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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 23

 

 

Introduction

XXIII.

Under two images equally familiar in Hebrew poetry—that of the shepherd watching over his flock, and of the banquet where Jehovah presides over the just—this psalm expresses the tranquility and happiness of those who are conscious of the Divine protection. But, after the Hebrew lyric manner, direct allusions to circumstances mingle with the images. We think therefore of some real person and some actual experience, and not of an allegorical reference to the return of the people of Israel from exile, or of the guidance of the rescued nation from Egypt through the wilderness, which were favourite modes of explanation among the Rabbis. The mention of the house of Jehovah seems decisive against the Davidic authorship, which else it would be fascinating to accept, breathing, as the exquisite verse does, the freshness and beauty of the “sweet singer’s” early shepherd days. The feast, too, under the enemies’ eyes, might have been a reminiscence of Mahanaim; but if David’s fortunes have thus coloured the psalm, it must have been through the mind of some later writer. The rhythm of the poem is as tender as the thought.


Verse 1

(1) Shepherd.—This image, as applied to God, appears in Hebrew literature first (Genesis 48:15; Genesis 49:24) of his relation to the individual (comp. Psalms 119:176); as the shepherd of His people the image is much more frequent (Psalms 78:52; Psalms 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 63:11; Ezekiel 34; Micah 7:14).


Verse 2

(2) The verbs in these verses are not to be understood as futures, but as presents, describing the customary condition of the poet. “The psalmist describes himself as one of Jehovah’s flock, safe under His care, absolved from all anxieties by the sense of this protection, and gaining from this confidence of safety the leisure to enjoy, without satiety, all the simple pleasures which make up life—the freshness of the meadow, the coolness of the stream. It is the most complete picture of happiness that ever was or can be drawn. It represents that state of mind for which all alike sigh, and the want of which makes life a failure to most; it represents that heaven which is everywhere if we could but enter it, and yet almost nowhere because so few of us can” (Ecce Homo, 5, 6).


Verse 2-3

Rest, Refreshment, Restoration

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul.—Psalms 23:2-3.

1. We are apt to think about the Old Testament as if it were hard and rigid and rugged and severe and stern. Some people say, “I like the New Testament very much, but I do not care to read the Old Testament”; but right in the middle of the Old Testament shines the Twenty-third Psalm, as if it were put there in order that men might never dare to call that book harsh and hard and severe and stern. This Psalm is an outpouring of the soul to God, never matched in all the riches of the Christian day. It is the utterance of a soul absolutely unshaken and perfectly serene. There are times when everything in God’s dealings with us seems to be stern and hard and bitter; then, just as we are ready to cast ourselves away in despair, and feel toward God as toward a ruler whom we can simply fear but never love, there comes some manifestation of God that sets our soul to singing. The hardest and severest passages in the Old Testament find relief if we let the light shine on them from the Twenty-third Psalms 1 [Note: 1 Phillips Brooks, The Spiritual Man, 283.]

2. In the New Testament many of the expressions of deepest faith have their origin in this Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” See how one of the words which afterwards became the inheritance of the race first came to be used. Many words have passed into common use and are now used without any feeling of their sacred origin in the local circumstances out of which the Bible was first written. This is the case with the word “shepherd.” David, the shepherd boy, had been back and forth over the fields of Judæa, and, in the care of those dependent on him, had learned to feel the care of the heavenly Father. It is a beautiful thing when the soul, from its own relationship towards dependent ones, comes to recognize the care of God. Taking up the lamb in his arms, David thought: So my heavenly Father will carry me through all the days of my life. Our Saviour said, “I am the good shepherd.” He took the figure from the Old Testament, and when His disciples came to do the work He had done, the title “shepherd,” or “pastor,” became universal in Christian history. The pastors of the flock are they who try, in their weakness and inability, to do that which Christ did perfectly. David could find no word to describe more fully to his own mind the richness of the care that God had for his life, the absolute dependence of his life upon God’s love, than that taken from his own daily occupation.

I.

Rest

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

1. The green pastures, says Delitzsch, are pasture-grounds of fresh tender soft grass, where one lies at ease, and rest and enjoyment are combined. The word rendered “pastures” is the plural of a word which is used for a dwelling or homestead. In six of the twelve places where the word occurs, it is coupled with “wilderness”; and in three more it refers to pasturage. It evidently denotes, therefore, the richer, oasis-like spots, where a homestead would be fixed in a generally barren tract of land. We must banish from our minds the green fields of our country, enclosed with hedges or stone walls. In the East the barren uplands are all open and unfenced; and you never see a flock of sheep without the shepherd in charge of them. Everything depends upon the shepherd; he has to find out where the thin grass lurks beneath the rocks, where the precious fountain bubbles into the cistern, where shelter may be had from the scorching sun at noonday.

Some time since I was driving across the Cornish moors, when my friend who was with me pointed to a greener slope between the rocky hills. “My father owned some land here when I was a boy,” said he, “and many a time I have ridden over these moors looking for the sheep; I generally found them on that slope.” “Why there?” I asked. Then he showed me how two high hills rose up and sheltered it from the north and east, and how the slope faced the south, so that they found it warmer, and the early young green grass grew there. Some time afterwards that pleasant picture of the hills happened to come back to my mind, and I turned wondering as to where His flock finds its resting-place. Very beautiful for situation is this Twenty-third Psalm. The Psalm before it begins with that dreadful cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Here is the hill of Calvary, with its mocking crowd, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” His sheep have come over Calvary; they have passed under the Cross. Behind them rises that hill which for ever breaks the fierce storms that beat upon us. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”: here is the calm, and overhead the blue sky where no storms gather. Then immediately after the Twenty-third Psalm comes that which tells of the hill of Zion with its splendours and shouts of triumph. “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” So sheltered lies the flock of the Good Shepherd, betwixt Calvary and Heaven, shut in from the angrier blasts, and dwelling in a land that looks towards the sunny south.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, in The Sunday Magazine, 1884, p. 605.]

2. Here is a promise, then, to the weary, of repose. Thank God this is not an age of idleness. Can we equally say, Thank God this is not an age of repose? It is almost the prevailing stamp which defines the character of the present day—its restlessness. Call it, if you will, impatience; call it hurry; certainly whatever is the opposite to repose.

We see all sights from pole to pole,

And glance and rush and bustle by,

And never once possess our soul

Before we die.

There is a deep craving within our spiritual nature for a true spiritual rest; not the rest of inactivity or sloth, but a calm, abiding peace, which shall be within us even in the midst of our labour. The full satisfaction of this craving is reserved for the future: “There remaineth a rest for the people of God.” But there are seasons and opportunities of repose vouchsafed to us even now. Resting-days are given us, on which we may gather in our thoughts from the excitement of the world, and receive into our hearts that “peace which passeth understanding.”

There is probably no necessity more imperatively felt by the artist, no test more unfailing of the greatness of artistical treatment, than that of the appearance of repose; yet there is no quality whose semblance in matter is more difficult to define or illustrate. As opposed to passion, change, fulness, or laborious exertion, Repose is the especial and separating characteristic of the eternal mind and power. It is the “I am” of the Creator opposed to the “I become” of all creatures; it is the sign alike of the supreme knowledge which is incapable of surprise, the supreme power which is incapable of labour, the supreme volition which is incapable of change; it is the stillness of the beams of the eternal chambers laid upon the variable waters of ministering creatures.1 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters (Works, iv. 113).]

I began Miss Martineau’s book (Feats on the Fiord) at sunrise, and finished it a little after breakfast-time. It gave me a healthy glow of feeling, a more cheerful view of life. I believe the writer of that book would rejoice that she had soothed and invigorated one day of a wayworn, tired being in his path to the Still Country, where the heaviest-laden lays down his burden at last, and has rest. Yes, thank God! there is rest—many an interval of saddest, sweetest rest—even here, when it seems as if evening breezes from that other land, laden with fragrance, played upon the cheeks and lulled the heart. There are times, even on the stormy sea, when a gentle whisper breathes softly as of heaven, and sends into the soul a dream of ecstasy which can never again wholly die, even amidst the jar and whirl of waking life. How such whispers make the blood stop and the very flesh creep with a sense of mysterious communion! How singularly such moments are the epochs of life—the few points that stand out prominently in the recollection after the flood of years has buried all the rest, as all the low shore disappears, leaving only a few rock-points visible at high tide!2 [Note: Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson, 204.]

The universal instinct of repose,

The longing for confirmed tranquillity,

Inward and outward; humble, yet sublime:

The life where hope and memory are as one;

Where earth is quiet and her face unchanged

Save by the simplest toil of human hands

Or season’s difference; the immortal Soul

Consistent in self-rule; and heaven revealed

To meditation in that quietness!1 [Note: Wordsworth, The Excursion.]

3. “He maketh me to lie down.” The first thing that the shepherd does with the sheep in the morning is to make them “lie down in green pastures.” How does he do it? Not by walking them and wearing them out, but by feeding them until they are satisfied. For sheep will go on walking long after they are weary, but the moment they are satisfied they will lie down. It may seem unlikely that early in the morning, as the very first thing in the day, the shepherd should be able to feed his flock so well that they will lie down satisfied. But that depends upon the pastures. If he gets them at once to green pastures, they will of their own accord—their appetites being sharpened by the morning air—eat and be satisfied, and lie down in a great content.

Now a day with the shepherd and his sheep in the uplands is; the life of the believer with God. Its first act is the satisfaction of the soul with the things which He has provided. For the believer of to-day the great provision is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And no one who has tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is will deny that the very first experience of the goodness and mercy of God is well described in the first act of the Eastern shepherd’s working-day,—“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

Where dost Thou feed Thy favoured sheep?

