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There is an old story out there of the man who, in the midst of a disastrous flood, took refuge on the roof of his water-filled home. With the unconquerable faith of the 23rd Psalm, he prayed that God might rescue him; and he heard God speaking to him, saying he would be saved. Soon after, a sheriff's deputy came by in a small motor boat offering to get him to higher ground. The man said no, he was staying put, because God was coming to rescue him. "The Lord is my shepherd."
The waters continued to rise and now had come to the roof line. Another rescue worker came, in a pontoon boat, and offered him a ride. Again the man refused, saying God would rescue him. "The Lord is my shepherd."
Finally the waters rose so high that even the roof was almost submerged. A helicopter hovered in, and a rope ladder came tumbling down. A voice from the chopper urged him to grab hold. "No," the man shouted back. "God will save me. The Lord is my shepherd."
The waters rose still higher, until finally the man drowned. He arrived at the Pearly Gates, sopping wet and very angry. He sputtered his distress to St. Peter complaining that the only reason he was in this condition was that God had failed to keep the promise. But before Peter had a chance to reply, from behind the gate came a great voice thundering, "I sent you a sheriff's deputy, I sent you a pontoon boat, I even sent you a helicopter. What more do you want?"
"The Lord is my shepherd..." When we encountered these verses in the lectionary last year I told you that someone has suggested that this is a psalm of faith that covers present, past, and future.
"The Lord IS my shepherd"...right now. Not was nor will be. And because the Lord is looking out for me right now, "I shall not be in want" - I have everything I need.
"He makes me lie down" - I get my proper rest because someone who knows I need it is watching out for me. "In green pastures" - surroundings that lend themselves to comfort and allow me to relax, be nourished, and be myself. "He leads me" - I do not have to find my own way; I have a trustworthy guide. "Beside quiet waters" - because sheep cannot drink from a fast-moving stream. "He restores my soul" - when I am down, he brings me up. "He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake" - I am not ever going to be left to fend for myself, not because I am so special, but rather this is my shepherd's nature. I am protected simply because the shepherd is the shepherd. My shepherd takes care of me. In the here and now.
My shepherd has taken care of me in the past. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"...and those valleys do come in all our lives... "I will fear no evil; for you are with me." Yes, the valleys have been there, and I had to make my way through them, but I was never alone; the shepherd was my companion. I was able to be confident in the face of adversity. Why? "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." The rod was a gnarled club the shepherd used as a weapon to defend against desert marauders, both animal and human. The staff was the crook that could be used to rescue one who had fallen from the path. Yes, it IS a comfort to know that your protector has the tools at his disposal to do the protecting.
My shepherd has done such a good job that I have been able to live with confidence even in full view of those who would bring me down. It is as though "You prepare a [banquet] table before me in the presence of my enemies" - they are powerless to do anything about it; all they can do is watch. And your care has been lavish: "You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." All that I could ever ask and more, my shepherd provides.
And that is why I can look to the future with such assurance. "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life." After all, they have been with me all along; I cannot imagine them being gone. "And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." My destiny is sure. My present, my past, my future...secure. And all because "The LORD IS MY SHEPHERD."
Now, I suppose we could leave it at that - flows nicely, neat little three-point package - but, in the process, you might have noticed, we had to make some major mental leaps which make me want to think about it again for a moment. It starts out with, "The Lord is my shepherd," through the green pastures and by quiet waters, through the darkest of valleys where a shepherd's weapons offer a modicum of comfort - the writer of the psalm seems to be envisioning himself as a sheep. OK. But then there is the line that has the sheep celebrating being led in paths of righteousness. Can you imagine a sheep concerned with "righteousness?" Or, for that matter, can you envision one ruminating over its own end in "the valley of the shadow of death?" The words are indeed beautiful, but the logic seems confused.
As we read further, we hear of that banquet table, the anointing oil, and an overflowing cup. We have stepped over now into the second half of the psalm, one which some scholars want to say suggests that what we have in our Bible is two psalms joined together...and questionably at that. The scene has changed - the author is no longer a helpless sheep but now is a human being, sitting down at table, enjoying a feast. God is no longer shepherd, but host.
Is this two psalms in one? Or is there some better explanation? Let me offer a new look at this old treasure - this from my good friend Carlos Wilton who serves a Presbyterian Church on the New Jersey shore and which originated with his Princeton Seminary Old Testament professor, Bernhard Anderson.(1) This interpretation has its roots in the original Hebrew. It takes a much more accomplished Hebrew scholar than I to pick this out, but some of the newer translations of scripture make the distinction clear. Those translations offer different English renderings from those with which we were nurtured in the well-known King James Version (differences which have prompted some folks to ask me, when it comes time to do their funerals, please read the old FAMILIAR words - I hear the concerns).
If you have read this psalm in other versions, you may have noticed, for instance, that we do not find, "He leadeth me in paths of righteousness," but instead, "He leads me in right paths." Instead of "the valley of the shadow of death," we find "the darkest valley." The modern translators chose these English words because they are truer to the original Hebrew. And as we pay attention to the difference these changes make, some of this confused logic begins to straighten out, and a whole new picture of this psalm emerges.
