Often when attending a funeral, we hear comments and words that are meant to bring comfort. Even before someone passes away, we will look to offer the right words to share with the one about to leave us. Too often however we stumble over the right thing to say, making us feel like a fish out of water in an already uncomfortable situation. The question is, just what word does one say (or not)?
In my Pastoral experience over the years, I have found that coming back to the word of God is always the best way to share hope and comfort. More specifically I have found Psalm 23 to be the most comforting as it parallels God’s relationship with us. These inspired words speak to the journey each one of us makes through our life’s experience, and explains how God wants to walk with us through the stages of life as our Shepherd.
Psalm 23 was written by David who was a great leader in the history of the nation of Israel. He was a general in the army and later on in his life became the King of Israel. But prior to any of this David was a shepherd who, as a boy, took care of his father’s flocks. As a result, David knew first-hand about the relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd. In this wonderful Psalm, David shares with us 10 images of hope & comfort that he learned through his experiences with his sheep, but even more importantly with his shepherd.
1 “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – Verse 1
The shepherd is the one who takes care of the flock. He knows his flock; he knows the sheep; he understands the needs of the flock – but also of each of the sheep individually. He knows the sheep who have gotten into the brambles and need grooming or who has been injured and need special care to grow strong, or which ones like to run away from the flock and go exploring; which sometimes gets that sheep in trouble because there are wolves out there. The shepherd knows the sheep and he cares for each and every one according to their needs because the Shepherd loves the sheep (you & me).
2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” – Verse 2a
Sheep will not lie down if they’re hungry, or if there is a threat of danger, or if they are irritated. Sheep will not rest if it is not at peace. Sheep will not drink from a fast-moving stream. They get spooked and so then regardless of how thirsty they are they will wander up and down the bank bleating and crying, knowing they need water to live but too jittery to take a drink. But the shepherd calms the sheep simply by being there and finds that quiet pool, that calm spot where the sheep can relax and get the refreshment they need. Do the cares of life make you jittery at times? Do you long for a place of calmness and refreshment? Trusting the Shepherd brings peace and calmness to our lives, and so the question needs to be asked, ‘Do you know the Shepherd’?
3 “He leads me beside still waters.” – Verse 2b
Sheep will not drink from a fast-moving stream. So the shepherd goes out of his way to find his sheep a quiet pool. God can help us find calm in our lives, too, so we can drink deeply from streams of living waters.
4 “He restores my soul.” – Verse 3a
This refers to what a shepherd calls a “cast down sheep”. Somehow, he has gotten upside down (onto his back) and can’t get back up. The shepherd comes along and sets him on his feet again. Sometimes this happens to us, too. Sometimes we as people find ourselves in the same place as a cast down sheep. Much like that commercial on TV… “Help I’ve fallen & I can’t get up!”
The problem is that we have all wondered away from the shepherd at times, and we’ve fallen upside down, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray.” – Isaiah 53:6
Perhaps a difficult event in our lives has caused us to fall away from God: That might be a death in our family; loss of a job; illness; overwhelming responsibilities; broken relationships. Events like this can cause us to become angry with God and even to distrust him. Perhaps we have simply chosen to serve ourselves instead of our God. Isaiah continues…”each of us has turned to his own way,” When we realize the need in our souls to be restored to our loving God, our Shepherd hears our cries of alarm, and helps us back onto our feet. He forgives us and restores us to a right relationship when we ask him.
5 “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” – Verse 3b
Verse one and two described the spring; when grass is plentiful and the sheep willingly following the Shepherd. Verse three is a description of mid-summer, when the grass is getting scarce. Sheep, when they are in their pasture, will ruin pasture quickly – eating from the same grassy area until it is so short that it dries up and dies. So the shepherd makes new paths for them so that they can find fresh grass. Some of us need a fresh start (healthy grass). Jesus, our Shepherd, wants to help us find it, but the pathway back to green pastures can be dangerous.
6 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” – Verse 4a
This part talks about the trip to the high-country meadows in springtime. This route is through some tough country with lots of rocks, deep ravines, and cliffs. Places where wolves and wild animals stalk their prey for an easy kill. This shepherd was constantly on the look-out and protected the sheep. This is what God does for us, too. There are many times when life is treacherous and scary. Jesus wants to be our Shepherd through these times, as well.
7 “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” – Verse 4b
The rod is a weapon to kill a bear, while the staff was a stick with a crook in the end to bring in a sheep for inspection or to pull them by the leg from a cliff. The Shepherd is well prepared to keep us safe. He will not let anything take us from him if we decide to follow him.
8 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” – Verse 5a
Finally the Shepherd and the flock arrive at a fresh mountain meadow where the grass is unspoiled by the harsh summer sun. All around the meadows, there were snakes, wolves and predators waiting to snag stray sheep. In the middle of this tension and danger, the shepherd led the sheep to a banquet of fresh grass – to a place of peace in a scary world.
9 “You annoint my head with oil.” – Verse 5b
In the summer time, the gnats and flies would get up the noses of the sheep and lay their eggs in there. It would drive the sheep mad. Here, the shepherd anoints their heads with oil (pours it over their noses). This kills the gnats and gets rid of them. What an amazing picture of our father who loves to provide tender, loving care.
10 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” – Verse 6
It’s now the part of the story where they have all come back to the farm for winter, back to the safety of the home pasture. The end of the life cycle (retirement, ageing, death). It’s a picture of an eternal life with our Shepherd who has helped us all the way through every stage of our life. No more perilous trips to the upper meadows; no more fast flowing rivers; no more wandering off; no more rocks and crevices; no more wolves. Rather there is safety in the Great Shepherd’s home and eternal peace in his love
Do you know the shepherd? Do you experience his care; his protection; his guidance; his restoration when you wonder off? Here’s the key: It’s as we make Jesus our Shepherd now, in this life, and choose to live with him day to day, that we prepare for our eternal life with the Shepherd “back at the farm”.
Maybe life has become confusing. There may be some things you can’t understand or you wonder why they are happening to you (like the loss of a family member). Or, you are facing a situation that is frightening or has you worried. At a time of the death of a friend or loved one, you ask yourself questions such as: “Is there life after death? What am I really accomplishing in my life? How can I know how I should live now?” Perhaps you’ve been asking some of the big questions of life. Questions like these are often raised in times of loss or at times when we are confronted with death. I want you to know that the shepherd desires to lead and care for all those who would choose to follow him. He wants to comfort us and help us make sense of life, not only in times of loss and confusion but every day we live.
This Psalm is not only a comfort at a time of loss such as at a funeral, but it also shows God in a whole new light. Jesus is one who understands the turmoils of life and death and will help us in them. In the end Jesus is the only one who can give us purpose and hope in a world of hopelessness, sorrow, death and trouble. In the end Jesus is the shepherd and he is the Word that we need to share as we experience the toughest moments of life… and death.