The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1).
Once again the nation is reeling, staggering from a blindside hit. We’re nauseous and concussed from the repeated violent blows that have come hard and far too frequently.
For many people Psalm 23 is associated with death and its accompanying darkness. People who hardly ever step foot in a church have some familiarity with Psalm 23 – but the depth of their familiarity often corresponds to the number of funerals and memorial services they’ve attended. That’s about the only place where many people hear these words.
The Confrontation that Brings Comfort
The 23rd Psalm is to the graveside what First Corinthians 13 is to weddings. When a couple stands at the wedding altar we expect to hear about how love is patient and kind and doesn’t envy or keep a record of wrongs. People getting married (and those attending the wedding) need to hear that kind of thing.
And as death draws near, and once it has arrived, we expect to hear that “The Lord is my shepherd.” We need to be reminded that even though we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death we have nothing to fear. The words of Psalm 23 are a familiar friend in such moments.
If comfort is what we seek from Psalm 23 we will not be disappointed. There’s no shortage of comfort to be found in the trusty 23rd. But before we can bask in the comfort we’re faced with a confrontation. The guidance and courage and overflowing cup of Psalm 23 will not be ours until we can get past that well known first line.
“The Lord is my shepherd” sounds comforting at first – but it is an affront, an all-out assault on our self-sufficiency. And if there’s one thing we seem to cherish as a people, it’s our self-sufficiency. “The Lord is my shepherd” is an implicit declaration of dependence. This is hard for us. The comfort of the Psalm remains elusive until we come to terms with the fact that we truly need a shepherd. All of the shepherding tasks that God does are ours as we admit that we cannot secure or accomplish those things for ourselves.
Needed: A Shepherd
In the mid-1500s John Calvin commented on Psalm 23 with these words:
It should be observed that God is a shepherd only to those who, touched with a sense of their own weakness and poverty, feel their need of his protection, and who willingly abide in his sheepfold, and surrender themselves to be governed by him. David, who excelled in both power and riches, nevertheless frankly confessed himself to be a poor sheep, that he might have God for his shepherd. Who is there then amongst us who would exempt himself from this necessity ? (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 4, page 392).
Roughly 300 years later the British preacher Charles Spurgeon echoed Calvin in one of his sermons when he stated that “No man can say . . . ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ until he has given up every idle notion that he can control himself, or manage his own interests.”
And in a much more contemporary voice, Max Lucado paraphrased Psalm 23 for those who simply will not admit their need of a shepherd.
I am my own shepherd; I am always in need
I stumble from mall to mall and shrink to shrink, seeking relief but never finding it.
I creep through the valley of the shadow of death and fall apart.
I fear everything from pesticides to power lines and I’m starting to act like my mother.
I go down to the weekly staff meeting and am surrounded by enemies. I go home and even my goldfish scowls at me.
I anoint my head with extra strength Tylenol.
My Jack Daniels runneth over
Surely misery and misfortune will follow me, and I will live in self-doubt for the rest of my lonely life. (From Max Lucado, Traveling Light, p.25-26 )
There’s plenty of comfort in Psalm 23 for those who know they need a shepherd. Until we know we need a shepherd, the opening line of the Psalm is just something nice we read at the time of death in the hope that it will make us feel better.
Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” won’t do much for us unless we know we need a shepherd . . . and until we know the shepherd we need. Jesus, the source of all comfort.
Gracious God, you confront us with these familiar words. May they be true for us – the source of deep comfort because we know that you will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Confront us with your shepherding love and teach us to trust you above ourselves or anything we have done or anything we own. Be our shepherd in these dark days, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.