Psalm 23 Reflection

Psalm 23  The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want, for daily reflection.

This affirmation in ancient Near East language was reserved for Kings and Gods. YHWH, the God of the Exodus,  parts the sea of reeds, opens the path to a land of promise is “my” shepherd just as God was “their” shepherd.  The Hebrew word translated shepherd also means, friend, companion, tender, associate, pastor shall not want—remember in the  Exodus story, in a time of need in the wilderness mana and water arrive.

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 God will be with me now even as God was with me then?”

2a. Makes me lie down in green pastures;

The green pastures in Hebrew hold a sense of  “pastures of tender grass” This is not just a pasture of plentiful food, but a place of rest and relief. 

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 instead refers to 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 had to slow down and become aware of my surroundings? Were these times when God was present

3b. He leads me in the 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 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 a 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;

The relational language continues in “for you are with me” in the most profound 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 God’s creation 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. 
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. (Peter Eaton)

Think on this: “Have there been times in my life when I have been disappointed in a God who did not prevent 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.’ 

This metaphor of the “host” is deeply rooted in the customs of the Ancient Near East, where hospitality to foreigners, strangers, and travelers was a sacred duty. In a hostile desert environment where travelers had little rights outside their territory, a person was required by custom to provide food, water, and shelter to travelers. By extending food and shelter, the host was talking to himself the responsibility of protecting the traveler 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. Dennis Bratcher  This is not a private meal everyone is welcome, especially enemies.

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 the divine presence at a time when my mind and heart were seriously troubled?

5b. You anoint my head with oil; / my cup overflows.

The hospitality metaphor deepens as  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? What does it mean to be under God’s protection and hospitality?  While I don’t believe there is a God of agency; God is not a superhero who is going to swoop in and save that day.  In Baptism, we anoint with oil. We have a sacred ritual of anointing with oil…the visceral reminder, touch, and smell,  that God is in this life with us, and that is enough.

 

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 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 is 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