Walking the Valley of the Shadow of Death! – a Sermon on the 23rd Psalm

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.

Welcome to the fourth Sunday in Easter, a Sunday often referred to as ‘Shepherding Sunday’, as it’s the one on which we read again everyone’s favourite psalm – the 23rd psalm, that begins, “The Lord is My Shepherd; I shall not want”

This is a such a well-known and well-loved psalm that the church in her wisdom has chosen to schedule this psalm for reading and reflection every year, whereas most bible passages, as most of you know, are read here only once every three years.

I assume that we return to this reading year after year because the church has asked for it to be read year after year, as indeed I find myself am repeatedly asked to read this psalm, particularly in hospitals, when people are dying, and at funerals.

I heard of a couple who asked for it to be read at their wedding. That’s not common. Most people prefer 1 Corinthians 13 read at their wedding: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or rude …” but apparently this couple preferred realism! They said, “both our parental families are divorced, and with the rate of marital breakdown that’s all around us we don’t want, “Love is patient and kind”. We want, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death!”

Even so, while we may hear this psalm at the occasional wedding, and may indeed hear it taught regularly to Sunday School children, it remains true that this psalm will continue to be most asked for by people nearing the end of their lives, and this is appropriate, for the psalm itself seems to be a reflection from somebody who is nearing the end of their life, and is in a position to look back on their life as a whole.

And maybe that’s why I’ve never personally really taken to the Psalm – because I’m not at that stage yet, where I can look back on my life as a whole, with the benefit of hindsight. I’m afraid I’m still sorta stuck in the middle of it (as most of us here are).

Maybe that’s one reason why I’ve never felt overly comfortable with this Psalm, though after doing some serious reflection on it, in preparation for this sermon, I’ve realised that it may be even more so because of the first impression I get from the Psalmist, that He’s had a peaceful and easy-going life, whereas my experience of discipleship is that it’s been anything but peaceful and easy-going!

He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters …
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Things seem to be pretty good for the Psalmist! He finds peace in the green pastures, lying down beside the still waters. His cup overflows. Things couldn’t be better! And he’s going to dwell in theHouse of the Lord forever, whereas I find myself spending very little time relaxing in the House of the Lord, instead spending most of my time on the front line of a battlefield, jumping from one trench to another!

Now in years past, when the time to prepare a sermon for ‘Shepherding Sunday’ has arrived and when I’ve yet been aware on my sense of alienation from the psalm I’ve dealt with this simply by choosing to preach on one of the other readings. This year though I’ve obviously decided differently, and chiefly because I think I might have got the Psalm wrong! Maybe things weren’t as calm and serene for the psalmist as I had thought? Two things have led me to this conclusion:

Firstly, it’s the association of this Psalm with King David. Of course we don’t know for sure that David wrote this psalm himself, as we don’t know with absolute certainty that he wrote any of the Psalms himself, but there are excellent scholarly reasons for assuming that he did indeed write some of them, and this one, which indeed carries the heading, “A Psalm of David”, is generally thought to be amongst the most likely of all to have come directly from his hand.

Now if this is true, then we know that the Psalmist has not had a peaceful life. Indeed, King David’s life was anything but peaceful.

  • He had a rugged youth.
  • He became a soldier in his adolescence.
  • He spent much of his early life on the run, fighting as a mercenary at times, and always in fear of his own life.
  • As a King he struggled both politically and internally/spiritually.
  • He failed in any number of his relationships with his various women, most notably of course (but not solely) in the fiasco with Bathsheeba, which also resulted in the murder of the woman’s husband at David‘s hand.

Indeed, David’s personal family life was fraught with pain and difficulty. He watched one child die at birth and another son grow up to rape his sister (David’s daughter Tamar), which led to that son’s murder and to his son Absalom‘s insurrection, all of which ended in heart-breaking tragedy!

David‘s walk was anything but a smooth and peaceful stroll through the park, and if he was indeed author of the 23rd Psalm, then the song should reflect this, and indeed, a closer examination of the 23rd Psalm shows that it does. Things are not as straightforward for the psalmist as they might have first appeared!

Yes, the Psalmist finds himself ultimately in green pastures and relaxing besides still waters but did you notice the path the shepherd chose via which to lead them there. The shepherd didn’t take his sheep there by going the scenic route, taking in the beauty of the seaside enroute! Instead He took them all the way “through the valley of the shadow of death”! The green pastures lay on the other side of that valley!

And did you notice where the Lord set up a feast for His sheep, where He poured that overflowing cup? Did that take place in the serene surroundings of the temple? The Lord prepared table for me“in the very face of my enemies”, as if to spite them!

The Psalmist, in other words, found that he didn’t have to wait until he reached the green pastures and still waters before he was able to feast and to celebrate. The Lord was pouring him an overflowing cup even while he was stuck in the trenches!

I can’t take on board that image, mind you, without being reminded of a Monty Python sketch I remember seeing many years ago, where a group of British infantry are indeed hunkered down in a trench, with mortar shells exploding all around, and with the commanding officer telling his men that they are going to have to withdraw, but the men are objecting because it’s the CO’s birthday, and one of them has gone to the trouble of baking a cake!

So the officer reluctantly agrees to share the cake first, and there’s some singing and candles being lit while the shells land and bodies fall, after which the withdrawal is further delayed by the emergence of various presents, including a rather bulky clock, if I remember, that one of the men had wrapped rather clumsily, but insisted that the CO open it before they get on with the war!

It’s a beautifully absurd sketch of course, as a war zone is no place to party. And yet the Psalmist’s testimony is exactly that – that God set a table before him, and given him opportunity for celebration and joy – not only after all the fighting was over, but even in the very midst of it, in the very face of his enemies!

This is the adrenaline-pumping underside of the 23rd Psalm – a dimension of the psalm that you, like me, may well have missed until now – and I suspect that part of the problem may be the music we always associate this psalm with – a tune that is the perfect accompaniment for a merry-go-round ride. Maybe if someone wrote a rap score for it, beginning ‘Yo, yo, the Lord is my shepherd, yeah!’, we might grasp the radical mindset of the psalmist?

I don’t think it’s only the music though, for the Psalm is indeed framed with some very peaceful images:

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

The psalm does indeed begin and end in joy and peace, and this reflects, I think, the fact that the psalmist is indeed at the end of his life, looking back at all the good times and the bad – even the times of bloodshed, pain and death – and realising that despite all of that and through all of that God was leading him to a better place, and that the Lord had been beside him throughout the whole ordeal.

And this is indeed the reflection that all of us, I assume, would like to be able to enjoy when we reach the end of our days – to be able to look back and see that despite everything; despite all the turmoil and the pain, the mistakes and the heartaches, despite all the enemies we’ve had to deal with, the betrayals we’ve experienced, the relationship breakdowns that we just couldn’t handle, and the tragedies that befell us and our world and those we loved – even so, His rod and His staff have comforted, and we have indeed ended up at the still waters.

The problem of course is, as Kierkegaard said, that ‘while life can be understood in retrospect, it has to be lived forwards’, which means that the perspective of the psalmist in Psalm 23 has to be more a statement of faith at this stage for most of us

We are still in the trenches. We are still in the middle of the battle. Our enemies are still in our faces, the shells continue to drop and the bodies continue to fall.

Even so, He has spread a table before us! Even so, His rod and His staff will comfort us!

Even so, He will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death and into the green pastures, to the still waters.

Even so, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill. 

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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