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The Shepherd Psalm

January 15, 2008

Little Tommy had had a particularly difficult day at school. He lost his homework and got in an argument with a classmate. He came home from school with a bad attitude. He promptly picked fights with both his older brother and his younger brother.

When his mother corrected him, Tommy lashed out at her, whining that she was unfair and that she liked his brothers better than she liked him.

Tommy’s father took his middle son aside and talked with him about the conflicts and the difficulties of the day. With fatherly wisdom, he said, “Tommy, you know when we cannot get along with others, it is usually our own fault.” Tommy remained unrepentant.

At suppertime, the family gathered together around the table, as was their custom. Tommy’s parents separated him from his brothers. He continued to cause trouble. Finally, he was sent to sit alone at a card table across the room.

Now seated in splendid isolation, Tommy was asked to offer the blessing, Tommy prayed, “O God, Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

The Twenty-Third Psalm finds its way into many of life’s circumstances. Sometimes called the Shepherd’s Song, it begins with the words “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Psalm 23 is a favorite of people of many faiths. It is a very practical portion of scripture. It reads as a good job description for parents. For example, to say that both the rod and the staff of the shepherd comfort us implies that discipline must include correction and protection

Of course, the Twenty-Third Psalm is perhaps most often used at funerals. Many a broken hearted and grieving soul has received comfort from the idea that, in walking “through the valley of the shadow of death,” we need fear no evil because our Shepherd is with us.

Funeral homes, more often than not, prepare memorial brochures with the words of Psalm 23 in the King James Version of the Bible printed inside the front cover.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

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.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

When I conduct a funeral, if those who are attending have a copy of the Psalm, I often ask that we read the words of the Shepherd’s Song in unison. I have noticed that often even those who do not have a brochure know the Psalm so well from memory that they can repeat it.

I have frequently repeated one of my favorite stories at the funerals of elderly people who have been faithful believers for many years.

A small country church celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary invited former members of the church to attend a homecoming celebration.

The church also asked two special men to be on the program to recite a scripture passage of their choice. One guest was a young man, a favorite son of the church, who had gone away to a university. He had earned a Ph.D. in speech and drama.

The other speaker was an elderly, much beloved pastor who had served the church faithfully for many years. Following his retirement, he had suffered a stroke that left him with impaired speech and a noticeable limp.

Early in the service on the Sunday of the celebration, the young man gave his recitation, announcing that his choice of scripture was Psalm 23. He quoted the passage flawlessly with a strong, deep voice, enunciating every word correctly and speaking each line with eloquence. When he finished, the congregation applauded politely.

Later in the service at the appointed time, the elderly pastor, using his cane to aid him, shuffled to the pulpit where he had so faithfully preached for many years. He, too, had chosen Psalm 23.

With slurred speech, the old man began speaking from his heart the familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd…” Before completing the passage, he had omitted several words and actually reversed two lines. Even with his frail voice, the congregation was moved to tears.

Following the service, the younger man complained to the current pastor of the church, “I don’t understand. I quoted the Psalm as beautifully as I could. I made no mistakes, but when I finished, the congregation gave me only polite applause. This old man quoted Psalm 23 and made several mistakes, yet he moved the congregation to tears. What is the difference?”

The pastor of the church patiently explained, “You recited the Psalm, and you know it very well. This old gentleman not only knows the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd!”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, January 2008

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