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.
Ukraine? How do we respond to the Russian invasion that has gone on for almost two weeks now? By this, I do not mean governmental, political, or economic responses. Instead, the question has to do with our own hearts. Maybe it depends on the generation or location. Since the war began, I’ve not heard too much from younger adults in their early 20s. Perhaps this is because it is occurring on the other side of the globe. Out of sight, out of mind to our present context some would say.
For me though, I grew up in the latter part of the Cold War, so my connection is a bit heightened. I remember being in college when the Berlin wall fell, and the Soviet Union dissolved. So, the knowledge of an aggressive Russia triggers emotions.
More importantly, during a ten-week foreign internship in 1993, I spent just over a week in Ukraine, so I have personal connections there. In addition, through other ministry contacts, I am aware of Christian leaders in the country. On the other end of the storyline, I lived in Moscow, Russia, from 1994 to 1996, helping establish a Bible college, and have many beautiful memories from that time and know people in Russia who do not support the actions of Putin and other Soviet-era leaders who want to take over Ukraine.
But across the world, the public chatter is growing much more vocal. Maybe it’s the constant media. One of the differences between the Viet Nam war and all previous wars is the amount of continuous media coverage that comes into American homes on the nightly news with more graphic images than ever before. Today, with our media technology, anyone with a cell phone can record and shoot to the world at any time. So, these videos and reports from Ukraine are sometimes happening in real-time, which conveys raw information and sometimes very intense emotions.
So, for us, who are not actually on the ground there, how can we respond? There are some great and growing options to send humanitarian aid. Two of those are with Impact Ministry Group and Marked Men For Christ in which you can go to the site and click to designate for Ukraine. Physically, though, there is little more. On the other hand, as a child of God, there is indeed so much more we can and must do. In truth, for those who call themselves followers of Christ, there is the essential thing that can and must be done, we must pray.
When I think of prayers in the Bible, one of the first appeals that come to my mind is a prayer we know as the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 is one of the most widely referenced and partially quoted prayers within and without the church. With a bolt, it flies out of the shoot with the opening line of, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want . . .” and is further carried with the powerful image of walking through the “valley of the shadow of death.”
The text is a recording of prayer deep within the soul of King David as he acknowledged that despite everything, God will bring deliverance. We don’t know if the context was one of him fleeing the mad King Saul, or possibly, this was even more personal as some believe that David offered up this praise and plea when his son, Absalom, tried to usurp the Kingdom from David and take his life. Whatever the historical specifics may be, we see in this prayer David reaching up to God and finding hope despite what was quaking around him in the present.
Yes, we can still today reach back some three thousand years and find hope for today. But the real and ultimate fulfillment of this Psalm is found in John 10:11 where Jesus addresses all our tensions with the proclamation that he indeed is the one and only Good Shepherd. It was Jesus who faced the final and greatest enemy, death, and triumphed over it and Satan on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. His resurrection demands proof of his divinity and thus we have assurance of His future return with the final judgment, and reward. As David trusted in the God of all creation, we too, lift our voices with praise and prayer today knowing that Jesus, the Divine Son of God, will hear us.
-Like so many occasions in so many places of the past, I recite in faith, David’s prayer of Psalm 23.
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.
-From David’s prayer, I offer up my brief personal and present additions . . .
“Lord, I declare before all creation that you, and you alone, are the true shepherd. Putin, Zelensky, Biden, Trump, and other governmental leaders are not the true shepherd and the power they wield is only given by you. To you, and you alone, I ask that you bring divine help to the suffering not only in Ukraine but to all who call out to you.
Jesus, the valley of the shadow of death is very real in Ukraine today. I ask that you use your rod and staff to confuse and confront those who are set against you and set toward evil and violence. As David prayed for the confusing of the enemy in 2 Samuel 15:31, we pray that you will bring to nothing those who are bent on violence. I ask that you bring miracles and wisdom to those standing against evil.
Lord, David spoke of hope, of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. He spoke that even though he was separated from the tabernacle, from the Arc of the Covenant, which was still in Jerusalem. David spoke of hope because his hope was in you.
I pray for those in Ukraine suffering in ways I cannot imagine. I pray for those in Russia who do not agree with the aggressive actions of Putin. I pray for those who live near the DMZ in North and South Korea, for those in Cuba, for those in China and Taiwan. I pray for the people of Honduras who are now under communist rule. I pray for the poor in Mexico, Central America, Africa, and in the lower reaches of rural America and the slums of US and international cities.
I pray that you will bring the final and ultimate victory. As we wait for your complete judgment and renewal of all things, give us strength to carry on in trust. Above all, I pray for open hearts and that they will see your grace and power. I pray that through the chaos right now, you might be glorified, and people might come to know you.
Yes, Jesus, I pray that you would be the shepherd to those who call upon your name.
In Your Holy Name, Amen”