Theological reflection on Psalm 23
Psalm 23, much like an ocean-liner’s barnacle-covered hull below the water line, is laden with interpretational baggage. Most Christian readers have an ambiguous relationship with the “Twenty-Third” Psalm because of its particular association with death and dying. The assumption most readers or listeners are most likely to reach when hearing the Psalm is that someone has either died, or is about to die. The deeply evocative image of the “valley of the shadow of death,” especially when rendered in the poetry of the King James’ version, may make it difficult to “hear” what this Hebrew Psalm is saying to us in our day and time. This paper evaluates the 23rd Psalm as a song of “new Exodus” with specific meaning for Christians in the context of a pre-sermon reflection.
We are in Jewish territory, as Craig Barnes notes , when we read or sing this cherished Psalm of Israel’s relationship with YHWH. Their territory includes echoes of the Exodus; the collective ethos of the wanderings, the invasions, the triumphs and the losses, and the struggles for peace:
This means that the last thing we ought to be doing is rushing to the 23rd Psalm to be reminded that everything is OK. We’re drawn to the images of green pastures, still waters and an overflowing cup because we strive for equilibrium, security and abundance. We don’t particularly care for the highs and lows of Israel’s history, the people’s insatiable thirst on long desert journeys, or their maddening love affair with God. It all sounds a bit reckless.
In preparing this pre-sermon reflection, I am immediately impressed at how much more meaning this Psalm has to say to Christians in the twenty-first century. Imagine reading the 23rd Psalm at a marriage or at a baptism. Why not? Exploring ways to expand the influence and hope of the 23rd Psalm to all of life’s experiences is a worthwhile exercise, and a sermon worth preaching.
John Eaton, in surveying the task of translation from the Hebrew idiom, notes the difficulty and complexity of doing justice to the “ . . . flexibility and abundance of meaning” and the elusiveness of tenses.” It is worth noting, in preparation for this sermon, that we are the recipients of a translational heritage in which Eaton notes two main stylistic traditions:
The one cared only for religious content and produced a rich allegory; it was characteristic of the older period reaching back to the Septuagint and may be illustrated by the Authorized Version. The other style heeds consistency of metaphor and is restrictive. It is characteristic of the modern period and produces something like this: “He refreshes me. / He leads me in right tracks for his name’s sake. / . . . Thy club and thy staff reassure me.
In his evaluation of modern translations, Eaton asks an important question: “Have not the subtleties of [Psalm 23] been underestimated?” In the following section, I devote some space in this essay to literary analysis, paying special attention to those subtleties and nuances of meaning in the text. I include a series of short “sermon questions” throughout as a tool for future sermon-writing.
1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
This is a confession of trust in ancient Near East language reserved for Kings and Gods. YHWH, the God of the Exodus, the wielder of power and might extolled in the “Song of the Sea,” is “my” shepherd just as he was “their” shepherd. The power of this line lies in what it evokes in the minds of readers who understand the code phrase and make immediate connections with the grand narrative of the Hebrew Bible. “I shall not want”, then, becomes an allusion to the Exodus story, the power of YHWH’s provision in a time of need in the wilderness.
Think on this: “When has God been a faithful shepherd to me in the history of my life, and what does that mean to me now that I am facing a new opportunity or difficulty? How does reaching back into my past experiences with God increase my faith that he will be with me now even as he was with me then?”
2a. He makes me lie down in green pastures;
The richness of the Hebrew “pastures of tender grass” is lost in most translations. This is not just a pasture of plentiful food, but a place of rest and relief. Ezekiel speaks of such a location: “I will feed them with good pasture, . . . there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture . . .”
Think on this: “Where do I see God’s hand in the pastures I have taken peaceful refuge in? What have these ‘resting stations’ looked like, and how did these periods of rest and renewal affect my life and strengthen my relationship with God?”
2b. he leads me beside still waters;
The Hebrew speaks of waters of rest and quietness, not merely smooth-flowing water. The book of Revelation speaks of a time when the Lamb, as the Shepherd, will “. . . guide them to springs of the water of life” where God will “. . . wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This is a time of cool and refreshing rest.
Think on this: “What events have I experienced in my life where quietness and rest came as a blessed relief? How did this refresh me?”
3a. he restores my soul.
The Hebrew nephesh speaks of the life or vitality of a human being. This ‘soul’ does not equate with ‘spirit’ but rather refers to an emotional and physical well-being. This is as the result of the “lying down” in the pastures of tender grass beside the waters of quietness.