O my Beloved, tell me where;

My soul within Thy pastures keep,

And guard me with Thy tender care.

Too prone, alas! to turn aside,

Too prone with alien flocks to stray;

Be Thou my shepherd, Thou my guide,

And lead me in Thy heavenly way.


If thou wouldst know, thou favoured one,

Where soul-refreshing pastures be;

Feed on My words of truth alone,

And walk with those who walk with Me.

I with the contrite spirit dwell;

The broken heart is Mine abode;

Such spikenard yields a fragrant smell,

And such are all the saints of God.1 [Note: R. T. P. Pope.]

“Lie down and look at it,” a friend once said to me when we were out together for a trip on the Grampians. The scenery around us, I need not say, was strikingly beautiful. There were mountain-tops tipped with snow, hillsides covered with purple heath, green valleys through which flowed the Earn with its tributaries, waving cornfields, and rich pasture lands on which the sheep and deer were feeding in the distance, making a picture which, when once seen, was not to be forgotten. Here and there, too, were ruins of ancient castles, dismantled and dilapidated, carrying one’s thoughts back to the realm of history, and reminding one of times when might was right and those quiet glens were the scenes of war and bloodshed.

But my companion kept on calling my attention to shades of green in the fields, shades of purple on the moors, shades of blue in the sky. He was evidently absorbed in the picturesqueness of the scenery. At last I said to him, “You have got the painter’s eye, and I have not; you can see a beauty in this landscape which altogether escapes me.” “Well, perhaps so,” he said, “but at all events I want to give you the painter’s eye; just lie down and look at it.” And never till that moment had I been conscious of the amazing difference which a slight change of attitude can effect in viewing the fields of Nature. Everything changed with the posture and the standpoint. I now understood, for the first time, the mystic charm which mountain scenery has for the poet’s and the painter’s eye; the ever-changing tints and shades of colour, in earth and sea and sky, transferred with such subtle power to the canvas, and fixed there, “a thing of beauty” and “a joy for ever.” All this I had learnt by following my comrade’s injunction—he made me to lie down in green pastures.2 [Note: R. Balgarnie.]

(1) The first essential of this rest is an assurance of safety.—The stranger startles the flock, the watch-dog frightens it, the howl of the wild beast scatters it in panting terror. The confidence of the first line is the key to all the gladness of the Psalm—“The Lord is my shepherd.” The whole song is born of assurance. Fear strikes all dumb, as when the hawk wheels overhead in the blue heavens and hushes instantly the music of the groves. Doubt spoils it all—“the little rift within the lute.” Confidence, steadfast, unwavering confidence, is the very heart of this rest. There must be a great, deep, abiding conviction wrought into me that He is mine, and I am His.

What if one who calls himself my friend should ask me to his house, and welcome me with many words, and entertain me with sumptuous show of hospitality, and give me a thousand tokens of his regard. He bids me make myself at home, and hopes I shall be comfortable; but as I am going to rest, he takes me aside. “This is a pleasant house, isn’t it?” “Very, indeed,” say I “most pleasant. The design and arrangements are perfect, the views are charming, the gardens delightful; everything is complete.” “I am glad you like it; I hope you will rest well”; and then his voice sinks to a whisper—“but there is just one thing I ought to mention, we are not quite sure about the foundations.” “Then, sir,” I say indignantly, “you may depend upon it I am not going to stay here.” Sleep! I couldn’t. Why, the man’s welcome to the place is cruel; the entertainment is a hideous mockery; the decorations and furniture are a madman’s folly. No; give me some poor cottage with many discomforts, but where I do know that the foundations are right, and I should be much better off.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, in The Sunday Magazine, 1884, p. 606.]

(2) The next thing is satisfaction.—God becomes the answer to all our longings, the fulfilment of all our hopes. He fathoms and fills the uttermost deeps of our being. Our souls lie back on Him and are satisfied—abundantly satisfied, finding in Him their being’s end and aim. God made the soul for Himself; He has begotten within it a thirst that all the waters of time can never quench. This thirst, rightly interpreted, is the grand distinctive mark of our high origin—the prophecy of our return to God.

The Psalm at this point reflects the comfort and peace of those happy souls who, in early life, have tasted and seen that God is good. Satisfied in the morning with His mercy, they rejoice and are glad all their days. To make an ideal beginning of our life we must go with the Good Shepherd early and spend the dewy morn with Him upon the meadows of His grace. For then the spiritual appetite is keen and the heart feeds hungrily on the fat pastures of God’s love until it is nourished into a deep content. There are no lives that dwell in such a profundity of peace or hold within them such reserve and resource of spiritual power as those who can say, “Thou hast been my God from my youth.”

In the dark hours of our life all other sounds die away, and leave silence in our souls—silence that we may hear His voice. And it is a great step forwards in the Christian life, if one learns to say, “The Lord is my portion.” Nothing teaches this as sorrow teaches. From it we learn the transitoriness of earthly things, the permanence of the eternal, the loving call of God; but also we learn the very hard lesson that God is really the only satisfaction for the soul.1 [Note: Mrs. George J. Romanes, The Hallowing of Sorrow.]

II.

Refreshment

“He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

1. G. A. Smith renders it thus: “By waters of rest He refresheth me.” This last verb, he says, is difficult to render in English; the original meaning was evidently to guide the flock to drink, from which it came to have the more general force of sustaining or nourishing.

It is the noontide hour. “Sunbeams like swords” are smiting the sheep. They pant with heat and burn with thirst. It is time for the shepherd to lead them to the drinking-place and cool them at the waters. He knows the way. All over these Judæan hills, at frequent intervals, there are deep, walled wells, whose waters never fail. A good shepherd carries in his mind a chart of every well in all his grazing area. These wells are his chief dependence. Were it not for them the country would be impossible for grazing purposes. For though there are many streams the sheep cannot safely drink from them.

At the well-mouth, with bared arms, the shepherd stands and plunges the bucket far down into the darkness, sinking it beneath the waters and shattering the stillness which till now has brooded there. He plunges and draws. Swiftly the rope coils at his feet as the laden bucket rises responsive to the rhythmic movements of his sinewy arms. Into the trough he pours the sparkling contents. Again the bucket shoots into the darkness of the well; again, and yet again, and when the trough is filled he calls the thirsty sheep to come in groups and drink. The lambs first, afterwards the older members of the flock, till all are served and satisfied.

2. God leads the sheep by the still waters, where it may drink the cool, clear draught in safety, and not be scared or confused by the roar of the cataract; the devil would lead the sheep beside the turbulent rapids, where it can scarcely drink without danger of being carried down to the cataract which bewilders with its noise and foam. Think of all the pleasure of simple, innocent recreation; think of the joy which comes to us from the wonder and beauty of Nature; remember the pleasures of music, of poetry, of art; think of the calm joys of true friendship, and the delights which cluster around the pure affections of the home. All these are the refreshment and exhilaration of the cool, still waters. But think of the exciting pleasures of the gambler; think of the muddled brain of the drunkard singing his foolish song; think of the riotous, lascivious mirth of the casino; reflect on the half-insane glee of the rake who boasts of his debauchery: here you have the intoxication of the rapids and the cataract. And let us never forget that the rapids and the cataract are sometimes only farther down in the very same stream beside the still waters of which the Lord is leading His people.

We know how often in Scripture the emblem of water, as a purifying and refreshing element, is employed to represent the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit. “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink … this spake he of the Spirit.” This is the “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” When the Spirit receives of the things of Christ and shows them to the believer, longing to behold His power, His glory, and His beauty, or discovers to him his interest in the hopes and promises of His Word, witnessing with his spirit that he is a child of God, he is strengthened and revived as by a draught from that “well of water which springeth up unto everlasting life.” To be led “beside the still waters” is to be “walking in the comfort of the Holy Ghost,” to be enjoying holy and tranquil communion with Him, to have clear and enlarged and soul-satisfying discoveries of Christ and His work, to have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, so that even amid outward tribulation we have inward peace. It is He who opens up “the wells of salvation,” out of which the believer draws water with joy. Though often “in a dry and thirsty land where no water is,” let him follow the leadings of his Shepherd, and the promise will be fulfilled, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.” This is the rest wherewith He has caused the weary to rest, and this is the refreshing which comes down on the fainting soul as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended on the mountains of Zion.

Not always, Lord, in pastures green

The sheep at noon Thou feedest,

Where in the shade they lie

Within Thy watchful eye:

Not always under skies serene

The white-fleeced flock Thou leadest.


On rugged ways, with bleeding feet,

They leave their painful traces;

Through deserts drear they go,

Where wounding briers grow,

And through dark valleys, where they meet

No quiet resting-places.


Not always by the water still,

Or lonely wells palm-hidden,

Do they find happy rest,

And, in Thy presence blest,

Delight themselves, and drink their fill

Of pleasures unforbidden.


Their track is worn on Sorrow’s shore,

Where windy storms beat ever—

Their troubled course they keep,

Where deep calls unto deep;

So going till they hear the roar

Of the dark-flowing river.


But wheresoe’er their steps may be,

So Thou their path be guiding,

O be their portion mine!

Show me the secret sign,

That I may trace their way to Thee,

In Thee find rest abiding.


Slowly they gather to the fold,

Upon Thy holy mountain,—

There, resting round Thy feet,

They dread no storm nor heat,

And slake their thirst where Thou hast rolled

The stone from Life’s full fountain.1 [Note: J. Drummond Burns.]

III.

Restoration

“He restoreth my soul.”

