The Lord Is My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd. In a moment, we will jump into this phrase that begins the 23rd Psalm. Before we do, though, I want to take a few minutes looking at the psalm as a whole, since we will be spending much of our summer exploring it.

It is, like many psalms, attributed to David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of ancient Israel. And while its opening image of sheep and shepherd is the one that tends to dominate, it is actually one of two central metaphors for God that the psalmist uses. God is portrayed as both shepherd and host, the one who welcomes and prepares tables and fills cups.

The psalm contains an interesting shift in perspective. The psalmist begins by speaking about God, in the third person: God is the one who leads beside still waters, who restores the soul. And before we leave the shepherd, the author begins speaking to God, in the second person: You, O God, are with me; your rod and staff comfort me. And by the end, we move back to the third person, as the psalmist will dwell in the Lord’s house forever. The point of view throughout, though, stays centered on that of a single individual: my shepherd; leads me; my soul; my cup; before me…But the whole psalm begins and ends with the holy name of God: the Lord is my shepherd…and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord…just in case there was any danger in us shifting our focus away from God.

And that, of course, is the whole point here: to center all of our attention on God. So let’s do just that.

The Lord is my shepherd. What our translation hides is that the author is using the proper name of God, or Yahweh. For an observant Jew, the name of God is holier than holy. It is a word that should never be uttered. When it is written, its pronunciation is intentionally hidden; and even then, the paper itself becomes sacred. Yahweh is the name God revealed to Moses at the top of Mt. Sinai. The meaning is unclear, but is most likely connected to the Hebrew verb “to be”. In other words, the voice speaking from the burning bush was not just one god among many other gods, but the very essence of being itself. God is the existence that lies at the heart of all creation, and it is of this God that the psalmist writes.

The Lord, or Yahweh, is my shepherd – not our shepherd, but my shepherd. The writer is claiming that the power at the center of the universe acts as his own personal life guide. Now, the temptation in our individualized culture is to see this as a claim of possession: the Lord is my shepherd; not yours, but mine! Mine! It begins to sound like a three year old’s play date, as though there’s not enough God to go around. With God as the focus, though, maybe we would be better saying, “The Lord, Yahweh, shepherds me” – putting the emphasis, power, and possession where it rightly belongs: with the God of all creation.

The Lord, Yahweh, shepherds me; Yahweh is my shepherd. This is the image that the first half of the psalm fleshes out. If David is indeed the writer, it makes sense that he would see God’s character as that of shepherd, a vocation he knew well. And the Biblical story is full of shepherds: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophet Amos…even when Jesus is born, the shepherds are the first ones to hear the good news sung down from the heavens.

Shepherds played a key role in the story of God’s ancient people. And this simple phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd,” would immediately have brought to mind a wealth of images for those ancient people who first heard it. It can be difficult, to say the least, for those of us separated from this story by time and place and culture to understand how powerful this description of God would have been. There are places in the world where sheepherding is still quite prevalent – Brookhaven is not one of them.

Nonetheless, I think there are certain things we understand about the role of the shepherd. The shepherd leads the sheep, and keeps them in line. The shepherd protects them from any predators wishing them harm. And this is all accentuated by the fact that sheepherding tends to take place on rugged terrain. As soon as humans discovered the art of farming, they quickly realized that flat ground was the best place to do so, meaning sheep had to go into the hills and mountains to graze. And so, to be a shepherd was to live the life of a nomad, moving from place to place, and eventually arriving at market.

We do acknowledge, right, that this is the end goal of shepherding, that the sheep are, ultimately, a product? They are sold for their meat, sure…but that’s pretty much a “one time only” deal. Their wool is the gift that keeps on growing. And their milk, and the cheese and yogurt made from it, are still staples in some parts of the world. We do know that we’re the sheep in this story, right? Ah…I don’t know about you, but suddenly it doesn’t seem to me like Psalm 23 is the kind of cozy image that should be embroidered on a throw pillow…

This is the piece that tends to get lost. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a wonderful image of protection and discipline. As the sheep, we tend to wander, but God stays close to keep us on track. We get ourselves into trouble, but God is never far away. These are comforting truths. In those meanderings and pitfalls, it is truly good news to know that God is ours and that we belong to God. But…and this is crucial: the shepherd does not take care of the sheep simply because the sheep need help. Shepherding is not an altruistic enterprise. If it were the case, shepherds would be volunteers, not workers. The sheep, at the end of the day, have to give something in return.

This is the challenge using any image to describe God: at some point, the metaphor always falls apart. God does not care for us simply because God wants something from us. That’s not grace, but manipulation. At the same time, if we only see this relationship of sheep and their shepherd as being for the benefit of the sheep, then we have missed the whole point. We belong to God! Yahweh, the Lord, the very being at the heart of all that is, holds us close! What a ridiculous thing to believe…and yet, there it is. And so we, led and fed and kept safe, give of ourselves in return, in deep and reverent gratitude for the care we have received and continue to receive!

So while we’re demolishing the metaphor, let’s go for broke: God is the shepherd; we are the sheep. What is the meat? What is the milk, the wool that the sheep give? Is it a literal pound of flesh? Is it generous provision for others in the form of clothing, or shelter, or sustenance? Are we really called to the kind of sacrifice that the relationship between sheep and shepherd would suggest? There are no easy answers to any of these questions. But I do trust that God’s truth lies in the questions themselves.

We are called to provide for the comfort of others – their spiritual comfort in times of distress, yes, and also their physical well-being. After all, Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry healing the wounds of others and sending the disciples out to do the same. We are, indeed, responsible for the welfare of those around us, and especially of those whom the world has forgotten. If we ever forget this, may God have mercy on us.

And, whether we like it or not, we are called to sacrificial giving. If I am truly honest with you, to proclaim such a thing while standing here in Brookhaven rings a little hollow. After all, there are places in the world where being a Christian is dangerous business. What would that sacrifice look like to us? What is it that faith calls us to do that might put us at risk?

Is that still too abstract? Too frightening? Then let’s put it this way: What is the one thing in the world that you are convinced you cannot live without? Is it something you own? A relationship you cherish? A hobby or passion? Your status or reputation? What is it that keeps you going, that gets you out of bed in the morning, that gives you purpose and direction, that gives your life meaning?

Take that thing, and hold it in your hands. Tightly. And slowly, slowly, begin to open your fingers. Don’t let it go, but hold it loosely, admitting that it really isn’t even yours to begin with. And now, trust…entrust this thing, entrust yourself, wholly, completely, and truly to the Lord our God. Allow yourself to be opened to Yahweh, the being at the heart of it all. Hand your whole self over to the shepherd, the one who keeps you, provides for you, and protects you.

The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd! Thanks be to God!