By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
Again and again when people are buried, their family so often asks for Psalm 23. Regardless of whether they have been in church for years, Psalm 23 seems to have a comforting power that touches people again and again. Why is Psalm 23 so meaningful to so many people?
When the late Dr. Billy Graham preached in a Russian Synagogue, what was his topic? None other than Psalm 23. Whether Jewish or Christian, Churchgoer or NonChurchgoer, Right Wing or Left Wing politically, Psalm 23 seems to speak to all of us. All of us can find strength in knowing that the Lord is our Shepherd.
There is an extremely popular book written by a Canadian agrologist entitled “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”. Philip Keller, unlike most of us, is an actual modern-day shepherd, who has spent many years in agricultural research, land management, and ranch development in British Columbia.
From Keller’s first-hand experience, Psalm 23 has burst open with many new insights and surprises. For example, what does it really mean to say “I shall not want”? Keller says that this is a picture of “a sheep utterly satisfied with its owner..utterly contented in the Good Shepherd’s care and consequently not craving or desiring anything more.” Does this describe our personal day-to-day lives? I remember seeing a poster which read: “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.”
Why does Psalm 23 talk about “lying down in green pastures”? Keller tells us that sheep will never lie down until four conditions are met:
1) they must be free of all fear
2) They must be free of torment by flies or parasites
3) They must have a full belly
4) They must be in harmony with their fellow sheep.
Green pastures did not just happen by accident. A good shepherd would put tremendous labour into clearing rough rocky ground into lush pasture land. Psalm 23 tells us that Jesus the Good Shepherd desires to take away our fear and disharmony so that we can find the inner peace that we have always been looking for.
What about “leading us beside still waters”? What difference does that make? Keller tells us that sheep are made up of about 70% water on average. Without a clean water source, sheep become restless and dehydrated. As well, sheep will not drink from fast, flowing waters, but rather from still calm waters. So too the Good Shepherd desires to fill each of us with calmness and stillness, with living water that can quench our deepest thirst.
Psalm 23 reminds us that the Good Shepherd desires to “restore our soul”. When a death has just occurred in our family, we often feel heavy and burdened inside, even down cast. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”. All of us need that inner rest from time to time. Sheep, from time to time, may fall on their backs, and be unable to get up again by themselves. When a sheep becomes “down cast”, it can quickly become a casualty to sun stroke, or attack from wild animals. A Good Shepherd will restore his sheep when they become cast down.
Perhaps most familiar of all is the phrase: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death , I will fear no evil, for You are with me”. Think of funerals you have been to, and what comfort these words have been. Keller tells us that the only way to the mountainous green pastures is through the dangerous mountain valleys where wolves and coyotes are in hiding, waiting for their next victim. Psalm 23 reminds us that the Good Shepherd is also a warrior who will fight for us and protect us, even in times of death and tragedy.
All of us want to be loved and cared for by significant others. Most of us believe that there is a God out there. The good news of Psalm 23 is that God really cares about each of us in a way beyond our wildest imagining. That is the meaning of the poetic language speaking of the Shepherd preparing a table before us, anointing our head with oil, and our cup overflowing. All of this means that God personally cares for you.
No matter how tough life gets, and how many setbacks you face, Psalm 23 tell us that God is there for you, and will never give up on you.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
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