1. The words translated “he restoreth my soul” mean to bring the soul back again to itself, to bring the soul that has become unlike itself once more into a condition of equilibrium, and therefore to inspire with new life, to recreate. There are thus two possible interpretations.

(1) Restoration may mean bringing back that which has gone astray. We think at once of the parable of the Lost Sheep recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Yonder is a shepherd with a flock of an hundred sheep feeding around him. One of them wanders off unperceived, and is lost. Though ninety and nine remain, the good shepherd misses the lost one; he goes forth to seek it; having found it, perhaps far away in the wilderness or the mountain, and it may be near to nightfall, he brings it back with him to the rest of the flock. He does this most tenderly and lovingly. Though it has cost him toil and pain, he does not use it roughly; he does not scourge it before him, or drag it after him; he does not leave it to hireling care; he lays it on his own shoulders, rejoicing, and so brings it home.

With just such tender, compassionate loving-kindness does the Lord the Shepherd bring back the wandering soul; He bears us no grudge for the toil and pain we have cost Him, but rejoices over us; He forsakes us not, nor leaves us to our own strength, till He has carried us across the threshold of celestial bliss, and set us down among the saints in light, the home-doors folding us in.

In Deuteronomy (Psalms 22:1-2) we read, “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother. And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it unto thine own house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again.” This humane and honest custom still prevails among the shepherds of Palestine. Whoever finds a sheep, goat, or any other domestic animal straying on his land, secures it and informs the neighbours and shepherds with whom he is acquainted, or whom he may meet, that he found an animal straying on his property and that any one who has lost such and can prove ownership should come and take it. If one finds an animal straying on the highway the finder will send it to the public square of the nearest village or city, where generally some one will recognize whose property it is. Everybody who hears of the find relates the fact to everybody else with whom he is acquainted, and to every shepherd he meets if the animal is a sheep or a goat. Animals that have been bought and brought to a flock where they are strangers will sometimes stray away in search of their former companions and shepherd.1 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 68.]

An evangelical hymn from this Psalm by Sir Henry W. Baker, the editor of “Hymns Ancient and Modern,” is among the most generally appreciated in that collection. The Rev. J. Julian (Dictionary of Hymnology, v. “Baker”) says: The last audible words which lingered on his dying lips were the third stanza of his exquisite rendering of the 23rd Psalm, “The King of Love my Shepherd is”:—

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed;

But yet in love He sought me,

And on His shoulder gently laid,

And home rejoicing brought me.2 [Note: J. Earle, The Psalter of 1539, 267.]

What a beautiful, comforting gospel that is in which the Lord Christ depicts Himself as the Good Shepherd, showing what a heart He has towards us poor sinners, and how we can do nothing towards our salvation! The sheep could not defend nor provide for itself, nor keep itself from going astray, if the shepherd did not continually guide it: and when it has gone astray and is lost, cannot find its way back again, nor come to its shepherd; but the shepherd himself must go after it and seek it until he find it; otherwise it would wander and be lost for ever. And when he has found it, he must lay it on his shoulder and carry it, lest it should again be frightened away from himself, and stray or be devoured by the wolf. So also is it with us. We could neither help nor counsel ourselves, nor come to rest and peace of conscience, nor escape the devil, death, and hell, if Christ Himself, by His Word, did not fetch us, and call us to Himself. And even when we have come to Him, and are in the faith, we cannot keep ourselves in it, except He lift and carry us by His Word and power, since the devil is everywhere, and at all times on the watch to do us harm. But Christ is a thousand times more willing and earnest to do all for His sheep than the best human shepherd.1 [Note: Martin Luther.]

(2) But it seems more in keeping with the language used to understand restoration to be revival of fainting life. It may then be regarded as an anticipation of that profound saying of Jesus concerning His sheep: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”—a life ever enlarging in strength and depth and fulness and joy. The hot sun has been beating down upon the flock, and they are sorely exhausted; their “soul” is faint and weary, and the shepherd uses suitable means to refresh and restore them; and then he leads them in the right ways, known to himself, whither he would have them go.

Christ shelters us from the heats of life in the shade of His own majestic Personality. The thought of restoration in the protecting shade of the Divine presence occurs repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. It strikes the keynote of the Ninety-first Psalm. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” It is the central idea in Psalm One Hundred and Twenty-One. “The Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.” It is in view of this that the promise follows:—“The sun shall not smite thee by day.” Isaiah dwells upon the thought with evident delight. “For thou hast been a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat.” Again, with the thought of the Divine presence in his mind he sings, “And there shall be a pavilion for a shadow in the daytime from the heat.”1 [Note: J. D. Freeman, Life on the Uplands, 51.]

2. Our Psalm is deepening in spirituality and becoming more inward as it proceeds. Hitherto the shepherd-care of Jehovah has been viewed merely in its relation to bodily needs. But man is something more than a body with a set of physical desires and appetites. He is a soul. There is that within him to which the temporal and material order is not correlated. There are sides of his being that Nature cannot touch. There are mountain peaks upon which her sunlight never falls, and slopes which all her verdure cannot clothe. There are spaces that her fulness cannot fill, and depths which her deepest plummet cannot sound. The eye wearies for sights more beautiful, and the ear for harmonies more sweet, and the heart for friendships more abiding and for joys more deep and full, than those of time. Man has a set of faculties which are accommodated with a merely temporal residence in the body, in order that they may find a preparatory school for the earlier stages of their development before being launched on the timeless ranges of the life to come. No view of life can be complete which does not take this side of man into account, and no provision can be regarded as complete which does not meet its needs. Nature is too poor to meet our deepest necessities. We possess a life higher and nobler than that which can be sustained by meat and drink. We hunger for bread that Nature never breaks to us. We thirst for waters that never gush from her springs.

David had lived a full life. He had known the extremes of want and wealth. He had endured the tortures of physical hunger and thirst, and had moved amid all the splendours of an Oriental court. He had mingled freely with the affairs of State, and knew all its ambitions and temptations, its plots and counterplots. He had proved the despiritualizing effects of a voluptuous court life, and the necessity for restoration of soul; for, like the body, the soul runs down. And David had found that there was but one way of recovering spiritual tone, and that was in fulfilling personal relations with a personal God. He—Jehovah—and He alone could reinforce him on the moral side, and so brace him up that he could say “No” to the clamour of unholy desire.1 [Note: H. Howard, The Shepherd Psalms , 39.]

(1) First among the means of “restoring” is God’s Word, read, heard, meditated upon, hidden in the heart, conversed about, prayed over, loved, opened and applied by the Holy Spirit; with its revealings, instructions, records of experience, saintly examples, consolations, mighty spiritual energies, exceeding great and precious promises.

The Bible is not a book that has guided only the lives of fools and women and babes. It has moulded the lives of the noblest, and made wise men like Carlyle, Bright, Gladstone, Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Milton as vessels of power and grace. It was for many generations the chief if not the only text-book of our Scottish sires; and those whose praises are in all the churches were made brave enough to live and strong enough to die, drawing deep draughts of grace and power from the stream of Holy Scripture. In the enfolding universalness in which its unity is found; in its deep power of truth-revealing, its uplifting and guiding grace, its ocean-song of majestic phrase and captivating words, the irresistibleness of the Divine within and about it, it vindicates its claim to be Literature, and the greatest utterance of Literature in the language of men.2 [Note: L. MacLean Watt, Literature and Life, 70.]

(2) Then there is the blessed intercourse of prayer, whereby the creature-spirit comes into immediate communion and fellowship with the Infinite Spirit. There is restoring for our souls in the very contact with God, and in the answer that He sends. Let experience declare. We have gone into our closets, and bowed our knees or cast ourselves on the floor, under an overwhelming sense of feebleness and prostration, like Elijah under the juniper tree, or David when he cried out, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust”; and, through the Divine intercourse of prayer, we have come forth strong and gladdened: and, through prayer as a daily habit (growing into a necessity of our being), we have found our life deepening and expanding, and filling with joy from year to year.

Prayer is a spiritual exercise, and its results are spiritual. The men who know its fullest exercise are the men who are in a condition to talk about it. Cuique suâ arte credendum est. Says Bagehot, and with entire truth: “The criterion of true beauty is with those—they are not many—who have a sense of true beauty; the criterion of true morality is with those who have a sense of true morality; and the criterion of true religion is with those who have a sense of true religion.” It is so, emphatically, with prayer.1 [Note: J. Brierley, Life and the Ideal, 74.]

How constantly through my life have I heard testimony of the power that answers prayer. History everywhere confesses its force. The Huguenots took possession of the Carolinas in the name of God. William Penn settled Pennsylvania in the name of God. The Pilgrim Fathers settled in New England in the name of God. Preceding the first gun of Bunker Hill, at the voice of prayer, all heads uncovered. In the war of 1812 an officer came to General Andrew Jackson and said, “There is an unusual noise in the camp; it ought to be stopped.” The General asked what this noise was. He was told it was the voice of prayer. “God forbid that prayer and praise should be an unusual noise in the camp,” said General Jackson. “You had better go and join them.”2 [Note: Autobiography of Dr. Talmage, 156.]

(3) Then there is praise—the praise of the “great congregation”; the praise of the fireside, with the sweet child-voices chiming in; the praise of solitude, ringing through the wood or rising from the lonely fisherman’s boat; the unheard praise of the workshop or street, when we “carry music in our heart.” And its restoring efficacy is not less wonderful. When Israel chanted that lofty song on “the shore of deliverance,” when Paul and Silas sang aloud in the dungeon at midnight, the very singing uplifted their spirits, doubtless, into a higher region.

