Lesson Focus: God is with us and for us. His goodness and faithfulness constantly pursue us to lead us where we need to go. We must learn to follow his leading.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Understand that God is with us and for us always.
Understand that God’s goodness and faithfulness constantly pursue us.
Seek to learn to follow God’s good leading.
Catch up on the Story: Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved psalms of all time. Many people, regardless of their affiliation with church or Christianity, know or could recognize these poetic lines. It is very familiar to us.
That is the trouble. Anytime we are confronted with a familiar passage of scripture, the challenge is to read it with fresh eyes and ears so that we might hear what it has to speak to us today. As you and your group prepare to read and study this psalm today, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and open it to the possibilities of receiving something new.
Of course, there’s a good chance that this psalm carries with it the same meaning as we have come to know and love.
As with many psalms, we lack a specific context. Psalm 23 can be classified as a psalm of trust, and psalms of trust usually are formed within the context of conflict. There is no reason to believe that this psalm is different. It will speak well to us in the context of the Lenten season, where we are constantly learning, amidst all circumstances, to place our trust in the God who created and now sustains the world.
The Text: Teaching this psalm will be tough. It will be tough because people are very familiar with the text.
The psalm can be split into two sections which use two different metaphors to speak about our relationship with God. The first section, verses 1-4, uses a shepherd/sheep metaphor. The second section, verses 5-6, makes use of a host/guest metaphor. These two metaphors work in concert to paint a picture of God’s relationship with us that is active and comforting.
My Shepherd: Psalm 23:1-4 As we have been studying the psalms these last few weeks, we have run across this shepherd/sheep metaphor before. Domesticated sheep are not the brightest animal and are prone to get lost. They will eat a bit of grass here and then wander off to the next bit of grass, not paying attention to where they are going. They either become lost or because they are away from the protection of the flock, they run into wild predators.
In the ancient near east, it was common to use a shepherd/sheep image to depict the king and his people. The king as was the shepherd and the people were the sheep (Jacobson, 102). Here, this common image gets extended to God as the one and only divine king, and Israel as his people.
The first thing that we notice is that because the sheep are under the care of the shepherd, they do not want. A better translation for “want” would be “lack” or “need.” For us, the word “want” denotes an item or provision that is not a necessity. We have all kinds of wants which we do not require for our successful survival. Israel wandered in the wilderness and they did not lack any basic need. It’s the same sentiment here.
As we turn toward verse 2, we are presented with three sentences that all begin with “He” followed by a verb, “He makes,” “he leads,” and “he restores.” The “he” of course is God the good shepherd. The shepherd makes the sheep lay down in green pastures.
The shepherd leads the sheep beside water from which they will be able to drink. These waters are waters which, in addition to being drinkable, will provide rest and safety. The next line in verse 3 provides a little more context. The waters by which the shepherd leads his sheep will be life giving. The “soul” of verse 3 could be better translated as “life.” Keep in mind the context of psalms of trust: some kind of conflict. The shepherd has led the sheep away from conflict and perhaps the sheep are faint and close to perishing. The shepherd leads the sheep to a safe place where they will be able to rest and receive new life again.
The shepherd leads the sheep in paths that will be safe and secure. The shepherd knows that the sheep cannot remain in a place of safety and security forever. Life is fraught with dangers and is seldom ever stationary. Yet, the shepherd accompanies the sheep as they seek to navigate this life. The “right paths” of verse 3 are paths that are safe from danger.
Perhaps there is a double meaning here, as “right paths” have often been translated as “paths of righteousness.” The King James Version, the version that we seem to use when we memorize this psalm, translates it that way. These right paths are not only paths that may be free from danger, but they are also paths that lead to relational harmony with God and with others, all for the glory of God the good shepherd.
It needs to be noted here that what this shepherd does for the sheep the sheep are unable to do for themselves. The grammar of the text makes this clear. The shepherd “makes” and “leads” and “restores.” These are all verbs where the action is coming from the shepherd and being imposed on the sheep. Of course, as Wesleyans, we believe in our ability to choose. We chose to follow the shepherd, but the fact remains that on our own we have a history of being completely unable to find long lasting green pasture, waters of rest and safe paths. If we were able to do those things for ourselves, we would not be in the broken state we are in and we would not need a shepherd. Perhaps that is the biggest lesson of this psalm: we desperately need a shepherd, yet too often we think that we do not.
Verse 4 is the center of the psalm, both theologically and structurally. The sheep continue to follow the shepherd, even through the darkest places of life. The sheep fear no evil because the shepherd is with them. The “you are with me” is the central claim of the psalm. Indeed, it is the central claim of the gospel, that God is with us.
It is here that the psalmist turns from talking about God as a shepherd, but to God as the shepherd. The reality of the first few verses manifests itself to the psalmist in a real way. God is with us to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The shepherd brings with him the tools of the trade: a rod and a staff. The rod and the staff are both tools that help guide the sheep and that ward off the dangers that surround the flock. That the shepherd is there with tools in hand is a comfort to the psalmist.
The Table: Psalm 23:5-6 In verse 5 the image shifts from shepherd and sheep to host and guest. Providing continuity, however, is the provisional nature of the host image. The host still remains with the guest and provides for the guest what they cannot provide for themselves.
