This is Graham’s reflection on Psalm 23, given during the 2019 SILA Summer Semester Closing Celebration Ceremony.
At the very start of the summer semester we introduced Psalm 23 as our theme for our time together, and I’d like to take one final look at it this afternoon.
Psalm 23 begins with the bold statement, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’. It’s an audacious claim that the Lord by His very nature, can be known and understood, and He is the shepherd, the one who cares for His people. It’s a profoundly relational statement – that the Shepherd binds Himself to His sheep. The rest of the psalm unpacks this first incredible statement – whatever season of life you are in, you have a Good Shepherd who knows you and knows what you need and is faithful.
Right now, you are probably in a season of relief tinged by exhaustion. For some of you this is the conclusion of the first phase of your year of study here at SILA. For others of you, this is a more distinct ending as the summer semester ends and you return to home to work and life. The message of Psalm 23 is that wherever we find ourselves, God is already there. He has gone before us. He leads us and is beside us. And because the Lord is our Shepherd, we lack nothing. We have all we need through the Lord who made all things and gives us all we need by his grace.
One of my favourite moments in Language Learning is to see student reactions to the bold declaration on day one of class that in six weeks and 12 hours of language learning sessions, you will be able to have a conversation with a speaker of a language that you don’t know yet. There is always a mixture of disbelief, shock at what you have gotten yourself into, and horror. And yet six weeks later, you have all been able to sit down and talk with Agus in Indonesian or Jenny in Macedonian for at least five minutes.
This is our Good Shepherd’s faithfulness to you. He has provided you with what you needed to accomplish this. And he has walked with you through whatever fears you might have faced about learning a new language.
You leave here with the knowledge that you can do things with language that you have not done before – whether it is the realisation that if you listen carefully and watch a person’s mouth, you can decipher what and how sounds are being made. Or seeing language and being able to think about how it is structured. Or watching an interaction and realising that culture is driving the very things that before might have seemed odd or just weird. Or being so much more aware of language that you have a new understanding of TAM – the tense, aspect and mood of verbs.
What happens when we apply our newfound understanding of verbs and TAM to Psalm 23?
Almost all of the verbs which describe the action of the Lord, the good Shepherd are in a Hebrew form that has a continuous aspect. These actions are ongoing, continuous and habitual actions that are part of our Good Shepherd’s character and relationship with us. In verses 2 and 3, the Lord continually leads us, the Lord continually restores, and verse 4, the Lord is continually with us.
From the view of tense, the actions are not in the past perspective of the speaker, nor are these actions just in the present perspective, and nor are they just in the speaker’s future. Rather the tense communicates ‘always’ – these actions are happening right now, from the moment of the speaker’s realisation, and will continue to happen in the future.
So verse 1, as soon as we realise that the Lord is our Shepherd, we also realise that we lack nothing now or into the future. And this openness echoes throughout the psalm. Verses 2 and 3, the Lord our Shepherd leads us now and in the future will continue to lead us. Verse 4, I walk through hard times now, and will again in the future. I do not fear (now), and I will not fear – because ‘you are with me’. Our Shepherd is with us now, and will be with us and guiding us whatever we face in the future.
That clause, ‘you are with me’ is a restatement of the core meaning of the opening declaration – ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. And when we read, ‘you are with me’, it is an unchanging anchor – a statement of fact, which is true now and forever. My life might be limited, uncertain, and feel insecure to me. But there is a certain and secure Shepherd who remains constantly with me. And because the Lord is with me, then there is nothing to fear. His presence is a continual and ongoing comfort to us.
The phrase in verse 5, ‘you anoint my head with oil’, is one that jumped out at me from the start of summer school, and one that I’ve been contemplating lately.
This image of ‘anoint’ is a central one in the Old Testament. The earliest Old Testament reference to ‘anointing’ is Jacob anointing a pillar of stone with oil to set it apart as the place where Jacob made a promise to God. Anoint has to connotation of being set apart for a special purpose. In the Old Testament, the bulk of the references to anointing refer either to the tabernacle and the establishment of Israel’s worship in the tabernacle and the priesthood, or to the inauguration of the kingship under Saul, David, and Solomon.
In the narratives of the kings of the Old Testament – first, Saul, then David are anointed. Saul is anointed to signal Saul’s new status as well as his new obligations as king. David’s anointing marks the end of Saul’s line, and bestows new status and responsibilities on David. Solomon, David’s son is anointed, reinforcing his claim to the throne over his brother, Adonijah.
If we take the cases of Saul and David, neither of them expected to be anointed as king. They were doing and living their lives, and whatever plans they might have had, it’s safe to think that they weren’t thinking about being king. For them, the act of anointing set their feet and lives on an entirely new path. And once they’d been anointed their lives followed an entirely new trajectory.
You may find this too in your life as the Holy Spirit anoints you to bring good news to others. Fairly regularly people ask Ellie and I how we got to this point in our lives. Our Shepherd has led us in ways we didn’t expect and couldn’t imagine. I can look back at my work life, for example, and to any reasonable or sane person, my career path looks like an ECG gone wrong. It squiggles all over the place. I think that this illustrates one implication of anointing in the Old Testament.
Anointing seems to lead to the unexpected, rather than the expected. Saul the farmer-warrior expresses the shock of his anointing regularly. He is sure he cannot measure up, he is terrified away from the presence of Samuel, and he struggles.
Similarly, when we read the psalms of David, we also catch glimpses of the struggles David experienced – of being pursued by enemies, of desperate times of illness and depression, of feeling inadequate, small, and alone. Both Saul and David found themselves in situations that I am sure were far from their childhood dreams or imaginations.
I think that for many of us, the same would be true. Our Shepherd leads us to the unexpected. Something happens when God anoints us; whatever else is going on, our lives are utterly changed. Ellie and I have seen God guide us into new territory and new roles regularly. That might sound unsettling, but there is a peace there too – our Shepherd leads us and guides us, and will let us know when it is time to take the next step.
To set out to follow the Shepherd’s voice means forsaking a stationary and predictable way of being, but Psalm 23 reminds us that even as God calls and anoints, He also provides, He overflows our cup, so His goodness and mercy accompany us through every season of life. We might not get to choose the season we are in, but there is great grace and comfort in knowing that God’s goodness and mercy surrounds us. The Good Shepherd is our constant, not the plans that we make.
And when our Shepherd anoints, our cup overflows. The anointing is not just for our own sake, but for the lives of others. God overflows in us his love, his goodness, his mercy, every good thing that he gives us for the very reason he sets us apart – because the Good Shepherd has other sheep that he wants to include in his flock. You leave here set apart for God’s purposes, with his guiding presence and his constant provision. I suggest you know have a responsibility to allow what God has given you to overflow to others. Take what God has provided you by way of learning and experience, and translate it into something meaningful in your own context in order to show others the goodness of the Shepherd that we trust.
As the Shepherd leads you, what difference might it make to someone in your family, your community, your church if you can be a better listening ear, a more sensitive heart to others. An encouraging word to a migrant struggling with the wickedness of English orthography and pronunciation. A desire to get alongside another, and embrace them by asking about their life, their journey, their culture, food, language, etc. I hope and pray you’ll leave here seeing the world as a different place. A world with new possibilities and wider horizons which the Shepherd’s goodness and mercy is pursuing.
As you go into the world now, know that the Shepherd is and will be with you. Don’t be startled to find yourself in new pastures, or moving through strange valleys. He is and will always be with you. He anoints you in ways that overflow and will overflow his love to others. His goodness and mercy is pursuing and will pursue you. And you are and will be with him forever. Amen.