Song lies nearer the centre of life than we think; and the words were spoken from a true insight, “Give me the making of a nation’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws.” In the great revival of religion in New England last century, Jonathan Edwards mentions, as a sign of the Spirit’s work and an instrumentality He employed, “the great disposition to abound in the Divine exercise of singing praises, not only in appointed solemn meetings, but when Christians occasionally met together at each other’s houses.” He even gives his approval, under certain limitations, to the practice of singing psalms on the way to or from public worship, and says it “would have a great tendency to enliven, animate, and rejoice the souls of God’s saints, and greatly to propagate vital religion.” As a means of revival, the importance of praise is coming to be recognized more and more by all good men.1 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 65.]

Praise is devotion fit for mighty minds,

The diffring world’s agreeing sacrifice;

Where Heaven divided faiths united finds:

But Prayer in various discords upward flies.


For Prayer the ocean is, where diversely

Men steer their course, each to a sev’ral coast;

Where all our interests so discordant be

That half beg winds by which the rest are lost.


By Penitence when we ourselves forsake

’Tis but in wise design on piteous Heaven;

In Praise we nobly give what God may take,

And are, without a beggar’s blush, forgiven.2 [Note: Sir W. Davenant, Gondibert, Canto vi.]

(4) Then there is the communion of saints, in all its breadth, including not only our converse one with another, but our whole intercourse and fellowship in worship and service—communion marked by sympathy, love, joy, and full of spiritual impulse and strength.

“I believe in the Communion of Saints.” That cannot mean a very lukewarm interest in their welfare. If the body of Christ is one, and one of the members suffer, all suffer. Infantile and poorly educated as the Church in Uganda doubtless is, yet not a few children of God here have shown a strength of faith and resistance unto blood which their fellow-believers in Europe, to-day at least, know little or nothing of. I cannot but think that their heroism deserves the commendation of all true men of God throughout the world. It must be remembered, too, what their fellows are still suffering on account of the faith. All the evils of persecution, so vividly pictured in the end of Hebrews 11, are being bravely, yet meekly, endured to-day.3 [Note: Mackay of Uganda, 324.]

3. What are the methods which God employs in this moral restoration of our souls?

(1) He begins at the very beginning.—Deep down in the heart of every man, wearied and weakened by sin, lies the instinct that for him restoration can come only through beginning life again at the very beginning; and Christ is worshipped to-day by men as their Saviour, because He has a gospel and a power to satisfy this instinct. He said to men, come back and begin again at the beginning, and, trusting Him, they found they could. He did not do this in the merely negative way in which His Gospel has sometimes been misrepresented. He did not only say, Thy sins are forgiven thee; live out the rest of thy life, sparingly with the dregs thy prodigal past has spared thee. Nor only, Thou art free, go thy way. He did not leave men where their life had run to sand. He led them back to where life was a fountain. Sometimes He did this in the simplest way. When the woman who had sinned was left alone with Him, He did not only say, “Neither do I condemn thee,” and so get rid of her. He added, “Go and sin no more.” What an impossible order for poor mortals to receive! Yet to hear Christ say it is not only to hear the command but to feel its possibility. And why? Not because the soul is overborne by a magical influence, which works without respect to her own powers; but because Christ makes her feel that in forgiving her God infects her with His own yearning for her purity, constrains her faculties by His love, enlists her will among the highest forces of the Universe, and the purest personalities of her own kind, and above all trusts her—there is no more natural or moral power in all the Universe than that of trust—trusts her to do her best in the discipline and warfare that await her; trusts her to be loyal to Him, and trusts her capacity to overcome.

(2) He awakens in us the conscience of the infinite difference between obedience and disobedience.—If we carefully read the Gospels, we shall find that next to revealing the Father, our Lord insisted most upon the infinite difference between obedience and disobedience. On this His words are always stern and frequently awful. “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgement.” Can we, however sleepy or dull of conscience we may be, however self-indulgent or flattered by the world—can we listen to words like these without a startling restoration of the soul? Yet it is not only the Lord’s words but Himself who restoreth our soul. How He lived, even more than what He said, is our conscience. You know the plausible habit we all slide into of giving ourselves this or that indulgence because it is within our right, or because the tempter said it was natural. Then there rises before us the figure of the Son of God tempted even thus in the wilderness. And immediately we have power to see that a thing is not right to do merely because we can do it, or because it lies along the line of our natural appetites. And our soul is restored as nothing else could have restored it.

I am to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who speaks to me. He calleth His own sheep by name. If I will, I can hear His voice in words spoken from the pulpit, in the conversation of friends, in the reading of devout books. Sometimes He speaks in sweet thoughts which come to me, in the tender touches of the Spirit of God in the soul. If He speaks to me, I must listen. How am I to listen for the Divine voice? To listen for Him I must hold the powers of my soul in restraint. I must keep myself in calmness and peace. External things are in movement. Without, is the noise of the world. If this noise is filling my soul, I cannot hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. The danger of excessive pleasure, excessive business, excessive work, is this—the powers of the soul become dissipated. I must keep some time for retirement, for watching over myself, for listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd; then—by His Holy Spirit—He will guide me. If He find me quiet, attentive, listening, then Jesus will teach me. “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.” I must follow His teachings, and obey His voice, if I am indeed to be “the lost sheep” found. I must be ready and generous, willing to make ventures, strong to make sacrifices. Sometimes He may call me to trial—I must endure it; to silence—I must refrain my lips; to speech—I must speak out. Dear Shepherd, whether the way Thou callest me to be smooth or rough, give me grace to follow. Alas! how often have I failed in this! How different would my spiritual state be, had I only obeyed. Obedience to the voice is better than sacrifice, but sacrifice must, indeed, often be the duty to which I am called if I practise obedience.1 [Note: Canon Knox Little, Treasury of Meditation.]

Obedience is not an easy thing to learn. We do not learn it by singing beautiful hymns about it; by repeating with devotion “Thy way, not mine, O Lord,” or “My God, my Father, while I stray”; nor by hearing exhortations about it; but by practising it. Christ learned obedience by the things that He suffered; and we can learn in no other way.1 [Note: Bishop G. H. S. Walpole, Personality and Power, 86.]

(3) He reveals self-sacrifice as the only secret of the fulness of life.—The restoration of the soul which Christ begins in us by forgiveness and the faith that we are the children of God, and which He makes so keen and quick by the example of His obedience and service—this restoration, He tells us, is perfected only through self-sacrifice. That is a discipline which has always been ready to suggest itself. Most moral systems inculcate it; and there never was a man in whose heart, however obscure or ignorant, the thought of it did not arise as a resource in danger or as compensation for sin. It has been preached by religion as penance; and many a man feeling the world to be intrinsically bad, or his own body very evil, has forsaken the one or mutilated the other. But to Jesus self-sacrifice was never a penalty or a narrower life. It was a glory and a greater life. He called men to it not of fear, nor for the purpose of appeasing the Deity, or of having their sins forgiven; but in freedom and for love’s sake. He urged it not that men might save a miserable remnant of life by resigning the rest, but that through self-denial they might enter a larger conception of life, and a deeper enjoyment of their possibilities as sons of God. “He that findeth his life shall lose it, but he that loseth his life shall find it.”

Francis of Assisi was no truer follower of Jesus Christ in poverty and simplicity of life than was David Hill. They are kindred spirits indeed in their sweetness, purity, and loving-kindness, and in different ages and in different climes they were both possessed by the same dominant idea, to follow Jesus literally, and to witness for Him to men; and in this fact is the explanation of their similarity. A self-denying life is often called an ascetic one; the two things are different, though related. Self-denial is a means to an end, asceticism is an end in itself. The monastic conception of holiness was of purity attained by rigid self-discipline, and there it stopped. The New Testament ideal of holiness is of a perfect love—a love that denies self in order to bless others. The Lord Jesus Christ left His Father’s throne, and came into this world, and lived the life of a poor working-man for our sakes, but He was no ascetic. Following Him, David Hill lived a life of poverty and self-denial, and his beautiful and holy renunciation was not practised in order to obtain saintliness for himself, but that he might win the Chinese to be saints.1 [Note: J. E. Hellier, Life of David Hill, 72.]

When, after his great breakdown in health, Bishop Lightfoot returned for too short a time to work, he made a statement on the subject, in a public speech, of almost sublime manliness. He then hoped that he had regained, or would regain, his old vigour; but he said, boldly and frankly, that if his overwork had meant a sacrifice of life, he would not have regretted it for a moment: “I should not have wished to recall the past, even if my illness had been fatal. For what, after all, is the individual life in the history of the Church? Men may come and men may go—individual lives float down like straws on the surface of the waters till they are lost in the ocean of eternity; but the broad, mighty, rolling stream of the Church itself—the cleansing, purifying, fertilizing tide of the River of God—flows on for ever and ever.” That is really the secret of happiness—to dare to subordinate life and personal happiness and individual performance to an institution or a cause, and to be able to lose sight of petty aims and selfish considerations in the joy of manly service.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, The Leaves of the Tree, 206.]

Literature

Armstrong (R. A.), Memoir and Sermons, 160.

Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 50, 98.

Banks (L. A.), Sermons which have Won Souls, 397.

Brooke (S. A.), Sermons in St. James’s Chapel, 56.

Brooks (P.), The Spiritual Man, 281.

Cooke (G. A.), The Progress of Revelation, 105.

Culross (J.), God’s Shepherd Care, 28.

Cumming (J. E.), Consecrated Work, 43.

Darlow (T. H.), Via Sacra, 205.

Fairbairn (A. M.), Christ in the Centuries, 69, 83.

Finlayson (T. C), The Divine Gentleness, 223.

