Down through the last couple of weeks the 23rd Psalm has loomed large in my mind. For many years this psalm was one that I didn’t want to think of or hear very often. Despite it being one of the most well known and loved texts of the Bible, for me it was an unwelcome reminder of tragedy and loss: this was the Scripture preached at my dad’s funeral. Being only nine years old, and him a mere 29, when he died, and associating Psalm 23 with his death, these six verses brought little comfort to me, unlike they do and have for countless others.
Not long ago I read the account of how so old hymns came to be, their stories behind the lyrics. Many of them surprised me, touched me, and made me think more deeply about the words, knowing their inspiration. One such old song is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and I would like to share a bit about its origin with you as we get ready to delve into our discussion today.
Thomas Andrew Dorsey was a black jazz musician from Atlanta. In the twenties he gained a certain amount of notoriety as the composer of jazz tunes with suggestive lyrics, but he gave all that up in 1926 to concentrate exclusively on spiritual music. “Peace in the Valley” is one of his best known songs, but there is a story behind his most famous song that deserves to be told.
In 1932 the times were hard for Dorsey. Just trying to survive the depression years as a working musician meant tough going. On top of that, his music was not accepted by many people. Some said it was much too worldly-the devil’s music, they called it. Many years later Dorsey could laugh about it. He said, “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in the land.” But the real kick in the teeth came one night in St. Louis when he received a telegram informing him that his pregnant wife had died suddenly.
Dorsey was so filled with grief that his faith was shaken to the roots, but instead of wallowing in self-pity, he turned to the discipline he knew best-music. In the midst of agony he wrote the following lyrics:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
As we begin to read this psalm I think it’s clear that David was a man of some age, experience, and wisdom by the time he, under inspiration, penned it. I imagine that he was reflecting on his youth and of the many times in his life that God had protected him, provided for him, and pondering the good things that layer yet ahead for him in his life.
Psalms 23:1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
For David, and the culture in general during biblical times, the shepherd was a very familiar figure; David had been a shepherd himself in his earlier life. The Lord is referred to as our Shepherd throughout Scripture, Old and New Testament, among other places:
Gen 48:15 And he blessed Joseph, and said, God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day,
Psa 80:1 To the chief Musician upon Shoshannimeduth, A Psalm of Asaph. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth.
Isa 40:11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
Joh 10:14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
Heb 13:20 Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
1Pe 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
1Pe 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
Think about this: the all-knowing, all powerful, always present Creator of everything that was, is, or will be willingly takes on this lowly role for you and me; pretty humbling, isn’t it?
Being provided for by this Shepherd, how could His flock, us, ever be in want? He who is their Shepherd has all power in heaven and earth; therefore he can protect them. The silver and gold are his, and the cattle on a thousand hills; and therefore he can sustain them. He has all that they need, and his heart is full of love to mankind; and therefore he will withhold from them no manner of thing that is good.
Psa 34:9 O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him.
Psa 84:11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
Mat 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Rom 8:32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?
Psalms 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Places of tender, young growth grass. The idea and imagery being a place of tender softness, perfectly suited to cool, sooth, feed, and rest the flock. These waters are of stillness, which invite one to rest and relaxation, in contrast to churning streams of turmoil and stagnant ponds of offense. This is a place where the flock are fully satisfied, in peaceful rest, and provided for by the Shepherd.
Isa 49:9-10 That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. (10) They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them.
Psalms 23:3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Literally, “He causes my life to return.” Or, “He quickens me,” or causes me to live. The word soul” here means life, or spirit, and not the soul in the strict sense in which the term is now used. It refers to the spirit when exhausted, weary, or sad; and the meaning is, that God quickens or vivifies the spirit when thus exhausted. The reference is not to the soul as wandering or backsliding from God, but to the life or spirit as exhausted, wearied, troubled, anxious, worn down with care and toil. the heart, thus exhausted, He re-animates. He brings back its vigor. He encourages it; excites it to new effort; fills it with new joy. He leads me along the straight and narrow road, the path this good in God’s eyes, in the ways that are pleasing to Him. And He does this for His glory, so that His name may be honored.
