“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Do you ever wonder why this passage is so comforting to so many? “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack, I shall not be lacking in anything I need.” That’s what the Hebrew implies.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not die of hunger because I don’t have anything to eat. I shall not die of thirst because I have no water to drink. I shall not die of some disease because the water I have is contaminated. My lungs shall not be wrecked from the inside because I do not have clean air to breathe. I shall not die of loneliness because there is no one to care for me.
Is that why the passage is so comforting? It’s strange because, for the most part, we have enough to eat. If you don’t, if you are starving, please, we need to work on that so that we all have enough. For the most part, we have reasonably clean water. If we don’t have enough to drink, or if our water isn’t clean, we definitely need to work on that. By and large, we have reasonably clean air. If we don’t we need to work for everyone to have good air. Overall and in general, we each have someone, at least one person who cares about us.
So why is this such a big deal? “I shall not want?”
It’s strange. In our society, we are told to want things all the time. Literally thousands of times a day we are bombarded with messages that invite us to want this or that. They seek to entice us, seduce us into wanting that shiny new car. We absolutely have to have that candy bar that looks like it holds the taste of heaven inside it. We need that new video game because all of our friends are playing it and it looks like the most exciting thing ever to exist on the whole earth. We want. We have to have so many things. We deserve to have so much. We have got a right to have!
And yet, Psalm 23 says, I don’t even want. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
Maybe it suggests that the Lord is my shepherd, and that shiny new car or candy bar, they are not our shepherds. The Lord is my shepherd. I don’t need quite so much. The Lord is my shepherd. Therefore, I am free.
Notice, the 23rd Psalm takes us on a bit of a journey. God makes us lie down in green pastures but does not leave us there. God leads us beside still waters. God restores our souls so that we can keep going. God leads us in paths of righteousness, leads us to act with integrity and compassion and honor in the world and with love and commitment and faith in our families. This, not so that we will be “good enough” in some way, either to get into heaven or to belong on earth. No. God leads in paths of righteousness for God’s name sake, because that is just the way God is. God pushes us to become better people because that’s the way God is.
Now, overall and in general, we have found that walking in paths of righteousness, obeying the Ten Commandments and so on, will, in the long run, lead to a better life than if we do otherwise.
So, I wonder where these paths of righteousness that God leads us on now will end up. Let’s look. “God leads me in paths of righteousness...Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Wait a minute. That’s not where I’m supposed to go if God is leading me in paths of righteousness. Nevertheless, even when we are walking in paths of righteousness, we sometimes end up in the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, sometimes we end up in the valley of the shadow of death precisely because we were walking in paths of righteousness, precisely because we did the right thing.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” That’s the other thing we are told to do again and again. Not just want, but fear. We are told again and again, all the time, to be afraid.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
There is only one thing that we actually need. One thing in the universe what we truly cannot do without. That is the love of God. God is with us. God stands with us, takes a stand with us, does not leave us behind in the valley. No. Go d is with us.
This phrase lands at the center of the Twenty Third Psalm, just as it lies at the center of our faith. God is with us. God will never leave us. That’s why we do not want. That is why we do not lack. That’s why we’re free.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is a feast of deep abundance. Look at it: “You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” There are oil and wine running everywhere. But my enemies are here too.
I can think of two ways to look at what this means. First, perhaps God is so powerful that I do not have to meet my enemies on the field of battle or on the plains of war. God is so powerful that God will prepare my meal for me and my enemies have to stand there watching me eat, and they don’t get any! That’s one way to look at it.
Another way suggests that God is even more powerful than that. Perhaps God is so powerful that God can change my enemy, perhaps can even change me to such an extent that my enemy and I can sit down at table to eat. Do you think that’s possible with God?
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word translated as “follow” is a little stronger than that: “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me.” “Surely goodness and mercy shall hunt me down.”
No matter how far I run away; no matter how stupidly I wander; no matter how deeply I enslave myself to pride and self-importance, resentment and greed, self-loathing and hatred, apathy and laziness, numbness and apathy, God will hunt me down, all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus stands beside us. Jesus does not leave us behind. Jesus loves us.
Perhaps that is why we find this Psalm so comforting. Because it means that Jesus loves us truly, and that therefore, we are free.