Reflection on Psalm 23

This reflection on the Psalm set for Sunday 3rd May has been shared by Local Preacher – John Rainbow.

Psalm 23

I am of the generation whose school religious instruction consisted of drawing maps of Paul’s missionary journeys and committing chunks of the Authorised Version bible to memory. So when I come to Psalm 23 I still think of the valley of the shadow of death and the paths of righteousness, even though newer translations put things differently. For me, and many others, this Psalm has been a comfort and an inspiration. And, of course, it is often read at funerals, where trust in God is all that’s left.

No doubt there are problems with the imagery of this Psalm for us. 21st century shepherds use quad-bikes to herd their flocks, and, rather than guide them on right paths with a staff, lorries are used. And we remember that the rulers of Israel thought of themselves as shepherds. “The Lord is my shepherd” is saying that, however much of a mess those running Israel are making, God is the real ruler. The picture might have less power for us – difficult to imagine being part of Boris’ flock! Wesley wrote ”Thou Shepherd of Israel and mine” – but the compilers of the red book denied us the chance of a great sing. Again, I guess the shepherd image is not one for our time. 

But there is still much in this psalm that speaks to us, even though the context might be unfamiliar. For instance, what the sheep meet. I imagine that being a Palestinian shepherd means finding a bit of pasture and then, when that’s all eaten, off to find some more somewhere else. So the sheep can be happy when they are led to food. And then they must be led off, trusting that the shepherd will find them somewhere to eat.

And on the way, perhaps they have to go on a difficult path. Maybe, it’s even dangerous – they might fall – they might meet a hungry lion. They will not always be able to enjoy green pastures or still waters – sometimes they find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death.

I think that reminds us of our own life experience. We have times when we feel our souls restored and when we have everything we need. And times when those still waters have become a raging torrent sweeping us away into a dark place. Today, we remember all those affected by coronavirus, but also all those who face hardship or financial ruin because of the national lockdown.

It is hard to find the right words for someone who is in a dark place. It seems so trite and uncaring to assure them that they are on their way to a green pasture. Yet sometimes we need to know that we are not abandoned. The sheep goes into the dark, and is full of fear. It doesn’t know where it is, nor where it’s going. And nothing can be done about that – it’s in the valley, which won’t go away.

And yet it goes on – because it is guided by the shepherd, who knows the right path. The shepherd can’t make the horrid valley go away. But he can bring the sheep through. For some this lockdown is an inconvenience – for some it is a tragedy. But this Psalm reminds us that, wherever we are, whatever we are experiencing, we don’t do it in our own strength. God is with us.

So – whether we are filled with thankfulness for the good things we enjoy, or reaching out in terror for comfort, we trust that God is with us. Our shepherd, showing us the path, and walking it with us.

Then, having looked at the travels of the flock, suddenly the picture changes. No longer grass, but a banquet is evoked. I love “Shaun the Sheep”. Anyone who hasn’t seen it ought to head straight to iPlayer. I can easily imagine Shaun and his friends sitting down to dinner, napkins round their necks. But we’re not in the world of Aardman animation here.

There are certain conventions that writers of Psalms seem to follow. One is that they are beset on every side by enemies. It’s a convenient theme to hang their poems. I certainly don’t feel that there are people plotting my downfall – wanting to annoy me, upset me, frustrate me certainly, but not really my enemy.  But now – enter the enemies!

I’ve always been a bit troubled about the way the psalmist treats his enemies. He’s there at a banquet, where there’s so much on offer that the cups can’t hold the drink. And he’s rubbing his enemies’ noses in it! “You look on in envy” he seems to be saying. Somehow you feel it would be nicer if he would want to let bygones be bygones, and invite them to his feast, rather than gorging himself while they look on enviously. 

But under all the poetic imagery there is a deeper message. Why are those who have the Lord as their shepherd having a better time than those who haven’t? In older times, of course, people had the answer. Enemies were destined for the fires of hell, eternally lamenting their fate.

There is another way to look at people’s destinies. If you believe, as I do, that we inhabit a world where things run according to God’s purposes, then it will follow that you can choose either to go along with that, or to fight against it. I think of that lovely passage in Matthew where Jesus invites us to take on put on his easy yoke and take up his light burden. Is he perhaps inviting us to go with grain of God’s life?

We do know people who set out to go against the way things are set up. Perhaps they prioritise their desires, and continue unsatisfied. Perhaps it’s their greed – and they’ll never have enough. Perhaps they look for pleasure – and remain unhappy. And against that, we meet people who labour under the most dreadful deprivations and hardship, yet who have peace and contentment.

Of course, we know that sometimes we’re at the banquet, and sometimes we’re there looking on. Sometimes we are willing to be led in right paths, to enjoy the good things that follow when we go with the way our shepherd wants. And sometimes we choose another path. That might seem to satisfy briefly – but the danger is that we will shut ourselves off from the good things of life that God offers and we are left, unsatisfied, on the outside looking in.

So the psalm speaks of how our journey on the rollercoaster of life, and how we can enjoy – or not – a life with God. Then the psalm looks forward – “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” Anyone who’s ever tried to use a commentary on the bible knows that it talks in mind-numbing detail about everything except the verse you’re interested in. 

So we’re on our own for verse 6. What is it saying? I can’t imagine that too many people have the ambition to live in Hucclecote Methodist Church all their lives – certainly not until we fix the heating. Perhaps we misunderstand the word “house”. In the bible, it quite often refers to bricks and mortar. But sometimes it’s more abstract. In Exodus, God reminds the Israelites that they were delivered from “the house of bondage” – so slavery. In Genesis, Jacob declares that the place where he’s seen his vision is “the house of God” – so, the place where God showed himself.

So maybe verse 6 is actually a summary of the whole psalm. Whether we are enjoying the good things of life, or being crushed by it, we are in “The house of God”. Whether we are living in concord with God’s will, or unhappily rebelling against it, we are in the presence of God. Just as the shepherd is always there, keeping care of his sheep – even though they might not care, either being preoccupied with eating and drinking, or escaping the terrors of the dark – so we can trust that God is always there with us. 

And this “house of God” has an eternal dimension. Some translators have this dwelling being for our life – but I prefer the Authorised Version. Here, the psalmist will be in the house of God for ever. It is an echo of Paul’s confident assertion that not even death can separate us from the love of God. It says that we will be shepherded through all our journeys, even the one that takes out of this life. The psalm ends on a real crescendo of hope.

Just like the sheep, our journey through life is a mixture of different experiences, good and bad. Just like at that divine banquet, sometimes we’re enjoying God’s blessings, and sometimes we’re turning our back on that. But God is always with us. We’re in the house of God now, and shall be always.    

John Rainbow 30th April 2020

Published by andrewpbiggs

Methodist minister currently serving the Gloucestershire Circuit. Married to Julie. Enjoy reading and playing the guitar badly.

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