Old Faithful

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Psalm 23 Life Songs: Old Faithful

Heart Song
When I was about midway through my second year of seminary—it was Christmas break, in fact—my grandmother (my mom’s mom) took seriously ill and ended up in the hospital. She was in her upper 80s, and it became pretty clear that she was going to die.

I went with my mom to visit her. When we got there, my mom went up to grandma and announced that Russell was here and could read scripture to her.

Now, understand, I was just learning to be a pastor. I hadn’t yet been exposed to a whole lot of death or ministering to a person who was dying. And I’ve since learned that I don’t do all that well in these situations—I can get a little claustrophobic and squeamish in hospital rooms. In fact, I’ve had to step out of a couple of intensive care rooms in the past before I fainted.

And now, suddenly, because I was studying to be a pastor I was expected to be the one to read Scripture and pray—with my own grandma. It felt weird, I was really unsure of what to do…

But my grandmother, bless her soul, was a kindly old saint, and she probably ministered more to me that day than I ever did to her.

She was in and out of consciousness, I don’t even know if she knew who I was, but when I asked her if there was something she wanted me to read, she managed to say Psalm 23. So I started to read:

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want

And as I was reading, something remarkable happened. My Grandma, who was tired and worn out and only hours from death, started to say the Psalm with me. She was reciting from the King James of course, while I was reading it from the NIV, but she didn’t miss a beat. All 6 verses, from her heart.

Something similar happened to me a couple of years later. I was in my second or third year as Pastor at Pleasant Valley Church, and we had a member who was 101 years old. Her name was Frances Doeden.

Frances was a sweetheart. Her father had been one of the first pastors at Pleasant Valley, back when church services were in German and the preacher was paid with chickens. She had married a local farmer and raised several sons—one of whom went on to be a pastor himself. For nearly 100 years she had been a part of our church, and now she too was dying.

In the last few months Frances had been slipping quickly. Her mind still worked, but it didn’t work quite as fast. One day as I was visiting with her about the church, she said to me: “I think the pastor should visit more.” I nodded and told her he probably should.

Now, as I visited her in the nursing home just a few days before she died, I mentioned that her son had told me she still prayed in German. I asked her if she could say something to me in German, and this is what she said:

Der Herr ift mein Girte, mir mird nichts mangein

I don’t speak a lick of German, but I recognized that right way: the first line of the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

Just like my Grandma—even though Frances couldn’t remember much else she could remember those precious words of faith. Even though names and even sometimes words escaped her—she was still clinging to those simple words of Scripture.

The Nursery Rhymes of the Bible
We are in the midst of a series of sermons on the Psalms. For the next couple of weeks the plan is to sample some of these poems that make up what has been called the “hymn book” of the Bible.

In a sense, the Psalms are the simplest part of scripture. I’ve heard them called the “Twinkle, Twinkle little star” of biblical teaching. Poems—some short, some longer—filled with striking images and memorable phrases, they can conjure up a child’s world of complete trust.

But, at the same time the Psalms can be complex. We’re calling the series “Life Songs” because the Psalms have a tendency to touch on all the emotions of human life. At times they give voice to deep anguish, utter delight, gut-wrenching personal tragedy, and downright hostility toward God. The Psalms touch on the full spectrum of human experience.

A few years ago the pop artist Jewel—a singer who has sold millions of albums—said in an interview with Rolling Stone: “I’m just a person who is honestly trying to live my life and asking, ‘How do you be spiritual and live in the world without going to a monastery?’” (Kevin Adams, 150, pg. 19) That’s a pretty good description of the Psalms. Spiritual without going to a monastery. Faith in God lived out in the nitty-gritty of real life.

And nowhere is this truer than with Psalm 23. There is a reason that people like my Grandma and Frances Doeden clung to the words of this Psalm. It is a Psalm that is equally effective recited as a bed-time prayer for a toddler or at the death bed of a centenarian. It is a Psalm read at commencements and at funerals. A Psalm that is memorized and treasured by millions of Christians all around the world. It is “Old Faithful”. The Shepherd Psalm.

For people like my Grandma and Frances, this Psalm gives voice to the emotions that come from following Jesus. As the great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards would say, it ministers to our affections. It reaches us internally, viscerally, in our guts, in our hearts. It helped Frances, and my grandma, and everyone else who knows the Lord, to express the passionate feelings that come from being a Christian.

Let me read it. Psalm 23:

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

All That I Need
There are four emotions that Psalm 23 is meant to instill in us. Four affections that—if the Lord is your shepherd—will characterize your life.

The first is confidence in God’s care. If the LORD is your shepherd, then you can be confident that God will provide you with what you need. Verses 1-3:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

The Psalm begins by saying that David is the LORD’s problem, not David’s problem. The LORD has taken responsibility for David. David is boasting in the total dependence he has on God.

