WHY ARE WE HERE? Aspects of the 23rd Psalm

From a Latin root: ‘congregation’ reflects the biblical image of God’s people being like a flock of sheep, with a shepherd to look after them.
 
Those who love the poetry of the 23rd Psalm: must never risk being content with that alone, and losing much, or all, of the Psalm’s meaning. If we put poetry to one side: along with romantic ideas about shepherds and shepherding: we can discover so much more.
 
We do not know whether King David wrote the 23rd Psalm; but we do know that he was chosen to become the ruler of Israel.  (1.Samuel 16: 1-12). God told the prophet, Samuel, to visit a man called Jesse; from whose sons, one would be chosen to be the future leader. Jesse lined up seven sons, but God did not choose one of them. Samuel asked: ‘Are these all the sons you have?’  Jesse admitted that there was an eighth one, David, his youngest; and sent for him. When David arrived; God told the prophet: ‘He is the one, anoint him’.
 
As the youngest son, and a shepherd, at that: David had not been included in the line-up, because his father had not considered him a likely candidate.
Shepherding was a rough, tough and lonely life. Socially, it was a lowly position, usually given to youngest sons, and servants.
 
Jesus Christ said that he came to earth, not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). In calling himself the ‘Good Shepherd’, the Lord once more equated himself, not with the high calling of leadership, but with lowly service.
 
The words: ‘The Lord is my shepherd…’ begin to lead us far beyond poetry and romantic notions; into deeper understandings of what God does for us.
 
‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’. There are two images here: the first is of peace, and the second is of provision.  The psalm states that peace and provision do not happen of themselves; but are brought about by the shepherd, who leads the flock into just the right place; where needs are met, and the sheep feel safe. Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’, says: ‘Follow me, into the place where your deepest needs will be met’ (Matthew 6: 25-31). He also says: ‘My peace I give to you’ (John 14:27).
 
‘He leads me beside still waters (or quiet waters)’ seems to be another indication of peace, but the meaning is rather different. I lived on the Romney Marsh for almost four years, and got to know several sheep farmers. They told me that, unless sheep are desperately thirsty; they will not drink from moving water. ‘Still’ or ‘quiet’ water points to another aspect of the care undertaken by ‘The Good Shepherd’, in making provision for his flock.
 
‘Why are we here?’ As a congregation, ‘together, as a flock’, we meet to praise God: thanking him for the many ways in which he provides for us.
The psalm moves on to aspects of the direction and safety that is provided by ‘The Good Shepherd’. ‘He restores my soul’. Although some part of the Church, and of Christian thinking, allows the word ‘soul’ to be interchangeable with ‘spirit’, it is not strictly so. Most of the Bible has little definite to say in the matter, but a clear distinction is made by St. Paul, at 1. Thessalonians 5: 23. (Spirit, soul and body N.I.V.)
 
‘Spirit’ may be said to denote the principle of untarnished supernatural life, which is a gift of God.  ‘Soul’ may be said to be the principle of natural life, also a gift of God, but capable of being tarnished. Such distinction declares that the ‘soul’ consists of the intellect and will, and those qualities and attributes that make each person uniquely themselves.
 
Where misplaced intellect and will has caused a Christian ‘sheep’ to stray from the ‘fold’, and its soul has become tarnished; help is needed. Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’ is alert to the need. He seeks to bring that ‘sheep’ back to where it physically belongs – the ‘flock’- to remove the tarnish, and to restore that soul into ongoing spiritual relationship with God.
 
‘He guides me in paths of righteousness’. Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’ doesn’t issue a map, or simply point and say: ‘Off you go, in that direction’. Instead, he says: ‘Follow me’. In consistently following Christ, we can become so like him, in many ways, that, quite naturally, we find ourselves walking with him, along the God-directed ‘paths of righteousness’.
 
In today’s society, a person’s name can become little more than a useful tag and reference point. In the ancient nation of Israel, it was very different. Then, a name was taken to represent the very nature of the person bearing it. Therefore, ‘for his name’s sake’ has little to do with reputation, and much to do with that person being true to his nature. Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’, cannot do other than be true to the depths of graciousness within him, and express it, through love and care.
 
‘Why are we here?’ As a congregation, ‘together, as a flock’, we meet to praise God: to thank him for his willingness to restore whatever has become lost to us, and for the many ways in which he guides us, in our journey of faith.
 
The psalmist states that death, whether far off, or near, holds no terrors for him; and that although evil may approach; the presence, and actions of the ‘Good Shepherd’ will keep the ‘flock’ safe.
 
‘Your rod and staff, they comfort me’. These images of shepherding, long ago, remain very important to us, in the here-and-now of our Christian lives. ‘Rod’ and ‘staff’ indicate kingship and control, on the one hand, and lowly service, protection and care on the other. ‘Comfort’ indicates strengthening.
 
In the hands of an ordinary shepherd, the ‘rod’ is a club, used in fighting off dangerous animals that approach the ‘sheep’. In the hands of a king, the ‘rod’ becomes a sceptre: symbolic of kingly rule, governance and justice.
 
When ancient kings sat in judgement, they held a sceptre in their right hand: the hand itself resting on their right knee. If the person, or case, before them was acceptable, the sceptre remained upright. If more discussion was needed, later, the sceptre was held horizontally. If the sceptre was made to point downwards, then the person, or case concerned was condemned, and dealt with accordingly.
 
The ‘staff’ is the shepherd’s crook; used to control the movement and actions of particular sheep, and to help rescue those that have strayed, and fallen into a pit or a bog.  
 
Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’ is also ‘Christ the King’ (Matthew 21:5 and 25: 31-46) and has been given the power to exercise authority and judgement (John 5: 24-27).  There is a sense in which he will use the ‘staff’, or shepherd’s crook, to direct the movement and actions of his followers, or ‘flock’; but, so long as his ‘sheep’ stay with him, and follow him, his ‘rod’, or kingly sceptre, will always be held upright; in token of ongoing acceptance.
 
Jesus often used Old Testament images in his teachings. His parable of the great banquet; the invitations given, and the responses of those invited; echoes the ‘prepared table’ of the 23rd Psalm.  (Luke 14: 15-24 + Matthew 22: 1-10).
 
In those days, anointing the head with oil, related to prophets, priests and kings. Today, the book of ‘The Revelation to John’ indicates that one at least, and probably two of these titles, belong, in some mystical sense, to Christ’s ‘flock’, or followers – therefore to us. (Revelation 1:6 + 5:10).
 
The word ‘cup’ indicates either suffering (Matthew 26:39) or blessing and joy (Matthew 26:28 + 1.Corinthians 10:16).  The psalmist says that the blessings of God not only fill up a person’s life, but also overflow, to the blessing of others.
 
‘Why are we here?’ To give worship and praise to the Lord: for his generous provision, love, care and protection; and to share with each other, and with those beyond our walls, the blessings that belong to our faith.
 
Christ, the ‘Good Shepherd’, not only says to us: ‘Follow me’, but also ‘Come to me’ (Matthew 11:28).
 
So, let us turn to him afresh, prayerfully offering our many needs, and our heartfelt thanks. ‘Lord: we thank you, that you have always known why we are here. Please help us to continue to trust and follow you, and turn to you in all things; and share received blessings with others.   Amen’