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more light #347

The 23rd Psalm

by Ed Halpaus
Grand Lodge Education Officer
Grand Lodge of A. F. & A. M. of Minnesota

The author Ernest Wilson wrote a lesson on the 23rd Psalm well over 50 years ago. I want to share it with you in the hope that not only will it help you today in this moment, but later on when you may have to face difficult appearances.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Psalm 23

To all who are weary and confused and oppressed,
To all who are beset by obscure and hidden dangers,
To all who are sick and sore and weary unto death,
To all who are lonely and bereaved and forsaken,
To all who are in desperate financial need,
To all who have lost their way and cannot find it,
To all who have come to the end of the road—

Here is a message for you. It comes to you with supreme simplicity, but it has in it a steady, unwavering strength and power. It speaks from the lips of a plain shepherd of many years ago, but it has in it the authority of God Almighty for your life. You have spoken it many times for the sheer beauty of its flowing speech; you shall speak it again and again for the assurance and courage and guidance that are in it for you. It is the immortal 23rd Psalm.

You are discouraged and disheartened, you say? You are pressed from every side by demands greater than your strength? You are called on to make decisions for which you have not the needed wisdom? You have sought vainly among all the persons you know, for one clear voice that will set you right, that will tell you what to do. You have longed to find some wise seer, like the fabled masters of old, at whose feet you might sit, in
childlike trust and faith, saying, “Only tell me what I should do, Master, and I will do it?” You are weary past belief in trying to make hard decisions, to choose between the thousand insistent voices that cry, “Lo, here” and “Lo, there?” Come with me.

Together we shall go on a little journey, you and I; a little journey of thought. It takes us far away from the crowded streets of cities; far away from any place with competition and financial pressure and barter and trade. We leave the jangling noises of the streets behind. We shake from our shoulders the heavy weight of cares. We let go of the pressing sense of hurry and urgency that has obsessed us.

We find ourselves on a pleasant country hillside, reclining under a rugged, old twisted tree for whose shade we are grateful, because the sun is hot today. We can see little heat waves rising from the sparsely covered earth. Before and below us is a smiling valley. A flock of sheep is grazing there calmly in the sun. They are munching the green
grass – greener there in the valley – in peace and security.

The shepherd has taken precautions against every danger that threatens them. He has led them in ways of pleasantness through the paths of peace. Conscious of their safety, he reclines now on the hillside a little way below us, amusing himself with the birdcalls that he picks out upon a flute that he has fashioned from a willow branch. About him is an air of lazy ease, but do not be deceived by it. Let the slightest danger threaten his charges and he will be up in a flash, ready to defend, with his life if need be, the lives of his charges.

He is only a simple shepherd boy, but he is a veritable god to the sheep; and though he is simple in much that would seem important to us, he is wise in all things pertaining to them. He has a way to meet their every need, to protect them from every danger, to lead them into plenty, to thwart their enemies, and to bring them, at the close of the day, safe and secure into the fold. They, lowly dumb creatures that they are, nevertheless are wise enough to trust him, and they know his voice among many, and respond to it without hesitation.

How like unto a shepherd is God toward us! Through the varied adventurings
and journeyings and needs of our day of life, God watches over us, with brooding, tender care. For every danger that threatens us, God provides protection. God leads us, and guides us, and guards us. The simple sheep owe their very existence to the care of a shepherd boy, and though he is dull, yet he cares for them and they put unquestioning faith and trust in him. My hope is that we are as wise as those sheep. Wise enough to put our trust in our Shepherd, God, who with infinite love and wisdom holds our life securely in God’s hand. Let us follow the shepherd’s day, and sing with understanding the simple song of faith inspired by his talks.

