He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will 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 beloved and well known entries in the Psalter. Though many individual verses have become a part of our praise music vocabulary, many people know this psalm by heart in its entirety. There is an appealing promise in these verses that is painted with vibrant and pleasing verbiage that brings an image of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) cradling and protecting his lambs. He alone will look out for our every need (though not necessarily our every desire.)
In an age of image we have stored in our minds a catalog of green pastures and quiet waters so these words immediately paint with swathes of verdant, lush tropical greens or the deep emerald of a grassy countryside. Quiet waters soothe with their deep blues turning to black as the depth increases and pops and gurgles silence us as we strain to catch the song of the water as it moves by. We miss out on the depth of this verse unless we meditate on unforgiving landscape in which the psalmist sees the work of the shepherd.
The desert of the Middle East is far from the viridescence that our mind shows us as the words are processed in our minds. A dry, khaki, hardened land required extraordinary efforts from the shepherd. Food for the sheep might require movement, the search for water a knowledge of the terrain and the ability to bargain with those who guarded its source. The ewe and ram on their own may stand little chance of survival; dependence on the shepherd is not optional.
Suddenly, the imagery changes to one who walks in the shadow of death. The deep and arid Wadi Qelt might be bright at midday but every other hour of the day fills it with ponderous shadows that might hide evil around each bend or rock. Walking alone in this valley, the walls rising high above, the only escape route would be forward or backward and yet the psalmist voices no fear as the Lord walks alongside him.
Verses 4 and 5 form the core for us in our modern day as they did for Yahweh’s people. Our valley of shadows might be more urban but it holds the same dangers and fears. We will not fear these things though as our Shepherd walks beside us and comforts us. In verse five are presented with the image of the table and the cup, overflowing with good and yet, look carefully at the placement of this table. It is in the midst of our enemies. It is not removed from, guarded from, above, below, or in any way away from our enemies. We will sit with the Shepherd in the presence of our enemies.
You see the Psalmist does not envision an escape from the travails of this world to an eventual dwelling with the Lord in his temple. It is not a psalm of escape. Instead, it is an expression of supreme confidence in the Lord and the knowledge of His intimate presence even as we face trouble and danger in this world. All is for the greater glory of God. Though our pain might be temporary, in the economy of the Good Shepherd it is necessary in the greater picture of His-story. We are blessed in playing our role.
The promise of the 23rd psalm is simple: by following the Good Shepherd we will walk in goodness and love throughout all of our days. It does not mean we will escape the trials and troubles of this world but following the Shepherd will always lead us to better days. No wonder it remains a favorite.