For many people those words are an immediate door to sorrow. The background immediately becomes a field of stone tablets, a casket, a hole in the ground like a dirty maw. Heartbreak. We often go this Psalm because we have a need for David's confession of the Shepherd-God. We need this truth at some deep level because we do have want, we are hungry and thirsty, we do need guidance, we do need our souls restored. Our heartbreaks mended. Our scars anointed with soothing balm. We need.
And so we hold David's confession. We make it our own, casting it toward Deity in quiet and still desperation in the midst of ordinary lives. We need. And the pronouns in these three verses reflect that need. All the first-person words of "my," "I," and "me" saturate this prayer because David has need. He starts by confessing the LORD, but David's reality is that there is difficulty and pain, and so His confession of faith is quickly peppered with the lacking in himself.
There's nothing immediately wrong with this. The Apostle Paul readily admits that "we do not know how to pray as we should" (Romans 8:26). This desert rat has no problem affirming that. I have walked many times under a massive blue sky on a broad and trackless land, knowing that this beauty that dwarfed me was itself unable to be considered before the majesty and transcendance of the Creator. How can I speak to Him without praising Him, and if I praise Him as He is due, I will never move to my small requests! How can I speak to Him in my selfishness, knowing He gave the best He had to die on the cross for my sins? How can I speak to Him as I am thoroughly immersed and glutted on the gross stuff of a world that hates Him? How?
You know I cut the Romans verse off. Let me read you the second half: "...but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He Who searched the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26,27). I can pray to God because God the Holy Spirit helps me pray according to God the Father's perfect will, and my sinfulness is covered by the mediatorial work of God the Son on the cross. One God, three Persons, all bringing me close. But that's not the only way I am helped in prayer. Back to David's bittersweet Psalm.
"All Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Timothy 3:16). David may have voiced this song, but God the Holy Spirit created it. How does the Holy Spirit help us pray? By giving us a prayer-book in the Bible: the Psalms. It was not just the prayer-book for the Old Testament faithful, but continues to play a role in New Testament believers' lives:
- We read of the early Church, that they "were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). In the original Greek, "to prayer" would more literally be translated "and to the prayers." I strongly suspect that "the prayers" were the Psalms. The New Testament believers incorporated elements of worship that were inspired by the Holy Spirit and part of the liturgy of God's people for a thousand years (at that point).
- Paul, in sorting out the mess that was the Corinthian church's gatherings, gives them some important elements that must be present: "When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (1 Corinthians 14:26).
- Paul tells the church in Ephesus to "be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18) and then gives a long list of supernatural behaviors that will automatically, inevitably, unavoidably be shown by those truly filled with the Spirit. These include a mutual submission the context of the church gathering (5:21), marriages that reflect the Good News of Jesus Christ (5:22-33), children who obey their parents (6:1-3), fathers who teach their children in the ways of the Lord (6:4), servants who serve their masters as if the master was Christ Himself (6:5-8), and masters who remember their Master (6:9). But before all of these things, we are told that if we are truly filled with the Spirit, we will teach each other in corporate worship with hearts that are sincere before God: "...be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:18,19).
- In Paul's letter to the Colossians, the presence of the Psalm is a sign of loving unity (3:14), thankful peace (3:15), and the filling of one's life with the matchless Word of Christ (3:16). With these things in place, and with supernatural wisdom (given by the Spirit, not experience or expertise), we are to be "teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16).
I know I've digressed (several times), but you see the importance of the Psalms in guiding us in prayer as the church. The Psalter doesn't pray from sterile, inhuman lips. It prays from broken hearts, questioning minds, and lives of turmoil and stress. And it does so with the affirming stamp of the inspiring Holy Spirit of God. Back to Psalm 23.
David confesses the LORD, his Shepherd, then goes on to list the things the Shepherd does for a wandering sheep: "...I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me..." If we were writing this Psalm, we'd stop there. In our fallenness, we'd never go beyond what He could do for me. But this is inspired, and gives us a perspective that is astoundingly more real than what we experience as "reality." So David, in the inspiration of the flawless Holy Spirit of God, continues: "...He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake." This is the "why." The King does all things for His own glory. If He did all things to satisfy our perceived or felt needs, we'd never be filled, and would never see Him as He is. But He operates in the way we need. He operates as King over all, and Filler and Completer of all, the ultimate, unimaginable, and never-ceasing Absolute Beauty, Joy, and Pleasure. So He does all for "His name's sake," because nothing else will truly bring us to where we need to be. So the path upon which we are guided is not one that brings us immediate-but-temporary answer to our list of needs. It is on "the paths of righteousness" the Shepherd guides us. Where do these paths lead?
