Updated: Nov 15
Let’s begin with acknowledging the utter improbability that this post can live up to its title. Psalm 23 is one of the world’s favourite psalms, and the likelihood that your servant has found a single new thing to say about it is . . . remote.
Still, I have had reason to muse upon it again of late, and some thoughts that were fresh to me, at least, seem worth sharing. So I share.
Psalm 23 opens with “The Lord is my shepherd.” Bible students know that that is not, however, how it opens. It starts instead with the declaration that “Yhwh is my shepherd.” Not just any Lord or God of the ancient near east, therefore, but this particular Lord: the Maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel—that God. Yhwh is my shepherd.
All of what the Bible says about Yhwh, then, pertains to how God shepherds me. Christians draw on the New Testament as well to consider how God shepherds us, particularly as Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd.
What, then, is Psalm 23’s description of Yhwh’s shepherding? Fraught with chiaroscuro.
The first two descriptive phrases are all pleasantness: green pastures and still waters, just what sheep (who more or less eat and drink all day) look for in a good shepherd. Then this opening section concludes on a general note: “He restores my soul” or “He restores my life.”
One’s eyebrows lift as one pauses to wonder. Why does my soul need “restoring”? Is this just a slightly excessive way of putting the mild idea that sheep need nourishment, so the phrase just sums up the grass and water? Or does Yhwh’s shepherding involve experiences from which our souls need restoration?
The psalm goes on promisingly enough: “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Like any good shepherd proud of his work (his name), he keeps his flock to good ways, to right paths. We go only where we are supposed to go.
And where is that?
Sometimes into what seems to be grave danger.
“Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” Let’s go slowly here.
I’m supposed to be on the right path, under Yhwh’s leadership. This path, however, can sometimes take me right up against what to ancient Hebrews is the worst possible outcome: death. Very few hints of resurrection in the Old Testament. Sheol is where no one wants to go. And Yhwh has led me right into the very shadow of death.
Being in something’s shadow is awfully close. This valley path is right up against Mount Death, looming above me, threatening to crush me.
I am thus walking, by God’s own guidance, into the immediate presence of The Worst. Does God promise to remove me from this situation? God does not.
“I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff—they comfort me.” In awful proximity to The Worst, I will not run away, away from the path God has put me on, away from God’s shepherding.
I will not fear. Instead, implicitly, I will instead keep walking on the path Yhwh has given me.
For as bad as The Worst is, God is better. His evident shepherding, the tools of his trade in "rod and staff," reassure me that he is shepherding me all the while.
Being afraid in this context is as foolish, even comical, as being afraid of a street thug when your buddy Superman walks beside you. Being afraid in this context is as foolish, even comical, as being worried about your next utility bill when you have just inherited Warren Buffett’s estate.
Yhwh doesn’t need to rescue me from this situation because there is, in fact, no danger. To be sure, it surely looks like I’m in danger. Very great danger. Danger of The Worst. But I am not, in fact, in any danger at all.
Why not? Because I walk where Yhwh wants me to walk: in the shadow of death, yes, but so close to him that his rod and staff are right there to comfort me. Fear while walking beside Yhwh on the path he lays out is actually stupid.
Psalm 23 then turns things up another notch, as it relocates me to the presence of an even more vivid threat: the presence of actual enemies.
The psalmist had real enemies. Vicious, implacable, lethal enemies. He could name them and easily bring their furious faces to mind.
I have some, too. I’m thinking about them right now.
God does not rescue me from them—at least, not right away. But he does provision me, richly, right in front of them. God treats me, in fact, as his special guest: oil for my hair (a nice Middle Eastern gesture of hospitality after the day’s sun and wind have made a mess of my tresses) and wine for my cup—wine overflowing, in fact.
“Come sit a while,” Yhwh seems to say. “Have a glass of this. And don’t worry about them!”
The enemies surely glower. But surely also goodness and mercy—Yhwh’s generosity, giving me more than I deserve and not giving me exactly what I do deserve—follow me, like eager attendants, all the days of my life.
Not just the easy, happy days, but the days in which I follow Yhwh right into the face of death, right into the face of my murderous enemies.
And, having followed him, I will arrive: to dwell in the very house of Yhwh—where, in the effulgence of his bright goodness, there are no shadows, let alone shadows of death—forever. The End. All good.
No wonder Psalm 23 is so beloved. Far from the pastoral sentimentality of too many well-meant Sunday School lessons and funeral sermons, it depicts the life of faith as the Bible actually depicts it: fraught with perils, dark with threats, and terrifying to everyone who does not walk beside the Good Shepherd.
But if you do? Well, then. Keep calm and carry on. We should be coming up to another pleasant rest break soon…
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