Imagine, if you will, that the narrator is not picturing himself as a sheep, but as a lost and lonely traveler. The blazing heat of the desert noonday is long gone, and the bitter cold of desert night is coming fast. The road has disappeared into the twilight. Provisions of food and water ran out hours ago, and the traveler is parched and hungry. In the distance, a jackal howls. Fears of wild animals and bands of robbers invade his mind. He regrets having begun this journey, and wonders if it will be his last.
But then the traveler sees a figure on a hillside, outlined against the darkening sky: a shepherd - a common, ordinary man, but one who knows these hillsides and ravines. He goes down to the weary traveler, and leads him up out of the shadowy valley to a place where the last beams of sun still light the way ahead. He leads the wayfarer to a grassy meadow, and invites him to lie down and rest awhile. The shepherd cups water from the oasis spring in his hands, and offers it. The traveler drinks and drinks and drinks.
He glances up to see the shepherd's rod, the dangerous-looking club with which he protects the sheep, and his staff, or walking-stick. It is comforting to see these symbols of a man who knows his way through the desert.
When the traveler has rested a bit, the two walk on, following "the right paths" this time, to a black goatskin tent set amidst an encampment of other tents. These are bedouins, dwellers in the dry and desolate places, determined people who know how to scratch a living from the desert. They are also outsiders to the rest of society, even outcasts. The bedouins have their own mysterious ways, unknown to our lost traveler, who would hardly have given them a thought if he passed them in the town. It occurs to him that they may even be enemies, who wish to rob or kill him.
The shepherd brings the man into his own tent. It is lit inside with oil lamps, and decorated with carpets that are as intricate and beautiful as the goatskin tent is plain. There is no fear now; the laws of Middle Eastern hospitality are in effect. As long as the traveler is in the shepherd's tent, the shepherd is absolutely pledged to protect him from all enemies.
The two sit cross-legged at a low table, and the shepherd spreads out a meal - a simple meal that somehow tastes better than any our traveler has ever had: steaming lamb stew, soft pita bread, succulent dates. In a timeless gesture of honor, the host pours a flask of fragrant oil over the guest's head, and pours wine into his cup until it overflows.
The fears of night have been transformed; where there might have been aching terror, there is now serenity and trust. Such is the power of desert hospitality. Perhaps it was this hospitality that David (or whoever wrote this psalm) once felt. And so moving was this experience, so unforgettable this rescue from the very jaws of death, that the writer comes to see it as symbolic of God's love. You see, in this vision, the bedouin shepherd becomes not himself as he is, but an angel of the Lord. It is somehow not he who rescues the traveler, but God. "The Lord is my shepherd..."
This is a psalm for times when you and I are feeling lost, helpless, alone. Perhaps it was a time of sickness or hospitalization. Or a time when you parted from a loved one, and felt pain so deep it seemed your life was being wrenched asunder. It may have been a dark night of doubt, or a spell of uncontrolled anxiety or fear. Saint or sinner, we have all been there.
In all such experiences, it is common to feel utterly alone and cast off, to think that certainly the world cannot possibly know what we are going through. The message of the Psalm is that the shepherd IS near at hand, even if we fail to sense it. And it might even be in the person of a shepherd...or a cab driver or a banker or a teacher or a nurse or a deputy sheriff, a mom or a dad, or even the occasional preacher. Who knows? Keep your eyes open.
The vision of a helping shepherd continues from the Old Testament into the New. We hear in the New Testament that Jesus Christ is "the great shepherd of the sheep,"(2) that he is the caring shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine and sets out after the one who is lost(3), that he is the "good shepherd," who knows his sheep and even lays down his life for the sheep.(4) There is something precious in the fact that the one exalted to rule the universe as king is also our shepherd, who encounters us in our private, dark desert nights, who offers cool water and a banquet of simple camp food, who watches over us in every circumstance.
"The Lord is my shepherd..." A famous actor was once the guest of honor at a social gathering where he received many requests to recite favorite excerpts from various literary works. An old preacher who happened to be there asked the actor to recite the twenty-third Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor's recitation was beautifully intoned with great dramatic emphasis for which he received lengthy applause. The preacher's voice was rough and broken from many years of preaching, and his diction was anything but polished. But when he finished there was not a dry eye in the room. When someone asked the actor what made the difference, he replied, "I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd."(5)
Know the shepherd. Know that he is nearby. Know that he loves you. Know that he will come when you call to him in prayer, when you are frightened, or anxious, or in pain. Then you will be able to affirm, with the psalmist, "The Lord is MY shepherd...Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
1. Carlos Wilton, Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, via PresbyNet, "An Encounter with the Shepherd," 11/25/90
2. Hebrews 13:20
3. Matthew 18:12-14
4. John 10:11
5. Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technologies, 1994)