Psalm 23 – For you are with me.

by Josh Olds.

I’ve recently had to have the unfortunate situation of retiring a trusty sidekick that I’ve had for many years. This companion of mine has served me well and always made me look my best in front of others. Regrettably, my faithful aid was simply no longer fit for purpose, as I have outgrown it. I am of course referring to a wedding shirt. A few years ago we had a wedding coming up, and so I went and bought a new shirt. I liked the colour and the style of it so much that I decided I’d only wear it on special occasions so that I didn’t wear it out. I always chuckled to myself when I’d watch Susan stress about what to wear to an upcoming wedding, the rummaging through the wardrobe, the regular refrain of “I’ve got nothing to wear!” I knew I had my old reliable wedding shirt ready to go. But I made a short-sighted and crucial mistake when I bought it, I foolishly opted for the fitted option. It was perhaps wishful thinking on my part that I could maintain the physique I had in my early twenties… So the time has come for my trusty wedding shirt to be passed on to someone with a lesser waistline. Anyway, the shirt served me well, it was always on hand to be put to use when called upon, and it always rose to the occasion.

I wonder if in some ways Psalm 23 has become a bit like my wedding shirt. Not that I think it needs to be retired, but rather because it’s such a well-loved and beautiful piece of scripture it’s often chosen for special occasions, such as funerals, or baptisms. And for good reason, Psalm 23 includes some of the most wondrous imagery in the whole Bible. The metaphor of God as a caring, guiding, and protecting shepherd to us his flock, is simple, yet profoundly comforting. It’s not controversial, it’s not long or complex, it’s reassuring, it’s full of beauty, and it ends with positivity and hope. But because Psalm 23 is such a favourite and has become so familiar and well-used on special occasions, it can be easy to gloss over it and recite its words without appreciating its depth. I’m going to read it to you again, but from Eugene Peterson’s Message version of the Bible, I think hearing it in words we’re not as familiar with can help us hear it afresh:

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction. Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life. (Msg)

The Psalm is packed with metaphor and imagery isn’t it? I’m sure many of us have mental images that spring to mind for us when we come across this Psalm. My mind always goes to a particular picnic area on the bank of the Aniseed river near Nelson, where we’ve spent many summers swimming in the gentle current of the river, and dozing in the sun on the grassy shore. I wonder what images this Psalm brings to mind for you? I’m sure that there will be a number of feelings and memories associated with Psalm 23 for many of us, and it’s good to sit with those – I think it helps earth this ancient poem for us in the here and now. But it’s also important that we don’t miss the forest for the trees (or the lush meadows for the blades of grass!). It’s easy for the sentimentality so intertwined with this Psalm to distract us from the other things that it might have to offer us.

This has been a familiar Psalm to me for a long time. I remember reciting it at Sunday school as a child, but it was only recently that I cottoned on to the fact that all of the imagery in the Psalm actually fit together to illustrate the metaphor of a journey. The Psalmist, generally thought to be David, someone very familiar with the transient life of sheep and shepherding, seems to be describing his perception of God’s presence with him as he journeys through life. The meadows and quiet pools are places of momentary rest and refreshment along the journey. Perhaps they are seasons marked by peace and harmony. The Psalmist is aware that while the journey might be his, there is some sense in which God guides him in the right direction. Maybe another way to think of the journey is as a supervised wandering, a bit like shepherding sheep – the general direction is provided, but the sheep are free to wander and weave however they like as they go. Or to put it another way, maybe it’s a bit like taking the kids to the playground where they need to stay on the playground but are free to go down the slide, or on the swing, or maybe on the seesaw, you get the point – the Psalmist wanders under the watchful eye of God who points him in the right direction.

