What is it about Psalm 23? The emotion of the ancient text is somewhat like the old hymn, Amazing Grace, written by a former slave trader, John Newton, in 1772. Amazing Grace, or at least the last the first stanza, tends to show up in movies and television programs during a funeral scene even when there is absolutely no other overt Christian theme at all in the storyline. The old hymn conveys hope in death and dire situations. So, what is it about Psalm 23? It conveys hope in dire and hopeless situations.
Few can quote the entire psalm. Yet many have heard how the prayer opens with the emotional outpouring, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” Then, near the psalm’s conclusion, we are taken through the painful feelings of “walking through the shadow of death.” But yet, we begin to rise a bit with confidence, declaring that we will “fear no evil.” Finally, with a crescendo of hope, the psalm concludes with our eyes turned heavenward in the affirmation that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Psalm 23 is a prayer song of King David from some very dark days where he owned his ragged emotions, yet he was able to find Hope in God and then press forward.
Recently I officiated a funeral service in which Amazing Grace was sung and I, at the request of a family member, centered on Psalm 23 in my sermon. After addressing some of the ever-present soul questions that quietly rise to the surface of people’s minds at a funeral, I was able to point to the work of Christ on the Cross and his resurrection, which gives assurance of where we will be on the other side of eternity.
Then I was able to share this ancient prayer of hope for those left behind until they, too, step into eternity.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Notice the offer of rest from a chaotic world and media that never shuts off. See the hope of renewal for the depleted soul. Feel the relief offered to those oppressed and told that there would be a day of judgment when all things would be made right. Hear the offer of reliance from a God who comes through in a world where trust is in short order. Yes, Psalm 23 conveys the truth of a God that can be trusted even when we feel like all of creation has fallen apart – that somehow, God is faithful at the end of the day.
Though this is all encouraging, which it should be, the greatest fulfillment of Psalm 23 is found in Jesus Christ, who in John 10 noted that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus accomplished the greatest hope of all. He died for my sin and rose again, defeating the greatest enemy of all, the grave. Sin and death destroy, but for those who know Jesus, the most excellent shepherd, there is hope.
John Newton found hope and grace in Jesus despite his former sinful life as a slave trader. David sought and found hope and recorded his prayer journey in Psalm 23. Yes, even today, this hope can be realized for you. The author of Hebrews declares to all creation that the ultimate shepherd, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Are you looking around at our present world and wondering if there is hope? Yes, there is hope, and this is the greatest message from Psalm 23. Today, this is the psalm and song of hope we need.