That’s what the image of the Shepherd is getting at.

I don’t know what your experience with sheep is—my own is rather limited—but one thing that stands out to me is that sheep are rather stupid. I told a story a couple of years ago about doing a summer internship at a church that was neighbored by a sheep pasture. And one day one of the sheep got loose and I went to help the farmer round him back up.

Now, this sheep didn’t want to be loose. It wasn’t like he was some sort of escape artist. I’m sure his presence on the outside of the fence was entirely accidental. There was nothing he wanted more than to be back with the flock on the other side of the fence. But instead of letting the farmer and I guide him back through the open gate, this sheep wanted to take the most direct route back to his friends—which meant he kept repeatedly and violently running into the fence.

Sheep are dumb. They are entirely dependent upon the shepherd to get them to green grass, to lead them to drinking water, even to show them where it is safe to lie down. Jay told me that sheep aren’t even smart enough to come in out of the rain. They’ll stand there until they die. They need the shepherd to do nearly everything for them.

So when David declares: “The LORD is my shepherd” he is saying that he is entirely confident in the God’s care. That he is trusting in God to provide all that he needs.

In fact, that’s what that phrase—“I shall not be in want”—is getting at. This doesn’t mean that with God as my Shepherd I’ll never want anything. It doesn’t mean my desire for things will go away. Like I’ll never be tempted by the thought of a new car or a nice vacation.

Rather, this is getting at the idea of “lacking.” A better translation—though not as memorable—would be to say: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.”

But that raises a question: “Shall not lack what?” Does this mean that God’s sheep never lack anything? We don’t even have to leave the Psalm to know that sometimes they do. When the sheep is walking through the dark valley it lacks light and probably also green grass and quiet waters. Sheer common sense tells us that no matter how well things are going, you are always lacking something. Blessings must wait their turn.

So what does this phrase mean? I think it means that God’s sheep (and that isn’t everybody, only those who trust Him) never lack anything that the shepherd thinks is good for them.

That’s what I mean by confidence in God’s care. David has so entrusted Himself to the Good Shepherd that he knows if he doesn’t have something, it is because God has decided he doesn’t need it. And for David, that is enough.

The second emotion this Psalm evokes is fearlessness in the face of evil. If the LORD is your shepherd, then you can be fearless even when the world around you is falling apart. Verse 4:

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.

Here is why Psalm 23 is the perfect deathbed Psalm. Here is a glorious truth that all Christians must know: death is nothing to fear!

Sure, death is frightening and unpleasant and even sinister. The language this verse uses is pitch-perfect: “the valley of the shadow of death”—it sounds like a scene from a “Legends of Sleepy Hollow” movie. But for those who trust in the LORD death is not the end. Christ has pulled the stinger out of the bee. He has defeated the grave.

There’s a scene in the movie Titanic where Jack and Rose are rushing to the top deck to try to get on board one of the few life boats before the luxury liner slips completely into the ocean. As they dash between frightened shipmates they pass four members of a string quartet who have been playing throughout the disaster. Now the musicians are reciting the 23rd Psalm. When they get to the phrase: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) pushes past and says “You want to move a little faster through that valley?” (Adams, pg. 33)

Jack is cynical and brash…he’s much too focused on saving the girl to imagine that he might not make it, but those musicians maybe had a better sense of the meaning of this Psalm. God’s greatest triumph in defeating the Devil is when a believer has nothing earthly to hold on to and yet continues to completely trust in God. As the book of Job illustrates, when Satan throws his absolute worst at somebody and yet that person continues to lean into God, there is nothing more for the devil to do but retreat.

It’s interesting to note that for the first three verses of this Psalm the LORD is spoken of in the third person. David is talking about Him. But in the fourth verse, David begins talking to God. The LORD is no longer “he”, He is “you”. When the circumstances of life become more difficult, David switches from theology to prayer.

This is a reminder that the crises of life draw us closer to God. We are more likely to talk about God while in the green pastures, and cry out to God in the Valley.

With the Lord as your shepherd, you can be fearless in the face of evil.

A Full Plate
The third emotion Psalm 23 helps us express, then, is gratefulness for God’s gracious communion. If the LORD is your shepherd, you can be grateful that He is present with you. Verse 5:

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

At this point in the Psalm, David changes images on us. He isn't talking about sheep and shepherds anymore. Sheep don't eat at tables, sheep don't drink from cups. Now the image is of a lavish banquet table, to which we have been invited and at which God is the host.

David talks about sitting at the table in the presence of his enemies. It’s as though during one of the many periods of exile in David’s life—fleeing from crazy king Saul, from angry Philistines, or even from his own son Absalom—a wealthy sheik takes him into his tent. And this sheik is so powerful and well-connected that all his enemies can do is stand outside the tent and watch as David eats and takes his comfort.