Freeman (J. D.), Life on the Uplands, 1.

Gray (W. H.), Our Divine Shepherd, 1.

Griffin (E. D.), Plain Practical Sermons, ii. 230.

Horne (C. S.), The Soul’s Awakening, 131.

Howard (H.), The Shepherd Psalms , 1.

Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 37.

Jones (J. M.), The Cup of Cold Water, 17.

Knight (W. A.), The Song of Our Syrian Guest, 1.

Levens (J. T.), Clean Hands, 92.

McFadyen (J. E.), The City with Foundations, 201.

McFadyen (J. E.), Ten Studies in the Psalms , 23.

Maclaren (A.), Sermons Preached in Manchester, i. 307.

MeNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, i. 241.

Newbolt (W. C. E.), Penitence and Peace, 77.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, vii. 270.

Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, iv. 183.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, i. 257.

Robertson (P. W.), The Sacrament Sabbath, 211.

Robertson (S.), The Rope of Hair, 79.

Sadler (T.), Sermons for Children, 180.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 142.

Smith (G. A.), Four Psalms , 1.

Smith (G. A.), The Forgiveness of Sins, 238.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xix. (1873) No. 1149.

Stalker (J.), The Psalm of Psalms , 37.

Talmage (T. De Witt), Fifty Sermons, ii. 151.

Vanghan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xii. (1875) Nos. 900, 901.

Watt (L. M.), The Communion Table, 137.

Christian Age, liii. 2 (Hepworth), 244 (Talmage).

Christian World Pulpit, xi. 401 (Bainton); xii. 5 (Bainton); xxi. 387 (Haines); xxxiii. 82 (Darnton); lxv. 232 (Parker); lxvii. 193 (Aked); lxxv. 36 (Balgarnie).

Church of England Magazine, lxix. 56 (Morton). [Note: The Great Texts of the Bible: Job to Psalm XXIII, ed. James Hastings (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner's Sons; T&T Clark, 1913), 319-402.]


Verses 2-4

The Valley of the Shadow

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil; for thou art with me:

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.—Psalms 23:4.

1. The various methods of God’s leading of His flock, or rather, we should say, the various regions into which He leads them, are described in this Psalm in order. These are Rest, Work, Sorrow; and this series is so combined with the order of time that the past and the present are considered as the regions of rest and of work, while the future is anticipated as having in it the valley of the shadow of death.

2. The word rendered “valley” does not answer exactly to our English word, which suggests a pleasant lowland sweep bounded by sloping hillsides; nor even to the modern Arabic “wady” or torrent-bed, filled in the rainy season and dry the rest of the year; it is rather, as its derivation indicates, a chasm or rent among the hills—like Gehenna—a deep, abrupt, faintly-lighted ravine with steep sides and narrow floor, the bushes almost meeting overhead. Some savage glen among the hills of Judah, familiar to David during his shepherd-life, may have supplied the image; some deep narrow defile where the robber lurks and takes the flock at a disadvantage, or in which some fierce beast of prey has its lair. Of course in the failing light and blackening shades of dusk the gloom would be more than doubled.

The wilderness of Judæa is not a barren waste of sand and land without water, as a major portion of the Occidental world believes it to be. “Wilderness,” as the word is now understood, is altogether a misnomer. The “Wilds of Judæa” would be more correctly descriptive. The wilderness of Judæa is about forty miles long and ten miles broad. It stretches along the western coast of the Dead Sea and the southern portion of the Jordan Valley. This land of plateaus rises by steps westward from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred feet. This district presents a series of chalky, flint-strewn eminences and small plains separated by narrow torrent beds, worn deep by the winter rains, and here and there by terrific rocky gorges forming gloomy precipitous rifts through the beds of limestone. These gorges are veritable “valleys of the shadow of death”; for in these cragged mountains there are innumerable caves, both natural and hewn in the solid rock of the “everlasting hills” (Hebrews 3:6). In these caves still live numerous wild beasts. Lions have been extinct since the days of the Crusaders, who hunted and killed till they exterminated as much life as they could during their occupation of the country. Leopards are rare, and bears are now found only in the Lebanon ranges; but hyenas, wolves, wildcats, and jackals still roam at will over the country, as also birds of prey, such as eagles and vultures of great size and strength and beauty. All these are the natural “enemies” of the flocks of sheep and goats.1 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 16.]

3. One word is translated “shadow of death” (Heb. tsalmâveth). The same word (differently punctuated) means “deep shadow” or “deep gloom.” And it is practically certain that this is the word the Psalmist used, although the Ancient Versions and all the great English Versions take it in the former way. In any case, it is evident from the Psalm itself that the reference is not to death. The Psalm is a series of pictures of a believer’s life, and confidences. And after “the valley of the shadow of death” comes “the prepared table,” and “the anointed head,”—and “the mantling cup,” and “goodness and mercy following to the end”;—and then “the death,” or rather no death at all, for it is leapt over, or left out as almost a thing which is not,—“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”: and then, without one break, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Driver’s translation (in The Parallel Psalter) is, “Yea, though I walked in a ravine of deathly gloom, I would fear no evil.”

To think only of dying is greatly to narrow the application of David’s words; especially now, under the dispensation of the Spirit. If death throws down tremendous shadow, Christ has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. As a rule, believers do not find the avenue to the other world dark; on the contrary, the eternal light flings its radiance on their path; the eternal peace attends them; the eternal love is shed abroad within their bosom; not seldom they rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.

John Bunyan knew the Bible well, and he also had an intimate knowledge of the Christian life. Where does he place “the Valley of the Shadow of Death” in The Pilgrim’s Progress? Not at the very end of the pilgrimage,—he puts the bridgeless river there,—but in the middle of the pilgrim’s way.1 [Note: C. Jerdan, Pastures of Tender Grass, 41.]

After this long misery of haunted loneliness (in the Valley of the Shadow of Death) there comes the infinite relief of the human voice, as Christian hears great words spoken by a man going before him.… The verse which the unseen man is repeating is from the 23rd Psalm, where there is as yet no word of ending, and the comfort comes simply from the fact that God is with the man. By and by the day breaks, and Bunyan, who was intensely sensitive to the changes of light and darkness, finds a deep satisfaction in the new light. His poems of sunrise are well worth consulting. There is in them that authentic note of true poetry which reminds us sometimes of Chaucer and sometimes of Spenser. They contain the finest touches in his printed poems. The verse that Christian utters is, “He hath turned the shadow of death into the morning”: it is the same that is engraved upon the tombstone of Dr. Guthrie.2 [Note: John Kelman, The Road, i. 150.]

4. But this need not lead us away from the associations with which our old translation has invested the words. For it is not only darkness that the poet is describing, but the darkness where death lurks for the poor sheep—the gorges, in whose deep shadows are the lairs of wild beasts, and the shepherd and his club are needed. It stands thus for every dismal and deadly passage through which the soul may pass, and, most of all, it is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There God is with men no less than by the waters of repose, or along the successful paths of active life.

One night, when I was a lad, lying in my bed at home, long ago, I awoke, and it was dark, and I heard a voice in the night—not a song, but I heard the voice of my mother as she lay upon her bed of pain. She was twenty-five years in the valley of the shadow of death. Her “light affliction” endured for a quarter of a century, but it was “but for a moment,” seeing that it led to the “eternal weight of glory.” I shall never forget how the sound of her voice floated into my dark room and my disquieted heart—“Yea, though I walk through the valley”—think of it rising in the air at two o’clock on a dark winter morning with the wind howling round your house—“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”1 [Note: John McNeill, Regent Square Pulpit, i. 254.]

This verse is full of comfort; its very terms are reassuring. Death has become, certainly to us Christians, that which the Psalmist imagined here—only a shadow. It is dark, cold, gloomy, terrible, but only a shadow. So said Archbishop Laud on the scaffold: “Lord, I am coming as fast as I can. I know I must pass through the shadow of death before I can come to see Thee. But it is but umbra mortis, a shadow of death, a little darkness upon nature; but Thou, Lord, by Thy goodness, hast broken the jaws and the power of death.”2 [Note: W. C. E. Newbolt, Penitence and Peace, 116.]

I knew an old soldier who had served throughout the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, a plain, simple-minded man who had lived a blameless Christian life, and whose most noticeable characteristic, perhaps, was the singular elevation of his spirit in prayer. As his strength declined and he wore slowly away, his cheerfulness increased, and he would talk with solemn gladness about what lay before him. Dying had ceased to trouble him; he always called it “falling asleep.” As I shook hands with him on the morning of his death, he said—and his face beamed with a most perfect serenity—“I have taken many a journey in my time; this morning I am taking the pleasantest journey of all—I am going home to my Father’s house.”3 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 100.]

I.

Courage

“I will fear no evil.”

1. Even when we know that Love leads us in, it is natural for our poor, weak human hearts to shrink and fear in the entering. Not the timid only, but those who are constitutionally brave. Not children only, but even strong men; and sometimes strong men more than children. “They feared as they entered the cloud”—bright though it was. Imagination peoples the darkness with shapes of terror. Somewhere or other there may be danger couching invisible in the gloom, watching its opportunity, and ready to spring forth upon us without warning; and even when there is none, our faithless hearts call up a thousand frightful possibilities; and our fears are none the less distressing that they are vague and shapeless, but rather all the more.

David did not mean to say that he was devoid of all fear, but only that he would surmount it so as to go without fear wherever his Shepherd should lead him. This appears more clearly from the context. He says, in the first place, “I will fear no evil”; but immediately adding the reason of this, he openly acknowledges that he seeks a remedy against his fear in contemplating, and having his eyes fixed on, the staff of his Shepherd: “For thy staff and thy crook comfort me.”1 [Note: Calvin, Psalms, i. 395.]

