Psalm 23 (Compassion in Camouflage)

Watch the sermon here.

I have to admit that taking on Psalm 23 feels a bit like getting up to sing Karaoke, and then selecting “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. Most everyone knows it, most everyone likes it, but the chances of doing it any justice feel very slim. Psalm 23 is one of the most popular pieces of scripture in the entire Bible, deeply embedded in both the Jewish and Christian imagination, and is prayed daily by millions. Since the Psalms have been translated into hundreds of languages, it be the most influential poem in history. And yet, even as such a well-worn path of prayer, Psalm 23 never seems to erode. 

 Of course, that doesn’t mean it always feels fresh. As with other famous bits of literature, familiarity can ironically camouflage their power and meaning. We only need to think about some of Shakespeare’s famous words, like in Hamlet: “To be or not to be, that is the question…” Some of us can quickly recall that line or have even a vague recollection of the speech which follows. Others hear only a dated, dusty phrase we were happy to ignore after high school English. But “to be or not to be…” carries a desperately evocative sentiment – more fitting today than ever. The distraught young prince Hamlet is contemplating suicide with these words. “To be or not to be…”: Life is so painful, should I go on? How can I be certain life after death will be any better? If you sit through Hamlet, or hear the lines at least in context, they hit you as intended. They no longer sound like words printed on a dollar store tea-cup, but like something shared in confidence by a friend about their deepest pain and fear.

I share that because even though Psalm 23 is inspired, even though it’s clung to daily by millions, that doesn’t stop it from occasionally becoming wallpaper. We can be very good at taming scripture, of turning it fluffy, uncomfortable with the fire. So part of living with scripture is that commitment to take it on its own terms, resisting the temptation to domesticate it. And when we take Psalm 23 seriously, we meet a prayer which refuses to be domesticated.

On Psalm 23

First, a bit about the author. Scholars give us little reason to doubt that Psalm 23 is the work of the shepherd boy turned king, David. The writer is familiar with the shepherding trade, which serves as central imagery in the poem. The scale of the Psalm is both earthy and grand, and a picture develops of a providing, protecting, guiding figure; tender and tough; compassionate and emboldening. Supplemental images are of extravagance, solidarity, and the confidence which comes with a secure future. What we’re left with is a depiction of the intimate attention a shepherd gives their flock, and the use of that imagery to express God’s attention to the one praying. 

Some Psalms are full of what we’d call human action, with some of God’s action scattered throughout, or occasionally just tossed in at the end. I wonder if part of the reason Psalm 23 endures is because it concentrates so relentlessly on God’s action, rather than human action. In other words, do we treasure Psalm 23 because it does for us what scripture and prayer do best, which is to direct our vision away from our muddled self-reflection, toward a clear and confident vision of our creator? To quote John the Baptist, does Psalm 23 innately remind us that in our lives of faith “he must become greater, and I must become less”? (John 3:30) And since 23 comes after 22 – a Psalm full of desperation and a sense of abandonment – it seems the organizers of the Psalms want us to remember that in times of distress we’ll find peace by letting God fill up the foreground.

A bit about the beginning. The first line, “The LORD is my shepherd”, is worth paying attention to. We often breeze past words like LORD or God in scripture, assuming they mean the same thing. But the Bible’s authors use names interchangeably and intentionally. Here, David says, “YHWH is my shepherd” pointing back to Israel’s God and his explicit relationship by name and character to the people we meet in the book of Exodus. David isn’t describing a detached, unfaced creator. He uses the name for the Israelite God who carried a people out of captivity, through dangerous territory, providing for them as they went. The chaotic waters in Genesis 1, and the parting waters of the Red Sea in Exodus, are replaced by “waters of rest” in Psalm 23. With that in mind we find ourselves relating to God with the history of YHWH and Israel recalled in the very first words of the poem. So, this God isn’t an abstract, nameless, unreliable “source”. This God is named and knowable. Rushing together then we have both a clear vision of Israel’s God, and a personal picture of care, all spun together by David through the intimate metaphor of the shepherd. The vision of this shepherd-God will get even more specific later when we when as ask how Psalm 23 plays into reflections on Jesus.

At this point continuing to explain Psalm 23 feels a little like trying to explain why Mozart or Monet are moving, or like that person who excitedly describes the entire plot to their favourite movie to you. Explanation is helpful, experience is even better. It might be best simply to invite us to pray Psalm 23 and see what happens. Familiar or not, what if we took time to pray it each day this week? And if we were to do that, let me suggest a few things to be on the lookout for when praying the Psalm. Three things come to mind. First, a sense of compounding blessing. Second, what this Psalm might have to do with Jesus. And third, ask why Psalm 23 is a greatest hit and why we should keep praying it.

