I love Psalm 23 and it was really helpful to hear a speaker talking about this at a recent church leaders’ retreat. On Sunday I shared my own attempt at a paraphrase of the Psalm. It’s been particularly on my mind over the past few days as it seems to link with a few particular themes that seemed to be coming together both around the stuff on Biblical Theology I’m writing about right now and as we’ve been thinking here on Faithroots about healthy church leadership.
To be pointed to the Lord as the good shepherd is so helpful, encouraging and comforting because it reminds us of exactly who it is that we have put our trust in. It also helps those of us as church leaders for two reasons.
First, we are reminded that the position of Shepherd is already taken. Everything that the Psalm describes is what Jesus has done and continue to do for us. This lifts any great burden from the shoulders of pastors/elders, especially the burdens we place on ourselves or that others try to place upon us.
Yet, the Bible also describes church leaders as under shepherds. There is a reason that elders/ministers are sometimes described affectionately as “pastor.” So, we can look to the Psalm and also see an example and guidance for us to follow as we seek to care for the part of the flock within our care.
Here are a few things I spotted.
The Psalm begins with a description of God’s rich provision. He is the one who consistently provides all that we need. The imagery of the shepherd leading his flock to safe and fertile pastures as well as taking them to a place where they can drink without being swept away in the roaring currents reminds us of how Jesus fed hungry people with bread and fish but also described himself as living water. It reminds us of the promise that when we come to him it will be like drinking from a spring of living water so that we will never thirst again.
As we’ve been picking up when talking about communion over the weekend, here again is that reminder to feast on Christ. Here is the promise that he will satisfy and sustain us. He is the source of all of our life.
Pastors/elders are reminded that their first and foremost responsibility in the church is to feed the flock. We feed them by giving them God’s Word, Scripture as nourishing spiritual food. But in fact, we feed them with Christ himself. In other words, our sole priority is the Gospel. It is the good news of salvation that not only helps people to enter into God’s kingdom but which we need to keep applying to their daily lives as they seek to follow and serve Christ faithfully.
Trust (v3b – 4)
The middle section of the Psalm is all about God’s guidance and protection. We can trust Jesus to lead us through life because he knows the way ahead. He has planned and prepared it for us. He has walked the path ahead of us.
This is true even when we face difficult or even dangerous times. The Psalmist talks about passing through “the valley of the shadow of death” or we might say “the place where death casts its shadow.” This includes when we face the loss of a loved one. Jesus is with us as we walk with friends and family through suffering, terminal illness, aging and to the point of death itself. Jesus is with us in the aftermath as we grieve. Jesus is with us for that point when we must face illness and approaching death too.
The promise of protection is given and this offers comfort. The shepherd protected and comforted with his rod and staff. The sheep felt safe from danger in his presence.
Pastors have two primary responsibilities as they serve the chief shepherd. They are to provide (with spiritual food) and protect from danger. This means watching out for wolves, for false teachers and abusers. The under-shepherd’s protection includes offering guidance, pointing believers to the right way to go away from danger. It also includes offering comfort when people face different fears.
We are meant to rest in God’s presence. The Psalm concludes with a slight change to the imagery. The metaphor of shepherding and sheep drops away and we see the human psalmist, a man with enemies. Yet, God has led him safely through danger and attack.
Just as a Shakespearian comedy concludes with the wedding feast, so too here we have a celebratory feast. In fact, we can see a narrative in line with the comedy genre working its way through the passage. We begin with the flock in a good and pleasant place, well nourished. Then they must face danger, they are on a journey to new pastures but the way passes through a dark and deadly valley. The shepherd brings the flock safely through to new pastures where they can enjoy rich food. Life is better at the end than the beginning because feeding grows to feasting. Humiliated enemies must look on whilst the Psalmist (and you and I with him) receive underserved honour as guests. In the Gospels, Jesus is the guest who is anointed with sweet perfumed oil. However, in the Psalm he comes and anoints us.
The Psalm concludes with a reminder of his persistent and faithful goodness to his people, throughout all their days. There is the promise that our eternity will be in his presence as we dwell where he is, in his home. This speaks both of his presence through the Holy Spirit now and the future hope of a forever home with him.
Pastors are those who seek to gather people, not for their own empire but so that those who were far off are brought near and into God’s family. Pastor’s encourage believers to cling to Christ. Pastor’s hold out the Gospel invitation of resurrection hope.
The Psalm therefore helps us to think about how we shepherd God’s people. We do so by bringing them to the safe presence of the Good Shepherd. We guide them to find food, protection and home in Christ. The encouragement here is that those things are available to all of us through Jesus.