Has anyone ever offered you advice about “the real world”? People seemed prone to offer me a lot of advice about “the real world” when I was graduating. They’d say things like, “Enjoy this now, because in the real world, you have to do your own laundry.” Or “you’re going to have to toughen up if you want to make it in the real world.” “Once you get in the real world, that’s when you’ll really find out who you are and what you believe.” I always found this advice to be a bit muddlesome. Mostly because implicit in this advice was the suggestion that I wasn’t yet living in this “real world” and if that was the case, then what kind of reality was I currently living in? Had up to my graduating from highschool or university some kind of practice run? How would I know when I had entered this elusive real world?
Now I know that when people refer to “the real world” it’s really a way of recognizing that there are harsh realities that some of us lucky ones didn’t encounter in the somewhat protected environments of our homes. Realities as minor as having to do your own laundry to coming to know from first-hand experience that people can do really ugly things to one another. As you journey through life and encounter more people and situations you come to see and know that the justice system isn’t always very just, that good intentions and willpower aren’t always all it takes, that addictions are powerful, that sometimes sick people don’t get better, that people are broken and that putting on a happy face isn’t always all that effective in making grey skies clear up. I think that’s mostly what people were referring to when they warned me about “the real world”.
Now I don’t think “real world” language is all that helpful mostly because it seems to suggest that somehow the more difficult and gritty realities are somehow more real, when that’s not the case. The reality of nurturing home where you know you’re loved is a powerful reality that can give a taste of what home in God is like and it’s not something to dismiss. It also might create too strong a line between innocence and experience. But it does call attention to the fact that taking the whole scope of life into account is important and necessary for maturity. There’s something important about coming to see the whole scope of life in this world and not trying to protect yourself or shield your eyes from what is painful or difficult. Usually when we say of someone else, “that person’s not really living in the real world” what we mean is that they’re living out of some delusion, that they’re not taking all aspects of reality into account. Sometimes Christians can be accused of not living in the real world.
I mention all this because I’m worried that in reading this psalm, we might be tempted to dismiss it as kind of a “rose-coloured glasses” view of the world, that it might sound beautiful and comforting, but maybe it doesn’t have its feet firmly grounded in the real world. So I want to be clear that for the psalmist, this psalm is a description of reality. And it’s not the naive song of someone who doesn’t know about “real life”. You may have noted that Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22 which is a the psalm that Jesus quoted at his crucifixion. The psalmist is familiar with incredibly ugly realities that cause him to cry out and ask God why he’s forsaken him. The psalmist knows the depth and breadth of what it is to be human and it is out of that experience that he writes this psalm. I’d like to walk through Psalm 23 together and as we do, I wonder if you can ask yourself the question, “do I recognize in this psalm a description of my own reality? Do I recognize in this psalm a description of real life? Can you in some way name the world of this psalm as “the real world” that you are living right now?
The psalmist describes his reality as primarily about his relationship with his Shepherd. Shepherding was a really common job in bible times so many would know from first hand experience what it is to be a good shepherd. They would know that the shepherd often lives with the flock and is with the flock all the time, guiding the flock to good pasture, protecting the flock at night from enemies, providing them with everything they need. God is described as a nurturing provider who cares so intimately for his sheep that they lack nothing. The word for ‘soul’ in Hebrew doesn’t describe a separate bit of us, but is a word for all the different parts of a person as a whole. You have a picture of a Shepherd constantly restoring and renewing the whole sheep. He renews my whole person. God is described as an intimate nurturing presence, creating a safe place for the sheep to rest, grow and thrive.
Then in the next scene, the sheep and Shepherd are on the move and we see a different aspect of who this Shepherd is. I just want to point out that the phrase, ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ is a bit of a tricky bit to translate. The primary meaning is actually darkness. Maybe “valley as dark as death” would be a good translation. Death is involved but the meaning isn’t limited to death, it’s not the only thing being described here. If you think of the darkest valley or ravine you can think of, that would be the best way to understand what is being described.
I want to spend a little bit of time here, because I think this bit of the psalm is really telling both about the nature of reality, and the nature of the Shepherd. Notice, first of all that under this good Shepherd, the sheep don’t spend all their time in the lush green pasture. The shepherd doesn’t only look after the sheep in the normal, pleasant places, but he also watches them in the dark places where he must sometimes lead them, where it is sometimes necessary to go. The Shepherd doesn’t lead the sheep over, around or under this place of deadly darkness. He doesn’t avoid this place. Instead, he travels through this place with his sheep.
