As many young people have returned to school recently, I thought of things I learned when I was in school which I continue to use today. One of the most difficult things for me to do in school was memorization – and in my day and time, we memorized the Twenty-third Psalm. I actually did it and was proud of what I had done! Many people can recite it from memory as well – whether learned in school, at home or in church.
As I have reflected on the Psalm this week, I have again been struck by its simple beauty and yet its depth. These words are God’s words to us – to provide hope, love, assurance and comfort. This is such a powerful scripture. Not long ago I went to the Jewish synagogue in Huntington to attend the funeral of the mother of a childhood friend. During the funeral, this Psalm was used as a part of the scripture readings for the occasion. What a sense of unity I felt as we – a Christian and a number of Jewish believers using this scripture – were worshipping the same God.
I have read accounts of ministers who were at the death beds of people. In each of the accounts the minister did not quite know what to say or do. The patients were either in comas or under heavy medication. As it turns out the ministers would hold the hand of the person and would begin to read the 23rd Psalm, as they did, there would be a response – even from the depths of their state of unconsciousness – and in some cases mouth the familiar words of this scripture. While most of the patients did pass away, at the last, they were able to at least have a word from God on their lips or in their inner being.
This Psalm begins with a straightforward profession – “The Lord is my Shepherd” – how similar to our basic profession or confession of “Jesus is Lord”. It then goes on to “I shall not want” – which can be translated – “I shall lack nothing”. God is sufficient to supply all of our needs. God is the only necessity of life.
The rest of the Psalm goes on to clarify what the implications are of this simple, beautiful statement. Grass and water are in short supply in Israel. Since there is little water, there is little lushness – little grass. When the Psalmist says that the Lord ‘makes me to lie down in green pastures’, the assumption is that as sheep our food supplies will provided – in abundance – green pastures implies a lot of grass.
In a similar fashion, when the Psalmist says the Lord will lead me ‘beside still waters’ – quiet waters where one finds safety and security. The conclusion here is that drink – life giving water – will be available. Is this talking about food and water, or is there something more here? There are spiritual overtones to this supply of life giving nourishment.
First of all, it comes from God. We are like sheep. God leads us and directs us and provides for us. As sheep all we have to do is follow God’s instructions and listen for the shepherd’s voice. When we respond, God through the Psalmist said that the Shepherd would restore our soul – allow us to know the riches of His mercy and peace through grace. Heeding His voice, we would be lead in the paths – the direction – that our lives should take. When we take those paths, we do not have to fear where we go. We can go into the darkest valley and know the Lord is with us.
We all have dark valleys in our lives. The valleys may be different for each of us. For some it may be drudging away in the same dreary job, others it may be the separation from another person through divorce or death, for another it may be an illness and yet for someone else it may be an obsession – for sex, food, gambling or some other pleasure.
Death may seem like a dark valley, but I would imagine we each have certain burdens, which have followed us. We say we give them to the Lord, but then pick them back up again – only to create the same fears and distress we had before. But God is with us. When we follow His voice into the dark chasms of life, we know that we do not have to fear.
God is sufficient. We can take comfort in that knowledge – what great assurance. Let us open our ears to His voice. What joy, peace and comfort will come to us when we do.
Rev. James Musgrave is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Logan and a member of the Logan Ministerial Association.