The social climate of the day was largely based on honor and shame. Throwing someone a banquet, especially a subordinate, was a mark of great honor. Here, God the good host prepared a banquet for his guest, setting a grand table. Those also invited are those who wish the psalmist ill. Theirs is a position of shame because their enemy has been lifted up (Jacobson, 104). The confession of verse 4 still rings true: God is with us, actively working for the good of his people.
The anointing with oil could be both a sign of the guest’s chosenness and an image of healing. Those chosen to participate in God’s work in the world were often anointed with oil. At the same time, oil was often used as healing ointments for wounds (Brueggemann and Bellinger, Jr., 124). Either way, the image we continue to receive is that God the good host is working to honor and heal those he has chosen.
The result of God the good shepherd and the good host’s being with and for the psalmist is goodness, mercy and safe dwelling in the house of God. There are a few things to note here. First, “mercy” in verse six could better be translated as “faithfulness.” In the Hebrew, it’s hesed, a word that should be familiar to you by now meaning “steadfast love and faithfulness.” Second, God’s goodness and faithfulness “follow” the psalmist. Here, “follow” is insignificant to communicate the force of the Hebrew verb. The force of the original language communicates a pursuit or a chase. So, the first line in verse 6 could be read like this, “Surely goodness and God’s faithfulness shall chase after me all the days of my life.”
As Wesleyans, we often talk about prevenient grace or the grace that God sends to pursue us and draw us to himself. We do not do this intentionally, but we often relegate God’s prevenient grace to before we make any decision about following God. Psalm 23 reminds us that God’s grace and faithfulness never cease to pursue us. It’s always there, gentling nudging us in the right direction, much in the same way that a shepherd nudges his sheep. It leads us to fresh waters and restful and restorative patches of grass. It chases after us when we wander off. It reminds us of our chosenness as God’s people. It anoints our wounds when we have veered too far from the path. It honors us and it provides for us when we are surrounded by our enemies. It will eventually lead us home to be safe and sound in God’s loving arms, in God’s house, and in God’s kingdom.
So What? The central claim of Psalm 23 is that God is with us and for us always. In the midst of danger and darkness, enemies and death, God as the good shepherd and good host pursues us with his grace and faithfulness all the days of our life. Not only is this the central claim of Psalm 23, but it is the central claim of Israel’s faith as told by the authors of the Old Testament. This is the gospel proclaimed centuries before it was embodied by the coming of Jesus Christ.
The psalmist makes this testimony about the God of Israel during a time of uncertainty and conflict. It is important for us to remember this fact. During Lent, our primary goal is to prepare our hearts and minds for the death and resurrection of Jesus. We do this by confessing the ways in which we have not lived like Jesus. We confess how we have wandered from the path and have found ourselves in conflict, beaten and bruised. One of the things that allow us to examine ourselves, to remove any pretense to our own self-proclaimed righteousness, is the fact that God’s goodness and faithfulness chase after us even when our wounds are of our own doing. When we fail, God is with us. When we wander off, God chases us down.
So, confess. Confess your sins, your shortcomings, and your failures. Rest in the knowledge that the good shepherd loves you despite those things. Rest in the knowledge that the good shepherd is with us, rod, staff, and anointing oil in hand, ready to lead us to clean water and restful pastures. Then, be content that the places the good shepherd has led you, is the place that you need to be.
Critical Discussion Questions: How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
God is doing for us what we have time and time again proven we cannot do for ourselves. God is leading us where we need to go, taking care of our needs, and restoring us to new life. God is with us, leading us in the direction we should go.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
There is implicit giving over of our will in this passage. The sheep must allow themselves to be led. They must agree that the green pastures are good enough and that the waters are still enough. They must remain on the path. Our salvation and our growth in grace and holiness have as much to do with our cooperation with the good shepherd as they do with the shepherd himself.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
It causes us to pause and reflect on God’s goodness and faithfulness. It should also cause us to pause and wonder if we are allowing ourselves to be led in the right direction.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What is the difference between a want and a need? What are some of the things you want? What are some of the things you need?
In the first section of the psalm, the psalmist is talking about God as a shepherd. What does a shepherd do? Why does he do those things?
How do the sheep benefit or not benefit from the things the shepherd does? Are the sheep able to do those things for themselves? Why or why not?
Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust. Psalms of trust are usually set in times of conflict. How does this psalm sound during times of conflict?
Verse 4 is the structural and theological center of the psalm. What is the central claim of verses 4?
In verse 5 the image shifts from sheep and shepherds to host and guest. Why would it be a big deal for the host to prepare a table for the guest in the presence of his enemies?
Why would the host anoint the guest’s head with oil?
In verse 6, the word “follow” could better be translated as “pursue” or “chase.” How does that make a difference when you read that verse? What does that say about God’s goodness or his faithfulness?
God is our good shepherd and our good host. He does for us what we have been unable to do for ourselves. What is our response to those things? What happens if we refuse to lie down in green pastures or by still waters or stay on the right path?
What is God saying to you through this passage?
What are you going to do about it?
Works Cited: Rolf A. Jacobson, “Psalm 23,” in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2009).
Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).