In the Manchester Art Gallery there is a famous picture by Briton Rivière, entitled “In Manus Tuas, Domine!” of which the artist says: “I have failed indeed if the story does not carry some lesson to ourselves to-day, whatever be our doubts or fears.” The message it conveys is the victory of faith. The picture represents a fair-haired young knight clad in armour, seated upon a white charger whose downcast head, quivering nostrils and quivering limbs denote intense fear. At the charger’s feet there crouch three bloodhounds, also gazing before them in terror. Behind the knight is the forest glade through which he has passed, rich in green sward and sun-kissed paths, but the path in front is full of gloom and unknown terrors. In his fear the knight is at one with the trembling brutes, but he has that within him which raises him above them and gives him aid. It is faith. Lifting his sword before his face, it forms itself into a cross. “Into Thy hands, O Lord,” he says, and goes forward. He conquers fear by faith, and by it, “though he walk through the valley of the shadow, he will fear no evil.”2 [Note: J. Burns, Illustrations from Art (1912), 128.]

2. What is the bearing of the Lord’s flock in entering this valley? It comes into view in these words, which one speaks for all, “I will fear no evil.” Mark, it is a single voice that speaks, a man all alone, conscious only of the presence of God. I will go into the death-gloom without dread and palpitation of heart. There may be threatening, alarm, evil (tiger-like) watching its opportunity, all around; curses flung out of the darkness by the enemy, as if they were yet unrepealed; but I shall not be disquieted or dismayed, for evil shall not be allowed to harm me, yea, rather shall be compelled to contribute to my well-being.

Hardly any one, when the time comes, is really afraid of death. My sister said: “I have a great fear, but also a great hope.” This is uncommon. My mother said: “I wonder whether I shall ever sit in the garden any more.” I am glad to be nearer death for one reason—because I can see the problems of theology in a truer manner, and can get rid of illusions.1 [Note: The Letters of Benjamin Jowett, 247.]

About this time Mr. Romanes drew up a paper, which is given here, as it may interest some readers:—

“18 Cornwall Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, N.W.

“Dear Sir or Madam,—While engaged in collecting materials for a work on Human Psychology, I have been surprised to find the greatness of the differences which obtain between different races, and even between different individuals of the same race, concerning sentiments which attach to the thoughts of death. With the view, if possible, of ascertaining the causes of such differences, I am addressing a copy of the appended questions to a large number of representative and average individuals of both sexes, various nationalities, creeds, occupations, etc. It would oblige me if you would be kind enough to further the object of my inquiry by answering some or all of these questions, and adding any remarks that may occur to you as bearing upon the subject—

“‘Do you regard the prospect of your own death (a) with indifference, (b) with dislike, (c) with dread, or (d) with inexpressible horror?

“‘If you entertain any fear of death at all, is the cause of it (a) prospect of bodily suffering only, (b) dread of the unknown, (c) idea of loneliness and separation from friends, or (d), in addition to all or any of these, a peculiar horror of an indescribable kind?

“‘Is the state of your belief with regard to a future life that of (a) virtual conviction that there is a future life, (b) suspended judgment inclining towards such belief, (c) suspended judgment inclining against such belief, or (d) virtual conviction that there is no such life?

“‘Is your religious belief, if any, (a) of a vivid order, or (b) without much practical influence on your life and conduct?

“‘Can you trace any change in your feelings with regard to death as having taken place during the course of your life?

“‘If ever you have been in danger of death, what were the circumstances, and what your feelings?’”1 [Note: Life and Letters of George John Romanes, 188.]

Most wonderful is it how largely and how variously this fearless confidence comes out in the Book of Psalms—not from the sanguine and untried, but from those who have had widest and profoundest experience—who have been in the valley and have come forth from it unhurt, yea, nobler and loftier spiritually. “Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.” “The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul: The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”2 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 106.]

I remember going down one night, about twelve o’clock, to the seaside, and I stood in the shadow of a gloomy wood. In the front of me for miles stretched the frith of the sea. Away across yonder were the Argyleshire hills, and up above them, again, the gloomy heavens, with here and there a star peeping out. It was like the valley of the shadow of death. The sea was lapping at my feet, and a gentle breeze was blowing over it, when suddenly I heard a sound. I listened and strained my ear, and that sound turned out to be the sound, first of all, of oars in the rowlocks—a dull, thumping sound as some fishermen urged their boat along its way. And still I listened, and what I heard was the sound of music; and as the boat came nearer, there was borne to me across the waves the sound of singing. Those fishermen were Christians, and even while tugging at the weary oar in the dark and lonely night they were cheering themselves with the songs of Zion.3 [Note: John McNeill.]

There is a courage, a majestic thing

That springs forth from the brow of pain, full grown,

Minerva-like, and dares all dangers known.

And all the threatening future yet may bring;

Crowned with the helmet of great suffering,

Serene with that grand strength by martyrs shown

When at the stake they die and make no moan,

And even as the flames leap up are heard to sing.

A courage so sublime and unafraid,

It wears its sorrows like a coat of mail;

And Fate, the archer, passes by dismayed,

Knowing his best barbed arrows needs must fail

To pierce a soul so armoured and arrayed

That Death himself might look on it and quail.1 [Note: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Passion, 145.]

3. On what does this fearless courage rest? Not on the thought that there is no evil in the dark valley. That were false because groundless security. There may be evil great and manifold in the valley; evil that has the heart, if only it had the opportunity, to ruin us; tens of thousands setting themselves against us round about; the devil himself going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Nor does it rest on the foolish fancy that we are able ourselves to cope with the evil. We cannot even see to defend ourselves, although we had the strength; and any fight in which we might engage were a fight in the dark. Our courage rests on our consciously enjoying the presence of Jehovah our Shepherd. All minor considerations are omitted here—such as, that others have been in the valley already, the hope of getting well through it, the thought that bright-harnessed angel-guards surround us, and so forth—and the soul fixes on this chief thing of all, the Shepherd’s presence.

It is the love of Christ and trust in Him that alone can give true courage. For notice that there is no attempt made in the Psalm to paint death otherwise than it is, in itself evil, fearful, and appalling. But it is the love of Christ that gives the confidence, the courage that we need. The God who has fed us, the Good Shepherd who has guided us through so many perils, is true and staunch, and will not desert His sheep in the hour of danger. Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.

Among Mr. Brown’s duties as assistant to Edward Irving in London one was to visit the Sunday schools, once a month each, when one of the exercises was the repetition of metre Psalms. An incident connected with this duty made such a deep impression on him that more than sixty years afterwards, when he was in his ninety-second year, he recorded the circumstances in a journal conducted by the Young Men’s Christian Association of Aberdeen. A poor, sickly boy, too unwell to be out, had repeated the Twenty-third Psalm. Next month it was reported that he was dying, and Mr. Brown went to see him, and found him in a miserable place—a sort of drying loft. The mother met him with tears in her eyes, and told him that her boy had been speaking all night. “What has he been speaking about?” asked Mr. Brown. “Well, sir, you see I am a Roman Catholic, and I don’t know your hymns, but it’s something about death’s dark vale.” “Oh! my woman, I know well what your boy has been speaking about; take me to him.” “On reaching his bed [Dr. Brown explained], I found it was a deal box, and he was lying on straw. ‘My dear boy,’ I said, as he looked up smiling, ‘you are dying.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Are you afraid to die?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I am going to Jesus.’ ‘But how do you know that you are going to Jesus?’ ‘Because I love Him.’ It was a child’s answer [said Dr. Brown], but it was music to me.”1 [Note: W. G. Blaikie, David Brown, D.D., LL.D., 36.]

4. The spirit of the verse is that of fearless courage in going forward to encounter the dark unknown. It is not possible to evade entering the valley; but it is possible to be in it and not to fear realizing a Divine Presence in the gloom, aware of a love and power on which we may securely count. And so this verse, breathed three thousand years ago from the heart of one whom God had comforted, comes down through the ages as God’s great Fear not to His people when He leads them into the darkness; rather, indeed, His great Fatherly assurance that all things shall work together for their good. It is laid up in the Book for the use of all future ages, a promise and strength and joy for whatever evil days may come. Just like those snatches of song and sudden bursts of exaltation that lie scattered throughout the Apocalypse—like that great Alleluia which is to be uttered when the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth—so this verse, mighty for the past, is written for times still future, and lies waiting till there shall be hearts and lips to sing it.

The highest courage has its root in faith. One may be bold because he is ignorant or because he lacks sensitiveness; one may be indifferent to danger because he is indifferent to fate; one may be brave from that instinctive pluck which focusses all a man’s powers on the doing of the thing in hand, or the resolute holding of the place to which one has been assigned; but the quality which sees with clear intelligence all the possibilities of peril, which is sensitive to pain and loss, which loves life and light and the chances of work, and yet calmly faces calamity and death, is born of faith, and grows to splendid maturity by the nurture of faith.1 [Note: H. W. Mabie, The Life of the Spirit, 120.]

Edward Irving returned to London to find himself forbidden to administer the Sacraments, for the act of deposition was a judicial act, depriving him of his authority as a minister. Though he was re-ordained by the apostles of his own Church, he never recovered from the blow. He accepted it with a humility which was the more touching from his confidence in his extraordinary powers. But his heart was broken. Slowly his life ebbed from him. His faith in his mission was unshaken; he believed in it with all the fervour and strength of his soul, and toiled still to gain for it the ear of the world; but in vain. In September 1834 he left London a dying man. Riding through Shropshire and Wales, and visiting his scattered congregations as he went, he reached Liverpool. In his touching letters to his wife are messages to his little daughter, Maggie, sent in the simply-told stories that he gleaned on his way. When other comforts had failed, and fame had fled, he clung to his Bible, and made the Psalms his constant companions. “How in the night seasons,” he writes on October 12th, “the Psalms have been my consolations against the faintings of flesh and spirit.”

