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“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads 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 mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Psalm 23 is the most familiar of all the psalms, and like an old friend, many of us have known it since childhood. This is the psalm that we want to hear when we are facing our own mortality, or lying in a hospital bed, or overwhelmed by disaster, or stricken with grief, or standing at the grave of a loved one.
We depend on it because of what the words give us—strength to go forward by propping up our sagging faith. They remind us that the path we are walking is certain, even though that path is without visible road signs. It is certain because it is not our path. It is our Good Shepherd’s path along which we are being led.
A good shepherd guides his sheep, feeds His sheep, and gives them rest. Our Good Shepherd guides us in the paths of righteousness, which lead to eternal life. He nourishes and refreshes our bodies with wholesome food and refreshing drink, but the green pastures and quiet waters in this passage are better understood as the truths of the Gospel that give spiritual life and peace to our souls. God provides abundantly through His means of grace. “The Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided so that it continually increases and progresses.”[i] The Good Shepherd gives us rest when He delivers us from the burden of sin and from futile efforts to save ourselves by our own works. His Word revives our souls whenever the assurance of forgiveness brings peace and joy to our hearts.
A good shepherd also protects his sheep and keeps them alive by his care. He chases away the wild animals and rustlers. Our Good Shepherd brings His sheep along the safe paths to their proper destination, including through the “valley of the shadow of death,” a reference to every kind of protection God gives us, but referring especially to deliverance from Satan, sin, and eternal death.
Contrast David’s view of life and death under the care of the Good Shepherd with William Ernest Henley’s description of reality in his poem “Invictus.”
Neither David nor Henley believe that we are ultimately controlled by chance or circumstance. But their consolation in the face of what feels like slavery to these two masters run in different directions. Against the “clutch of circumstance” and “the bludgeonings of chance” Henley counsels defiance: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” These lines assume that we have some control over our destiny until the very end of our lives and even beyond. But David, rather than asserting his own control, believes that consolation is found by giving up control and submitting to the leading of Another who has our best interests at heart. This Good Shepherd promises that all will be well with us. He gives us everything we need.[ii]
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade. And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
Our hymns provide similar counsel. Comfort is found in giving up control and in simple trust. For example, this one:
Lord, take my hand and lead me Upon life’s way; Direct, protect, and feed me From day to day. Without Your grace and favor I go astray; So take my hand, O Savior, And lead the way. LSB 722:1
The specter of death as the looming evil in our lives hangs over all three poems as surely as it does over our lives. What hope, what consolation do we have against, in Henley’s words, “the Horror of the shade”? Henley can offer only words that sound increasingly hollow the closer the enemy of death approaches. Against the menace of the years, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” offers as little comfort as the heroic “I am going to beat this disease” offers to a person with terminal cancer.[iii]
Christian Wiman writes about a famous novelist who praised his father for enduring a long, difficult dying without ever seeking relief in religion. Wiman observes:
It is clear from the son’s description that the father was in absolute despair, and that as those cold waters closed over him he could find nothing to hold on to but his pride, and drowned clutching that nothing. This is to be admired? … How astonishing it is, the fierceness with which we cling to beliefs that made us miserable, or beliefs that proved to be so obviously inadequate when extreme suffering—or great joy—comes.[iv]
But the psalmist speaks about the darkest shadow we must experience in an entirely different way: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). The clause “even though I walk” already undercuts the threat of death without denying its reality. It hints at hope against the greatest fear. “Even though” raises my expectations that beyond the horror of death lies a firmer truth. It suggests that a way out is ahead.
I do not have to wait long. Death is only a temporary and momentary danger in the psalm—acknowledged in verse 4 but not dwelt upon. The words “I fear no evil” are as confident as Henley’s are defiant. And I am eager to have that same confidence and to hear the reason for it: “For You are with me.”
At this point the psalmist switches from third to second person. “You are with me. Your rod and Your staff…” (Psalm 23:4) and he maintains it through Psalm 23:5. The switch from “He” to “You” adds a sense of intimacy. To talk to someone instead of about him is to assume that he is near and can hear and respond. “Talking to” creates a closeness that “talking about” does not.
In Psalm 23:5, the psalmist comes through a dark valley and on the other side to a banquet hall. If the Good Shepherd is leading us down paths He alone knows, and if He is with us as we go through the darkest valley, is this the place to which the Good Shepherd is leading us? Is this what is in store?
The relationship between Psalm 23:5-6 and 23:1-4 is ambiguous. Psalm 23:1-4 can be a description of our present experience but also a promise of the age to come, and Psalm 23:5-6 can be a promise of the age to come but also a description of the here and now. Jesus is a Good Shepherd for both this life and eternity. Both are true. When we hold the two possibilities together in our interpretation, we began to see the many relations between them, and as a result, we get a deeper insight into the riches of the mystery that is God’s salvation.
