A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING (EIGHTEENTH IN A SERIES)
This hymn is a metrical translation of the 23rd Psalm—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.
The key note (pun intended) to the entire hymn is the first clause, “The Lord’s my shepherd.” (verse 1) All else derives from that glorious truth. Say it with an exclamation point: “The LORD is my shepherd!” It is as if David is bragging, “Look at Who my shepherd is. It is the great God Almighty!”
What, then, are some of the results of the fact that it is God Himself Who cares for us even as a shepherd cares for his sheep? First of all, it means that “I’ll not want.” (verse 1) This lack of want is not an assertion of the false “prosperity gospel”—the lie that if we are abiding in God’s will, He will bless us with material wealth. The statement “I shall not want” cannot mean that the Christian will never undergo any kind of financial difficulty, emotional distress, sickness, or persecution. The Bible tells us otherwise. What, then, does it mean? Quite simply, it means that we can be confident that we are being well cared for both in good times and even in the midst of adverse circumstances, because we have the Good Shepherd’s promise to that effect.
Adding to the list of blessings, we sing, “My soul He doth restore again.” (verse 2) What are we to make of this? Believers sometimes suffer great tribulation of soul. King David, the human author of Psalm 23, knew that feeling. He wrote in Psalm 42:5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, And why are you disquieted within me?” At such times, we may become despondent and despairing. We cannot “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” Shepherds know that sheep can become “cast,” or “cast down.” That happens when they are overly fat, or their fleece is very heavy and perhaps full of mud, if they lie down in a comfortable hollow in the ground. If the sheep rolls to its side, its center of gravity may shift to the point that it ends up on its back with its feet flailing the air. It then cannot get up. If the shepherd does not find and rescue it, it will die. Like that helpless “cast down” sheep that is saved by the watchful care of its shepherd, so also we must look to our Good Shepherd for our own “soul restoration” when we are downcast. We can’t do it on our own. Our flagging spirits and burdened souls are restored as we rest confidently upon the promises and care of the Good Shepherd.
Verse three of this hymn turns from the sheep’s exclamation of joy at being under Jesus’ care to a direct address to the shepherd Himself. “Yea, tho’ I walk in death’s dark vale,/ Yet will I fear no ill;/ For Thou art with me, and Thy rod/ And staff me comfort still.” A shepherd’s rod is actually a club. It is a weapon of defense, used to protect the sheep from predators. The shepherd’s staff is a tool unique to the care of sheep. It is usually quite long and slender, with a crook at the end. With it, the shepherd guides his sheep in the best way for them and he pulls them away from danger such as snakes, poisonous plants, or cliffs. Through the rod of His Word and the staff of His Holy Spirit working through that Word, our Good Shepherd protects and guides us in all the circumstances of our lives, so that we also boast with David, “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.