Each spring, my children and I enjoy visiting a historic working farm to experience lambing season. Last year, we went during the week of several births, and my two-year-old got to hold one of the lambs, which was about as big as she was. This year, we arrived before any lambs were born, so instead we watched the ewes lumbering around the barnyard, pregnant bellies hanging low to the ground. They appeared at ease and unhurried, content to move between the cozy barn and the sunny pasture. The farm workers kept them safe, warm, and well fed. Because of these “shepherds,” the sheep could live in peace and thrive.
Psalm 23 begins with a pastoral scene that evokes the image of freely roaming sheep, feeding on green grass with fresh water nearby, cared for by a shepherd who keeps harm at bay. The shepherd is aware of the presence of threats to the sheep’s safety, and the presence of the shepherd allows the sheep to live without fear and anxiety.
But this flock traverses dangerous territory. Breaking into this serene picture is a journey through the darkest valley. Predators may lurk in shadows, and the footing is uncertain. The shepherd is not the only one present with the sheep in this scene. We keenly sense the presence of two forces: good and evil. Death abides in a dark valley, and enemies look on at the table.
Still, even where evil is present, the pervasive presence of God is more powerful. There is nowhere the sheep can go where the shepherd does not go with them. The shepherd’s presence brings peace in the presence of evil.
Because the Lord is my shepherd, the psalmist writes, I lack nothing; even my soul is full. I can walk with confidence because the Lord leads me.
The psalmist is under no illusion that evil is absent just because the Lord is near. Rather, we can have peace in the presence of threats to our well-being because of the One who leads and cares for us. Because of the Lord’s presence – not because of the absence of harm – we are comforted and do not fear.
Psalm 23 is comprised of three scenes: a pastoral scene with green pastures beside still waters, a threatening scene in a dark valley, and a tense scene with a feast set as enemies look on. It is this third scene that ties together the ideas of the psalm: both evil and good are present, yet we can experience peace because of the one whose presence is greater.
Whether Psalm 23 was actually written by David or merely attributed to him is unknown, although the fact that David himself was a shepherd makes the metaphor even more meaningful. Generations later, David’s descendants will declare himself the Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says (John 10:27). This is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, whose companionship is stronger than the forces of evil. This shepherd knows his sheep by name, and they live in peace solely because of his presence.