The 23rd Psalm:
I Shall Not Want
Psalm 23 (KJV)
SETTING THE CONTEXT
The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known chapter of the Bible. It is found in the Book of Psalms, a collection of prayers and songs composed through Israel’s history. The word psalm comes from a Greek word meaning “song.” One of the reasons I love the Book of Psalms is that it is so honest about the feelings of the writers. Sometimes the words and images are raging and shockingly violent, at other times they are broken-hearted cries to God, still other times they contain words of faithful trust and sometimes they are celebrations of absolute joy and praise for the goodness of God. A person can find a voice of understanding somewhere in the psalms for just about anything they may be going through. The 23rd song is attributed to King David. David was a shepherd as a boy as were many ancient children and adults. The images used in this psalm were from the daily experiences of many of the ancient audience.
Read Psalm 22 out loud
The next passage of Scripture takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ story as an adult. He was just baptized by John and upon completion of that baptism the Spirit leads him out into the desert. Before he began calling his disciples and doing the ministry God had called him to do, he would go “where the wild things are” to be tempted the devil.
Read Matthew 4:1-11
When is enough enough? Is there ever enough security and safety? Is there ever enough food, clothing or chocolate? Is there ever enough time? Is there ever enough of the “good life”? It seems that we are constantly barraged with messages that we need more. We need more goods. Our jobs want us to do more in less time. Our families want more of our time and attention. We want more travel, more of this or that. (I’ll let you fill in the blanks.)It’s more, more, more. When do we experience enough?
From now through Easter we will be reflecting on the 23rd Psalm. It is such a well known and spiritually rich song that we wanted to consider and savor it slowly and deliberately. The psalm is used at most funerals that I lead because of the comforting images, but it has very important messages for our daily living as well.
Since I know very little about sheep and shepherding I have turned to Phillip Keller for help. Phillip Keller was born in East Africa surrounded by herders whose customs closely resembled those of their Middle Eastern counterparts. Then as a young man he worked as a sheep owner and rancher for eight years.[i] He wrote a wonderful book called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In his book Keller describes the tenant sheep man who lived on the farm next to his first ranch. He was the most indifferent manager he had ever met. “His land was neglected. He gave little or no time to his flock, letting them pretty well forage for themselves as best they could, both summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars and rustlers. Every year these poor creatures were forced to gnaw away at bare brown fields and impoverished pastures. … They had only polluted, muddy water to drink. There had been a lack of salt and other trace minerals needed to offset their sickly pastures. In their thin, weak and diseased condition these poor sheep were a pathetic sight. To all their distress, the heartless, selfish owner seemed utterly callous and indifferent. He simply did not care. … Why should he –they were just sheep- fit only for the slaughterhouse?” And then Keller makes this important point “It is the boss –the manager- the Master in people’s lives who makes the difference in their destiny.”[ii]
The opening declaration of Psalm 23 is so important because the one who sings it asserts from the beginning that God is their Shepherd, their manager, their Master. The word translated “LORD” is actually Yahweh in Hebrew which is the personal name of God given to Moses. This declaration is very specific about who is the shepherd; it is Yahweh, “I am who I am and I will be who I will be”. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The meanings of some words have changed over the last 400 years since the King James Version of the Bible was written. The Hebrew intent of the second half of this verse is actually closer to “I shall lack nothing.” Or as a colleague of Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “The LORD is my shepherd, what more do I need?”[iii] What a statement of trust that is! The LORD is enough. It may be beautiful and easy to say, but to live it that is much harder.
In Matthew’s passage Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. In fact if you were George Lucas of Stars War fame, you could call this the “prequel” to his ministry. After his baptism he is driven into the desert and tempted by the devil. Jesus is tested, will he place his faith in God, will he be obedient to God or will he not? It is like the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent all over again only this time there is a different outcome. He chose obedience and connection over alienation. I love how Paul Escamilla paraphrases the conversation in his book Longing for Enough in a Culture of More, “Devil: “You deserve a break today-get what you want the easy way.” Jesus: “Getting what you want is thin soup compared to being nourished in relationship to God and God’s teachings about the best way to live.” Devil: “Your powers of devotion are a commodity, and like any other, they can be traded.” Jesus: “Whether they are tradable or not, God is the one true focus of our devotion.” Devil: “How can you be sure God really loves you unless you insist on proof?” Jesus: “Some things are true beyond the realm of proving.”[iv] Each time Jesus refuses to be sucked in by the devil’s tricks; he will trust God to provide all he needs and he will obey God.
I want to take a moment to make a side comment. Did you notice that the devil quoted Scripture to try to trick Jesus? People who quote Scripture do not always do it in God’s interests of holiness and righteousness. We are at times a fallen and devious people and so it is important to study the Scripture as a whole. Beware of people who pull one or two sentences out of context to support their point of view, as Christians we should always ask ourselves “is this consistent with the God revealed through Jesus Christ” for he is the measuring stick of our faith.
Jesus passes the test, he will trust God and he chooses God to be his Shepherd, his Master and the story ends with angels providing for him. “The LORD is my Shepherd I shall not want.”
God’s provision however does not mean that you will always get what you want, when you want it. God is not some great Santa Claus in the heavens. As I was thinking about this I started humming an old Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” First, God works in a world that includes free will and one person’s free will choices reverberate throughout the world. Secondly, we see dimly while God is all understanding.
In my life there were only two things I ever wanted. As long as I had those two things everything else was gravy. I wanted a husband and babies in my life. In high school I assumed that I would go to college and meet my future husband just like my mother did and then I’d be off into my future. Well, I went to college and graduated with not even a boyfriend just one failed relationship under my belt. I began praying for the person God meant for me to share my life with, I prayed for my life mate and soul mate. I went back to college and then into the work world. I continued to pray and then I had another failed relationship. I prayed and agonized for years, in fact my mother started telling me that my standards were too high. Then shortly before my 30th birthday, I was asked out by a bashful Methodist minister and the rest is history. As George and I look at our lives, at the decisions we each made and the ways we each grew before we came to know each other we realize that we met in God’s timing because it was perfect timing. It would have been so easy for us to pass each other like ships in the night, but all these things worked together to bring us to the same place at just the right time in our lives. There were obstacles to my having babies where I again had to put my trust in God to provide for those deepest longings that God placed in my heart. Although I may have complained about the timing, I have never regretted placing my trust in my Shepherd. “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
When is enough enough? It is when we get what we need. If we could only find that center think how much better the whole world would be if we each had enough. Are you like me longing for enough in this culture of more? We find enough when we trust and obey the Good Shepherd allowing him to be our Master. With the LORD as my shepherd, what more do I need? Amen.
[i] Phillip Keller. A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), p. x-xi.
[ii] Keller, p. 16-17.
[iii] Harold S. Kushner. The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) p. 29.
[iv] Paul L. Escamilla. Longing for Enough in a Culture of More. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), p. 57.
Sermon delived by Rev. Nancy Cushman on February 10, 2008.
Materials on this web site are owned by PUMC, or used with permission,
and cannot be used elsewhere without PUMC permission.
Go to Top of Page
Copyright 2008 Prescott United Methodist Church
505 West Gurley Street
Prescott, Arizona 86301
E-mail us at email@example.com
Web Problems or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org