By Kevin Morrow
“We are living in scary times!” is an often-heard phrase these days, reflecting the sentiment shared by many who struggle to make sense of the unraveling of human society in the 21st century.
Violence is escalating on a global scale. We have been witnessing the Assyrian-like rampage of ISIS spreading across the northern Middle East, resulting in vast destruction and the massacre of tens of thousands of Christians. Terrorist attacks have rocked the U.S., France, and other European nations. Tensions are mounting between the United States, Iran, Syria, Russia, and North Korea.
Since the recent presidential election America has been embroiled in civil strife, reflecting how fractured our nation has become. College campuses and city squares have become nerve centers for hate speech, angry mobs, and wanton violence. Racial tensions intensify, resulting in the rise of street violence and cop killings.
According to new cultural standards, right is wrong and wrong is right. In the words of Desiderius Erasmus, we are living in “an age worse than iron”—probably an allusion to the rebellious attitudes and activities witnessed in the dark days of the prophets (see Isaiah 48:4; Jeremiah 6:28). Yes, these are indeed “scary times.”
When life is scary there is no better place to seek encouragement and hope than God’s Word, especially the book of Psalms. Perhaps this is why people find a kindred spirit with psalms of lament. It’s easy to identify with the emotional and mental anguish conveyed through the messages of the darker psalms which often reflect the harder realities of life.
The Psalms contain a rich treasure trove of various genres of poetic literature. Psalm 23, known as the Shepherd Psalm, is one of the most venerated and cherished psalms in Christendom. Some scholars believe it has echoes of lament behind it, because it seems to arise out of the turbulent experiences of the person who wrote it. Only one who has experienced God’s deliverance so personally can sing so confidently of his shepherding capabilities and say of the Lord, he is “my shepherd.”
Despite its familiarity and short length, Psalm 23 is a difficult psalm to write about. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia University, said it is “almost pretentious to comment on Psalm 23.” Why is that? Because this is the most popular psalm in history! It has been expounded, preached, and written about innumerable times over the centuries. Yet people continually turn to this psalm when facing heart-wrenching, soul-shaking events in life to be continually reminded that God is in charge and that he will get us through the scary times. That is certainly something to sing about! It is a song of hope. After all, Psalm 23 has been called the “Nightingale of the Psalms.” A nightingale is a nocturnal songbird. In the midst of life’s darkest moments, Psalm 23 provides a comforting song to remind us that we are in the care of the Great Shepherd.
The first chord struck in this song of hope is the most important. In fact, the rest of the psalm will be out of tune if we fail to hear the message that resonates so clearly in the first verse. David reminds us that before we can join the chorus and claim Psalm 23 as our song, we must recognize that it demands self-abdication—total surrender to God.
To acknowledge God as “my shepherd” requires us to accept the reality that we are sheep, and thus totally dependent on God. It is easy to see the humility of the writer and the reality of his own self-abandonment in this beautiful pastoral imagery so common to the ancient culture of the Middle East.
Only when we understand the theological implications of verse one will we be able to stay in tune with the rest of the song. The Shepherd is supreme. God reminds us of this in Ezekiel 34:31: “‘As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,’ declares the Lord God” (New American Standard Bible).
In his book Psalm 23: Song of the Shepherd, Mark Tabb writes, “The first step toward life as a sheep before the Shepherd is the realization of the greatness of God and the worthlessness of our own selves. We must begin with the confession that we are sinners totally incapable of saving ourselves.” The very imagery of the psalm underscores this theology. The nature of this sheep analogy became very real to me one summer when I was in Jordan.
In 1996 I was privileged to be a part of the archeological expedition at Abila of Decapolis for another dig season. One weekend I experienced a very shocking scene. I went for a walk along the eastern edge of a valley known as Wadi Quailibah, the primary water source for this ancient city. As I walked along the steep edge, I noticed about 6 to 8 sheep lying dead in a heap at the bottom of a 30-foot drop. To my surprise, one of the local Bedouin told me that one sheep went over the edge, and the next one followed, and the next one followed, until the last sheep went over.
I could hardly believe what he was telling me, but the evidence below verified his story. This is the kind of animal we are compared to in God’s Word. The Bible refers to us as “sheep” at least 69 times, and that does not include references where we are referred to as the “flock.” Whether we want to admit it or not, it is an accurate depiction. We are totally helpless, and we do some pretty foolish things sometimes. Thankfully, we have a shepherd, our heavenly Father.
The psalm is designed to drive this point home. The name “Lord” or Yahweh appears twice in the text, once at the beginning and again at the end. This creates a literary frame or bookend around the psalm, a device scholars refer to as an inclusio. An inclusio is used in ancient Hebrew poetry to express totality or completeness. By having God’s name envelop the psalm, the writer illustrates that God’s presence surrounds us. He encompasses all of life. Not a single area of our lives is beyond the reach of the divine Shepherd. How reassuring. Doesn’t that make you want to sing?
The implications of this reality is orchestrated as three statements of trust, which is probably why this psalm is categorized as a psalm of trust. First, “I shall not want” (v. 1, King James Version). We will never be in need of anything. Second, “I will fear no evil” (v. 4). God protects us and watches over us. He is the guardian of our lives. As Paul reminds us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31, NIV). And third, “I will dwell” (Psalm 23:6). Our destination is set in the presence of God.
Each of these statements is written in the first person. Can you confidently make these claims for your life? Do you trust in the God who shepherds you through the ups and downs of life, even the really scary stuff? Is this your song? Each of these trust statements reveals a God who is actively and personally involved in the life of his sheep. But this song is not over yet. The writer continues to build the tempo of this song, which is set to the activity of God in the life of the believer.
The writer describes eight ways that God impacts our lives. First, he “makes me lie down” (v. 2a). We have rest and solitude in him. Second, he “leads” (v. 2b). He paves the way for us. Third, he “refreshes” (v. 3a). He repairs us when we are broken. Fourth, he “guides” (v. 3b). Our steps and direction are managed by him. What is really interesting at this point is that the writer switches from third person to second person pronouns, as if changing keys in the song. It appears that when he starts experiencing the dark valley of the shadow of death, the scariest point in life, he changes from talking about God and talks directly to God, as if God is closest when we face the darkest tribulations.
Fifth, He says, “You are with me” (v 4a). God is ever and always present. Sixth, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v 4b). The symbols of God’s authority reassure us and give us confidence. Seventh, “you prepare a table” (v 5a). A reminder of God’s provision of grace and mercy. And finally, “you anoint my head” (v 5b). We receive daily blessings. What a symphony!
The psalmist provides us with a beautiful portrait of an individual whose life is surrendered to the authority and guardianship of the Great Shepherd. Despite these scary times in which we live, there is a song that resonates with the times, reminding us that we can have hope because we belong to the Great Shepherd of the universe. That is a song worth singing!
Kevin Morrow lives in Joplin, Missouri with his wife Becky.