The clause “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies” is also capable to two meanings. It is usually interpreted as “you arrange a table before my enemies, who must watch in envy.” But Scripture holds out another possibility: “you arrange a table before me and also—surprise—before my (former) enemies, who share the feast with me.” The Bible speaks about God’s Kingdom in both ways. In other words, the (impenitent) enemies will be punished, and also the (converted) enemies will share in the Kingdom.
But there is a change in our status as well. In Psalm 23:1-4, we were sheep under the Good Shepherd. Here, in verse 5, we are guests at a banquet arranged by God the King, who is now the host. This is an easy transition because ancient Near Eastern kings were often called the shepherds of their people. A king invited his most honored associates to live in his palace. Such a king spread out rich banquet tables at which the members of his court could feast.[v]
But more than that, “You anoint my head with oil” speaks of the treatment that priests and kings received. Aaron and his sons were anointed with oil as they were set apart for their office as priest (Exodus 28:41 ff). Saul (1 Samuel 10:1), David (1 Samuel 16:12-13), and Solomon (1 Kings 1:39) were all anointed as kings. The tables have been turned for us. Our status as “sheep” has fallen away, and we are now priestly royalty (1 Peter 2:9) whom the Lord Himself anoints.
Following such an extravagant hope, the concluding verse brings us back to the present: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). The personification, the humanizing of the abstract “goodness” and “mercy” gives us yet another dramatic way to think about the Lord; He is goodness and mercy in the flesh, much like He is “love” in the flesh. By humanizing the abstractions “goodness” and “mercy,” they become less disconnected and more knowable to us. They become part of our world—something we experience up close rather than concepts we reflect on or think about.
The final line of the psalm is a fitting climax: “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6). Many scholars see no reference beyond the material world and translate accordingly, “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long,” a reference only to the earthly sanctuary and limited hope. But the rest of the psalm has raised the hope that the Lord’s reach extends through the valley of the shadow of death and to the other side, not only up to it.
Who is stronger, God or death? The voice in Psalm 23 would answer one way, the author of “Invictus” another. Is death finally the victor? If the Good Shepherd is with us in death, if, as the prophets say, He arranges a table for us in the new age, if He anoints us to be priests and kings, if His goodness and mercy pursue us throughout life, surely His reach does not end at the grave. Surely, we will dwell in His presence forever.
If it is read this way, “the house of the Lord” refers at once to both the earthly sanctuary and also to the heavenly, both of which are places where God’s people celebrate their fellowship with Him. The Lord is present in both places, and true salvation is found finally in eternal fellowship that is already anticipated in the earthly sanctuary.
Much of Scripture passes in and out of our memory, but there are a few texts that stay with us, always at hand to provide warmth when hearts grow cold. Psalm 23 is one of the texts. People want to hear it at the funeral of their loved one so that they can warm themselves against a cold reality. This is the psalm that friends share with each other when they are afraid, not only because they may not know what else to say but also because this is the best anyone can say.[vi]
Why does Psalm 23 have such a hold on us? Why has it been at the center of the prayer life of Christians through the ages? I think it is because in it we see the heart of our Lord most clearly. In it we see His love most truly. When we recite the psalm as our confession, we acknowledge that the story of God and David is the story of Christ and us. We are the sheep. We are His Israel. Behind Psalm 23 is the story of the Lord, the faithful Shepherd, who led His people out of the land of death and miraculously sustained them in the desert and brought them to the promised land flowing with milk and honey. This faithful Shepherd chose David the shepherd boy to become the shepherd of His people and to bear His promise. And when the flock seemed forever scattered, this faithful Shepherd promised to through the prophet Ezekiel to gather them again:[vii]
For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out His flock when He is among His sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness (Ezekiel 34:11–12).
This story rich in promise and hope reaches its climax in the New Testament, where we hear that Jesus has compassion on the crowds because they are like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34), and where He comforts His disciples by saying: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Jesus is the one who tells the parable of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7) and who says of Himself: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28).
Psalm 23 brings Christ to you in all His tenderness and compassion. He guides you safely, even through death’s dark valley. He serves you His Supper, offering you the gift of forgiveness here and now. And His Supper is just a foretaste of the feast He will serve you at the end of time, where you will sit at the head table (Psalm 23:5). Jesus anoints you with His Spirit (like priests and kings) and fills your cup to overflowing with His grace and mercy. Jesus gives you a permanent dwelling with Him in His eternal Kingdom.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd for this life and eternity. Go in His peace and strength. Serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 433–434.
[ii] Timothy Saleska Psalm 1-50: Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House), 414.
[iii] Timothy Saleska Psalm 1-50: Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture (Saint Louis, MO; Concordia Publishing House), 414.
[iv] Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giraux, 2013, 7-8.
[v] John F. Brug Psalms 1: People’s Bible Commentary (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 114.
[vi] Timothy Saleska Psalm 1-50: Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 418.
[vii] Timothy Saleska Psalm 1-50: Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 418.