Psalm 23—For Where I am, and Where You are, Right Now
I have been reading/studying/meditating my way through the Psalms in 2022. I am reading the Bible and through 4-5 commentaries and am at different points in each of them. This week, I came to Psalm 23 in one of the commentaries. I had already read it in the Scriptures and, like you, can pretty much quote it by heart. When I read it in the Word, my mind fell back on what I already knew, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, He…” You know the rest of the words too. I read them, I was blessed for reading them, but I did not “hear” them.
I have heard this Psalm in my profession as a cemetery worker many, many times. Standing within earshot of many graveside services, I have heard pastors, and sometimes mourners, say these words from memory. Everyone in attendance may not have known the entire Psalm, but all together they drew from each other the right words to say in the right order. It is a comfort, standing by the still empty grave to hear the promise, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me…” If ever there is a time that we want God to be near us, it is at the time of life’s greatest enemy—death.
I must confess, I have always looked at this Psalm in three sections: the green pastures as a short respite from the harshness of life now, the Lord walking with us through the valley of the shadow, and our future in heaven when this life is over. But this time when I read the same words, I remembered the words of another favorite Psalm, number 46.
“Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.” Psalm 46:2-3 KJV
No quiet pastures there, the mountains are crashing into the sea. No still waters there, the seas froth and churn as tons of mountain granite falls into them. And I wondered, how do I reconcile the two psalms?
As I stand with the psalmist who wrote Psalm 46, I can see in my mind’s eye, the roar of the waters and the mountains shaking and crashing into the sea. It is a fearful sight, maybe at the end of this age, that we see everything that we have held dear coming apart at the seams. Who can watch it without fear? And yet, the same psalmist writes down God’s response, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still? Even when the world is coming apart? Be still? Even when MY world is coming apart?
It seems as though the two psalms must be written to different people, or at least, the same people at widely divergent times in their lives. And yet, if we look closely, the psalms are in complete agreement.
Psalm 23 is not the three-phased psalm that I imagined it to be. It is all for now, it is all for today, including the final verse. It is a deeply personal psalm. David writes: “The Lord is MY shepherd, he leads ME.” Each pronoun is personal. Some psalms are corporate and speak of the Nation of Israel and God’s judgement or protection over them. This Psalm is intensely personal. It is a pact between God and David. That same pact, between Father and child, that is ours.
Some think that Psalm 23 was written when David was a young lad, tending his father’s sheep. But many who write commentaries believe that this Psalm was written much later in David’s life, after he had killed the bear and the lion, after he had faced Goliath, after he had been chased by Saul, after his sin with Bathsheba, and after his murder of Uriah. He is able to write these words at this time of his life because God’s mercies are still new and fresh every morning, and God’s mercies follow David every day of his life.
David can enjoy the green pastures, even in the midst of enemies. David can drink of the still waters, even in the valley of the shadow. The Lord restores his soul, even when this life is at its worst. And this is the link between Psalm 23 and Psalm 46. There, the mountains are crashing into the sea and God says, “Be still, and be comforted by the green pastures. Be still and enjoy the still waters. Be still, I will walk with you through the valley. Be still, I will prepare a table for you in the presence of your enemies. Be still, because goodness and mercy will follow you every single day of your life. Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 23 is that idyllic psalm that we use to indicate that all is well in our world. Still waters. Green pastures. But it is every bit as much the psalm of shadowy valleys, and surrounding enemies. It is every bit as much a psalm of comforting rods, banquet tables, cups that run over with His plenty, anointing oil, goodness and mercy, restoration, and living in God’s presence forever.
Even if your life right now is a Psalm 46 experience with roiling waters and mountains crashing, be that one who is a Psalm 23 Christian who is longing after the intimacy of God’s heart no matter what you are experiencing. If David did it, you can do it, and so can I.
There is an old chorus from my youth that says, “God hath not promised, skies always blue, flower-strewn pathways all our lives through. God hath not promised sun without rain, Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.” The chorus goes on to tell us what God hath promised. “But God hath promised strength for the day, rest for the labor, light for the way, grace for the trials, help from above, unfailing sympathy, undying love.”
But even better than the truths of the chorus is that God’s Word tells us what He has promised. He has promised us Himself—He has promised to be our Shepherd—and that is enough, for whatever the day brings.