The Utopian image of the 23rd Psalm is comforting. When we read of God’s constant provision for our physical and emotional needs; we are reassured in ways that other Psalms fall short. These words have a power that other verses and poetry will never possess. However, there is an important contrast. The 23rd Psalm presents an idealized view of humanity’s relationship to God it seems hard to picture this level of peace and security occurring within the bounds of physical space and time. Where but eternity could God guarantee total protection from one’s enemies, unlimited food and water, and perpetual rest? Heaven seems like a natural conclusion.
The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
He leads me to restful waters;
He keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
For the sake of his good name.
Is this the reason this Psalm is so often called upon to provide comfort to those near the end of their lives? It could be. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve read this Psalm in funeral services for centuries. Here’s the irony: Psalm 23 doesn’t offer a sign, marker, or directions pointing toward the afterlife. Instead, it’s a simple declarative statement about the poet’s relationship with God. He compares his nearness to God as being similar to the manner a shepherd relates to a sheep. The agricultural metaphor is the basis for the emotional comparisons that follow. Once the poet has made the initial declaration, “the Lord is my shepherd”, we’re no longer talking about a sheep and its shepherd. As the first verse ends, “I lack nothing,” that’s you talking, me speaking, all of us mumbling about how God loves us. The 23rd Psalm is one person going on the record about what God has done and is doing in this world.
If the church treats these words as a travel guide, describing the afterlife, we’ve forgotten that God is at work in the present tense, building tables in the wilderness, feeding people, and reconciling those who were once enemies. The 23rd Psalm is happening right now in our communities and around the world. There has never been a better time to be a people who live the 23rd Psalm on a daily basis. Putting this Psalm on the “wait until I’m on my death bed shelf and read it at my funeral” is the equivalent of saying, “that part in the Lord’s Prayer about thy will be done on Earth as is it Heaven is a dumb idea.” If we ignore the 23rd Psalm and use it as solely as a comfort blanket, we’ve missed the point about bringing the kingdom of God to Earth.
Richard Lowell Bryant