Psalm 23:3: He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.
There is only one reason for the sheep to follow the shepherd. They trust the shepherd to keep them alive, and there is only one reason for the sheep to trust the shepherd to keep them alive, and that is the fact that the shepherd has kept them alive before. Trust is the fruit of past kindness. Trust is the essence of faith.
Trust comes naturally to the flock but unnaturally to us. Despite God’s past mercies, many of us still believe that God will abandon us because God does not care about us or because God is not real. The Psalmist knows our struggle for faith and trust and that is the meaning of the third verse. God is not waiting for us to turn to God. God has already turned to us. God has turned us around with amazing grace. This turning is the root meaning of “restoreth” which in Hebrew comes from the root word shuv meaning to turn around. What we refused to face we now turn to face; what we refused to believe we now believe; and what we refused to hope we now hope. Faith is believing what you cannot see, and the fruit of faith is seeing what you believe.
A straight path means a trustworthy path. It moves directly toward the destination. That path for the flock is a way in the wilderness. That path for us is a way in the wilderness of life. It is an ethical code, and a sacred calendar to mark the times of our communal and private lives where Heaven and Earth kiss. Without a path we are just rolling stones with no direction home. Or, if you prefer Dante to Dylan, his first line of the Divine Comedy, Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark forest, for the straightforward path had been lost.” The 23rd Psalm is not a poem or a song. The 23rd Pslam is a map.
And God does all this for the sake of God’s name. This means that God is not doing this for the sake of our righteousness, but as an unearned gift of love and grace. All this is a gift not a payment of earned interest on an account of virtue. We are lost sheep but we are saved by a saving path for no reason other than the love of the shepherd God for the flock.
Our response ought to be not just belief but thankfulness.
Psalm 23:4: 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.
The power of the valley of the shadow of death is not that it takes us from life but that it takes our life away from us before we die by filling us with the fear of death. A.A. Milne put this truth in the mouth of Piglet, “It is hard to be brave when you’re only a Very Small Animal.” The valley is a metaphor for the fear of death and the shepherd God brings us the hope that death is not the end of us just like the shepherd gives the flock the hope that, although they cannot yet see it, there is a clearing at the end of even the steepest valley. In Hebrew a narrow valley through the mountains is called a meitzar, and the root of this word is in the name for Egypt, mitzraim. Egypt is a narrow constricting place. Life constrained by the fear of death is a spiritually constricting place. The way out of Egypt is the way out of every debilitating fear – the belief that we are not alone on our journey to a freer, better place. God is with us – Emanuel. The Jewish theologian Mordecai Kaplan taught, “It is hell to live without hope and religion saves people from hell.”
I am with John Donne who wrote, “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.”