I have posted the podcast of this sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” If you prefer to read it, here’s the manuscript. The Twenty-third Psalm continues to be a rich source of inspiration and guidance, as fresh as it was when King David penned its words.
God Present With Us
Psalm 23 KJV
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
My Brief Career as a Shepherd
I’ve had three experiences in my lifetime of trying to herd animals from one place to another. The first was when I was about 10 years old and staying with my mother’s relatives in south Georgia. My grandfather owned a lot of land in south Georgia, and he did a variety of different things. He owned stands of pine trees from which he harvested the sap for turpentine. He had hogs and chickens, and a family garden, but the main thing he did was raise cattle. And he raised cattle that won several prizes. I remember seeing photographs of his prize-winning bulls on the wall in his office at the farm.
One afternoon on my visit, my cousin and I were supposed to go open the gate for the cows to move from one part of the pasture to another part. But, to do so they had to cross the sandy road that ran through his farm. That road is paved today, but when I was 10 it was unpaved sand and would develop what looked and felt like “washboard” type ruts. But despite the washboard effect, the folks who traveled on that road drove fast. I mean really fast!
You can see where this is going, can’t you? So, my cousin, Terry, and I open the gate, and the cows are doing what cows do — walking slowly in single file from the pasture, across the road, to the other pasture. All this is going pretty well, until we hear the rumble of a car tearing down the sandy road. So, we did what all 10 year old boys do — we panicked and started flapping our arms and shouting at the cows and running behind them to move them off the road.
Cows, being the skittish creatures they are, responded to two wild-eyed 10 year old boys flapping their arms and shouting by also panicking. Now when cows panic, they break ranks and run every which way. And, that’s exactly what they did. Mostly they ran into the woods. So now we had a big problem. How do you get cows to come out of the woods into which they have just fled?
After calling the cows, which we had no idea how to do, and the cows had no idea what we were doing, we gave up. Slowly we made our way to the house to tell my uncle that the cows were in the woods. I had visions of him rounding up all the farm hands, cranking up all the tractors, and putting a full-scale cow rescue plan into effect.
So, sheepishly we explained what happened. My uncle just looked at us like we were the most worthless two city boys he had ever seen. Which we were. On the farm at least. Then he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the cows to come back home.” Who knew cows would come back of their own accord? And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.
My other two experiences of herding involved goats and chickens, and those went a little better, although I am glad that there is no video of my doing either one of those chores.
A Beautiful Poem from an Amazing Life
All of that brings us to our text for today, the Twenty-third Psalm. Psalm 23 undoubtedly is the most familiar and most beloved psalm among all 150 psalms. That’s why I chose the King James’ Version today. We love this psalm because it is beautiful poetry in its own right. But, it is also a reassuring psalm, which is why it is often read at funerals.
This wonderful work is attributed to King David. Of course you remember that David himself had been a shepherd boy. Now a grown man, and responsible for the united nations of both Israel and Judah, David has faced a lot of difficulty throughout his life.
We don’t know at what point in David’s life this psalm was written. It might have been when David had been anointed king while the increasingly unstable Saul was still king. Saul had a love-hate relationship with David. Saul’s jealousy of David, and Saul’s declining mental state set the stage for Saul to attempt to kill David on more than one occasion.
But, after Saul passes off the scene, David continues to have his own set of problems. His adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah, mark the lowest point in David’s life. But God brings David through this valley and back into faithful relationship with God.
Maybe David writes this poem when his own son Absalom is trying to overthrow him. David’s forces are victorious in defeating Absalom’s forces, but Absalom is killed in the battle, and David mourns for this lost son.
We don’t know when David wrote this psalm, but I think it was later in his life. I believe that David is reflecting on his life, and the extraordinary events that brought him from being a shepherd boy, to being the greatest king the Jewish people had ever, or would ever, know.
God as the Shepherd-King
David begins this poem simply and directly:
“The Lord is my shepherd….”
The “Lord” is the name for God that Jews in the Old Testament period used instead of the unspeakable name of God, YHWH. “Lord” is also an acknowledgement of one who is superior and in charge, one to whom everyone one else bows down. Also, in the ancient world, kings were often also referred to as “shepherd” of their people because the king’s responsibility was to protect and provide for his subjects. All of those ideas are present in David’s simple, yet profound confession, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
I grew up in church, and the only translation available to us then was the King James’ Version. So, when I memorized scripture, I memorized the King James’ Version of whatever passage we were working on. That was true of this psalm as well. But, sometimes when you’re a kid, you get things mixed up. So, when I memorized, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” I thought that meant that David didn’t want God to be his shepherd. Which I thought was puzzling, but there it was. I’m not sure at what point that got cleared up for me, but I eventually understood that David meant, “I don’t want (lack) for anything.”