At Liverpool he took ship and sailed for Glasgow. The end was near. For a few weeks he was able to preach, though, at forty-two, his gaunt gigantic frame bore all the marks of age and weakness. His face was wasted, his hair white, his voice broken, his eyes restless and unquiet. As November drew to its close, his feebleness increased, till it was evident that his life was rapidly passing away. His mind began to wander. Those who watched at his bedside could not understand the broken utterances spoken in an unknown tongue by his faltering voice. But at last it was found that he was repeating to himself in Hebrew, Psalms 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It was with something like its old power that the dying voice swelled as it uttered the glorious conviction, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The last articulate words that fell from his lips were, “If I die, I die unto the Lord. Amen.” And with these he passed away at midnight on December 7th, 1834.1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, 313.]

II.

Companionship

“For thou art with me.”

1. Most men will agree that it is the loneliness of death that constitutes its chief dread. If we could die in families, in groups, in communities; if hand in hand we could move down the dark valley, hand in hand breast the dark river, hand in hand pass into the Paradise of God, then death would indeed lose much of its terror and gloom. But, alas! each must die for himself, even though he may die with others. Loved ones, however dear, can only see us off. The most they can do is to smooth our passage down to the edge of the shadow, and then wish us a good voyage as we embark. Last words have to be spoken, final leave has to be taken; and then alone, as far as human eye can see, and unattended, the soul must pass out into the night that men call death. So, indeed, it seems to our dull sight; but not to the Psalmist’s. With a prophet’s keen vision he pierces the veil, and, seeing no break in the sheltering care of the All-Fatherly hand, triumphantly declares that even the death-crisis cannot come between him and his Shepherd-Guide. “Thou art with me!”

I remember being much struck with the remark made by a former Sabbath-school teacher of my own. His mother was a widow, and he lived with her. When the doctor told him he could not survive the night, he bade good-bye to all his friends; and after they had left the house, turning to his mother he said, “We will meet the king of terrors alone.” Yet even she had to leave him to die alone. But they who have God as their Shepherd are not even then alone. The Son of God has promised that He will come again to take them to Himself; that where He is, there they may be also.2 [Note: W. H. Gray, Our Divine Shepherd, 21.]

“Thou art with me.” I have eagerly seized on this; for out of all the terrors which gather themselves into the name of death, one has stood forth as a champion-fear to terrify and daunt me. It is the loneliness of death. “I die alone.”1 [Note: W. C. E. Newbolt, Penitence and Peace, 118.]

Jesu, have mercy!

’Tis this new feeling, never felt before,

(Be with me, Lord, in my extremity!)

That I am going, that I am no more.

’Tis this strange innermost abandonment,

(Lover of souls! great God! I look to Thee,)

This emptying out of each constituent

And natural force, by which I come to be.

Pray for me, O my friends; a visitant

Is knocking his dire summons at my door,

The like of whom, to scare me and to daunt,

Has never, never come to me before.2 [Note: Newman, Dream of Gerontius.]

2. Loneliness is a thing which we must learn to face, in our work, in the separations of life, and in times of quiet. Certainly, whether we like it or not, we must be alone in death, as far as this world is concerned. And men preach to us detachment. “Sit loosely to the world,” they say, that the wrench may be less when it comes. But the Good Shepherd says rather, learn attachment. It is His promise: “Fear not; I will be with thee.” It is our confidence: “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” It is more; it is our joy: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And is not this the true answer to our fears—How can I go to meet that shadow? How will my faith stand its cold embrace? How shall I ever believe in the bright promise of a land beyond, when here all is dark? Let us ask rather—How am I going to meet the duty just before me? Is He with me now? Have I learned to find Him in the quiet hours of the day? Have I found His presence in desolating sorrow? Have I felt His hand in darkness and doubt? Have I found Him near me in prayer and Eucharist? If so, I need not look forward. He is leading me on, step by step, and day by day. He is habituating me, little by little, to the withdrawal of the light, and to utter trust in Him. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” There is grace given me for the new day’s work; there is grace given me under this desolating sorrow. There is grace given me to live well; when I need it, there will be grace given me to die well. “For thou art with me.” Now is the time to make firm that companionship. To be still, and know that He is God. To find the guiding Hand in all its strength and security, amid the death and life of each day’s hopes and fears. And then, when we enter the shadow, still it will be “with God onwards.”

What is it that a mother’s love with its infinite tenderness and ministry should welcome us into the world, what is it that friendship and love should gladden life through all its days, if when we pass away from earth there be but an awful solitude, a horror of great darkness, where no hand grasps ours, and no voice cheers us? What is it that the sun should shine, or that earth should yield ten thousand things to meet my commonest needs, if these highest and deepest wants within me be all unmet, and I go forth perishing with hunger? If in what is there be any prophecy of what shall be, if the beneficence of the present is any promise and pledge of the future, surely it must be that love shall not fail us then—then when we need it most. All hope, all need, all the goodness and promise of every day do find their fulness in the words of our Lord: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, In the Banqueting House, 145.]

3. Observe at this point the change in David’s manner of address. Hitherto he has been speaking about the Lord the Shepherd in the third person; now as he moves into the sphere of darkness, like a child creeping closer to his father’s side in the blackening gloom, he draws closer to God, and changes from “he” to “thou”! Instead of speaking about Him, he speaks directly to Him, as to one near and hearing. In the last verse of the Psalm it was “He leadeth me”; now, in the region of death-shadow, it is “Thou art with me.” The change, I think, marks the energizing of faith, and its closer grip of the great Hand in the dark. What a conception it gives us of the greatness of God that He hears, really hears, this breathing of the heart, “Thou art with me.” Think what multitudinous voices rise to the ear of God—voices of sin, distress, joy, praise, prayer—in whispers, groans, shrieks, hosannas—in all tones—in all languages—by night and by day—from the whole earth! And yet my feeble voice is not lost in the din, but reaches His ear, when I draw close to Him in the darkness, and breathe out my confidence, “Thou art with me.”1 [Note: J. Culross, God’s Shepherd Care, 113.]

III.

Comfort

“Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

1. The shepherd is as powerful as he is tender; for he carries in his hand a great oak club to beat off the wild beasts. Even to-day “many adventures with wild beasts occur, not unlike that recounted by David (1 Samuel 17:34-36); for, though there are now no lions here, there are wolves in abundance; and leopards and panthers, exceeding fierce, prowl about these wild wadies. They not unfrequently attack the flock in the very presence of the shepherd, and he must be ready to do battle at a moment’s warning” (Thomson, The Land and the Book). The staff is different from the rod: on it the shepherd leans; with it in various ways he helps his sheep. So that rod and staff together symbolize the power and the affection of the Divine Shepherd. Well might the Psalmist point to them with pride and gladness, and say, “They are my consolation.”

There are several places in which this word “rod” occurs that show us its meaning. The first is in Leviticus 27:32. The reference is to the numbering of the sheep, driving them into a corner, so that they can pass through a gap only one at a time, and the rod is dipped over them as they are counted. So the rod is the symbol of possession. Then, again, although the word is not used, there is the same thought in Jeremiah 33:10. It is the beautiful picture of Israel’s restoration. “Again shall there be heard in this place, which ye say is desolate … the voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, and the voice of them that say, Praise the Lord of Hosts: for the Lord is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: … in this place, which is desolate … shall be an habitation of shepherds causing their flocks to lie down … the flocks shall pass again under the hands of him that telleth them, saith the Lord.” It is the picture of fullest and most assured possession.

2. The rod and the staff are not by any means those of the pilgrim, which would be a misleading sudden transition to a different figure, but those of Jehovah the Shepherd as the means of guidance and defence. The rod and staff in God’s hand comfort him, i.e. impart to him the feeling of security, and therefore make him of good cheer. Even when he walks through a narrow defile, dark and gloomy as the grave, where surprise and disasters of every kind threaten him, he fears no misfortune.

The staff of the mountaineer is often inscribed with the names of his triumphs. And on this staff what triumphs are written! Hold it and read what is written thereon: “Able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him.” “Able to keep us from falling.” “Able to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.” Here is no room for fear. Here faith must sing her cheeriest, sweetest song: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, In the Banqueting House, 152.]

3. The rod and staff are sometimes regarded as two names for one object, used for different purposes. The more natural meaning of the double phrase is, however, the more correct. The shepherd carries both a shebet, a kind of club or mace slung by the side and used as an offensive weapon when needed, and a mish’eneth, a long straight pole carried in the hand and used for climbing, for support, and for helping the sheep in various ways.

The shepherd’s staff is not a crook, as painted by foreign artists. The shepherds of Palestine never used a crook, nor do bo to-day. It is a camel-herder that carries a light cane with a crook at one end, with which he catches the camel by hooking its neck with the crook, and guides it by taps of the crook instead of a halter when riding it.2 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 27.]

Going before the flock, the shepherd beats the grass and bushes with his staff to drive out the serpents lurking in the paths. These reptiles usually glide quickly away and escape, but occasionally one bolder than the rest will show fight. Then quick as a flash the good shepherd strikes the serpent with his heavy-headed club, taking care to crush its head, because a snake is not fatally wounded whose head is not crushed, the vital organs being situated, as with fishes, close to the head. Otherwise, even if cut in half, it is still capable of inflicting mortal injury by its sting.1 [Note: A. F. Mamreov, A Day with the Good Shepherd, 72.]

