God, we thank you for your presence with us throughout our lives, in good times and in bad. Thank you for our daily blessings, and for grace that keeps us walking in the ways of Christ. Thank you for the Scriptures that reveal him to us, and for our meeting together to hear what you have to say to us through them. Give us insight and wisdom as we dwell in your word, and speak to us, we pray. Amen.
Psalm 23 is probably the best-known and best-loved of all the psalms. It’s one that many people still know by heart, and even if they don’t, there are still phrases that are familiar to everyone.
Maybe part of its appeal is that it seems to reflect a whole-life experience. We all know what green pastures and quiet waters are like – the times when life is good and we feel refreshed and blessed. We all know what the dark valleys are like, as well, and the coronavirus outbreak has led to the whole world going through the valley of the shadow of death. In our Bibles, it’s entitled ‘A Psalm of David’ – the shepherd-king who experienced more than his fair share of dark valleys. He knew what it was like to be a hunted outlaw, to be betrayed by his own son, and to know the shame of falling into deep sin. But his testimony throughout the psalm is that God was there through it all.
Psalm 23 is a treasure-trove of spiritual wisdom. It begins, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – the tough and wily shepherd who wrote it isn’t afraid to admit that he needs a shepherd himself. The green pastures and still waters speak of the importance of rest – of the ‘sabbath’, when we aren’t under pressure to deliver or perform but can flourish in the way that’s natural to us.
The ‘right paths’ in which the shepherd leads us are a contrast to the moral confusion and rootlessness that characterises so much of our society today.
And what about the table God prepares for us in the presence of our enemies? It sounds as if we’re meant to rejoice because we can sit down at a banquet while our starving enemies look on. It’s probably that God is resourcing us for the struggles we face, as he resourced David during the wilderness years when Saul was trying to kill him. And perhaps it’s even more than this: that the table in the wilderness is a place where we can invite enemies to sit down with us and become friends. James chapter 1 talks about enduring trials in the hope of receiving the ‘crown of life’ from God at the end. Psalm 23 talks about the hope of an eternal home with God. But hope isn’t just a dream of the future: it’s based on the presence of God with us all the way.
1. What does this psalm mean to you? Can you recite it by heart?
2. What stands out for you in this psalm? It might be something that challenges you, inspires you or confuses you.
3. What do you find restores your soul?
4. What does ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ mean to you?
5. How does God ‘comfort’ us? Why do you think the psalmist talks about his ‘rod and staff’?
6. The table is an image of nourishment and hospitality. How might this work in the context of your church, or your home?
7. How does this psalm speak to you of hope?
Sometimes we think of what we hope for as being always just over the horizon, as though it’s a vague belief that one day everything will come right. Psalm 23 seems to imagine hope in a different way: it’s not that God will one day bless us, but that he’s with us all the time. So hope is daily and active, not projected into the far distance.