Summary: God is our Shepherd, we are the sheep of his flock. Psalm 23 contains great promises for where we are going when life on earth is over. But it also gives a tremendous promise of comfort: On our journey God is always with us.
[Sermon preached on 15 April 2018, 2nd Sunday after Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday) / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
We all have the need to think and talk about God in a more or less concrete way. Considering that God is a mystery deeper than the deepest ocean and vaster than the universe, that is quite a challenge, to say the least. And honestly speaking, it may not be very helpful to philosophize about aspects of God that go far beyond human understanding.
The Bible provides us with metaphors or images of God that have concrete meaning for us and that apply to God as he appears to us and reveals himself to us, and as we relate to him. For example, God is described as creator, as king, as judge, and as father. The metaphor used also defines where we stand in relation to God: as creature, as subject, as defendant, and as child.
Different metaphors may appeal to us in different times of our lives and in different situations. That is what we see people doing in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
King David used many metaphors to describe his understanding of God and his relationship with him. In many of his Psalms he says, “The Lord is my …”—and then comes a metaphor:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
God is my help.
God is my King.
And here in Psalm 23:
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Where did David get these metaphors? And what did he want to express about his relationship with God through these metaphors?
First, he had been taught from early childhood about who God is and what God had done. Even though there was no Holy Scripture in writing, the great narrative of God and his people Israel was taught in homes, in public meetings, in the evenings around the camp fire, and during the great festivals. Fathers told their children how God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation. They told about Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, to wander in the wilderness for forty years and then, under the leadership of Joshua, to conquer the Promised Land. They told about the times of the judges, when God gave his people over to their enemies when they had disobeyed him, but delivered them again when they turned back to their God. That teaching made up the framework for what David knew about God.
Secondly, David had quite some personal experience with God. As a young teenager, he had taken care of the sheep of his father’s flock. He had been a good shepherd to them, leading them to places where they were safe and had plenty to eat and drink. At night, he had looked at the starry sky in amazement, and composed songs like Psalm 8:
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
He had mountain-top experiences with God. One of them was the moment when he was chosen and anointed to become king of Israel. Sometime later, God empowered him to fight and kill the giant Philistine warrior Goliath. And after quite some years, David rose to the throne to become one of the mightiest rulers in the Middle-East.
But he also had his share of deep-and-dark valley experiences. For years he was haunted and pursued by king Saul, who was determined to kill David. Once he became king, David had to fight enemies around him and enemies from within his kingdom—and even from within his family.
All these experiences shaped how David felt about God—how he saw him.
And thirdly, there were hopes and expectations. There were God’s promises to Abraham to make Israel into a great nation that would be a blessing to the whole world. And there were many personal promises that David had received from God. And last but not least, God had promised that his throne would be established forever and that one of his descendants would sit on it and rule Israel as a mighty and independent nation.
In Psalm 23, this teaching, these experiences, and these hopes and expectations boil down to two distinct metaphors. First, in the verses 1–4, he describes God as a Shepherd. And then in verse 5, the image changes—almost unnoticeably—into that of God as a Host.
Perhaps these two metaphors describe two different stages in the life of David: the time before and during his reign as king of Israel. Or maybe David thought of life on earth and life after death. That is how we often read and understand this Psalm today. That is why it is used so often in funerals. Because it contrasts the plight of this life with the blessing of heaven.