The most important word in Psalm 23

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The most important word in Psalm 23

September 15, 2022 -

A shepherd and his flock of sheep walk down a path in Navarra, Northern Spain. © Cristina/

A shepherd and his flock of sheep walk down a path in Navarra, Northern Spain. © Cristina/

A shepherd and his flock of sheep walk down a path in Navarra, Northern Spain. © Cristina/

Are you into camping? Maybe you prefer “glamping”? I do.

What about castles? Do you dream of living like the British Royal family with multiple palaces to choose from? Where do you most like or want to live?

Do you hope heaven is more of an inside living experience or something in the great outdoors?

Whether you are a nature lover or a homebody, surely heaven will be the perfect combination of both, forever.

No matter where you live, food is always a priority. One of the great pictures of heaven is that it’s like a great feast all are invited into but where the price of admission is humble faith in Christ Jesus.

Jesus himself told this story recorded in Matthew 22:1–14.

Like a wedding banquet

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?”

The man was speechless.

Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

For many are invited, but few are chosen (NIV).

A psalm of God’s care

I once heard a preacher say that heaven and hell will both have banquet tables with forks six feet long. The people in hell will be starving as they try in vain to turn their long forks into their own mouths. The people in heaven will be feasting in joy as they use the long utensils to feed each other across the table.

That’s a picture to ponder.

I’ve spent a good amount of time in Psalm 23 in the last year. One scholar I read said that Psalm 23 is too relegated to funerals. Its truths are profound and meant for hopeful living and not just for comfort in times of grief. The psalm works well for both.

I recently heard Janet Denison offer a devotional on this well-known poem. As she taught, I was comforted, inspired, challenged, and encouraged. It’s amazing that this David song moves from green pastures to grand castles. David beautifully describes from his own experience how God longs and loves to care for us like a shepherd meeting the needs of his flock.

I well remember my late pastor, Paul Powell, teaching this psalm as a picture of God’s comprehensive care. Powell had an enviable ability to outline a passage and turn a phrase. He said, “God cares for us like a shepherd with his sheep. He meets our Everyday Needs, 23:1–3; Our Emergency Needs, 23:4; and Our Eternal Needs, 23:5–6.”

Now that’s a sermon outline I can preach all day long.

Our ultimate destination

As Janet shared from this psalm to comfort and encourage our group, it occurred to me that there is a progression in the picture. It moves from outside to inside, from green pastures and still waters that sheep love to God’s palace with a table feast and overflowing cups. (Side note: chase out overflowing as a word study of God’s abundant grace. See places like Romans 15:13.)

God’s ultimate destination for us is a banquet spread wide with the fullness of his perfection and life. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who taught that we get thrown off by how God changes our lives. We think he is turning us into small, quiet cottages in the woods when, in fact, he is turning our lives into grand castles big enough for himself to dwell in.

Further, I found insight, clarity, and courage from Janet for the journey between the green pasture and our King’s palace. In between there is a valley, most likely multiple valleys. There is always a valley because of the broken, warped, and twisted reality of our lives and world caused by sin.

In some sense, all earthly life is a trip through the “valley of the shadow of death” compared to heaven. Janet reminded us that, while the shepherd is with us in the valley, the wolves are there too, seeking to attack and devour all that is godly and good.

Believers don’t have to tremble, but the terrors of the valley are real and often hard to see in the darkness. Christ followers don’t have to fear because the Chief Shepherd is with us and is fully equipped and capable of protecting us. In the valley, fear is our greatest enemy. In The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer wrote, “The greatness of God rouses fear within us, but his goodness encourages us not to be afraid of him. To fear and not be afraid. That is the paradox of faith.”

What is the most important word in Psalm 23?

As I pondered the valleys of life and the people God places around us in such times, my mind went to Hebrews 12:1 and the “great cloud of witnesses.” I imagined a valley looking something like a football stadium filled with thousands of faith heroes and helpers.

As we walk our valleys with the Shepherd, we also find courage, comfort, and hope from those people who came before us and travel with us. We have to walk our valleys. No one can do that for us. But we are not alone. He is with us. And his presence, power, and promises are conveyed to us through those fans closest to the rail in whose faces we perceive his face and love.

Who are those people for you?

Janet caught my attention one more time at the end. She asked, “Do you know what’s the most important word in Psalm 23?”

There are many choices: Lord, want, still waters, restores, righteousness, staff, rod, comfort, overflows, forever, goodness, mercy, shepherd.

She called none of these.

She rightly pointed out that the most important word is the fourth word: my.

The key to faith and the key to the promises of this six-line masterpiece is ownership. None of the promises and possibilities of faith in these one hundred and fourteen words are true for me or us personally unless and until we allow, invite, and welcome Christ Jesus to be “my shepherd.”

If you have, rejoice and rest and keep moving with him.

If you haven’t, what more do you need to know?

If you have the privilege of walking near others today or speaking for the Shepherd this weekend, how will you let those who are “lost like sheep without a shepherd” know where to find him?

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