Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What does Psalm 23 mean?


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul:  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names' sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:  and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

THERE is no question that the 23rd Psalm is the most famous and well-loved of them all, or that it has brought more peace to troubled souls than any other, but for all its elegance, unless we invest it with the announcement that Jesus makes in today's gospel that He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, it does us little good at all.

In fact Jesus is the Good Shepherd who did lay down His sacred life in order to rescue us from the peril of everlasting death as our Collect says: and to insure that we will always be filled with the perpetual gladness and eternal joys the church prays for in her Collect this holy day. 

Therefore just as we learn the ten commandments with their Christian meaning in our catechism, let us do the same with today's Psalm.  Let us learn its Christian meaning.

First we should know that Jesus is the Lord of the Psalms, and when He is your shepherd you can confidently confess along with King David, "I shall not want."  You can believe with all boldness and confidence that He will provide you with all that you need for this body and life, and for your eternal life as well.

The still waters in the Psalm are prophetic of holy baptism.  The great error the church in our day is that everyone wants to be in touch with Jesus, but without using the channels that He Himself establishes.

Mary Magdalene did this when she saw Jesus on Easter morning.  She tried to hold the glorified Lord, but Jesus said to her "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father..."

The church should learn from this to apprehend Christ only by His appointed means, so let us learn to highly praise the "still waters" of holy baptism even as the Psalm does.  For by baptism we are incorporated into the name of the one, true, God:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all others imposters.  There is nothing better than that, no more glorious or higher aspiration a person can ever have, but baptism is not just a passing ceremony.  Rather it is God's covenant of love that He makes with us at the font, and that carries us throughout our entire life, each hour of each day, and crosses with us into eternity as well.  It is the great inheritance that will never expire.  God's own blessed promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you, not now, not ever.

This is why we should make the sign of the cross often, because it is an incarnational remembrance of our baptism; a bodily motion that involves our whole person, a holy moment that covers us with the cross of Christ and calls to mind all the forgiveness, love and the protection it provides us from sin, death and the devil.  By it we preach the gospel to ourselves, to our fellow Christians, and to all who have eyes to see.

To be baptized also means to walk in the straight and well-established paths of righteousness as we learn them from holy Scripture.  Sheep, by nature, walk in zigzag lines.  They do this, because unlike skunks or porcupines or other wild animals, they have no natural defenses, so they are constantly using their peripheral vision to spot any wolves coming from behind; but when Jesus is your shepherd, you have all the protection you could ever need. Christ before me, Christ behind me.  The devil cannot harm you.  The Lord's rod and staff, which symbolize the cross, comfort us, because we know that no enemy can touch us here.

Still, living in the world is not a walk in the park!  Until the Lord returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, to set all things right, this world will always be "the valley of the shadow of death."  It will be marked with every imaginable evil and misfortune, and it is no Christian virtue to deny that; no virtue at all to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the world is anything other than what it is.  Leave that to those who don't know Christian doctrine, or who hold a faulty version of it, but let us see the world for what it is.  Only let us not be afraid of any evil, whatever its form, whatever its threat, whatever its reputation or supposed power to harm us, because our Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who conquered sin and death and who raised us to new life in baptism and who promises in this Psalm to be our constant companion.

Yet He is not only an imaginary friend, the kind a child may invent when she feels alone, but one who prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  That table is the Holy Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, wherein we eat the Lord's body and drink the Lord's blood, in with and under the bread and the wine, so that we can say, "For thou art with me" and mean what we say.

Therefore this delightful Psalm is not a hazy and imaginary affair, but a pure confession of the holy Christian faith, for in it we find the Good Shepherd who did not run when the wolf came, but offered HImself in our stead.  He laid down His life for us, and by His death we obtain the remission of sins, peace with God and the expectation that whenever we look over our shoulders, we will see goodness and mercy pursuing us all the days of our lives, and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord our God forever.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

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