“The Lord is my shepherd,” the song begins. For you, the harassed, discouraged one, this opening sentence of the shepherd’s song holds a precious message. The Lord is YOUR shepherd. Place your trust in God. God will lead you into your good. God will protect you, and guide you. Nothing disastrous can befall you. God is mightier than any adverse circumstance or condition that confronts you. God will not desert you or forsake you or even forget you. Take care that you do not desert or forsake or forget God! Keep your trust in God. Even though you cannot see how God can possibly help you, be faithful to your trust. God’s wisdom is greater than yours. God sees farther than you do. God knows ways that are hidden from your sight. When every way seems closed, when dangers threaten, when want looms on the horizon like some fierce wolf to slay you, remember the one who is the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” God assures us; “and I know mine own, and mine own know me. Fear not, only believe.” With faith
and confidence, we join in the song: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Do you fear lack? Does it rear its ugly head, like a specter, in your life? Follow the shepherd as he leads his sheep into places of plenty. Say with the shepherd, “I shall not want.” In the Orient the hillsides become parched and dry. The grass, none too plentiful, withers in the hot sun. Many hungry sheep have roamed the same pastures. They have nibbled close down to the roots the little grass there is. The wise shepherd knows where
in times of drought the grass is still fresh and green. He urges his charges on past the hilltops to plains and valleys of peace.

Because of his wisdom, they do not lack. As familiar ground, now parched and barren, is left behind, they hesitate, but the shepherd goes ahead of them, and they follow, even though the way is strange to them. Surely it will be only a little way, but the way stretches into a long way. The sheep become hot and tired and hungry and thirsty. Still they follow, because they trust their good shepherd. At last they come to green
pastures, where they may find food and rest.

Our Lord is a Lord of bounty, not of lack. It is God’s good pleasure to share that bounty with us. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” But we must trust God, and follow God. God’s way may lead us away from familiar paths that have become barren to us. The way ahead may seem even more desolate than that behind us. It is strange to us. We feel completely lost. We have no
assurance of what lies in any direction.

Except for the Good Shepherd, we should be lost indeed. With God we are secure. Let us keep close to God indeed. “If ye abide in Me, and My Words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you,” God promises; and God fulfills God’s promise. God brings us not only plenty, but rest from anxiety that enables us to enjoy in peace the blessings God provides. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

In times of drought, when the hills are dry and only the tranquil hidden valleys are still green, all but the largest of the streams have dried up. The quiet little streams and the pools from which the sheep like best to drink are gone. Sheep are afraid of the rushing waters of the big streams, and well they may be, for they are easily caught in the rushing waters; the heavy wool on their backs quickly becomes saturated with water and weighs them down.

Even the wise, strong shepherd may be unable to help them when they are caught in the turbulent current. This the shepherd knows even better than they. If quiet waters are still to be found, the shepherd leads them there; if not, he diverts some of the water from one of the noisy, rushing streams, so that it forms a quiet pool where the sheep may drink in safety.

How grateful they are for the cool water! How fortunate to have a shepherd who is so wise and so loving! How fortunate are we to have a Shepherd whose guiding care brings peace into lives that are harassed and troubled by the confusion and dangers of rushing streams of human thought. Our Shepherd makes it possible for us to rest in the peace of plenty, to cleanse our world-begrimed thoughts, and quench our thirst for things, in the still waters of peace. Surely we too can say, “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

Are you weary and confused? Do you seem to have been left behind in the swift onward rush of things and events? Look again to the shepherd. Sometimes the march over the hillsides is a long one. The sheep are hot and dusty and weary. They are hungry and thirsty. Some of them, the weaker ones, lag behind. The wise shepherd calls a halt while they rest. And if some poor sheep is especially weak and wobbly, he takes it in his arms and carries it awhile, as the others resume the onward march. His clear voice
rings with encouragement, and the patient sheep respond to his call.

Soon they come to green pastures and still waters. Truly he restores not only the soul but also the body of his charges. So does the Master bid us pause in the onward rush of things, to renew our strength and faith, to make a fresh start. We feel the steadying influence of God’s presence. God’s words ring softly upon our inner ears: “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.” And we whisper, “God restoreth my soul.”

All day long the shepherd goes before his flock, choosing a way for them to go. He picks a path where rocks are fewest, lest they dash their feet against a stone. He prods in the grass with his staff to force out any snake that may be frightened into biting the ankles of the sheep as they pass, and to disclose, hidden gopher holes that may cause the sheep to stumble and fall. He leads them by the best way that he can find, for his
name’s sake as a good shepherd.

