I’m going to guess that even folks who don’t know much of the Bible usually know something from it. They are likely to be familiar with a few key scriptures, including the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16 and maybe 1 Corinthians 13, if they’ve been to a church wedding recently. I also suspect that even if someone doesn’t know any of those other passages, Psalm 23 may be familiar: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” No other prayer echoes our hearts in quite the same way when we rejoice and when we grieve. In only six verses the psalm speaks of God’s care and restoration, God’s enduring faithfulness in the dark valley and the abundance of God’s banquet set for those who will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The themes of God’s shepherding care and provision in dark times have been set to music in hymns and praise songs. The psalm has launched a thousand cross-stitches on pillows and wall art. An unexpected and notable use of the psalm is the mid-1990s song “Gangsta’s Paradise.” The rapper Coolio’s gritty confession of the violence and hopelessness of life on the streets opens with, “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death / I take a look at my life and realize there’s none left.” The whole song feels like it rises up from the darkest valleys of life. I suppose it does.
It’s from dark places that people have found hope in the words of this psalm, clinging to them as if to hope itself. Even shuffling through lost and lonely valleys, the words of this psalm are whispered as a confession of trust in God: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
William Holladay, author of “The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years,” writes about the eminent 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher, who called Psalm 23 “the nightingale of the psalms.” Beecher wrote, “It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, oh, it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive. Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born.” He continued, “It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows, than there are sands on the sea shore. It has comforted the noble host of the poor. It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed.”
I can testify that Psalm 23 has provided just the right words when my own words seemed insufficient. At more than one bedside, gathered with family holding vigil for a loved one, out of the heavy silence someone will whisper, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And invariably, the rest of us join in: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
Few of us set out to memorize this psalm, but it has found a home in our hearts and rises to our lips as a prayer when we most need it. When we recite it as a group, each person may stumble over a line or two, but we pick each other up until we end with a resounding affirmation: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Henry Ward Beecher ended his soaring praise of the psalm with a flourish: “Its work is not done. It will go singing to your children and my children, and to their children, through all the generations of time; nor will it fold its wings till the last pilgrim is safe, and time ended; and then it shall fly back to the bosom of God, whence it issued, and sound on, mingled with all those sounds of celestial joy which make heaven musical forever.”
May this psalm bless you today and may it be nearest your heart and lips on those days when you need its hopeful promises the most.