In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I sometimes wonder how it is that this particular psalm became the psalm. The psalm that the vast majority of people request at funeral. The psalm that everyone seems to know, even if they couldn’t locate the book of Psalms in the Bible. I suspect that there are quite a few unbelievers who would be able to complete the sentence: “The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want.” But I sometimes wonder why. And not only because I tend to want to go in other directions when things become overused. There are other psalms that certainly rival this one in beauty and impressive imagery. There are other psalms that evoke the joy of the Lord in ways at least as powerful as this one. I don’t really have the answer, but I know this: as overused as it is, the fame of Psalm 23 is justified. Because you can find the entire history of God’s salvation summed up in this psalm. You can pull on any of the threads in this psalm, and you will find them spreading like a spider’s web throughout the entire Scriptures.
Perhaps it begins with David, the “shepherd boy,” who is not content to deliver food to his brothers and gifts to their commanders, as his father had asked. Like many other boys, no doubt he wants to get much closer to the action. And he sees Goliath of Gath, the Philistine who, day after day, comes out to challenge Israel to send someone to fight him. But no one will. Until David says that he will. The king’s armor is too heavy, so he goes back to what he knows, and chooses five stones rubbed smooth by the river. And he sinks one of them into the forehead of Goliath, killing him and scattering Israel’s enemies by the power of God. And David the shepherd becomes the king.
Trace it through the prophets, and you’ll find that by the time of Ezekiel the shepherds of Israel, their kings, have failed the people. Instead of shepherding them to the best food of Yahweh, their God, the kings have led them to the putrid pastures of the gods of the nations, which are no gods at all. They have gotten fat off the sheep, using them for their own purposes. So God promises them that He Himself will judge against them on behalf of His sheep. He will send a new David to shepherd His people. He will seek them out, gather them to Himself, feed them, and bind up their wounds. And so it goes, as from the house and line of David, the promised one comes. He sees the people and they are like sheep without a shepherd. So He says, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He fulfills the promise God gave through Ezekiel and begins to gather His sheep, and sheep from other folds, to Himself. Not only is He the shepherd, but He’s the gate of the sheep, preserving them, and keeping their enemies out of the sheepfold. He is no hired hand, who cares only for Himself, but the one, true shepherd.
And He remains the shepherd who, in that gloriously mixed scriptural metaphor, is also the Lamb of God. Look! John says. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The sheep who—each and every one of them—has gone astray. So the shepherd becomes a lamb, to bear the rebellion of the sheep against their good shepherd. He goes silently to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers is silent. He goes all the way down into the places where the shadow of death looms the darkest. His blood marks the doors of the faithful, and death passes over. Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. He is the ram caught in the crossed branches, by which Isaac is delivered from death. Because Isaac, through whom the promise would come, was not yet the eternal Son of Promise. But when the Son of Promise came, He was not delivered by an angel’s voice. He bore the sins of all the wayward sheep and was buried in the ground that we have trampled.
Thus the Shepherd prepares a place in life for dying sheep. It is not to heaven that He goes to make room in the Father’s house. It is right into the valley of the death shadow, and by His own death He restores life to His creation. To all those—to you and to me—sitting, dwelling, living in the realm and the shadow of death, a light has dawned. From that moment He began to preach, “Repent, because the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” There is no place over which the shadow of death does not fall in this creation, until Jesus rises from the dead, the great shepherd of His sheep. And now the place is prepared, a place where He and His Father dwell with the Spirit. A house not made with human hands, but God is both the architect and the builder. Jesus is the cornerstone. In this house, God sets the table for a feast. A feast that will be fulfilled when death is gone and our eyes are clear and new. A feast that will go on and on, the victory of the Lamb who was slain. Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us keep the feast! If only we could see, at this bare altar, with a little bread and wine, the feast of eternity. It is now only by faith, but this is the cup that never runs low. Psalm 16 says that Yahweh Himself is my cup. He is the cup from which we drink, and His mercy is enough for everyone, and still it keeps overflowing. In the Greek, this psalm doesn’t say “my cup runs over”; it says, “Your cup makes drunk like the most excellent [wine].” It is no coincidence, then, that Jesus goes to that wedding in Cana and gives the already inebriated guests more wine than they could ever drink. Because in this creation, on this earth, there is only lack, only want, only death and destruction. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, brings an end to all that. He is the cup that is poured out on the cross, but that never goes dry. And He arranges the table even now, among us, His former enemies, so that we can eat and drink with Him in celebration of His victory.
And His goodness and mercy will never stop pursuing you, chasing you, tracking you down, until the final day, when He brings His sheep forever to the springs of living water, and there are no more tears, no more mourning, no more grief, no more death, no more suffering. And this creation will be put right; “the suffering verbs put to sleep in the night” (Josh Ritter). The entire creation will come clear as the dwelling place of God with His people, and He will be your God and you will be His people, and you will dwell in His house with Him forever, new bodies, new heavens, new earth.
What shall I give to Yahweh, for all His benefits to me? I will receive the chalice of salvation, and I will call on the Name of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord, the Good Shepherd, will be saved, delivered out of the shadow of death and into the eternal life of the slain Lamb who is alive forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/12/16