Psalm 23

Narrative Lectionary  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  11:41
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When I think of a staff (or stick) it really isn't the type of comfort I'm looking for. Although, when I look at how staffs have been used in biblical history, I see that they can bring freedom, authority, and health. Those ideas can bring comfort -- even if the stick itself doesn't do anytihing for me.

Notes & Transcripts

The Shepherd’s Staff

One of the pieces of this psalm that always confuses me comes in verse 4.
Psalm 23:4 NRSV
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

How can a rod, a staff, a stick, bring comfort?

I want a warm blanket to snuggle up in when I want comfort. Or maybe even my prayer shawl from when I had the emergency hernia surgery if things are really bad. For comfort, I want soft, warm, cozy, I don’t want hard, cold, and rigid.
The answer as to why the staff of a shepherd would bring comfort isn’t just because shepherds used them to protect their flock, they’ve got a history in the bible.
Moses uses his staff during the eight plague — the one of locusts when God is freeing God’s people from exile in Egypt.
Exodus 10:12–13 NRSV
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt, so that the locusts may come upon it and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.” So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts.
As a revolt was breaking out amongst the 12 Tribes of Israel, God used Aaron’s staff to show that Aaron was indeed to be one of God’s leaders of the Israelites.
Numbers 17:1–8 NRSV
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house, from all the leaders of their ancestral houses. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each ancestral house. Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you. Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among theirs. So Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant. When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.
The prophet Elisha uses his staff as a symbol of his power in trying to raise a child from death.
2 Kings 4:28–31 NRSV
Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” He said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go. If you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone greets you, do not answer; and lay my staff on the face of the child.” Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you.” So he rose up and followed her. Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. He came back to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”
Now, unfortunately the child wasn’t awakened by the staff, and Elisha himself, goes and raises the child, however it’s clear that Elisha thought the staff would contain the power to heal.
Staffs were used to
++ deliver from exile
++ show authority
++ heal
So maybe that’s what David is talking about in this psalm. We’re not talking about a stick to beat away those who might attack us, we’re talking about God’s ability to heal, God’s authority in our lives, and God’s deliverance of us from all that exiles us.

A Psalm of Trust

Psalm 23 has been described as a Psalm of Trust. Unlike a cry for help, this psalm is squarely focused on declaring the trust the Psalmist has in God.
Psalm 23:4 NRSV
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
As Rolf Jacobson puts it:
As such, one might imagine the prayers for help the prayer of those who are younger, who are going through their first times of crisis. The psalms of trust are the words of those who aren't riding in their first rodeo. They have been through dark valley before, they've experienced God's steadfast love in the midst of suffering before, and they so trust -- even though the dangers are very real.
We’ve all been through those dark valleys. For me, the only thing that gets me through them is God’s steadfast love — which I find in the people of this community — and other communities. Even when the dangers are real, there’s a confidence in God’s ability to provide that comes from a community.

A funeral Psalm

There’s no denying it: for many people this is a funeral psalm. Actually, when I’m planning funerals I often ask people if they want the 23rd Psalm read or not. Many people have a love/hate relationship with this psalm, and there are many more who either love it or hate it completely. Most people who hate it remember all the funerals that it has been read at, and linger on the sadness that has overcome them because of their grief.
Remember though, this isn’t a psalm of anguish. This is a Psalm of Trust.
Even in the midst of pain, we trust that God will be there for us; just as God was there for the people in Exile, was there when God’s people were confused and fractious, was there when someone needed to live a new life.
So rather than weep at the reading of this psalm, think again about the people whose funerals this has been read it. Think again about their trust in God, and how this psalm is a way of voicing that trust that they had, and that we hope to have.
For then we will know God’s true comfort in our lives—and for that, we give thanks.
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