4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[d]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy[f] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.[g
How often have I said these words at times of need? How often have I uttered this poem in the depths of my heart so that I, in a moment of conflict and despair, may have a word of comfort, rest, and Sabbath?
There is little to be said about Psalm 23 as an introduction. It is by far in the rankings of the top five works of scripture of all time. Everyone has heard it before. Language, nation, and lifestyle, I doubt there is someone who has not heard this poem at some point in their lives. If nothing else, you’ve heard it at a funeral, in King James English. It has been etched on stone, embroidered in cross stitch, and emblazoned on billboards.
Why? Why this psalm? Why this poem? I cannot say. It is however one of the most powerful pieces of scripture in the canon, though, because it speaks deeply to human need, human faith, and the human condition.
Why read this in Lent? Because we are in the middle of it all.
Lent is, after all, a season of fasting, repentance, and preparation. Lent is a journey, a journey to a difficult end, a daunting finale, one of supreme grief, but also overwhelming joy. In every journey, though, one must take time tor rest. That is what this psalm offers us today. A moment of rest.
A Moment of Trust
Essential to understanding psalm 23 is an virtue that is sorely needed in this world, and that the notion of trust.
This psalm is one of a particular kind, known a “song of trust.” There are others in the psalms like it: psalm 4, 11, 27, 16, 62, and 131. What makes a song of trust is that it has within it a sense of impending disaster, calamity, or danger. Something bad is about to happen, or several bad things are going to happen. Coupled with this sense of danger, though, is a sense of trust that the disaster will pass. All will be well.
In this psalm we see this clearly. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death? That is a clear and present disaster waiting to happen. It’s like walking though a dark forest at night, and seeing the glint of moonlight in two small eyes inside of a bush. You don’t know what’s inside that bush, but you know it’s something you don’t want to see. Calamity may fall upon you, but you trust that you’re going to make it back to camp safely. You trust that God will protect you.
Trust is hard to come by these days.
We live in an age of conflicting sources and alternative facts. We can’t even agree what facts are anymore. If we can’t do that, how on earth are we going to trust each other? Direct contradiction and barely concealed hostility between each other is no way to live, and yet it is our present and very dangerous reality. We have never been more divided than we are now. So how is it that we are asked to trust?
The fact is, trust takes time and care. You must take time to walk alongside someone to gain trust. A child trusts their mother because that mother (hopefully) has been with that child through everything. A person trusts their spouse because they have spent a lot of time together, for richer for poorer and in sickness and health. You don’t instantly trust someone. It takes time. Not everyone has the patience for trust, but if you do, trust is a great asset and resource to draw on, especially in moments of impending disaster.
Which is why this psalm is so important, and frequently quoted. It speaks of deep trust between a you and your God. It says that though you walk through that dark valley, you’re not afraid. God is going to protect you. God will lead you through it. But the only way to get that kind of trust is with time. Time, prayer, faith–this is what leads us to say with full confidence, “Your rod and staff, they comfort me.”
Make Me Rest
As God comforts us, we must also take seriously our own state, and our need for rest.
We’re halfway through Lent after all, and as anyone knows, you can’t walk a journey of a thousand miles without taking some time to stop and regain your strength after a while. Jesus Christ took many opportunities to go off by himself to pray, to regain strength, focus, and courage for the days ahead.
We are commanded in the great laws, the Ten Commandments, to take a rest, a Sabbath, and keep it holy. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation, and if God needs time to rest, to relax, and take stock in all that he’s done, then why are we so loathe to do so? Why do we resist rest? It’s obviously necessary, so why don’t we do it?
There are many reasons for us to not rest, to skip Sabbath and soldier on, tired and in need of respite.
Sometimes our work will swamp us. We overschedule our work and activity without paying attention to our needs for rest. And so we grind ourselves to death. Our work, our family, our obligations–we have an overwhelming desire to get it all done, and only then can we rest.
There’s some history to this. We in the US have a strong history of the Protestant Work Ethic. This is the belief that only in our work do we glorify God the best. That when we fail to work, we allow the devil to take over. “Idle Hands are the devil’s plaything,” as the saying goes. So we work. We work the fields. We work the mines. We work the factories. We work the cubicle and the office. We work the classroom. We work at home. We work and work and work, and drown ourselves out of a deep-seated cultural agreement that time is money, and only when you have enough may you rest.
But that has been exploited. Working overtime without rest is not good for anyone. A car needs to refuel. A field needs a season to lie fallow to regain its nutrients. A computer needs to reboot. And a human needs to rest. We need sleep. We need leisure and play. We need it not only for our bodies, but also for our souls.
This past week has been a week where I have experienced this deep spiritual need for rest, but also have seen it in others.
At a meeting this week with several of my brothers and sisters in ministry, one of the over-arching things we talked about in our check-in time was that we were tired. Down the line, our ministries were overwhelmingly successful and growing, but at the same time, we had spent so much time working and stressing that at the end of the day, we were just…tired. Drained. Our souls were positive, but depleted. We needed time to rest in the Lord.
One of my colleagues said that as he was preaching about Psalm 23 this week, what came to him most clearly was the phrase “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me lie down. He doesn’t ask me. He doesn’t suggest it. He makes me. He makes it so that I can do no others. And this is the moment the psalmist speaks of. When we are tired, dry, emotionally and spiritually depleted, we need to trust God enough to listen when he makes us to lie down, to rest.
This is something that only someone we trust can make us do.
A mother makes her child rest for a nap because she knows they are only cranky because they are tired. A good boss knows when their teams are past the saturation point and need some time off. A good military leader knows when their squad is tired and in need of R&R. And so a good God knows when we need to rest.
It is a deep sense of knowing and trust that allows rest. And so we must allow ourselves to rest in God from time to time. To lay by still waters. To restore our souls.
Courage to Fear No Evil
Through rest, through trust, we are drawn closer to this good Shepherd. And through this trust, we are given courage to face what is ahead, to stand up, and keep moving.
In the end, this moment of rest and this assurance of trust has made it so that the psalmist claims that he will fear no evil. That his trust in God is so great that God can invite all of his worst enemies to dinner and wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Most of all, the poet is assured that as long as he lives, he will have a home at rest in the house of the Lord forever.
This takes great trust. It takes a willingness to let your guard down and rest. But above all, it takes courage. Courage to have faith. Courage to put your heart in God’s hands. Courage to breathe in the breath of God once in a while and be restored.
We are beset at all sides by challenges, fear and doubt. But in the middle of this season of Lent, take time to rest. Take time to find that quite meadow and allow yourself to be restored by God. For some this is easy. For some this may take monumental effort and will. But trust in God. Fear no evil. Take time to rest. And have courage, for God will be with you forever. Amen.