Psalm 23 is, to me, one of the most beautiful of all the Scriptures because it is also one of the most whole. Most of us know the first line by heart - The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want - but it's the rest of the psalm that fills out this first statement.
And unless we know what the rest of the psalm promises, we may be tempted to roll our eyes, for who among us has not, from time to time, wanted?
But every verse of this psalm is written to remind us what we already have, right down to this very first phrase that we know so well - The Lord is my Shepherd.
It doesn't make much sense to most of us, since we know so little about shepherding in our modern culture. It sounds almost like an insult, that we would be dumb as sheep and in need of a shepherd at all. But the shepherd is the one who took care of all of the details. He's the one who figured out which pastures were best for grazing. He's the one who knew where the best little nooks of water were. He's the one who looked out for predators and thieves. Imagine a life where you didn't have to worry about the details, where it just wasn't up to you. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. Most of us don't think much about this, either. Who has time to lie down? And if we do have the time, why can't it be on a nice beach somewhere? You know what you find in pastures? Patties. Watch. your. step. But the beauty of this statement plays off the last - this pasture that you're in is not just the place where you graze, but the place where you find rest. With the Lord as your shepherd, you can do whatever it is that you were born to do - you can graze a little, rest a little, and not have to worry about anything. The land doesn't work you; you work the land. And when you're ready for a bit of a break, it's safe to rest. Imagine a life where it's safe for you to rest. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.
He leads me beside still waters. Again with the still waters! Seriously, can't they be waves crashing on a nice beach somewhere? But still waters don't mean perfectly still; they mean perfectly moving. (Perfectly still waters breed algae and pond scum, which is not the image that we should get from this Psalm.) It means waters that are not being rushed and are not rushing, but are gently flowing from one place to another. And that's good news! See, you can tell a lot about the weather by the waters - you can tell when storms are coming, when droughts are near, when floods are coming. But still waters tell you that none of this is happening; everything's okay. Imagine a life where you didn't have to worry about storms brewing, where you weren't always looking around trying to figure out what happens next. That's the life of still waters. They'd warn you if anything was coming, but it's not, so don't worry about it. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.
And then something incredible happens, something most of us read right by - it's the valley of the shadow of death. I know, I know - we're familiar with this verse, but read it in its full context and look at the glorious thing that happens here: this is where the psalmist turns to God. This is where we turn once again toward God.
Prior to this little sentence, this psalm has spoken in the third person about God - The Lord is my shepherd; He makes me lie down; He leads me beside. But here....here, references to God become second person, as though God is nearer, as though God is one being spoken to. For you are with me; Your rod and your staff....; You prepare.
Stop for a minute and think about that. Really think about that. Imagine what it would be like to live the kind of life that turns to God, even in the darkness. To live the kind of life that even death can't stop. To have the power to keep moving, even in the valleys, to never stop walking, putting one foot in front of the other, even in the shadows. It's okay that there are dark valleys; it's here that we turn our eyes to the heavens.
There's more to say about Psalm 23, a whole second half of the chapter to work through, but at the risk of letting this one run a bit too long and to let the truth of the valley of the shadows sit with you for a little bit, we'll hold off on that second half until tomorrow.