(Mostly) Luther on Psalm 23

The Lord is My Shepherd[1]
Psalm 23
Third Sunday of Easter (Misericordias Domini)
April 10th/11th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Jesus-the-Good-Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. We are his sheep. An appropriate comparison, for as Martin Luther once noted, a sheep must live entirely by its shepherd’s help, protection, and care. As soon as the sheep loses its shepherd, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and will certainly perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. It is a poor, weak, simple little creature that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. It is by nature timid, shy, and likely to get lost. When it does wander off and leave its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. It strays about until the wolf seizes it or it perishes some other way, like falling off a cliff or being swept away by the current while trying to drink from running water.

Still, however weak and small an animal a sheep may be, it nevertheless has this trait about it: it listens.  It is very careful to stay near its shepherd, to take comfort in his help and protection, and to follow him however and wherever he may lead it. And if it can simply be near him, it worries about nothing, fears no one, and is secure and happy; for it lacks absolutely nothing. If you wish, therefore, to be richly supplied in both body and soul, then above all give careful attention to the voice of your Shepherd, listen to His words, let Him feed, direct, lead, protect, and comfort you. Hold fast to His Word; hear and learn it gladly.

Our Shepherd will bless His Word so that it will accomplish its purpose and bring forth fruit in us. Through the Word he will give us His Spirit, who will assist and comfort us in all temptations and distresses and will also make our hearts safe and sure so that we will not doubt that we are safe in our Lord’s flock. He will treat us gently as His poor, weak sheep. He will strengthen our faith and provide us with other spiritual gifts; comfort us in all our troubles; hear us when we call upon Him; keep the wolf, that is, the devil, from being able to do us harm; and finally redeem us from all misfortune. Thus the psalmist can boldly confess that because the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

Of course, there will always be hardships in this body and life. Sin has corrupted the world in which we live. We will experience disease and economic hardships. Our relationships will be strained. Our lives will feel the same pressures felt by everyone else, whether they’re Christian or not. We may look at our circumstances compared with those of the unbelieving world and wonder whether or not our Lord is truly providing as a Shepherd ought.   But the words “I shall not want” are a confession of faith. The eyes of faith know that in real temptation we can find counsel and comfort nowhere else but in clinging to God’s Word and promise, evaluating our circumstances on the basis of his Word and not on the basis of the feelings of the heart. Then, when we despair of ourselves, our own abilities, our own failures, our own estimation of the situation, then help and comfort will surely follow, and absolutely nothing will be lacking.

The Word of God is the key. And yet, sadly, it remains a Word we so often undervalue and take for granted. It is as if the Psalmist were saying, “All people and kingdoms on earth are nothing. To the outward eye they may be richer, more powerful, and more splendid than the People of God. They may glory in their wisdom and holiness. But with all their glory and splendor they are a mere desert and wilderness, for they have neither shepherd nor pasture, and any sheep who wanders there will certainly go astray, starve, and perish. But though we are surrounded by many deserts, we can sit and rest here, safe and happy in Paradise, in a pleasant green pasture, where there is an abundance of grass and of fresh water and where we have our Shepherd near us, who feeds us, leads us to the watering place, and protects us. Therefore we shall not want.

We should learn to let the world glory in its great riches, honor, and power while it still can, for these are temporary, uncertain, perishable things that God lets foolish men scramble for. What does it matter for God to give wealth to someone who in turn blasphemes and slanders Him, or to a kingdom that will endorse evil at every turn, or other temporary honors and possessions to wicked people on this earth. What of it? All these will turn to ash one day.  To His children, as David says here, He gives the genuine treasure. Therefore, as the dear children and heirs of God, we ought to glory in neither our wisdom, nor strength, nor riches, but in this, that we have the “pearl of great value,” the precious Word, through which we know God, our dear Father, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. That is our treasure and heritage, and it is sure and eternal and better than all worldly possessions. Whoever has this treasure may let others gather money, live scandalously, be proud and arrogant. Let us not be troubled by such things, though we be despised and poor in the eyes of the world. It does not matter how rich and glorious we are here on earth; if we keep the treasure of his Word, we are exceedingly rich and sufficiently honored.

