Psalm 23:1-6

Here’s a question for us to consider: Is it possible that we have it all wrong? I’ll come back to the question in just a moment, but for now, I ask you to ponder it as I move us closer to seeking its answer. Is it possible that we have it all wrong?

Psalms 23 is perhaps the most well known passage of scripture in the Bible. This most familiar of the psalms does present a difficult challenge to the reader and the interpreter of Scripture. The operative word is “familiar.” I think Psalms 23 is too familiar.

It is familiar to all. Most everybody in this room could, in all likelihood, close his or her eyes and recite this splendid word in the King James Version and not miss a comma or semi-colon. There is an unmatched power in these words that seems to make any comment on them unnecessary. Some of you may even be thinking, “Why is Jimmy even attempting to preach the Psalms 23? He ought to know that you don’t have to preach the Psalms 23. It preaches itself.” I agree. It does. It is so familiar that it doesn’t need any preacher to speak for it or any choir to sing for it.

Then again, maybe the very familiarity of the words invites you and me to hear it in an unmarked way that has a brightness, a cleanness about it. What I’m asking us to do is to hear it as if we’ve never heard it. That’s no small task, either.

William Holladay expresses one of the reasons why we don’t hear it like we should in his book, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses. He calls the Psalms 23 “an American Secular Icon” because, more or less, it is connected entirely with one modern situation: the funeral.1 It is often read at funerals and appropriately so. God supplies our need for comfort as all of us have, at one time or another, walked through life’s darkest valley – the “valley of the shadow of death.”

I’ve been the Backup On-call Chaplain at Tanner Medical Center this past week. What a title! “Backup On-call Chaplain.” That means if Tanner can’t find the designed On-call Chaplain, they call the backup. It also means beginning tomorrow, I’m the On-call Chaplain for the week. Yesterday morning, the On-call Chaplain could not be located so I was called to the Intensive Care Unit to pray with a family that was awaiting the death of a family member, who had been hospitalized since last Sunday. There were about a dozen or so folks there. I tried to speak with each one and offer encouragement. We formed a circle around the bed and then I prayed. In my prayer, I quoted some of the Psalms 23: “Lord, remind these folks that You will walk with them through this dark valley – the valley of the shadow of death.”

I really believe those words in the prayer yesterday brought some comfort to those heart-broken folks. As I left the hospital, thinking about this psalm as it pertained to that family awaiting death and given I would preach from it this morning, I remembered Holladay’s book title and considered that through more than 3,000 years, these words have brought comfort to countless numbers of people who have been overwhelmed by death’s presence. They will continue to do just that for generations to come. I certainly have been one of those who has benefited and I continue to benefit from this very old word that was penned by a Jewish shepherd named David. And who hasn’t profited from them? I can personally think of none. But is its only concern for those who are walking the darkened and rugged path of death? There is just something within my being that cries out, “Of course not.”

Truth be known, it may be more important for this psalm to be read and heard as a word about living since it puts all daily activities – such as eating and drinking and seeking security, which includes handling death – into a thoroughly God-centered viewpoint that confronts our routine way of thinking.2 And that typical way of thinking needs to be challenged in this consumer-driven culture that doesn’t believe as much in supply as it does demand.

So back to my question: Is it possible that we have it all wrong? In fact, I think we do have it wrong. It is extremely difficult to hear the simple but radical message that lies deep in the refreshing waters of Psalms 23. It is an uncompromising point that says God is the single essential of life. Did you hear that? God is the single essential of life – your life and my life. That is such a graceful and humbling point, too. And I sense that it is this grace and humility that calls out from the depths of the Psalms 23 that so many of us have missed and are continuing to miss. God is the single essential of life.

And because He is, we are to remember – or realize for the first time – that God will supply our need. Our need will be met as He leads us. Unfortunately because the world as we know here in the USA is driven by greed rather than need, most people can hardly imagine having only the essentials of life – food, drink, shelter, protection; you know, the things that are necessary. And so there are a lot of well-intentioned people, church people mind you, who go through life, either consciously or sub-consciously, making demands of God instead of trusting God to supply. I’m sorry to say as a result of this the words “I shall not want” ring with an utter hollowness.

In the language of the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrew word translated want is not so much focused on the idea of “demanding” or “desiring” something as it is on “lacking” something needed. David does not mean that the Lord takes care of us by giving us everything we demand. Instead, those persons who trust in the Lord, just as sheep trust a shepherd, will never lack anything they need. In other words, their need will be supplied. It will be met as the Lord leads. And look at what He supplies those whom He leads.

He supplies them with abundant life – “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” (Psalms 23:2-3). He also supplies them with secure life – “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). Still He supplies them with blessed life – “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalms 23:5). Abundance, security, and blessing. This is what God supplies. Our need is met as He leads.

And it is Jesus Christ Who leads because in Him we discover the Lord Who is much more than a shepherd. We discover that He is the One Who is “the good shepherd” and, according to John 10, He lays down His life, indicating His selflessness; He knows us, indicating His intimacy; and He has other sheep in His fold, thus indicating His inclusiveness of all who will follow Him. This selfless, intimate, and inclusive Savior is the One Who provides that abundance, security, and blessing to everyone who will allow Him to lead. And letting Him lead is crucial, because none of us can know what may happen to us.

I am aware of at least three persons in our church family who lost their jobs last week. I’ve never been unemployed. I’ve never lost a job – never been laid off, never been fired. That’s not to say it could never happen to me. I have no idea what that is like. So for me to offer advice to anyone who has become unemployed is sort of like spitting in the wind. I do remember shortly after my daddy died when I was 12 that my mother lost her job because she refused to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week as a waitress in one of the restaurants in my hometown. She was unemployed for about a month because her reputation as a waitress preceded her. That’s the closest I’ve ever come, I suppose, to the fiend of unemployment. So I don’t offer any advice.

What I do offer is this. I offer to the employed and unemployed alike, as well as retirees and children and everybody in here, hope – the hope that God will supply our need. I honestly can’t explain how He does it. He just does. Our need is met as He leads each of us. And the greatest need any of us has is the need to permit the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to include us in His selfless intimacy. By doing so, we are enabled to be selfless and intimate and inclusive with each other in the trouble-free moments of life as well as the difficult ones. And we’ll all discover that He will supply.

But first we are to rid ourselves of the demands we place upon Him and ourselves. And like reading the Psalms 23 as if we’ve never read it previously, that is no small task. It is a process that takes time.

So what will it be for you? Supply or demand? Thank God our shepherd will supply our need. Our need will be met as He leads us. May each of us allow Him to lead.


Jimmy Gentry is Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, GA.


1. William L. Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 359.
2. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 767.

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