In this fifth article, Canon John Udris focuses on Psalm 23 - the most well-known psalm of all with its opening words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.
What is usually referred to as the 23rd Psalm has been called the ‘Nightingale of the Psalms’. It must be the most well-known and best loved in the whole Psalter. It speaks to and spells out important things and so we hear it sung at weddings as well as funerals. It’s perhaps the best example of those psalms that break through from the darkness of descent and disorientation to a new level of abandonment and trust. So let’s spend some time with it and open up some of its treasures.
The opening line is stark and striking. In Hebrew it’s just four staccato words and only eight syllables long. One Jewish commentator calls this ‘monumental brevity.’ Literally, ‘Lord, my shepherd I don’t want.’ The word for shepherd ‘ro’ is thought to derive from the Hebrew ‘re-a’ meaning ‘friend’. Paul Inwood knew that when he wrote his version of this psalm with the refrain, ‘You are my shepherd, you are my friend, I want to follow you always’. It’s ro-i ‘my shepherd.’ The ‘I’ there working as it does in ‘rabbun-i’ – my Master, my rabbi. And ‘Hinen-i’ ‘Here I am’. So right away the psalm conveys a warmth and an intimacy.
And then ‘I shall not want’ meaning ‘I lack nothing’. In the sense of St. Teresa of Avila’s ‘whoever has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.’ I suspect the psalmist has had an experience of being very much in want and has found in the Lord the provision they were hoping for. It’s one of those lines which can be prayed as an act of faith. So when we are conscious of our lack, we are invited to talk back to that lack with these words, trusting in the Lord’s provision in this situation.
Then ‘fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.’ Rabbinical wisdom says that to worry is to deal with tomorrow’s problems on today’s pasture. The Lord gives us just enough for now. In the next line there’s a word which is key in Hebrew but which gets a bit obscured in English. One translation of this phrase is ‘he revives my drooping spirit.’ Other versions prefer ‘he restores my soul.’ But that word ‘revive’ or ‘restore’ is actually the word ‘shub’ in Hebrew which is the word for ‘repent’ or literally ‘turn round’ and ‘return.’
So in terms of the Brueggemann’s classification as a Psalm of Reorientation it’s perfect.
The Lord is the one who re-orientates us, who turns us around again and again after all the descent and disorientation we’ve been experiencing. The implication being that we are returned to the right direction. Like the sheep being guided back to the right path by its shepherd.
Here we’re approaching the turning point in the psalm. ‘Though I walk through the valley of darkness no evil would I fear.’ The word ‘though’ is the same word used in Habakkuk 3:17-18
Though the fig does not blossom
nor fruit grow on the vine,
though the olive crop fail
and the fields produce no harvest,
though the flock be cut off from the fold
and the stalls stand empty of cattle
yet I will rejoice in the Lord.
Psalm 23:4 can also be translated as ‘though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death yet I will fear no evil.’ In other words: with all the evidence and despite every kind of disorientation I will trust because the following words stand at the very heart of the psalm: ‘for you are with me.’ They are Psalm 23’s centre of gravity. They are exactly 26 Hebrew words before that phrase, and exactly 26 words after it. What’s more, in the verses leading up to that phrase, the poet speaks of the Lord in the third person: “he” does this and “he” does that. But when we get to this verse, the psalmist starts speaking to God directly, in the second person: for ‘you are with me, your’ rod and staff’, and ‘you’ have prepared a banquet for me. So this psalm’s centre of gravity breaks through to a new intimacy and trust which expresses itself personally. Notice that the turn-around happens in the valley of darkness. As if to say there’s no other way to experience the Lord’s provision until what we always relied on is put to the test or taken away. It’s the fear that makes the trust more real and more precious.
