What convenient timing! Yesterday was the 4th Sunday of Easter where we heard about Jesus as our Good Shepherd, and today is the 4th day of the month where we read Psalm 23 at Evening Prayer! So we get to continue reflecting on this Good Shepherd theme a little longer. Even better, because we’re also reading from 1 Peter this week, we’ll have further opportunities to look at Jesus’ shepherding role.
So, Psalm 23… the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (or shall not be in want, or can lack nothing). One of the settings we’re used to hearing this psalm is in funerals. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It has held a liturgical connection to the burial rite for centuries, and the emotional bond and association between Psalm 23 and times of grief or pain is powerful, even in churches long dissociated from the liturgical tradition.
Nevertheless, let’s look at what Psalm 23 illustrates about the Good Shepherd for us in life.
I shall not want / I can lack nothing
God is the Lord Who Will Provide (Genesis 22:14). He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). He knows our needs before we ever speak them (Matthew 6:8,32 / Luke 12:30). With the Lord as your shepherd, you will be looked after, one way or another.
He shall refresh my soul / He restoreth my soul
The Great Provider, most notably, tends to our spiritual needs. He refreshes us by leading us and bringing us through paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. That means that he points us the way to himself, down the narrow path amidst a sinful world. The way to the Father is Jesus himself, so we follow him both in terms of imitation as well as an end goal. We want to copy his example of virtue and attain his measure of holiness. And this is for the sake of his name, not our own, because it is the glory of God that we are to seek. This is the difference between “good works” unto righteousness and “works that are good” yet do not spring from faith. For as Hebrews 11:6 puts it, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” So he refreshes and restores us by leading us and guiding us in the ways of righteousness without self-glorification.
I will fear no evil
This simple statement is couched on either side with the threats that one could fear and the reasons not to fear. The shadow of death is near, but so is the rod and the staff. The Good Shepherd has an eye on the Enemy, and is ready with his rod, and his other eye on his sheep, and is ready with his staff. Think of the Cherubim and Seraphim described in the visions of Ezekiel and of John in his Revelation – those angelic beings are covered in eyes. Their ability to “see” is incredibly beyond our own; how much more omniscient must be the God who made even them?
Surely [your] goodness and mercy shall follow me
Not only do we have the imagery of us following our Shepherd, but also here of the Shepherd’s blessings following us! The table, anointing with oil, and filled cup are pictures of these blessings, as is the image of dwelling in God’s house forever. The ministry of the Church should help us visualize these blessings too: all God’s people are invited to sup at his holy table; we are, traditionally, anointed with oil at baptism and confirmation; the Communion cup is weekly filled for us. These are tangible moments and means of ministry, and they also point to the myriads of other ways that God provides for us, cares for us, cleanses and feeds us.
There is not a day that can pass without a hundred reasons to thank him. It is easy for us, in our tiredness or grumpiness or distractedness, to miss them. But every meal, every sight of beauty, every kind word, every correction, every breath and step, is a gift and provision from the Good Shepherd. Let this Psalm be a reminder to us today to listen to his voice and follow him wherever he leads, regardless of the dangerous scenery around.