The first of three reflections on Psalm 23, considers verses 1-3.
In one of his great Messianic outpourings, Isaiah told us that the Messiah would be “like a shepherd”: feeding his flock, gently leading them, gathering them in his arms and holding them “in his bosom” (Isa 40:11). So when we read “The Lord is my shepherd” we are to picture the tenderhearted Christ who once told His followers “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11). In verse 3 of the Psalm we read that the shepherd “leadeth me in the paths of righteousness”. Jesus alluded to this when He described the good shepherd: “…the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (Jn 10:2-4). So Jesus the good shepherd leads us in the paths of righteousness, into all good.
When we read about the green pastures, first we should appreciate the fact that these are “His pastures”, but for our benefit. St. Cyril of Alexandria, an early Church Father, says the pastures are “the ever-fresh words of Holy Scripture, which nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength”.
But to my mind, perhaps the key to this entire Psalm is found in the following words: “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (Ps 23:2-3). Many early Church Fathers took this reference to “waters” as a reference to baptism. So, just as Jesus Himself was baptized, so He leads us along this righteous path to also be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:18-20).
This baptism “restoreth my soul” in the proper and holy relationship it is meant to have with the Holy Trinity. These still waters, beside which we rest, are also very deep waters. That is, they are deep mystically speaking, like the waters of the Jordan River within which Jesus was baptized. When Jesus emerged from the water witnesses beheld a Trinitarian Theophany: a Dove (the Holy Spirit) came down upon Him and a Voice (the Father’s) resounded around Him: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:13-17). We can quietly meditate beside these still waters, beside this pool of Revelation, discovering here the deep mysteries of the Holy Trinity.
Gaze again upon these still mystical waters into the mystery of the Incarnation. See how the Incarnate Unborn Jesus first meets John the Baptist when both dwelled within the deep amniotic waters of their mothers’ wombs. In this first meeting, Christ anointed the unborn baby John with His Spirit and John leaped for joy (Lk 1:39-44).
The Good Shepherd leads us “beside still waters”, where we rejoice as we contemplate the deep teaching of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. As baptized Christians we rest here, content. Another early Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, reflecting on verses 2-3 of this Psalm refers to “the pastures and fountains of doctrine”. In due course, we hear again the voice of the Good Shepherd: “…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
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