Psalm 23 has been on my mind a lot lately. I think it should be labeled “not for funerals.” Because of one verse describing “a valley of the shadow of death,” psalm 23 has been most used in times of grief, times of death. But let’s look at this passage closely:
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. 3He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Think past the valley of death! This psalm has plenty to say about life! It is a testimony describing life in the care of our Shepherd.
Verse 1 doesn’t say, “I hope someday the Lord will be my Shepherd” or “it would be nice if the Lord was my Shepherd.” It says the Lord is my Shepherd. You and I are His children; we are the sheep of His pasture. Verses 1-3 describes a personal, intimate relationship—and remember, we are talking about life, we are talking about right now. The Lord’s guidance, His leading presence in our lives, begins the moment we say yes to following Him. We need to go to the Shepherd and cry to Him first of all.
So what does the journey of life look like in the company of the shepherd? The psalm says “I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” What comes to your mind when you think about these words? Peace? Joy? Fulfillment? Our Shepherd knows what we need and where to lead us. As we’ll see in verse 4, this journey won’t always be easy, but this picture of quietness and peace shows us that God gives us rest; He restores our souls when we become weary.
Another consequence of following the Good Shepherd has to do with growth. As He restores our souls, His next step is to guide us to “paths of righteousness.” When we truly follow the Shepherd, our actions become altered as we begin to thirst for righteousness…to do the right thing. So why does the psalm say, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake”? This speaks to the purpose God has for each of us. He’s saying, I don’t want you depressed, I don’t want you fearful, I don’t want you fussing and wringing your hands. For my sake, I want to guide in straight paths of righteousness. I want you to be who you were meant to be: a person at peace, a person of joy, a person filled with the Holy Spirit.
At this point, you might be thinking, “But Luis, I feel fearful, I feel depressed. Things are not going my way. Is the Lord still my Shepherd?” Verse 4 tells us that this will happen. The valley of the shadow of death is just what the psalm says—a shadow. This shadow of death puts gloom, fear and distress in your life. Sometimes this feels like a death experience. The future looks gloomy, and you feel as though it’s finished; it’s over. But this psalm shows us that even when we find ourselves in this dark place, it is not our final destination. Yes, we all encounter this valley of the shadow of death, but what we sometimes fail to realize is that our Shepherd is guiding us through it.
So what’s the answer to getting past the dreaded valley? “I will fear no evil because You are with me.” Every word of this phrase counts: Lord, You are with me. Recognizing this is the key to breaking free of fear. I find it helpful to write down the things that are causing me to worry or despair so I can think clearly before the Lord. Then I can literally present my list before Him and say, “Lord, these are the things that are keeping me down, will You respond to this?” Remember that our Shepherd is there with his rod and staff to comfort us. Shepherds use these tools to reach out to the sheep and lead them in the right direction. When the road gets frightening, the familiar rod and staff keep them going through it.
The next one is very exciting to me: “You prepare a table before me the presence of my enemies.” When we are in darkness, when we feel deep gloom, we need to recognize that the chains binding us do not come from God but from the enemy. Satan and his demons plant ideas of gloom, ideas of fear, and ideas that God doesn’t care. The Lord walks in the light, He is the light and He wants to guide us in it. When he prepares this table in the presence of the enemy, He’s throwing a party, laughing at Satan because he is overcome. This is a picture of victory over the enemy and his lies that kept us in darkness.
The psalm ends with a beautiful promise. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The conclusion of this journey—guided by the Shepherd, through the dark valley and to victory over the enemy—is eternal life with Jesus Christ. It can’t get much better than that! God is goodness and God is love; He will surely follow me all the days of my life. Once we are in the care of our Shepherd, this is a promise we can count on.
Many of us learned Psalm 23 as children. It’s such a basic part of our spiritual education, but its ideas our powerful and deep. Yes, this psalm can be a comfort to those who are grieving, but most importantly, it describes what it’s like to follow the Lord through the journey of life!