more than just “Don’t worry, be happy.”
He dedicated his gorgeous version
of Psalm 23 to his mother,
who showed him through her words and actions
what it means to be Christ-like:
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.”
And so on.
And of course, there are the visual artists.
They love this psalm
because of its rich imagery.
My favorite artistic rendering of Psalm 23
is by a Swedish/Mexican artist in California
named John August Swanson.
He uses silk screens to layer ink and paint
onto cotton rag canvases,
resulting in the most vivid color
you have ever seen—
a bright blue night sky
dotted with hundreds of red and yellow stars
above a basin of deep green trees
and various members of the animal kingdom.
Two barefoot travelers walk.
One carries a shepherd’s crook.
I won’t describe it further for you,
because my description will never do it justice.
But if you’re curious,
Just e-mail me and I’ll send you
a link where you can see it online.
Its beauty will take your breath away.
Someday I hope to see it in person.
Now, having the elegant language of a poem,
And the gentle cadence of a song,
And the rich imagery of a painting,
Would certainly be enough
to make a psalm endure like this one has.
But there’s more to it, isn’t there?
Why do we cherish it so?
As anyone who has ever been
to a Christian funeral will tell you,
this psalm does more than simply provide
pleasure for our ears and our eyes.
This psalm provides courage for our hearts
and consolation for our spirits.
As one writer put it,
“The simple expression of these words
has brought more calm to troubled hearts,
more comfort to sorrowing people,
more courage to distressed souls
than all the medication
in our nation’s pharmacies.”
That is, as long as we don’t let the words
become stale and lose their meaning.
Another approach to finding fresh meaning
in an old familiar psalm
is to read it in a different translation of the Bible.
Now, I love the King James Version
as much as anyone else.
That splendid language
is written upon my heart
and that’s the version I want
at my funeral someday.
But there is real value in pulling
another translation off the shelf once in a while,
to hear the psalm anew.
Lately I’ve been enjoying the
Common English Bible, which reads:
The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—they protect me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
Did you find it helpful,
or at least interesting,
to hear a less familiar version of the psalm?
I certainly did.
While not as opulent,
The simpler language of the Common English Bible
highlights the ordinary, everyday themes of the psalm:
food, water, companionship.
God our shepherd
provides us with grassy meadows
in which to graze for nourishment,
and restful waters
in which to bathe and quench our thirst.
God our shepherd does NOT promise
that we’ll never encounter a dark valley,
but does promise
that we’ll never encounter those valleys alone.
We need not fear abandonment
while we’re in said valleys.
Food, water, companionship:
simple, everyday stuff.
Now, I noticed something else in this translation
that I had never noticed before.
There is a subtle shift in verse 4.
The first three verses refer to God
in the 3rd person:
He leads me,
He keeps me,
He guides me, etc.
Then, in verse 4, the psalm moves
from 3rd person to 2nd person.
All of the sudden,
we go from talking about God
to talking directly to God:
You are with me,
You protect me,
You set me a table in front of my enemies.
It is a natural trajectory.
First, we acknowledge God
as the source of our life.
and our guide through life’s messiest situations.
Once God has been acknowledged
as our shepherd
and the source of our comfort,
How could we not then
address God directly through prayer?
Finally, in the very last verse,
the psalm shifts again,
this time to first person:
I will live in the Lord’s house.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Here the prayer becomes personal, intimate.
Not only is God the provider
of our food and water and company.
God is the provider of our shelter.
where we will dwell eternally.
God is our very home.
For me, that home is none other
than the man we heard quoted
in the 10th Chapter of John’s Gospel today.
He is the Home described in this Psalm,
and the recipient of our prayers.
Yes, the 23rd Psalm was written long before
Jesus of Nazareth became incarnate
and walked among us,
but listen to how he described himself:
“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
I know my own and my own know me.”
He has always been
the Good Shepherd of my life.
He is the one who journeys with me
through the darkest,
most painful places of life.
And he is the one who prepares for me
a lavish banquet in the presence of my enemies.
These enemies are not any particular person,
but rather, my own sin and selfishness.
In the presence of those enemies,
he sets the table
and feeds me abundantly.
The table is that one there (the altar),
and countless others like it across the world.
And the feast is his own body,
shared out of love for me and you,
I think this is why this particular psalm
is so popular at funerals.
Not because it is a psalm about dying,
But rather because it is a psalm
about living in the midst of death.
Life and death are so inextricably linked.
From the moment we are born,
we start dying.
And in those rare moments
when we truly understand our own mortality,
we start really living, fully and abundantly.
So yes, this is a psalm about living,
And about being loved.
Loved by the only person
to ever defeat death,
For as the psalm says,
we will dwell in God,
our Good Shepherd,