Anointing with oil was a common practice for guests in that culture. In a climate where dry skin was a problem—especially for travelers—anointing with oil was a refreshment. Oil had many uses—as a cosmetic, a deodorant, and a healing tool. Its use speaks of the wealth, generosity and care of the host to promote the well-being of the guest.

Similarly, the overflowing cup indicates that the whole table is filled to overflowing with food and drink. The point is that at God’s table there is abundance. “My cup overflows” is another way of saying “I shall not want.”

The whole point is wonder and gratefulness that God is willing to come and be present with human beings. Here is a God who meets with you, a God who ministers to you and fills your needs.

The point of verse 5—and really the theme of the whole Psalm—is that we are the ones who have needs, and God is the One who meets needs. We get run-down and depleted, God never runs-low or exhausts His supply of blessings.

We are called to take a step of trust. To abandon our hesitant skepticism and self-reliance and see that there is more in Christ than we have yet apprehended. We are called to unending gratitude for God’s gracious communion.

The Highway Patrolman
The fourth emotion this Psalm is meant to create in us, then, is satisfaction in the fullness of God. This is what the whole Psalm has been aiming at: if the LORD is your shepherd, then you can be satisfied in all that He is for you. Verse 6:

6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

This is the concluding thought of the whole Psalm—kind of the summary statement. After David has traveled from the green pastures through the dark valley and into the banquet hall of God, he has every reason to believe goodness and love will follow him all his days.

That word—“follow”—may be a little weak though. “Follow” might imply that goodness and love are always trailing behind David, one or two steps back, never quite able to catch up. That wouldn’t be all that encouraging. “Surely goodness and love will lag behind me all my days.” That doesn’t sound all that hopeful.

But the word David uses here in the original language is actually much more vigorous than that. It’s a word that could be translated as “pursue” or even “chase down.”

So consider this modern picture, from by John Piper: Imagine yourself driving down the interstate, when all of a sudden you see a red light flashing in your rearview mirror. Now, for some crazy reason, you make the irrational decision to make a run for it.

Obviously, this isn’t a good idea. But for the purposes of the illustration, imagine yourself engaged in a high-speed police chase. You’re doing 100 mph as all sorts of guilty thoughts pop into your head: every time you went over the speed limit, every time you pushed it on a yellow light, every time you rolled through a stop sign. As your sense of guilt mounts, all the other faults in your life start popping up and making you feel even more miserable. And all the while, you remember that if you get one more ticket your license will be revoked and you won’t be able to take that hard-earned vacation to Miami. So even though it is foolish, you run for it.

But, of course, your car doesn’t have the power of the highway patrol, and he finally forces you over. As you sit there trembling in your car, he comes to the window and says: “A little bit of a guilty conscience, huh?”

Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wallet and says, "That motel you just left asked me to catch up with you and bring you the wallet you left on the counter." So you feel like an utter fool as you reach out to take it and he says, "O, and there's one more thing. They had a drawing this morning for the sweepstakes you registered for at the motel last night, and you won a free trip for two to Miami if you phone in your acceptance by noon today."

That’s pretty improbable, but it is a pretty good illustration of what Psalm 23:6 is describing. God is not only our good shepherd and our lavish host; His also a highway patrolman pursuing you—not with justice and wrath--but with goodness and love every day of your life. And He is fast.

You could even stretch the analogy a little further to cover the rest of the verse. Just as you’re breathing easy, the officer says: “You’re going to have to come with me now.” So you leave your crummy little car and get into the back of his patrol car. Soon, you realize that he’s not heading for the courthouse but out into the country. When he turns into a magnificent estate through a huge gate and drives under two-hundred year old oak trees to a beautiful old mansion, you ask, "Where in the world are we?" And he says, "This is my place, and I would like you to live with me. That is your bungalow down by the river among the willows. It's free. I'm going to go get your family, too. Hopefully they won't try to run away." (The Shepherd, The Host, and the Highway Patrol, Sept. 7, 1980)

"And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." The only problem with the story is that it focuses too much on the house and grounds. But David's great love is for the Lord himself, not what the Lord can give. David would consider it the height of fulfillment to dwell in God's house, whether it be a palatial mansion or a mobile home out in the woods by Gillet Grove. What counts is being with God.

The focus of this Psalm is not on the green pastures, but on the one who acts as the Shepherd; not on the lavish banquet, but on the bountiful Host; not on the trip to Miami or the bungalow by the river, but on the highway patrolman who runs us down with grace and mercy.

So the whole psalm leads us to God himself as the fulfillment of all our longings. We can be satisfied with the fullness of God. If you got Jesus, you got a good deal.

And so the reason my grandma and Frances Doeden had this Psalm on their lips just hours from death is because they knew that they had all they needed in God. And if you trust in Him as your good Shepherd, then you can have the same confidence.