YEAR B: EASTER 4
The fourth Sunday in Easter is traditionally ‘Shepherd Sunday’ with Psalm 23 set alongside a reading from John 10:11-18, which speaks of Jesus as the ‘good shepherd’. In the Gospel reading the ‘good shepherd’ lays down his life for the sheep. This theme is picked up in the Epistle, 1 John 3:16-24.
The origins of Psalm 23, a psalm of trust, are uncertain. It has traditionally been ascribed to David, partly because of the portrayal of David as a shepherd boy when Samuel was sent to anoint him king over Israel (1 Sam 16:11). With its peaceful tone and the varying images of sheep in a pastoral scene, it can be envisioned as written by a poet shepherd, meditating on God’s faithful provision. However, some modern scholars have associated the psalm with the exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt. Themes from that story are repeated in the psalm. What could have been the poem of a shepherd boy thus becomes the song of the whole people of Israel.
Two images dominate the psalm: that of the shepherd with his/her sheep (vv. 1-4) and that of a banquet with military overtones (v. 5). These images may seem worlds apart to us but they were not in their ancient setting. Right across the ancient Near East kings were referred to as ‘the shepherds’ of their people. So in its ancient setting the shepherd imagery of Psalm 23 already alludes to David, its ‘author’, as king and the reference to him as keeping the sheep for his father in 1 Sam 16:11 prefigures the royal calling about to be bestowed on him.
There is one other division in the psalm. While at the beginning and at the end, the psalmist speaks about the Lord, in vv. 4-5 the psalmist speaks directly to the Lord as ‘you’. This happens precisely at the point of greatest danger. Trust in the Lord’s protection and provision is thus not only something that the psalmist can speak about at a distance; they are part of his/her personal experience. They emanate from an intimate, personal relationship with the Lord. The surpassing peace and trust that the psalmist knows stand against the threats implied behind the scenes of shepherd care. There is here a trust that allows the psalmist not to fear.
The shepherd imagery focuses entirely on the Lord’s provision for his people. The second clause of v. 1, ‘I shall not want’, speaks not about what I might desire, but the complete provision of the Lord’s shepherd-like care. The sense of the Hebrew is that there is nothing else that ‘I’ might need. In v. 2, the shepherd makes the sheep to rest in green pastures where there is ample food for sustenance. There is also water to assuage thirst, ‘waters of rest’ in the Hebrew, connoting both physical needs met and rest for the spirit. In v. 3, the psalm continues ‘he restores my soul’, literally in the Hebrew ‘my life’. The implication for the psalmist is that he has been given rest and safe provision after a time of threat and danger. The sheep is also led ‘in right paths’ by the shepherd, whose choice of safe pasture is central to his provision for the sheep. The older King James translation (KJV) of ‘in paths of righteousness’, while possible from the Hebrew, tends to indicate a sense of moral uprightness. That is not the sense of the Hebrew. ‘Safety and sustenance’ are the twin themes in these early verses. All this is done ‘for his name’s sake’, that is, because of who the Lord is. Such protection and provision are an expression of the Lord’s nature.
This psalm has a long history of devotional use in Christian tradition. Many hymns have been based on it. There are two ways in which it has been understood, depending on how certain phrases have been interpreted. The psalm is commonly chosen for funerals. This has been the case when the translation of v. 4 has been something like ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ as in the KJV. This has been coupled with a translation of the end of v. 6 as ‘for ever’. Thus the psalm has been linked to the hope of resurrection and a steady presence through the frightening landscape of terminal illness. The NRSV translates v. 4 as ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me….’ The image of the ‘darkest valley’ could thus encompass a wider range of human experiences than just the fear of death implied in ‘valley of the shadow of death’. The end of v. 6 is also translated in the NRSV as ‘my whole life long’ or literally from the Hebrew as ‘for length of days’. In this way the psalm has to do with trust in the days of our lives rather than just through the passage of death. In short, it is more about what Christians would call ‘discipleship’ than it is about death. So in preaching, application could be made to depression or other dark passages of life, illness or broken relationships. In v. 4 the shepherd’s tools of rod and staff are signs of comfort and guidance, means of discipline and direction through the life of faith.
In v. 5, the scene shifts, and the Lord is pictured as a hospitable host, preparing a table with food and drink, and anointing the head of the visitor. For the Christian preacher, there are overtones of the Eucharistic meal here, and the anointing of one with Davidic connection may have echoes of the anointing of a king or even a Messiah. The statement in v. 6 that ‘goodness and mercy’ (kindness) will follow the psalmist all their life, loses the strength of the Hebrew. The word translated ‘follow’ more properly gives the sense of ‘pursue’ or ‘chase’. The trust of the psalmist throughout their life is more than matched by the persistence of the Lord in his sustenance and care of his people. Such is the greatness of the Lord’s mercy and the preacher might want to refect on that in light of the depth of God’s love pursuing us through the death and resurrection of Christ. The psalm ends with a statement of deep, life-long faith.
Preachers may find in this psalm of trust resonance for our times that includes daily reports of fighting, threats of terror, and crimes against helpless societies and groups. In all this they can proclaim the abiding, merciful, and persistent presence of God, our source of lasting comfort and security.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
Words from the psalm can be used in the assurance of forgiveness after confession and in the people’s response:
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,In this Easter season a response by the congregation to the declaration of forgiveness incorporating the Easter ‘Alleluias’ may be appropriate. Hence, after the declaration the people might respond:
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Here, then, Christ’s word of blessing, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. AlleluiaIf the service includes the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, the prayer of approach before the Supper might include imagery from Psalm 23:
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Be present, risen Lord Jesus,
as you were with your disciples,
and make yourself known to us
in the breaking of the bread;
for you live and reign with the Father
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen
[also based on the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24]