Today our meditation is on Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous passage of Scripture, and one that our western experience doesn’t really understand. We don’t live in a shepherding culture, and we certainly don’t live in the landscape of rural Israel. But that’s the context in which this passage speaks most clearly.
We often read this psalm with images of God’s abundant blessings. “I lack nothing” seems to indicate “I have everything I want!” “Green pastures” seems to indicate a feast of epic proportions in belly deep alfalfa hay. But have you ever seen pictures of Israel? Do we really understand what David is writing here?
Keep in mind that Psalms 20-23 are Messianic in nature; they describe the coming (returning) Messiah and how he would live. Did Jesus have all the physical possessions he wanted? Was his a wealthy and luxurious existence? Something seems to be off with our American understanding of this famous psalm.
If you look at the picture I have attached to this post, you will see the “green pastures” of Israel. Look closely. Do you see the sheep grazing on the hillside? Can you see the little tufts of green grass on the hillside in the desert? These are the green pastures of David’s world, of Jesus’ world, and of Psalm 23.
In the desert that is very little water and virtually no grass, yet this is where you can raise sheep in Israel. Each night a strong wind from the west blows humid air from the Mediterranean Sea against the hot desert hills and the condensation occurs. Overnight this moisture causes green tufts of grass to sprout that in the morning provide grass for the sheep, but by mid afternoon the sun has scorched everything there. Unless the sheep are in the right place at the right time they will have nothing to eat.
Do you know the most common cause of death in the desert? Drowning. Seriously, I’m not making this up! Though it doesn’t rain in the desert, it pours in the mountains and the mountains cannot absorb the water. These torrential runoffs stream through dry riverbeds (wadi’s) into the desert. Often there is water left over in the bottom of these wadi’s, and that’s the problem. When you attempt to get water out of these wadi’s you leave the rock often get stuck in the miry mud that is left.
People drown like this every year because they see water, their thirst in the desert drives them into these wadi canyons and when 70 feet of floodwater rushes through the canyon at once they cannot get out. Desert people will tell you instead to get your water from springs, also known as “still” or “quiet waters.” In these places there is no danger.
So who knows where the grass will appear in the morning? Who knows the difference between flood waters and quiet waters? The sheep? No, it’s the Shepherd that knows these things. So what does it mean to have Yahweh as your shepherd? And what what might happen if we don’t listen to our Shepherd?
I could write about this psalm all day, but hopefully I’ve provided enough to get you thinking. Here’s a couple of takeaways. First, read this psalm with the cultural and geographical information from above and see what David might be saying. Is he saying we will have everything we want because we follow Yahweh, or is he saying we don’t have to worry because because the Shepherd will always give us just what we need when we need it? The words of Jesus seem to echo here as well!
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body or what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?…But seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all theses things will be given to you as well.”Matthew 6:25, 33 NIV
Second, if Psalm 23 is Messianic in nature, then read this as if Jesus were speaking. Can you see his story here? And finally, read this in your voice. What does it mean to dwell in the house of Yahweh forever? What does it look like to dwell in his house now?
May Yahweh bless you as you spend time wrestling with his word today. Shalom.