The idea that with God as his shepherd David had all he needed is one of the central themes of this psalm. But, David doesn’t leave that idea without explanation.
“He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
With these examples, David is telling us what exactly God does for him. The good shepherd finds good food, calm water, and safe paths for his sheep. That’s everything a sheep needs — food, water, and safety. In addition, the shepherd revives the tired sheep, perhaps through the comforting provision of his presence.
God’s Presence and Provision
However, David isn’t finished describing this good shepherd yet. David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
David acknowledges that despite the shepherd’s provision of food, water, and safety, there are times of difficulty and danger — “the valley of the shadow of death.” In this image, one can see the herd as it makes its way through a narrow canyon with the valley walls looming on either side. Predators, both animal and human, lurked in the caves and behind rocks in that kind of terrain. Sheep were easy prey and David knew well that the shepherd had to protect his sheep. David had told King Saul that when a lion or bear tried to take one of his sheep, David had fought the lion or bear and killed it. David knew the dangers present in the valley of the shadow of death.
The comforting presence of the shepherd’s rod and staff give reassurance to the sheep. The rod was used to guide the sheep; and, the staff, with its crooked head, was used to rescue sheep in difficulty. David knew that God both guided and rescued his people because David had been on the receiving end of God’s direction and compassion himself.
In verse 5, the scene shifts from the outdoor pasture setting to a banquet scene. David says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
Here God has prepared a banquet, and it is an extravagant and luxurious event. A properly set table, and the anointing of the guests’ heads with oil, along with the abundance of food and drink were all hallmarks of an elaborate feast — a feast fit for a king.
The fact that this extravagant, luxurious feast takes place when David is surrounded by his enemies is further assurance of God’s protection and provision. This feast is the opposite of what a king surrounded by enemies would normally do. The fact that God sets this feast for David reminds David that God not only provides more than he needs, but that God protects David as well.
The Surprising Finish
With all this talk of enemies, the valley of the shadow of death, and evil, David obviously thinks someone is out to get him. But, here the psalm finishes with a wonderful surprise.
While David thought that malevolent forces were out to kill him, he discovers God’s goodness and mercy is really pursuing him. Enemies may be following David, but so is God. And God is pursuing David with more goodness and mercy than David can ever imagine. Have you ever bought something in a store, and then walked out leaving your purchase behind, only to hear behind you the clerk running to catch up to you? That’s the idea here, I think. God pursues us with goodness and mercy. All we have to do is stop and turn around to receive it.
But, that’s not all. Not only is God pursuing us with goodness and mercy, there’s a new place for us to live, too. Remember, this is the King David who built himself a fine palace. A really nice palace apparently. For some time, scholars had speculated that David might have been more legend than fact. The thinking was that David was really a minor warlord, and Jerusalem a sleepy village when he was king.
However, in 2006, Eliat Mazar, an Israeli archaeologist, published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review with the title, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” We don’t have time for a full explanation, but the gist of it is that Mazar expanded on the work of previous archaeologists, and using the Bible as a source, unearthed a massive building site situated exactly where the Bible locates the palace of King David.
So, my point is that David had a huge, and probably luxurious palace in which to live. But, where does David want to live forever? Not in his palace, but in the “house of the Lord.” Remember, David built his palace before the permanent Temple gets built by his son Solomon. So, David is saying “I had rather live in the Tent of the Lord than in my own palace.” Why? Because God was thought to be present in the Tabernacle.
But Wait There’s More
Have you seen those TV ads which offer to sell you a set of Ginsu knives for the low, low price of whatever? Just as you are about to decide you don’t need any Ginsu knives, the narrator excitedly tells you, “But wait, there’s more!”
And that’s what happens with our story of the Twenty-third Psalm. Because there is more. In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says,
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
Then, he continues in verse 14 —
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Of course, Jesus knew the story of David and he knew the Twenty-third Psalm. And it is no accident or coincidence that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.
For us this means that the same God who was present to protect and provide for King David, is present with us today. And just like David, the Good Shepherd is present in the valley and on the mountain top; in the midst of danger and in times of joy.
The story of the Bible is God present with God’s people. The Twenty-third Psalm reminds us that our Shepherd-King, Jesus, protects, provides, and pursues us with his goodness and mercy, and we will indeed dwell in his presence forever. Amen.