Apart from the most quoted verse of Scripture, that of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may have eternal life” I think the 23rd Psalm is the most famous. Some have called the 23rd Psalm the Mona Lisa of Scripture; at some point in our lives, we have all heard this passage. But what does it have to say to us today?
This is a Psalm about someone under a great deal of stress, but we are uncertain of what that stress might be. In response to this stress, the Psalmist is reminding us of who the Lord is, what the Lord does, and who we are.
What pressure, what stress does the Psalmist face here? We are not sure, but we are given a few clues as to what might be going on in his life. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Maybe there is the pressure of lacking for something – enough to eat, plenty to drink, enough safety or shelter, enough money to pay for what is necessary.
The Psalmist also writes, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley…” The wording is ambiguous here and may refer to deep distress, extreme danger, or even the world of the dead. There is no clear meaning, but there is a clear inference – the pressure of difficulty and uncertainty that has the potential of turning deadly.
In the end, the Psalmist writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The word enemy here carries with it a sense of someone who is a foe, someone who may be harassing. So, the Psalmist is facing stress from several sources.
Stress from several sources is what we are all facing in this present situation. There is the stress of those on the front lines working with patients. There is the stress felt by their families and friends. The stress on patients and their families. The stress on the regular folks worried about jobs, food, shelter, and their won health. We are probably under the most stress we have even been under as a society. Stress is everywhere, wielding its insidious power. Many of us are drowning in stress.
In the heat of all of this, the Psalmist comes along and offers a cool, refreshing peace that is found in knowing and celebrating who God is and who we are. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.
In our culture that preaches individualism and the idea that we are self-made, the Psalmist comes along to proclaim the truth that we are not self-made, nor are we individuals. We are God made by a God who loves us, and what the Psalmist is trying to make us understand is that we are dependent upon God, as sheep are dependent upon the shepherd. Sure, we work, we study, we plan, but it is God who ultimately meets our needs, spiritually. God is the one who makes us rest. God is the one who slows us down. And God is the one who restores our very being.
The Psalmist continues, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” We learned from the Holy Week story that God is a vulnerable God, God is a crucified God, but God is also a powerful protector. Yes, God suffers with us in our pain and our sorrow and our loss, but God is also walking with us and will protect us as a shepherd protects their flock. So great is this power that the Psalmist boldly proclaims, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” We are invited to imagine entering a room filled with our enemies. God says to us, “Right this way, I have a place for you.” So, we take our seat and eat the feast that God has prepared for us. But if that is not enough, God anoints our heads with oil and fills our cup to overflowing.
The Psalm ends with, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” The literal translation of this is that goodness and mercy will dog us, will hound us all our lives. Imagine that every moment of every day, God is in pursuit of us because God loves us and cares for us.
What kind of God is this? We use the image of the shepherd caring for their sheep and leaving the 99 to go in search of the one. Now, this might sound crazy, leaving the 99 behind to go off and find the one, and you are right it is unless you are the one. I hope you feel that God is present with us, suffering along with us and in some way, bringing us peace.
I am often asked where God is in the midst of things like what we are going through, and my response is, right here with us, walking with us and yes, sometimes carrying us. God loves us and cares for us and will never abandon us. God leads us beside the still waters and will refresh our souls.