Probably no section of scripture is more universally known and beloved than Psalm 23. The beginning words immediately bring memories of funerals for so many. There is almost an immediate sense of calm that comes from hearing the familiar refrain, “The Lord is my shepherd…” It is one of those rare pieces of literature that never grows stale; always relevant, ever real. Like the hymn, “Amazing Grace” is speaks to the universal longing of the human condition.
Read it once again:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
There really is nothing like it. The image of the Lord as a shepherd, one who cares for and defends his sheep at all costs, brings tears of joy to our eyes. The Psalm speaks of intimacy and familiarity; of compassion and comfort. All of this is written by a man who knew what emotions this image would evoke for the reader. David was a shepherd and knew the tender connection one experienced with the flock in the lonely nights of the pasture. He knew his sheep as well as we know this psalm.
Yet, as familiar as you are with the Psalm, there may be something we missed. Notice how, in v. 2-3, the Lord seems a little more distant with the use of “He”, as if the Lord is within eyeshot—close but not right next to us—so that we can describe him from afar. Interestingly, in v. 4-5, it turns to the more personal “You” making it seem that the Lord is now closer, more intimate than he previously was. What initiated this change?
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
It is here, in the shadow of death, that the Lord draws closest to us. This, of course, is somewhat ironic, for it is here that most feel the Lord is most distant. But for the child of God—for a sheep in the flock—this is when our Lord is the closest. During the dark and shadowy days of our existence, and in our final moments as we pass from this mortal life, the Lord comes even closer to us and brings us into the house of the Lord where we will dwell forever.
Truly, our cup overflows.