Think on this: “What events can I think of where I literally had to slow down and become aware of my surroundings? Were these times when God was present? Was I better able to hear his voice in these times of refreshment?
3b. He leads me in right paths / for his name’s sake.
The Hebrew word used for ‘lead’ here is the same word used in the Exodus story: “The Lord went in front of them . . . to lead them along the way . . .” Here again is a powerful reminder of the story of the Exodus, of a leading out to safety. Most translations use either ‘lead’ or ‘guide’ as a description of what YHWH is doing in keeping with the metaphor of YHWH as shepherd.
Think on this: “Where in my life can I point to ways that have opened up to me as a result of God’s leading? In what ways were these “paths of righteousness? Did I recognize them as paths at the time?”
4a. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, / I fear no evil; / for you are with me;
It is worth noting the shift towards relational language here: Israel becomes personified as the “I” who is walking through the darkest valley. The relational language continues in “for you are with me” in the deepest confession of the Hebrew faith: “YHWH is with us / me.” “Do not fear” writes Isaiah, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters , I will be with you; and through the rivers . . . for I am the Lord your God.”
Think on this: “When I have been overwhelmed with inadequacy and fear in the face of a threat, how does a conviction that God will sustain his people in a time of crisis strengthen my resolve to endure?”
4b. your rod and your staff — / they comfort me.
The defending weapon of the rod and the rescuing assistance of the staff speak to YHWH’s protection and care. “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls ,” writes Peter. Eaton sees a stark reality in this section of the psalm:
There is no glib assertion that God will prevent the threat from coming. It is likely that the psalmist had already been in the valley of death, that he has already experienced the evil or tragedy of life, that he has already come face to face with the “enemies.” So he knows that the Shepherd will not always prevent him from facing that danger.
Think on this: “Have there been times in my life when I have been disappointed in a God who did not prevent terribly bad things from happening to me and those I love?”
5. You prepare a table before me / in the presence of my enemies;
Here is an abrupt shift in metaphor from ‘shepherd and sheep’ to ‘host and guest’ which may leave some modern readers wondering why there is such a dramatic shift. Dennis Bratcher suggests that the imagery is not as incongruent as it appears:
This metaphor of the “host” is deeply rooted in the customs of the Ancient Near East, where hospitality to foreigners, strangers, and travellers was a sacred duty. In a hostile desert environment where travellers had little rights outside their own territory, a person was required by custom to provide food, water, and shelter to travellers. By extending food and shelter, the host was taking to himself the responsibility of protecting the traveller as long as he was in his territory. YHWH then, as shepherd-host, prepares food and shelter in the clear and open view of the enemies. This is not a private meal, but one prepared before the eyes of the enemy.
Think on this: “When have I been aware of God’s sustaining protection even while I was in the middle of a desperate situation, at the very moment when things were at their worst? How is it that I was aware of his presence at a time when my mind and heart were seriously troubled?”
5b. You anoint my head with oil; / my cup overflows.
In a further building out of the hospitality metaphor, YHWH anoints “my head with oil.” Jesus faulted Simon for not extending this gesture of greeting: “You gave me no kiss, . . . you did not anoint my head with oil . . .” YHWH marks us as welcome guests under his protection – an “outward and visible sign” of an inward grace. Such a gesture removes all doubt about whether one is welcome or not. The overflowing cup speaks to abundance and plenty, and to the fact that YHWH meets physical needs, too.
Think on this: “When in my life has God marked my forehead with spiritual oil; when have I been aware that I was under his special protection?”
6. 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.
The Hebrew connotes ‘kindness’ in the original word translated as ‘mercy.’ The image of Temple as a suitable dwelling place further expands the idea of being under the protection and hospitality of God in his house. This is not an eschatological / future hope for the afterlife. This is a confession of faith in the God of the here-and-now. The Christian notion of the afterlife is projected onto this verse; the NRSV translation points to the fullness of this life. The psalmist uses hyperbole here to suggest a ‘very long time’ – and on this side of death.
A modern paraphrase of Psalm 23 might read like this:
The way things are at the moment are not a reflection of how things will be. No matter what it is that I am presently experiencing, there is more to life than just this moment and the circumstances of this time. And all because YHWH is with me now just as he has been with me before. I may be uncertain about what is going on in my life right now, but YHWH is my shepherd. I may be struggling financially and living from hand to mouth, but I “shall not want.” My mind may be in turmoil at night and sleep may be difficult, but YHWH will lead me to peaceful pastures and quiet waters. I may be broken down and beaten low right now, but YHWH will restore my personhood, my identity, and I have the hope – and the promise – of being in relationship with him for a long time.