A Sermon on Psalm 23
With the possible exception of John 3:16, there is perhaps no more familiar portion of the Bible than the 23rd Psalm. Many people memorize it as children, and the text of the 23rd Psalm set against the backdrop of a pastel landscape adorns the stock funeral program in virtually every mortuary in the United States. As the most famous of all the Psalms, the “shepherd’s Psalm” has been set to music by Bach, Shubert, and Williams. It is recited by characters in countless movies and novels whenever the plot requires proof that someone is a Christian or generically religious. But the 23rd Psalm is beloved by Christians because of its simple confidence in God’s goodness, and because of Jesus’ identification of himself as the “good shepherd” who accompanies us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
As we continue our series on select Psalms, we now take up the 23rd Psalm, which is classified a “Psalm of trust” reflecting the believer’s confidence in God’s tender care of his people. So far in our series on the Psalms we have considered Psalms written by David, Moses, and the Sons of Korah. We have considered royal Psalms, Psalms used in temple worship, and wisdom Psalms. As we have done throughout this series, we will put this Psalm in its historical context, go through the text of the Psalm, and then we will look at how this particular Psalm (and the Shepherd imagery it contains) is applied to Jesus, and used by John in the Book of Revelation, making several points of application as we do so.
The 23rd Psalm is attributed to David (Israel’s shepherd-king), although no title or authorship is attached to the Psalm itself. Found in the First Book of the Psalter (which includes Psalms 1-41), Psalm 23 draws on the familiar image of the Lord (YHWH) as a shepherd who cares for his sheep (the people of Israel). Shepherd imagery was very familiar to everyone living in Israel at the time of David, and in fact, reflects David’s own experience as a shepherd responsible for the care of his flock. In 1 Samuel 17:34-35, we read, “but David said to Saul, `Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.” David knew what was involved in the care of sheep, and in this Psalm he depicts God as the true shepherd of Israel. Some scholars contend that the Psalm reflects David’s time in the wilderness when he was hiding from Absolom–which may or may not be the case. But this Psalm does reflect a sense of readiness to face trials, difficulties, and danger because of our confidence in the Lord’s presence with us, especially in light of the fact that being in the presence of the Lord for all of eternity is every Christian’s hope.
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