Psalm 23: A Prescription for Health
Psalm 23, a prescription for health? How can that be?
I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m not the best patient. I have problems following orders. I second guess and question and pretty much do what I want to do and find ways to justify this. Somehow, I get by. It must be frustrating though, if you are a doctor and know how poorly your orders are followed.
If I were to tell you I had a prescription that, if followed faithfully for only 7 days, would radically change your life for the better, would you do it? Dr. Charles Allen, in his book God’s Psychiatry, written in 1953, does just that. His prescription? Read the 23rd Psalm five times a day at different intervals for 7 days.
You can’t sit down in the morning and read the psalm five times at once and consider yourself done for the day, any more than you would take five pills at once if your doctor had ordered you to take them throughout the day. It must be at different times, perhaps when you first wake up, at breakfast, lunch and dinner and then before you go to sleep.
My Struggles Following this Prescription
I can’t say that I managed this myself. Seems there is always some reason I forget or maybe it’s just because, as I already admitted, I’m not the most compliant patient. But I can say that over my years in ministry, every year the common lectionary readings feature Good Shepherd Sunday, forcing me to read and reflect on the 23rd Psalm.
Year, after year I have been challenged to come up with new ideas, new ways, to explore that mystery of God as shepherd. Some years I have focused on sheep, the nature of sheep and how they needed a shepherd if they were to survive. Sometimes I focused on the shepherd’s voice and how the sheep know it. Others I focused on the rod and staff that guides. Still others I have focused on wants versus needs, the restful waters, or the valley of death, or the banquet table. All worthwhile. So, while I may not have followed Dr. Allen’s prescription precisely, I have certainly reflected on Psalm 23 repeatedly throughout the years.
Mark Twain is believed to have said, “I’d have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.” It can be harder at times to say something in a few words than in many words. Psalm 23 is a beautifully crafted piece that says so much in only 118 words, 6 verses. It is well worth repeating, memorizing, praying. It is one of the most well-known passages in Scripture, second only to the Lord’s Prayer. People who rarely darken a church’s door, when confronted with the death of a loved one and funeral preparations, will almost without fail ask for this particular psalm, so much so that it has become synonymous with funerals. Yet it is truly about life, not death; how to live in this life and the next.
The psalm is written in two parts. The first section, verses 1-4, speaks of our journey while on this earth, under the care of the shepherd. The second section shifts to the journey’s end. The shepherd becomes the host of a wonderful banquet. Yet the two are connected. The good shepherd is the good host in verse 2 when he provides green pastures and still waters for his flock. The good host is the good shepherd in verse 6 where we see how goodness and kindness follow, provide the rear guard for the flock.
Part One of Psalm 23
Verse 1 states, the Lord is my shepherd. He is not my task-master, ordering me around. Rather God is a care-taker, providing for my needs, watching out for me. So, I shall not want for anything I truly need.
Verses 2-3 portrays a day in the life of the sheep. In the morning the shepherd’s voice awakens the sheep. The flock begins its journey to the appointed place where they will find pastureland and water and rest. Their bodies are restored for the next stage of the journey.
Our life is like this. We journey, then we take a break to rest. Both are needed. We don’t spend our days just sleeping and eating. Our food and rest are to help us with the day’s journey. Sometimes we get so caught up with the journey, the work we are doing, that we forget to take time to rest. The good shepherd knows we need food and rest to sustain us on our journey so even when we resist, he makes us lie down and get the rest we need. Then, with our souls restored, we renew the journey.
In verse 4 comes the greatest challenge. The shepherd leads the flock in the path of righteousness (verse 3) but sometimes that path isn’t easy. It leads through dark times, dark places. Knowing what lies ahead, the dangers, the shepherd makes sure the flock is well rested and well fed before embarking on this next part of the journey. The heaviest burdens and tests do not come in the morning but in the afternoon. The deep valley is not a short one. The journey through it lasts till evening, but the flock doesn’t worry for they know the shepherd is present to protect them.
Part Two of Psalm 23
Once the journey is made we are welcomed into the banquet hall where no point of hospitality is overlooked, verses 5-6. A table is prepared, healing oils are poured on the fleece of the sheep, emphasizing how far the shepherd goes in caring for the sheep. The cup overflows. We have more than enough, more than we need, more than we can drink, our cup never empties. And what’s even more, at journey’s end, we shall remain in this house of abundance forever. Thus God rewards the righteous, all who follow the shepherd’s voice.
Changing our Thinking
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Marcus Aurelius, “A man’s life is what his thoughts make it.” Norman Vincent Peale, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Proverb 23:7, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Allen, p. 15) As we think, so we are.
There is a power in these verses. If said over and over again, thoughtfully, reflectively, they can change your way of thinking. The words reflect a positive, hopeful approach to life. No one can live the 23rd Psalm and remain fearful. It speaks to the heart of who God is (Good Shepherd), how to think about God, and how to be in relationship to God (as followers). It is a source of comfort and strength for every day.
Community in Psalm 23
One criticism of Psalm 23 is that some may interpret it as a private faith between God and an individual and doesn’t address the importance of mission and community. Yet the shepherd tends the flock, community is implied. He isn’t just there for one person, yet the individual is not lost in the flock. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, Jesus reminds us.
There is a power that comes from this relationship with our God. It is this power that allows the apostles to perform miracles, the power that comes from their relationship with God. Not only are we led by the Good Shepherd, we are to be that shepherd to others, leading others to the shepherd’s voice. In that our God provides for us, we are to provide for others in need. In that our cup overflows, we are to share our abundance with others. The Lord is our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want, our cup overflows, and so we are called to share with others.
Psalm 23 – a prescription for peace of mind, change of heart and great love. Take it five times a day.
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