Country Pastor column: God is your Good Shepherd
By Timothy Rosenow, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Prescott
I can't count the number of times I've watched a movie and the extras are all dressed in black while the pastor/priest reads "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." [Psalm 23:4, KJV]. So there tends to be a tendency to think of Psalm 23 as the "death psalm." But because of that we tend to miss a lot of tending here for every stage and circumstance of life. Even with words that you may know by heart, there's plenty to be gleaned and learned. So we'll see that at all times and in every way God is our Good Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd [v.1], which then makes us the sheep. And you could look at that in a negative way: Sheep are stupid and stubborn, often persistently insisting on their way, even when it leads to self-harm. "Aren't you smart enough to think critically about your 'shepherd's' words? You're just 'sheeple' blindly following the leader." David knew about being a shepherd, but he knew all the more about being a sheep. David's selfish ambitions led him to late-night lust, taking another man's wife, a cover-up worse than Watergate, hands bloodied by that innocent man's murder, and that massive boulder of guilt.
What David-the-sheep needed—and we still need—was rest. When my Shepherd makes me lie down in green pastures [v.2a] it's not looking to see the greener grass on the other side, but finding the nourishing spring growth to feed my famished heart forgiveness. When my Shepherd leads me beside quiet waters [v.2b] it isn't so I can be washed only to dirty myself again, but to find the sustaining, soul-quenching stream of his loving, living waters [John 4:10].
Because look where we found ourselves. This darkest valley of the shadow of death [v.4] is not just something I face when I'm in physical danger, or nearing life's end. This valley is my sinful nature's comfort zone. Here, I get caught up in the moment by greedy materialism, proud competition, and I'm laser-focused on all these things which end abruptly and permanently in death. A wise pastor once said, "Only two things on earth are eternal: the Word of God and the human soul. We would do well to focus on these while we can."
So that's where God points us with your rod and your staff [v.4]. They comfort me, because with them God brings correction to us, hooking around our wayward necks, and dragging our stubborn-sheep-selves back to him. Then he unexpectedly places a feast before us, and it's even in the presence of my enemies [v.5]! Whether they are jealous onlookers or joyful participants is not David's focus, but in either case, it's for me—the table is set [v.5] for David-the-sheep! And notice: You set that table for me [v.5], indicating that God the Good Shepherd is serving this feast for his sheep.
God's shepherding doesn't stop there: Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life [v.6]. Think about someone who plans to cause harm to another, how tirelessly they pursue them. Now open your eyes and realize that's exactly what's happening, but with goodness and mercy!
So I will live in the house of the Lord forever [v.6], but only because that boulder of guilt was rolled away when another boulder was rolled away that blocked a now-empty tomb. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep [John 10:11]. That's why this Psalm is so well-known and well-loved: at all times and in all ways God is your Good Shepherd. Amen.