Two final things to notice before we leave this psalm in the final verse. ‘Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of life.’ The kindness there, or mercy in other translations is that word ‘hesed’ we looked at previously. The main mercy word often translated as loving kindness or steadfast love. But then the word ‘follow’ is actually a weak rendition of the word ‘radaph’ which means ‘pursue’ or even ‘chase’ like an animal pursuing its prey. So both goodness and mercy gallop after us!
Let’s go back to Joseph who must have known this psalm intimately and prayed it often. There were so many situations in which he needed to see the Lord’s provision and to feel the Lord’s hand guiding and protecting his family. Did he pray it as an act of faith when he was afraid? When he was disorientated by the news of Mary’s pregnancy? Did he find consolation in its words when there was no room at the inn and when he needed to find a safe place for Mary to have her child? He would have used those words to renew his trust in the Lord’s guidance as he fled with his family into Egypt, and literally passed through dark and unfamiliar valleys where he sensed danger. Did he know then that no one in history could have prayed the words of that psalm more accurately than he when he prayed ‘I will not fear for you are with me’? Did he sense that the Lord really was with him in the child entrusted to his care? But what about that agonising episode when he lost his child? He might have found other psalms came more readily to mind in his panic and distress.
‘Lord, why do you hide your face? (Psalm 27:9 and 102:2). And ‘Hide not your face from me!’ ‘Lord, make haste an answer for my spirit fails within me. Do not hide your face lest I become like those in the grave’ from Psalm 143:7.
Let’s stay with that episode in Joseph’s life a little longer because it was Joseph’s participation in the paschal mystery. We have already spoken about the agony he and Mary went through which would have surely robbed them of sleep in those days when Jesus went missing. Luke tells us that it was after three days of frantic searching that they finally found him, anticipating Jesus’ own three days in the tomb. Three days of agony, three days of distress, three days of torment, three days of oscillating between fearing the worst and trusting in God’s providential love. And where they finally found their child is full of significance – in the temple in Jerusalem which by tradition was built on the site of Mount Moriah. So Joseph found his son in the very place that Abraham had once offered his son Isaac in obedience to God. Abraham and Joseph both upright men, Abraham and Joseph both obedient embodiments of that faith that hopes beyond hope, that trusts to the point of no return. And whose hope and trust are not disappointed which is why they are both our fathers in faith.
After Joseph finds his child, Psalm 23 must have shown him that even when everything seemed to suggest otherwise, the Lord had still been his shepherd. And that his goodness and mercy were following him right into the house of the Lord where they finally found Jesus. There he was able to sing that psalm in a new way, having broken through to an even deeper abandonment his own Son would later experience not far from that very spot.
Walter Brueggemann says: ‘These very songs are an act of emancipation. The songs both reflect and accomplish liberation.’ And moreover ‘We go [to these Psalms] to practice our vocation of receiving the new future God is speaking to us.’ It’s good to remind ourselves that these psalms are the Word of God. And that the Word of God works. So the psalms are packed with potential, with the energy of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. Psalm 29: 4-9 comes to mind:
‘The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord stripping the forests bare.’
Whenever we pray the psalms we are wielding a power that is so much greater than ourselves. It’s like we are wielding Goliath’s sword. Do you remember the scene in 1 Samuel 21:1-9 where David goes into the Temple and asks for food and the only food available is the holy bread which he goes on to eat. And when he asks the high priest Abimelech for a weapon, Abimelech replies that there’s only the revered sword of Goliath wrapped in a special cloth which David had taken as a trophy when he had killed the Philistine champion. And David says to Abimelech ‘There is none like it! Give it to me!’ The same is true of the sword of the psalms. The power they convey cuts through and makes new all sorts of seemingly impossible situations. ‘There is none like it!’ And that is why to paraphrase the biblical scholar Tom Wright ‘the regular praying and singing and wielding of the psalms is transformative.’
Psalm 23 Garden Project: https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/psalm-23/
Music: settings by Crimmond, John Rutter et al on You Tube.
Praying the Psalms –
Common Psalms in our Lectionary –