Jer 14:7 O LORD, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for thy name’s sake: for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against thee.
The feeling expressed in this verse is that of confidence in God; an assurance that he would always lead his people in the path in which they should go. This he will always do if people will follow the directions of His word, the teachings of His Spirit, and the guidance of His providence.
Psalms 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 idea here is to show that no matter how dark, dreary or gloomy the path may seem, God is still there, too. He is guiding and protecting us during the lowest of the low times, the times when we feel most exposed and alone; the Shepard never leaves His flock. The true believer has nothing to fear in the gloomiest scenes of life; he has nothing to fear in the valley of death; he has nothing to fear in the grave; he has nothing to fear in the world beyond.
Mat 28:20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
The shepherd used his staff, likely the hook-ended stick we are so familiar with today, and his rod, a walking staff-type of tool, to guide and protect the flock. With the rod he could fend off predators, spread open brushy pathways, and prod the ground for hidden pits, snares, and the like. The crook was used for similar tasks but also to grasp the leg of a sheep that might be nearing the jagged edge of the cliff, or to free the animal that had become ensnared in some briar patch. These instruments of protection and guidance are a comfort to us, to know that they are there, as our Shepard cares for and guides us.
Psalms 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
This verse refers back to, or reinforces, verse one “I shall not want”; the word “table” is equal with the term “feast”, meaning “prepares a feast for me”. As the psalmist has laid out, God is our Shepard and cares for us, His flock, making provision for our every need. David, in his lifetime, had many accounts recorded in the Bible that could have been the “idea” that spawned this thought, and I’m sure there are many more that occurred that aren’t documented in God’s Word. He probably had many references in his life that could have felt as if God had literally laid out a banquet for him, while his enemies watched him feast and were powerless to interrupt David’s meal. The oil represents prosperity and rejoicing, coupled with cup that is running over, shows the abundance of good that David felt in his life and, rightly, attributed to being provided by God. We, too, today can and should have this abundance bubbling over in our hearts, our cup, as members of the same flock and with the same unchanging Shepard as our guide and provider.
Mal 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
Heb 13:8 Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
Psalms 23:6 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.
Though he knew that at some point his life on earth would end, David expresses confidence that as long as he resided on this side of eternity God would continue to provide for and protect him. This is the language of a heart overflowing with joy and gratitude in the recollection of the past, and full of glad anticipation, resulting from his experience of the past, in regard to the future. David wanted to fulfil the remainder of his days serving and honoring The Lord, dwelling in His presence the rest of his natural life; this expresses the desire of a true child of God. Members of the flock today should and can be just as certain as David was of all this and more; David didn’t have the full revelation of Scripture or the Gospel that we have today. By faith, David knew in his heart this was all true for him both here and in the next life and the children of God today should be just as confident and seek just as diligently as David did to serve, honor and praise our Shepard; those assured promises are ours, too.
2Co 5:1 For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Php 1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
If you live long enough, you will experience heartache, disappointment, and sheer helplessness. The Lord is our most precious resource in those hours of trauma.
Psa 9:9 The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble
Tom Dorsey understood that, as did David. His song was originally written as a way of coping with his personal pain, but even today it continues to bless thousands of others when they pass through times of hardship. David’s song was written in a similar fashion, looking back upon events of his life. But David’s song not only comforts us but lifts us up knowing those promises the Shepherd made to him are still valid for us today.
The question at the end of the thought here is a simple one, but the most profound one you or anyone will ever answer: Can you truly say “The Lord is my shepherd”? If not, none of these promises, protections, assurances, none of any of this applies to you/them; these belong only to the flock, not the world. But if you are outside this flock you can be taken into the fold by the Shepherd, you need only come with believing faith and ask Him.
Originally posted and taught on 11/8/14.