Are you aware of God’s presence with you in this way? As you journey deeper into “the real world” or as you become more familiar the harsher and darker realities of life, are you aware that God is there with you in the midst of it, that he has gone ahead of you there? Is it your reality that you know God as a guide and protector through valleys as dark as death?
Notice too, the reason the sheep is not afraid in this place of deadly darkness. The sheep fears no evil, not because there is no evil. That’s not the reason the sheep is not afraid. There is evil. There is threat. There are many things to be afraid of and many very real dangers that threaten the life of the sheep especially as they travel through this place. The sheep fears no evil not because there is no evil, but because the Shepherd is with him. The sheep is not afraid not because there is no evil but because the shepherd is with him. And his rod and staff comfort him. So this rod and staff would be two tools that a good shepherd would have with him. The rod is maybe better translated as a ‘club’. It was a weapon shepherds would use for fighting off wild animals that would attack the sheep. The staff would be probably exactly what you picture, kind of like a walking stick you could use to guide the direction of the sheep. So you get a picture of God as both a protector and a guide on this journey through the valley who is equipped to protect and fight for his sheep and to guide them through this place of deepest darkness. This is a shepherd willing and able to guide and protect his sheep through the dark places.
I’d like to pause here and ask again, is this your experience of who God is? When you are going through something dark, do you know God as a warrior by your side, protecting his loved sheep, powerful to fight off what is threatening you? When you pray for dark situations in the lives of those you love or in our world, do you pray to God as the one who is equipped to guide you through safely to the other side? Are you empowered not to be afraid, not because there is nothing to fear but because you know that your Shepherd is walking right beside you?
It’s at this point in the psalm that the metaphor changes. It seems that the sheep have reached some kind of destination and now God is pictured as a generous host.
Notice that it seems there is still a threat at this destination. They are gathered in the presence of the psalmist’s enemies. So here God is a host who takes risks, who doesn’t care for public opinion. He welcomes in this person who is maybe even hated by these people who look on and God welcomes him warmly and with great honour. Oil was a luxury item in these times and though there were ceremonial anointings for kings and priests, probably what is being described here is an extravagant way to honour a guest. And there’s a feast that has been organized. The picture here is of total extravagant welcome and abundance. The guest’s cup brims to overflowing with wine. We have a picture here of a guest who loves to be welcomed into God’s home because he is loved and honoured there. Can you think of a time when you were in someone’s presence or someone’s home and you knew that you were cherished, loved, welcome? The psalmist says that’s what it’s like to be in God’s home.
As we look at the end of this psalm, I’d like to look together at verse 6 and two words that are worthy of our attention. The first is the word for love. The Hebrew word is hesed. Hesed about loyalty and commitment. Maybe ‘steadfast love’ would be a good way to describe it. It’s a love that involves emotion, but also action. It’s an emotion that leads to an activity beneficial to the beloved. Its a doing kind of love, one that doesn’t just admire from afar, but actively works for the wellbeing of the beloved.
The second word is the word translated as ‘follow’ in our pew Bible. This is the word that’s used for when an enemy army is chasing another. So it’s not that goodness and love are trailing behind the psalmist somewhere off in the distance, dragging their feet. We have a picture of God’s favor chasing down the one he loves. Some Bibles translate this verse as saying, “surely goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life” and that is a more accurate translation. It’s a unique but pleasant picture of God’s love chasing down the one he loves. It makes me think of the parable where the Shepherd doesn’t rest until he chases down and finds his one lost sheep and brings him back home.
As we close, I’d like to invite you again to hear all this as a description of reality. That you, me and all of us have a God who watches over us intimately, who doesn’t leave our side, who knows what we need, who is with us both in pleasant places and will guide and protect us through all that is dark. We have a good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Do you know this God? Do you know God as your provider, protector, guide, as the one who welcomes you in and loves you extravagantly, the one who guides you back when you stray and chases you down with his love? If you don’t, I invite you to ask him to show you who he is. Sometimes we can be Christians in the sense that we believe that God is real, but we may not know God in this way. Let’s pray now.