Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard and Kathryn Schifferdecker.
Article written by Kathryn Schifferdecker.
Like most believers, I love many different Bible passages, and different ones have been significant for me at different periods in my life. Lately, though, I’ve been particularly drawn to the 23rd Psalm. I know, that’s too much of a cliché to be taken seriously. But there’s a reason that many people, even if they don’t know any other passage of Scripture, know the 23rd Psalm: “The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.” It is a beautiful prayer of trust, trust that “you are with me” (verse 4) even in the deepest, darkest valley; even in the presence of my enemies; even when terrible things happen.
When I think of the 23rd Psalm, I hear music. There are, of course, lots of musical settings of this most beloved of psalms. “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” beautifully captures the pastoral sensibility of the psalm. Leonard Bernstein’s composition “Chichester Psalms” pairs Psalm 23 with Psalm 2 in a stunning musical interpretation.
The musical rendition of the 23rd Psalm that has shaped me most, however, is a simple children’s song from the hymnbook of my childhood: The Lutheran Hymnal (published by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the 1940’s but still used in my home church through the 1970’s). The hymn is called, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” It is one of a handful of hymns that my parents used as bedtime prayers for my three sisters and me as we were growing up. My father, Jim Schifferdecker, was a church organist and we were raised on hymns and 3-part harmony. (Dad sang bass, but having no brothers, we lacked a tenor.) So, every night as we went to bed, Mom and Dad would sing with us, and this hymn was one of our favorites:
I am Jesus’ little lamb, ever glad at heart I am.
For my Shepherd gently guides me, knows my need and well provides me.
Loves me every day the same, even calls me by my name.
Day by day, at home, away, Jesus is my staff and stay.
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me; into pleasant pastures leads me.
When I thirst, he bids me go where the quiet waters flow.
Now, I have to admit that this pietistic hymn makes a big leap from the 23rd Psalm’s “The LORD is my shepherd” to “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” But it is a leap that most Christians through the centuries have made, as they read Psalm 23 through the lens of John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” These texts, read together, identify Jesus with the LORD, the God of Israel who leads and tends his flock like a shepherd. Even in our time and place, when many people have never seen a sheep up close, much less tended a flock, somehow this image speaks to us of comfort and care. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
It is in the next verse where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. “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” (23:4). The phrase “You are with me” is the center of the psalm, both literally and theologically. There are 26 words in Hebrew before this statement, and 26 words after it. More significantly, the psalmist moves here from speaking about God to speaking directly to God: “You are with me.”
You are with me. That is why I can walk through the darkest valley (or “the valley of the shadow of death”) without fear. That is why I can trust that God’s goodness and hesed (love, mercy, covenant faithfulness) will follow me (literally, “pursue me”) all the days of my life (verse 6). And that, finally, is why I can trust that I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. You are with me.
A year and a half ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with an open house at my home church, St. Paul Lutheran in Farmington, Missouri. Near the end of the open house, as we were taking pictures, I noticed that my father’s smile had become lopsided, so I said to my sister Martha, who is a doctor, “Something’s wrong with Dad.” She quickly got him to a chair and the room hushed as she tested the strength of his grip on both sides. His left hand, which had played so many hymns over the years, had lost its strength. Dad was having a stroke, a slow bleeding into his brain.
We rushed him to the local hospital, where he was airlifted to St. Louis. We followed in a van, my mother, my three sisters -- Miriam, Martha, Karen -- and I, in stunned silence. Then, to break the silence, to remember hope, we began singing the bedtime hymns we’d grown up with. “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” “All praise to thee, my God, this night.”
For the next 30 hours, we sat with Dad in the ICU. He knew we were there. He was able to talk with us in brief sentences. At one point during that first long, terrible night, in the valley of the shadow of death, I said, “Dad, I don’t know how this will end, but I want you to know how grateful I am to you for all you’ve done for us. You’ve been a great father.” He couldn’t speak well, but his reply, simple and faithful, was this: “It’s because of God’s love and mercy.” Dad knew and lived the truth that the psalmist proclaims: “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
Our children and husbands visited. We all prayed and read Scripture and sang hymns together. And in his last hour, my mother, my three sisters, and I sat around his bed, some of us holding his hands, others laying hands on his head, his shoulders. I read several Scripture passages, including Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And, together, we sang him to sleep, commending him into the arms of his Savior.
Who’s so happy as I am? Even now the Shepherd’s lamb.
And when my short life is ended, by His angel hosts attended,
He shall fold me to his breast, there within His arms to rest.
Dad’s funeral, as befitted a church organist, was full of music: “Abide With Me,” “For All the Saints,” “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” And, yes, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.”
We sang to remember and to witness: You are with me. Even in the terrible times, bringing blessings in the midst of sorrow. We laid claim to God’s promises for Dad and for ourselves, promises that the psalmist thousands of years ago articulated so beautifully:
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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Ps 23:4-6)
So, yes, Psalm 23 is one of my favorite Bible passages. When I hear it, I hear music. When I hear it, I hear the voice of the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
You are with me. In the hard times and in the joyful times. In this world and in the world to come. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
Photo credit: "Holding Dad's Hand." Image by Deb via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.