Interestingly, the Psalmist’s journey, which is guided in the ‘right direction’ by the Great Shepherd, is not one that is free of dark valleys or adversaries, they are part of the journey. Perhaps they are seasons marked by suffering and trouble. You almost get the impression from the Psalm that a journey in the right direction will inevitably include these things. Yet even in the darkness, the Great Shepherd remains present, and it is in this truth that the Psalmist finds a way forward. In fact, this is really the central idea of the whole Psalm, that the presence of God accompanies the Psalmist through all of the twists and turns of the journey. That middle phrase in verse 4 “for you are with me,” is both figuratively and literally the central point of the Psalm –  I read a commentary this week that said that in the original Hebrew of this Psalm, there are exactly 26 words before the phrase that is translated “you are with me,” and exactly 26 words after it.[1] By composing his Psalm with this assurance at its heart, it’s as if the Psalmist is saying that God being with him is the fundamental truth that guides his entire life. “You are with me,” God is with us.

In the last two verses of the Psalm, the Psalmist plays with another metaphor for the accompanying presence of God throughout his journey. Where God began as the Great Shepherd guiding the Psalmist along his journey, he now becomes the Great Host who tends and generously provides for the Psalmist. I don’t think the Great Shepherd metaphor is replaced here but added to. This is a shepherd who loves his flock, who chooses to be near to his sheep, who is ultimately for them and lovingly provides for them. Again, this isn’t to suggest that the journey with the Great Host will be free from difficulty, as the presence of enemies remains, but what it does suggest is that even in difficulty the posture of the Great Host towards us is one of affection and care, one where we are invited by the Great Host to make ourselves at home in his presence.

I know it’s a familiar one, but I find the metaphor of a journey quite helpful. It reminds me to not take the moments of rest in the meadows for granted, and it also reminds me that the dark valleys won’t last forever. It reminds me that there’s somewhere we’re headed, a future to hope for, and to play a part in bringing to the here and now. The whole metaphor of the journey is based on the fact that things change, but the unique part of the journey that Psalm 23 hangs on is that the one constant in the journey is the accompaniment of God’s presence – “for you are with me.” It’s good to be reminded of that because it’s easy to lose sight of. Both in the meadows, when things are good – God can sometimes become a bit redundant when we don’t perceive a need for him, and in the dark valleys, when things are difficult – our suffering can make us begin to question whether God really is there. But this Psalm draws us away from circumstance being what points us to God, and encourages us to engage with our circumstances through the lens of “you are with me.”

So if you were to consider your life through the lens of the journey metaphor of Psalm 23, what does your journey look like at the moment? What sort of season do you find yourself in? Perhaps one marked by peace and joy where your cup is full, if not overflowing. Or maybe you find yourself in a season marked by darkness and difficulty, where you know struggle and your cup feels quite empty. A lot of the time many of us likely find ourselves somewhere in between where we seem to be a lush meadow, but one that happens to be situated in a dark valley, where there is a reason for joy, but also a reason for pain. But as the Psalm affirms – “you are with me,” God is with us, what does that mean for you in the current season of your journey?

The God who is with us, the Great Shepherd, would later come to be known also as the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, who knows a thing or two about journeys. I mentioned last week that the season of Lent that we find ourselves in is a journey that takes us through to Easter. And I can’t help but think of the parallel here of the journey that Jesus took through to the cross – it was of course the right path, but it was a path that went through the darkest of all valleys. However, it was also a journey that overcame the darkness. And so our Great Shepherd is one who inherently knows what it means to be on a journey with twists and turns, one who truly does know what it means to accompany us in each season.

Often Lent is associated with spiritual disciplines – picking something up, or putting something down in an attempt to orientate ourselves toward God in a new way, and there’s much value to be found in doing something like that. But this Psalm reminds us that Lent isn’t just about what we are doing, but is also an opportunity to gain or regain awareness of what God is doing in our lives. How he is accompanying us, what he might be saying to us, where he might be guiding us, how he might be tending to us on our journeys. Psalm 23 reminds us that whatever our journey looks like at the moment, whatever season we find ourselves in, God is present with us – you are with me.

[1] Howell, James. Commentary on Psalm 23: The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favourite. Working Preacher: