Have you ever read one of those newspaper stories about the death of someone living the last decades of his life in poverty-level circumstances, who was later discovered to have had tens of thousands of dollars in cash stashed in various places around the hovel in which he had eked out his pitiable subsistence? It’s a sad irony, and we shake our heads when we hear it. However, sometimes our own behavior may mimic that irony more than we realize.
We confess that Jesus is our Lord and that we trust in Him for all our needs: bodily as well as spiritual, temporal as well as eternal. We furthermore confess that He is almighty, that He cares about us and for us, and that He will cause all things “. . . to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). These are certainly sincere and heartfelt confessions on our part, but sometimes in the midst of troubles, we may fail to take comfort from their implication. When that happens, we become a bit like the rich man who lived as a pauper. At those times, we need to remember the riches of our confession and the comfort to be found in it. Hymn 368 is a fine reminder to us that our Lord will watch over us and supply all our needs at all times.
This hymn is based on the well-known 23rd Psalm, which is a psalm of comfort. Most psalms of comfort (for example, Psalm 91) speak words of comfort to believers, but Psalm 23 is different; it is the exuberant exclamation of a believer, joyous that he is a lamb of God, with Christ as his shepherd. These thoughts are not those of some “spiritual miser” who—despite the unlimited wealth of the Lord’s promises to him—nonetheless refuses to take any comfort or assurance from that wealth, and lives instead in fear and woe. Rather, this hymn sings the exultation of a confident child of God, who knows that despite any circumstances (“When in the sultry glebe I faint/ Or on the thirsty mountain pant” [v. 2] and “Tho’ in the paths of death I tread,/ With gloomy horrors overspread” [v.3] or “Tho’ in a bare and rugged way,/ Thro’ devious lonely wilds, I stray” [v. 4]), nonetheless “His presence shall my wants1 supply/ And guard me with a watchful eye” (v. 1).
Hymn 368 rejoices that no matter our situation in life, we have no reason to fear, because the Lord of all the universe is our own, personal Shepherd. We need not worry about our temporal circumstances because “The Lord my pasture shall prepare/ And feed me with a shepherd’s care” (v. 1). We have calmness of mind because “To fertile vales and dewy meads/ My weary, wand’ring steps He leads,/ Where peaceful rivers, soft and slow,/ Amid the verdant landscape flow” (v. 2) If we feel lonely, we can then remember that “My noon-day walks He shall attend/ And all my midnight hours defend” (v. 1) and “My steadfast heart shall fear no ill,/ For Thou, O Lord, art with me still” (v. 3). Do we feel uncertain about the future? We are reminded that “Thy friendly crook shall give me aid/ And guide me thro’ the dreadful shade” (v. 3).
The Bible often likens God’s care of His people to that of a shepherd caring for his sheep. What Christian can sing this hymn, or read the psalm upon which it is based, without being reminded of what Jesus tells us in John 10:11 & 14: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own”?
Let us do more than merely state the doctrinal truth that “The Lord is the shepherd of His people.” Rather, let us joyously exclaim, “The Lord is my shepherd!”
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.