O how often we struggle with this! How often we fail to evaluate our situation rightly! We are so easily caught up in the rat race of modern life, forever chasing the next promotion, the newer car, the nicer house, the fancier clothing or more extravagant vacation.  We put our effort and time into the many things we want to do for our families and give to our families: a good education, the chance to excel in sports or music, a comfortable life, wonderful memories and experiences. But where does the Word of God fall on that list? Why do we so often fail to treat it as the treasure it truly is? Why do we find ourselves too tired to worship or attend Bible Study but always have enough energy to pick up some overtime if it means getting paid time-and-a-half?  All other things in this life will pass away. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever. The Psalmist rejoices in that Word, and that through that Word he has everything he would ever want, regardless of his standing in the eyes of the world, regardless of how his life stacks up against the people three doors down.  For this Word is the green pastures that feed our soul, and it is the still waters that calm our troubled hearts.

Whether we are rich or poor in the eyes of the world, there will always be trouble in this life. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Being a sheep in our Shepherd’s flock doesn’t make those attacks any less intense. In fact, if anything, it makes them worse, for as soon as the Word is preached and as soon as there are people that accept and confess it, the devil quickly appears with all his angels and arouses the world with all its might against this Word, to stifle it and completely destroy those that have it and confess it.  Baptism not only make one a child of God, it also makes one an enemy of Satan. Are we then to look for shelter from these attacks in money or fame or the things of this life? No, there is no shelter there. And yet in the midst of these attacks, we fear no evil, for the Shepherd is with us to protect and comfort us with his rod and staff. Rather than living in fear, we sit at the table prepared by our Lord. The more raging and raving and insane the devil and his minions are toward us, the less we worry about them; yes, instead, we are secure, happy, and cheerful. And that is true only because we have God’s Word. It gives us such strength and comfort in the presence of all our enemies, so that even when they rage and rave most violently, we feel more at ease than when we are sitting at a table and have all that our hearts desire: food, drink, joy, pleasures, music, and anything else.

Even a man so highly blessed as King David exalts and praises the Word of God above all else, for by that Word we gain the victory over the devil, the world, the flesh, sin, a guilty conscience, and even death. When we have the Word and in faith cling to it firmly, these enemies, who we could never defeat on our own, lay down their weapons and let themselves be taken captive. It is not only a wonderful victory, but also a very confident and joyful attitude on the part of believers that we may compel and conquer all of these horrible and mighty enemies—not by resisting or striking back, but by sitting, eating, drinking, and resting, for we aren’t the ones who are actually doing the fighting.  We rest in the protection of our Shepherd. All of this is accomplished through the Word.

The Lord has prepared a table for us, and the meal on that table is the paschal lamb, Christ himself given in order to destroy our enemies completely. While the world continues to spew rhetoric of hatred and bitterness and vengeance, even then the dear bride of Christ can sit down at the table of her Lord, eat of the paschal lamb, drink of the fresh water, be happy and sing: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  Therefore let us learn to cling to the rod and this staff of our Lord’s Word, and to find our way to his table when sorrow or other misfortune appears. Then we will surely gain strength and comfort for everything that worries us.

This is the promise that is ours as the sheep of our Lord’s flock. He is our Shepherd. He has given us all we need, therefore when we have him through his Word, we shall not want. His Word will lead us into green pastures to feed and nourish and strengthen our souls. And when sadness or grief overtakes us, his Word will soothe our troubled hearts with the cool water of healing.  He restores our souls. He will speak to us through his Word to lead us down the paths of righteousness, showing us how to live in forgiveness and mercy and in keeping with his design for creation. And even though that path in this life takes us through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for he is with us, guarding and protecting us with the rod and staff of his Gospel, deflecting away and fending off the assaults of the evil one. And while he is fighting off our enemies, we will sit at the table he has prepared for us; he will anoint us as his people, and fill our souls to the point of overflowing with the gift of his love. So as long as we are in this life, his goodness and his mercy will follow us as his Word continues to speak words of forgiveness and hope into our ears until that day when we take up our dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

+INJ+

[1] Much of this sermon is from Luther’s 1536 commentary on Psalm 23

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One thought on “(Mostly) Luther on Psalm 23

  1. We thank God 🙏 for wonderful insight & understanding of Holy Scripture. Blessings in Christ.

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