Yet, this familiarity has its dangers. The sharp edges are blurred. Familiarity carries the danger of it becoming a cliche. I am hoping to give this some fresh meaning as you read.
There is something in this psalm that transcends the Palestinian countryside and the work of the ancient Hebrew shepherd poet. Can we realize in a fresh way how this prayer retains its beauty and truth in our world and concrete roads, fast cars, domesticated pets, and internet shopping?
The shepherd is the center of this psalm. He is identified as an image of God. In one sentence we are transported in our minds from a Palestinian countryside half a world away and three thousand years ago into our own neighborhoods and work places where God is present. He is Shepherd-Lord. God is good and present. Life is a miracle and brims with beauty and love.
In verse 4, a shadow of all that is wrong in the world in introduced and threatens to move the good and merciful presence of the Shepherd: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me" (ESV). The shadow is death - death valley. This could be the darkest shadows of death: cancer, Alzheimer's, depression, divorce, domestic violence, grinding poverty, homelessness.
We live in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow.
We need to talk about the sheep. God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.
Sheep are notorious for their stupidity. If they are left to themselves, they wander into danger. They absolutely need a shepherd. The psalmist, knowing himself as a sheep "prone to wander' knows God as his shepherd. Many a time God's "rod" guided him around a deep chasm. Life in the desert for both the shepherd and sheep is not soft. It is menaced by the dark shadows of the beast-infested valley. The threats to life are all around, but the presence of the Shepherd guides and leads, dispersing the threats.
The second half of the psalm (verses 5-6) exchanges the image of the sheep for that of an outlaw or fugitive: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (ESV).
Those who committed serious crimes in ancient desert culture would flee to the uninhabited desert. They would be hunted down until they were found in this harsh, dry, inhospitable climate.
There was one exception to unfriendliness of the desert for these men cursed by a past of sin and hunted down by the law of blood revenge, and that was the custom of open hospitality. Every wanderer in the desert was received into a shepherd's tent as a "guest of God" (Arabic term), furnished with food, and kept inviolate. The shepherd host took responsibility for his safety. This custom still prevails today in Bedouin cultures.
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." This is the outlaw speaking. He is threatened by his past, but he is welcomed into the Shepherd's tent, and there, "in the presence of my enemies," he is served a meal. In the shepherd's tent he is safe.
God is the alpha and omega. He is the beginning and the end. We acknowledge Him at baptisms, at the beginning of human life. We acknowledge him at funerals, at the end of human life. He is also present at the conclusion of business careers, academic commencements, anniversaries, and birthdays.
But what about the in between, the large living interim between death and death, that long stretch between the beginning and the end? What about the middle? It is this period where we tend to belittle our small faith. Is God our shepherd guiding us through life? Is he with us during the fugitive years? Here is where we fall short.
Psalm 23 is a convincing witness that God is our Shepherd. He preserves, accompanies, and rules us. We are not created and then turned loose to make the best of it we can. He doesn't just let us fend for ourselves until we die and hauled before the judgment seat for an accounting of our conduct. He is our Shepherd. He guides us as we wander. He sustains us in our fugitive lives.
Karl Barth put it this way: "We need not expect turns and events who have nothing to do with His lordship and are not directly in some sense acts of His lordship. This Lord is never absent, passive, non-responsible or impotent, but always present, active, responsible, and omnipotent. He is never dead, but always living; never sleeping, but always awake; never uninterested, but always concerned, never merely waiting in any respect, but even where He seems to wait, even where He permits, always holding the initiative. In this consists His co-existence with the creature" (Church Dogmatics 3.3, the Doctrine of Creation, 13)
The shepherd is a guide and a protective host. The Shepherd's rod and staff signal his leadership and a shared life of love and companionship; the Shepherd's table and cup anticipate his protection and sacrificial life of grace. Because not only do we need guidance in life to protect us from daily peril, but we also need grace to free us from past sins, to deliver us from the tangle of bad decisions and faithless acts.
And the psalm is not abstract. There are "green pastures", "still waters", "paths of righteousness" (straight roads), "valley", "rod", "staff", "table", "oil", "cup", "house". This is a relationship of personal presence. The entire desert and range of experience of sheep and fugitive is brought into intimate and dependable connection with the Shepherd.
He is a personal God that protects and guides on the one hand, and provides grace and refuge on the other.
Do you know that the last word on Psalm 23 was spoken by Jesus? They were often on his lips, and his life was a dramatic exposition of the best of them. "I am," he said, "the good shepherd" (John 10:11). He lived and spoke Psalm 23.
We need to remember that there were good and bad shepherds in Palestine. The test of a shepherd was how far he would go in risking his life to protect sheep or fugitives. Would he lay down his life for them? Sheep can get themselves into dangerous and awkward situations. A shepherd who made the decision to go into a deep and dangerous canyon for single sheep at the expense of one's own life would not be a easy decision to make. We need to remember that neither fugitives nor the enemies hunting them down were harmless. A shepherd would think twice before opening his tent and seating him at his table, anointing his head and filling his cup with the presence of the man's enemies who were out to kill him. The shepherd led a dangerous life.
When Christ said he was "the good shepherd" (John 10:14), I don't think they understood him to mean that he was gentle, kind shepherd would be nice to the sheep. They lived in shepherd country and understood the reality of a shepherd's life. Being a good shepherd meant taking the risk of life against beasts, robbers, and murderers and they understood this.
And Jesus did just that. He entered Jerusalem when it was filled with shadows of hate and murder. He faced the combined accusations and assaults of religion and government for the sake of all the wandering sheep and fleeing fugitives. He blessed Judas Iscariot with a meal on the same night Judas betrayed him.
Jesus Christ fills in the detail of Psalm 23. Our shepherd continues to work specifically and historically guiding us, saving us.
The prayer has shadows, but the Shepherd is never absent: guidance and grace. Guidance for us wandering sheep and grace for us as guilty fugitives. Guidance and grace triumph.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of me life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
I would like to leave you with this poem from Elizabeth C. Clephane who wrote a poem entitled "The Ninety and Nine":
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
Ere he found his Sheep that was lost.
Hallelujah and amen. He is our shepherd.