4. “They comfort me.” What does “comfort” mean, as used in the Bible? It means with strength. Comfortare is to give strength, to comfort by increasing power; not to smooth and quiet and hush down, and say, “No, be quiet, be calm.” That is not the Bible comfort; comfort in the Bible is to gird with strength, to strengthen, to stimulate. He is comforted, He is made strong enough to resume the war. “They comfort me”; they make me so strong that I take up Death, and in the great wrestle I fling him to the dust.

Death! I know not what room you are abiding in,

But I will go my way,

Rejoicing day by day,

Nor will I flee or stay

For fear I tread the path you may be hiding in.


Death! I know not if my small barque be nearing you;

But if you are at sea,

Still there my sails float free;

“What is to be will be.”

Nor will I mar the happy voyage by fearing you.


Death! I know not what hour or spot you wait for me;

My days untroubled flow,

Just trusting on I go,

For oh, I know, I know,

Death is but Life that holds some glad new fate for me.2 [Note: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Poems of Experience, 29.]

There came a critical moment in my life when I was sadly in need of comfort, but could see none anywhere. I could not at the moment lay my hands on my Bible, and I cast about in my mind for some passage of Scripture that would help me. Immediately there flashed into my mind the words, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” At first I turned from it almost with scorn. “Such a common text as that,” I said to myself, “is not likely to do me any good.” I tried hard to think of a more recherché one; but none would come, and at last it almost seemed as if there were no other text in the whole Bible. And finally I was reduced to saying, “Well, if I cannot think of any other text, I must try to get what little good I can out of this one,” and I began to repeat to myself over and over, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Suddenly, as I did so, the words were illuminated, and there poured out upon me such floods of comfort that I felt as if I could never have a trouble again.1 [Note: Mrs. Pearsall Smith, The God of all Comfort, 45.]

5. “They comfort me.” “They” is emphatic, because they are thy rod and thy staff, says Perowne. Here we must regard “they,” not as the personal pronoun, but as a survival of the older function of the word, i.e. as a demonstrative. It would be a good practice if we followed an example which has been set by some of the Germans, and printed such latent demonstratives in spaced type. This “they” is so essential, it is so distinct and emphatic in the Hebrew, Septuagint, Vulgate, and Jerome, that it is strange Coverdale should have overlooked it.2 [Note: J. Earle, The Psalter of 1539, 267.]

6. And they bring me through. “Though I walk through the valley,” says David. There are words, says Pearse, that are like the shells to which children listen, hearing the roll and murmuring of the sea; words like the crystal stones within whose depths are a thousand mysteries of beauty. Such is this word through. I listen—it is the music of the angels that I hear, faint and afar off. I look into the word, and the light breaks, soft and pure, the light of heaven. Through,—it is as when one goes through some Alpine tunnel—on this side the bleak heights, the glaciers, the snows and solitude of an eternal winter; then the darkness, on and on, until at last we come forth from the gloom. Suddenly about us breaks the light of Italy, the green slopes that face the sunny south, the olive trees, the vineyards, the pastures gay with a thousand flowers, the hills all musical with waterfalls, the fertile plains rich with all kinds of crops. Through,—there is a way out, another side.

It is a tunnel, but only a tunnel, and, like all tunnels, it has light at both ends, and certainly it has light at that end to which you are travelling. Most of the railway stations, I notice, are entered through tunnels. I do not know why, but it so happens that coming into most of our London termini you shoot through a long, dreary, ghostly, rattling tunnel, and then there is the terminus, and your father there, or your wife there on the platform, and then the embrace and the kiss and the hearty welcome. We are going through the tunnel, and at the end of it is the terminus, and, please God, we shall soon be there. It is dark and noisome and spectral, and a little awesome and fearsome just now. Sing. Sing this Psalm of heart-confidence, and the shadows will become somewhat luminous with the light that is about to reveal itself—the light of heaven, our eternal home.1 [Note: John McNeill.]

How should it be a fear

To leave the spirit’s house

Where is our certain pain?

The wide path waits and here

We dully pine and drowse.


The Fields, the illimitable Seas,

The Snows and Storms and Suns

Are for our own soul’s foot.

With them will be our ease

When the free spirit runs


Out from the gate at last.—

O halting soul, to yield

Unto this lovely change!

To let the lot be cast—

Be bold—and sure—and yield!2 [Note: M. M‘Neal-Sweeney, Men of No Land, 77.]

When a child is born into the world, one of the most wonderful things to watch is how utterly it takes its surroundings for granted; it nestles to its mother’s breast, it does not doubt that it is welcome; then, as it begins to perceive what is happening to it, to look round it with intelligence, it smiles, it understands love, it imitates words, it claims the rights of home and family; it has not the least sense of being a stranger or a sad exile; all that it sees belongs to it and is its own. So will it be with the new birth, I make no doubt; we shall enter upon the unseen world with the same sense of ease and security and possession; there will even be nothing to learn at first, nothing to inquire about, nothing to wonder at. We shall just fall into our new place unquestioning and unquestioned; it will be familiar and dear, our own place, our own circle. The child is never in any doubt as to who it is and where it is; and in the vast scheme of things, our little space of experience is assured to us for ever.3 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 60.]

Literature

Brooks (P.), The Spiritual Man, 286.

Burns (J. D.), Memoir and Remains, 301.

Cooke (G. A.), The Progress of Revelation, 107.

Culross (J.), God’s Shepherd Care, 93.

Drew (H.), Death and the Hereafter, 86.

Duff (R. S.), The Song of the Shepherd, 95.

Eyton (R.), The Search for God, 75.

Fairbairn (A. M.), Christ in the Centuries, 90.

Finlayson (T. C.), The Divine Gentleness, 240.

Freeman (J. D.), Life on the Uplands, 79.

Gray (W. H.), Our Divine Shepherd, 19.

How (W. W.), Plain Words, i. 45.

Howard (H.), The Shepherd Psalms , 65, 71.

Hutton (W. R.), Low Spirits, 188.

Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 41.

Joseph (M.), The Ideal in Judaism, 121.

Knight (W. A.), The Song of Our Syrian Guest, 14.

Lonsdale (J.), Sermons, 248.

McFadyen (J. E.), Ten Studies in the Psalms , 23.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, i. 252.

Mamreov (A. F.), A Day with the Good Shepherd, 71, 75.

Newbolt (W. C. E.), Penitence and Peace, 115.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, v. 175.

Pearse (M. G.), Parables and Pictures, 68.

Pearse (M. G.), In the Banqueting House, 143.

Phillips (S.), The Heavenward Way, 88.

Roberts (D.), A Letter from Heaven, 124.

Service (J.), Sermons, 243.

Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 142.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxvii. (1881) No. 1595.

Stalker (J.), The Psalm of Psalms , 77.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xv. No. 1031.

Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxiii. (1900) No. 20.

Christian World Pulpit, iv. 206 (Collyer); xxi. 387 (Haynes); lxv. 232 (Parker).

Church of England Magazine, xxiii. 272 (Kelk); xxix. 256 (Perkins); xxxiv. 24 (Hull); lx. 308 (Hull).

Expository Times, v. 288 (Clemens).

Preacher’s Magazine, vi. 404 (Pearse).


Verse 3

(3) Restoreth my soul—i.e., refresheth, recreateth, quickeneth.

For his name’s sake.—God’s providential dealings are recognised as in accordance with His character for great graciousness.


Verse 4

(4) The valley of the shadow of death . . .—This striking expression, to which the genius of Bunyan has given such reality, was probably on Hebrew lips nothing more than a forcible synonym for a dark, gloomy place. Indeed, the probability is that instead of tsal-mâveth (shadow of death), should be read, tsalmûth (shadow, darkness), the general signification being all that is required in any one of the fifteen places where it occurs. It is true it is used of the “grave” or “underworld” (Job 10:21-22). But it is also used of the “darkness of a dungeon” (Psalms 107:10), of “the pathless desert” (Jeremiah 2:6); or, possibly, since it is there parallel with drought, of “the blinding darkness of a sandstorm,” and metaphorically of “affliction” (Isaiah 9:2), and of the “dull heavy look” that grief wears (Job 16:16).

By valley we must understand a deep ravine. Palestine abounds in wild and gloomy valleys, and shepherd life experiences the actual peril of them. Addison’s paraphrase catches the true feeling of the original—

“Though in the path of death I tread,

With gloomy horrors overhead.”

Thy rod and thy staff.—Used both for guiding and defending the flock.


Verse 5

(5) Such a sudden transition from the figure of the flock to that of a banquet is characteristic of Hebrew poetry.

Preparest—i.e., spreadest or furnishest, the usual phrase (Proverbs 9:2; Isaiah 21:5). (For the same figure of the hospitable host applied to God, see Job 36:16; Isaiah 25:6; and the well-known parables in the New Testament.)

In the presence of mine enemies.—We must imagine the banquet spread on some secure mountain height, in sight of the baffled foe, who look on in harmless spite.

My cup runneth over.—Literally, My cup is abundant drink. Cup, in the sense of portion, has already occurred (Psalms 11:6; Psalms 16:5). The LXX. has, “Thine intoxicating cup, how excellent it is;” Vulg. the same, but with “my” instead of “thy.”


Verse 6

(6) I will dwell.—As the text stands it must be translated I will return (and abide) in the house of Jehovah.

The house of the Lord can hardly be anything but the Temple; though some commentators treat this even as figurative of membership in the Divine family.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 23:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-23.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 11th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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