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" (23:4). Yes, the Shepherd sometimes takes us - as Jesus said to Peter - "where you do not wish to go" (John 21:18). But there He is still Shepherd, still Present, still Comfort. And faith becomes real - as a wise young man once said - when the Shepherd is all we have.
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies..." (23:5). I would like to suggest to you that this table is set "in the valley of the shadow of death," and that the "enemies" of the Psalm are, in this case, those who do not believe the Shepherd can find "green pastures" or "still waters" or "the paths of righteousness" in that valley. These are the faithless who ask the mocking questions of the faithless in every generation. "If there is a God, why is there evil?" "If there is a God, why do you have cancer?" "If there is a God, why is there an empty cradle still in your mind's eye?" "If there is a God, WHY?" He can make a table in the valley, for He's made a table in the wilderness.
You know the story of the Exodus. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, running from famine in Canaan, seek refuge in Egypt. There they stay for over 400 years, multiplying until they are a threat to the Pharaoh, who turns them into slaves. God delivers them through monstrous plagues, a parting of the Red Sea, and the stuttering Moses. After deliverance, then what? "He split the rocks in the wilderness and gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths. He brought forth streams also from the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers. Yet they continued to sin against Him, to rebel against the Most High in the desert. And in their heart they put God to the test by asking food according to their desire. Then they spoke against God; they said, 'Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?'" (Psalm 78:15-19). "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?" Well, can He? Where is it? How can you be sure? It sure is hot, dry, and hungry here in the desert. It sure is dark, dank, and deathly here in the valley. Where is the table? Can your Shepherd-God deliver on His promises even here? How long is He going to make you wait? Forget Him and trust in yourself, trust in us, trust in anything other than some wishful-thinking fairy tale. Make your own table with "food according to your desire." Go ahead.
David the Psalmist, an instrument of God the Holy Spirit, teaches us how we should pray: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows" (23:5). I have been led to the Father by the Son, and He is with me without fail in the Person of the Holy Spirit. I have all I need. Let the enemies of my faith mock. I cannot hear them, for the voice of my God comforts me here. No matter where "here" is.
The Psalm starts with the image of the pasture. A wandering life. David never lost this perspective, even when he was the wealthy and powerful King over Israel, even when he was the living foreshadowing of the King of kings Who was to come and Who now reigns over all. At the end of his life he accumulated the materials for the great Temple of the LORD his son Solomon was to build. Blessing the materials, David confessed, "Who am I and who are my people that we should be able to offer as generously as this? For all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You. For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were" (2 Chronicles 29:14,15). The shepherd-king never lost sight of the Shepherd-God and his own temporary and wandering state in this world, even when he lived a magnificent palace. But our Psalm doesn't end with the nomadic confession of its beginning, does it?
"Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life..." (23:6). "Lovingkindness" is His covenant-love, a love based on an agreement, sealed in blood. In the Old Testament this was the blood of animals. In the New Testament, it is the most precious commodity in the universe: the blood of God the Son, or, as Acts 20:28 says of the faithful in the valley, they are "the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." This love doesn't waver based on our performance. This love doesn't grow cold or bored or get distracted by illusionary foolishness. This love is promised by God's decree and sealed with the blood of Jesus. And it hunts us. That's the meaning of "follow." No matter where we find ourselves, this goodness and love will always be there. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38,39). Nothing.
What began as a wandering through fields, deserts, and valleys, ends with utter permanence: "...I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (23:6). This was not the Temple, for it would be built by David's son Solomon after his death. David is led to this "house" after "all the days of his life." It is gloriously found when the pastures have been exhausted, when the desert has done all it can, and when the valley opens up to a new and bright land. Home.
Can God make a table in the desert? Oh, yes. Yes, beloved.