It might seem to the sheep that another way would be better—or quicker, for they are impatient to reach a place of food and rest—but he knows better than they. He is their guardian, and must guard them from themselves as well as from outside dangers. How much more so, does the Good Shepherd guard and guide us. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

The shadow of death is ever upon the sheep, death from tooth and claw, skulking in the distance, waiting to rush and kill, death from cruel fang darting from the grass, death from hole and pit open to trap slender feet and legs, death from rushing water reaching with greedy fingers to catch and carry downstream the luckless animal whose thirst overbalances his judgment, winged death soaring overhead to swirl upon the young and
helpless, the old and weak. With the sturdy shepherd at hand, all this is changed. The timid sheep, so easily panicked without their guardian, are calmed and guided by his reassuring presence. Yes, even though they walk through the valleys of the shadow of death, they fear no evil, for he is with them. His rod and his staff are ever ready to protect them. They are comforted.

Wise is the human who has an equal faith; who knows that even death itself is only a shadow, and that beyond the shadow and all around it is light, the light of eternal life. Conscious of an abiding presence, whose nature is life that is the light of humans, then the human says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” In our Shepherd’s hands, to defend and protect us is a
rod of power and a staff of support. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

The hillsides and valleys and tablelands are the table of the sheep, spread with food and drink for them. The tables of their masters are not unlike their own, for in nomadic countries humans commonly spread a skin upon the ground before the door of their tent, and placing on it their simple foods, they squat upon the ground around it and eat. Often both their own and their master’s meal is in the presence of enemies, wild animals who, emboldened by hunger, may attack; and sometimes thieves who live from the spoil of other men’s labor. The shepherd prepares a table before the sheep, truly in the presence of their enemies.

Humans often feel today that they are surrounded by persons and circumstances and events that are adverse to their best interest. It sometimes seems to them as if all life is a kind of conspiracy against them, separating them from all they want to possess or achieve, and in the “fell clutch of circumstance” they do not always clearly know the
Shepherd’s guidance, or hear God’s gentle voice amid the din of other voices. Good, then, it is to know and to affirm, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” My trust is in Thee.

We come now to the closing lines of the shepherd’s immortal song and to the closing scenes in the shepherd’s day. From dawn until sunset he has trudged the hills and valleys with them, going before them, making their way safe and plain and easy, finding them food, guarding them against dangers both imaginary and real, bringing them safely home again.

Now, as the sheep return to the fold, comes the most beautiful scene of all. The shepherd stands guard at the entrance to the fold. He has a dipper of olive oil, and another, brimful of cool water by his side. He examines the sheep as they enter. If he finds a bruise or cut, he cleanses it and binds it up with a healing ointment. His quick eye and gentle hands seek out the weariest animals, a ewe heavy with young, or a lamb that is still none too steady on its wobbly legs. He refills his cup of water, and lets the tired animal drink its fill. He anoints the hot, dusty head, bramble-torn as well, perhaps, with the healing olive oil, and sends the poor beast on to its night of rest. Not until the last of his charges is safely cared for, and the door of the fold closed and barred, does he retire to his own refreshment. Surely, with such a good shepherd, goodness and mercy shall follow them all the days of their lives!

The sun has set. The flock is safely in its fold. Its low murmurings have hushed to quiet. Twilight deepens into night, velvet-soft, and darkest blue. A light twinkles in the window of the herdsman’s home, beckoning him a welcome. Overhead the steadfast stars appear.

Within us, you and me, something of the serene faith and courage of the shepherd’s day is born anew, and something of the calm peace of the starlit night. We have found a strong and gentle presence, the Lord who is OUR Shepherd; and as we turn once again from the sweet simplicity of the shepherd’s song to the challenge and activity of our own busy days, the closing words of the singer of Israel echo in our hearts: “Thou anointest
my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

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Last modified: March 22, 2014