The twenty-third Psalm is familiar to many Americans. Even those who don’t regularly attend church tend to run across it in a variety of situations. I’ve grown up with it. As both the granddaughter and daughter of pastors, the Bible was a regular part of my life. Listening to favorite passages and key truths were as normal in my growing up years as were my favorite toys and books.
But how much do we really think about it? I mean, it’s all good and comforting, right? I once thought so. But now … well, I have questions.
Okay, so I always have questions.
But, does this passage really convey what we think it conveys? Or is this a place where we blindly quote it, focusing on the end result and ignoring the possibilities of what it is saying?
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The Twenty-third Psalm
Many of us are most familiar with it in the old Kind James Version. Please understand, that’s not said disrespectfully. But, quite honestly, while I have great respect for the King James Version, it is not part of my reading routine. I purposely rotate through several different versions each year so I can better see the intricacies of the word pictures and more deeply grasp the richness of the words within the Bible. But, wading through archaic phrasing is not something I enjoy, so I tend to avoid older translations.
Until it comes to a passage that I’ve heard since my earliest days on this earth. While many of the verses I have memorized are a horrible mixture of different renderings, some passages remain steadfastly King James. The Twenty-third Psalm is one.
A Closer Look
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Is there any more comforting thought? Well, except for those moments when the Shepherd knows something unpleasant is best. We don’t usually think that way. No, normally these verses are intended to offer comfort or peace, not the reality that the Shepherd knows better than his sheep what is good for them.
I shall not want.
Again, great comfort comes from these words up to the moment when we learn the painful truth that our wants do not always line up with our actual needs. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
How many of you skipped right ahead to the green pastures part? We like green pastures! They symbolize rest and peace, goodness and fruitfulness. I picture a well laid out picnic, a comfortable blanket, soft grass, my kids enjoying the day, and no bugs. And I completely ignore the phrase He maketh me. Why do I fight him on green pastures? Is it perhaps that I don’t recognize the goodness around me in the moment, and I think I know better than He want I need?
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
Now this sounds completely wonderful, doesn’t it? I mean, as long as those still waters don’t have any mosquitoes! But that’s the thing. This verse just says God leads us. He beckons us to follow with no word on what those still waters look like or how smooth (or not) the terrain is beside them.
He restoreth my soul.
Wait. Just wait. My attention quickly catches on restoreth. After all, it’s great that God’s fixing things for me, but can’t we just skip the whole part where my soul gets to the point of needing repair? I mean, I know we’re fallen beings born into a fallen world, but this sounds more like He’s addressing the tragedies that hit us after birth.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
And the word leadeth makes another appearance. Righteousness is required for entry to God’s kingdom, and I’m thankful that He’s present and willing to “lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24). But once again, we’re not told where we’re going or what the road looks like. We’re just supposed to follow up the hill, through the fog, and around the blind corner.
This is Comforting?
Really? Why exactly do we offer this Psalm for comfort? Surely I’m not the only person to come up with these questions or doubts.
Oh, yes. It’s offered in times of turmoil because of what the rest of the passage says.
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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.
It’s only the shadow of death, because as God’s child, death has no claim on me. But more than that, this part of the Psalm promises God’s presence, in spite of what my enemy will try, and His comfort no matter what life looks like.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
To this very-non-cook, someone else preparing a table for me is quite delightful. But this sentence goes farther, inferring dominion over my enemies and blessings too many to contain.
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.
Oh, isn’t this the part we long for? Goodness and mercy. Dwelling with God. Forever.
Psalm 23 is loaded with all sorts of beautiful word pictures that most of us miss because we’re unfamiliar with its imagery and time period. If you want to dive deeper, I highly recommend a book written by Max Lucado
Description from Amazon: Weary travelers. You’ve seen them — everything they own crammed into their luggage. Staggering through terminals and hotel lobbies with overstuffed suitcases, trunks, duffels, and backpacks. Backs ache. Feet burn. Eyelids droop.
We’ve all seen people like that. At times, we are people like that — if not with our physical luggage, then at least with our spiritual load.
We all lug loads we were never intended to carry. Fear. Worry. Discontent. No wonder we get so weary. We’re worn out from carrying that excess baggage. Wouldn’t it be nice to lose some of those bags?
That’s the invitation of Max Lucado. With the Twenty-third Psalm as our guide, let’s release some of the burdens we were never intended to bear.