The Lord is my shepherd… Psalm 23:1 NRSV
He reminded me of Santa Clause. He was of average height, light colored hair and had this “bowl full of jelly” tummy. He was not dressed in a red suit like the man from the North Pole, but his clothes were black and distinguished.
He was in Birmingham, Alabama for some event back in the early 1990s when I was a young pastor and serving a congregation there. He had some extra time and so he gathered Lutheran pastors from the area one morning to teach us Hebrew Scripture. I don’t remember his name, but he was a Professor of Old Testament from a Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio and he knew Hebrew very well.
Among the things he taught us that day was an analysis (exegesis) of Psalm 23, a psalm loved by many in the Judeo-Christian tradition and which is heard in many a funeral. My thoughts today on Psalm 23 are based from his teaching. I am grateful for what he taught me and for the things I still remember about the Hebrew language from this beloved psalm.
Right from the beginning, he shocked me by teaching the deep meaning of the Hebrew word for shepherd in the opening verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The root of the Hebrew noun (roeh) for shepherd is “military commander.” So a shepherd is not weak, but a shepherd protects his flock like a military commander. The shepherd fights for his sheep. This is the image of our Lord in the opening verse – one Who is on our side and fights off our enemies.
We remember the stories of King David who as a shepherd boy slew Goliath, fought off predators from his flock, and was a mighty warrior in defense of God’s people, Israel. So the Lord Who is on our side fights for us and protects us from the evils of this world. President Trump talks about fighting against the coronavirus or the “invisible enemy.” So we trust the Lord Who is our shepherd to keep us safe when this invisible enemy of sin and sickness surrounds us.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” What I learned that morning from this professor was an interesting understanding of the Hebrew verb for “lie down” (nacham). The picture of “lie down” is of a baby lying on her back with arms and legs sprawled out with not a care, a fear, an illness or ache and pain. There is total comfort.
We hear in the book of Isaiah that the prophet cries out to Jerusalem, “Comfort, comfort (nakham) my people, says your God.” The reason for this comforting cry is that there is good news for God’s people. They will return to the Promised Land where there was at one time peace and prosperity and the Messiah will rule.
Isn’t it true that during this time where tensions are escalating with China; the world is suffering from Covid-19, many businesses have been closed, unemployment is at a new high and people wait in food lines that we need comfort from God? In fact, a new Pew Survey informs us that for many Christians their faith has grown stronger in this time of a national emergency. We look to the Lord our Shepherd for comfort and this “lying down” in green pastures.
“he restores my soul. He leads in right paths for his name’s sake.” The Hebrew word for “restore” (yeshivah) means to turn back to God in repentance. When we do we live in the right pathways. Psalm 1 speaks of the road in which we are blessed when we do not walk in the path of the wicked, but walk in the way of the Lord’s law. Walking along the Lord’s path is like being a healthy and fruitful tree planted by streams of water which sustains and gives life.
It was the fourth century church patriarch, St. Augustine, who reminds us that our souls are “restless” until our souls find “rest in Thee.” Certainly our souls become restless when we seek things which do not truly satisfy our inner selves. Greed, exploitation, lies and deceit embrace our hearts and minds when we do not set ourselves on the Lord Who promises grace and every blessing to us.
As we daily repent of our sins, trust in God’s promise of forgiveness, we are indeed raised to new life. Our faith is fruitful as we share Christ’s love with others. In our turning back to the Lord by the inspiration of he Holy Spirit, we are released from the clutches of sin; we are saved from the temptations of the evil one; and we are strengthened to walk the road of meditation on God’s word.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” Dark valleys are notorious places. They harbor beasts of prey. Dark valleys in our lives are anything which endangers us and seeks to destroy us – alcohol and opioid addictions, domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking. But the Lord our Shepherd protects us with his rod and leads us with His staff. The Lord does that with loving families, medical communities, counselors, legal aid, officers of the law and religious leaders.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” When I think of this verse what comes to mind is a feast of plenty with family and friends sitting around a large table ready to celebrate. Yesterday I watched the President’s press conference and there were two teenagers helping others during this pandemic. One young man gathered volunteers to deliver food to many of the elderly in his community. The other young man who was 16 had his pilot’s license and flew four missions to deliver medical supplies to rural hospitals in his state of Virginia.
The Lord indeed supplies us with what we need for daily living and these two young men were examples of faith active in love as inspirited by the Lord Who is our Shepherd.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” There is an earthly promise and a heavenly one from the Good Shepherd in this last verse.
The earthly one is a blessing that divine goodness and mercy will always be with us. The Hebrew verb for “follow me” does not mean that the Lord is somewhat disinterested in us and takes His good ole time to catch up with us. The verb for “follow me” (yirdefuni) means to pursue or chase after. So the Lord is eager to catch up with us so that His everlasting goodness and mercy (chesed) will always, always be a blessing to us.
This chasing after us sets a picture in my mind of a loving mother who frantically chases after her son who ran away from her and was in danger of getting hurt. His mother stops at nothing to catch up with him, embrace him and save him from harm. That determination, that commitment, that fervent desire to keep her son safe is more like the meaning of “follow after” in the last verse of Psalm 23.
And even beyond our earthly life, the Lord promises that the faithful will dwell in the Lord’s house forevermore in the heavenly kingdom.
It is no wonder that Psalm 23 is one part of Scripture which we memorize and is planted deep in our hearts.
Thanks be to God!
(Photo Jesucristo como e Buen Pastor, Jose Vergara, 18th century, public domain at commons.wikimedia; Hebrew4Christians.com; and the Professor of Old Testament, Hamma School of Theology, Columbus, Ohio)