The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to 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. 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. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 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. Psalm 23
The 23rd Psalm is a favorite of mine, and one of the first scripture passages I memorized as a child. I learned it in the King James version, because that’s what everyone used back then, and although I prefer more modern translations for my everyday reading, when I hear the words of Psalm 23 in my head, they’re always in the KJV. It’s a comforting psalm for me, as it is for many, and perhaps there’s a psychological factor in going back to the poetic language I first heard as a child. In times of stress and anxiety, I will go back to this psalm time and time again. These days, I find myself reciting it on at least a daily basis. We are certainly living in “interesting times” with the coronavirus pandemic spreading exponentially and the resultant economic dominoes falling everywhere.
I ventured out to the grocery store today (during off-hours, wearing gloves, wiping down the cart handles with disinfectant wipes, and trying to stay at least six feet away from other customers). I saw for myself the empty shelves that have been endlessly featured on the news. As I understand it, people are buying in large quantities because they fear being up the proverbial creek without toilet paper. And it’s not just paper products and cleaning supplies…the cereal aisle, canned food aisle, and many others were cleaned out too! Everyone seems to be operating from a mentality of scarcity: there won’t be enough, so I’d better get mine while I still can. But the kingdom of God isn’t a zero-sum game. The kingdom of God doesn’t operate from a mentality of scarcity, but one of abundance, as Jesus tried to demonstrate when he fed the multitudes.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters“. The KJV is deceptive here, because “want” here doesn’t mean desire, but refers to having the necessities of life. Desire is never satisfied, and getting everything we want isn’t what God promises, despite the misuse by some of Psalm 37:4, “delight thyself in the Lord and he will give thee the desires of thine heart” Too often the focus is on the second part of the sentence rather than the first. Those who “delight themselves in the Lord” usually find that the desires of their hearts change significantly. They find themselves desiring less for themselves, being more grateful for what they have, and sharing more with others. The problem with a mentality of scarcity is that it encourages hoarding, which initiates a vicious cycle: more hoarding causes more scarcity, which causes more hoarding. As Gandhi observed, “the earth has enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” When the Lord is our shepherd, we will operate from a mentality of abundance, not one of scarcity, and there will be enough for all.
“He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” In this time of disrupted routines and prescribed social distancing, I find myself having more time to spend with God, and finding it more meaningful. Spending time with God calms my fears about the future in a way I can’t explain, but to which I can attest. The problem with following news updates 24/7 is that it amplifies feelings of helplessness. It’s like being in the middle of one of one of those bad dreams where something is chasing you and when you try to run, you are moving in slow motion. Psychologists tell us that whenever so much seems out of our control, we need to concentrate on what we can control. We can’t control the course of this virus, nor its effect on the economy., or what other people do or don’t do. As Tolkien put it, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That sounds pretty close to what the psalmist is telling us here. Whenever the word “righteousness” is used in the Bible, it almost always has to do with how we treat other people. And that’s something we very much can control. When the Lord is our shepherd, we will treat others the way we would like to be treated: with respect, kindness, and generosity.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Note that God doesn’t promise us we won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; he promises us that we don’t have to fear it because he is with us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As I understand it, the rod and staff of ancient shepherds were primarily instruments of guidance and protection, not instruments of punishment. Otherwise why would the psalmist find their presence comforting? The word “comfort” is associated with giving strength. When the Lord is our shepherd, we are strengthened by the assurance that God is present with us, always.
“Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The banquet imagery here repeats the psalmist’s understanding of both the presence of God no matter what we have to face, and the mindset of abundance rather scarcity. I understand the overflowing cup of wine metaphorically rather than literally. Wine is often used in the Bible as a symbol of joy, and I think that is what the psalmist means to convey. The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty. When the Lord is our shepherd, our glass is overflowing.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever‘” I have quite a few friends who are atheist or agnostic. For some of them who grew up hearing stories of an angry god ready to rain down fire and brimstone on those who stick a toe over an arbitrary line, a non theistic worldview comes as a relief. But some of them also have a fear of the nothingness of death, and some of them wrestle with paralyzing existential angst. When God is our shepherd, we don’t have to fear the end of the world as we know it, or even death itself. When God is our shepherd, however long or short our lives may be, we can know meaning and purpose playing our small part in a greater story. When God is our shepherd, we can be assured that death will not be the end of our existence, nor will we remain separated from those we have loved and lost forever.
And that’s good news to me!