Compounding Blessing/Abundance

Providing, protecting, nurturing, guiding. “The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” In many ways the Psalm could stop there. If YHWH is the shepherd, the sheep are going to be just fine. But the Psalmist expands into the shepherd’s detailed activity. What results is a kind of compounding abundance or blessingrunning right thought the poem.

I have all that I need. We’re given pictures are of meadows and streams and renewed strength; in other words, sustenance, genuine needs met. The picture is not of a god we pray to, fingers crossed, in hopes our prayers will result in good crops, but of a figure who is on the front foot, so to speak, when it comes to our well-being. Then we hear mention of paths that go the right way, guidance in life. Part of the care of the shepherd is direction, not only concerned with what we live on, but how we live. Which is also a good reminder that we’re not our own shepherd; there is one who knows the way and it’s not us! Following all that, the shepherd not only provides and directs, but does so in less-than-ideal circumstances. Shadow valley stands for bitter experiences, darkness in life, the worst of which is the threat of death. But the proximity of the shepherd makes the difference, “you are close beside me”. Again, this shepherd doesn’t sleep on the job, or is ever caught off guard when a predator is sniffing around. This shepherd is ready to crack some skulls in our defence, “your rod and staff reassure me”. This makes me think of when our girls go to school in a few years and if little sister were ever to be bullied by a class-mate. There’s some fire in our firstborn, and I have no doubt that big sister would have something to say about how little sister was being treated. Of course, Psalm 23’s shepherd isn’t on the other side of the playground, but much closer.

Renewal, direction, ferocious protection. As those images tumble out, we’re left with the impression that not only does this shepherd provide, guide and defend, but that the Psalm takes into account the painful realities of life’s hardships. Psalm 23 feels like sunny weather, green grass, a trickling brook. But it also feels like foreboding rainclouds, unfamiliar territory, danger around the corner. What we hear, however, when the clouds are gathering, and the wolf is lurking, is that with this shepherd we have a safe haven in which to sit and eat and nothing can get at us. The sense is that whatever we might be intimidated by is intimidated by the shepherd. (Look out, playground bully, big sister is nearby.)

Topping it off we hear language of extravagance and blessing. Oil on the head, both for soothing and healing. A cup not half empty or half full, but overflowing. Pessimist or optimist, blessing is a fact with this shepherd, and something strangely uncontainable. What results from this run of imagery is, as I said, a sense of compounding abundance or blessing. Again, we have to stress that the Psalmist isn’t delusional. David knew full well what death-valley smelt like, what enemies conspiring in the dark sounded like. But in the end every evil cowers because the shepherd beside, the intimidator of what’s intimidating.

Jesus and Psalm 23

On to Jesus. Psalm 23 is never directly referenced by Jesus or others in connection to him, though the image of Israel’s God as shepherd is found scattered throughout their scriptures. But if Jesus is YHWH among his people (as the gospels say) we’re bound to discover those images somewhat tied up together in places. For example, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is recorded in all four gospels, the only one of Jesus’ miracles to end up in all of them. Mark and Matthew make special note that Jesus had the people sit down “on the green grass”, possibly evoking images from Psalm 23. Is that meant to remind us of YHWH’s provision for Israel, now seen through Jesus? If it is, YHWH as shepherd comes along indirectly. Earlier I mentioned that the vision of YHWH as shepherd in Psalm 23 is a specific one, not a nameless, careless one. Jesus, faced and bodied, is no metaphor, making our knowledge of God even more specific, literally fleshed out. Jesus is as named and knowable as they come. And when we follow Jesus around in the gospels, we certainly don’t meet a domesticated shepherd, but a ferocious, compassionate, resolute figure, starling and strange compared to those around him.

Which is why it’s so painful and confusing when Jesus is misrepresented, especially by those of us who claim to be shepherds like him. That pain and confusion is part of why we need things like the National Day for Truth a Reconciliation. In much of our shared history in this country, Jesus has been misrepresented, at times still misrepresented now. It’s all too easy to get the wrong idea about how God does things by not taking Jesus seriously enough. Look at what we do when we take our eyes off the real Jesus and imagine that God would somehow be pleased with the oppression and abuse of children. We need to acknowledge the fallout of that misrepresentation and failure, the pain and confusion so many people carry today, and to discover forgiveness and healing together.

Of course, Jesus does use shepherding imagery for himself, though not directly drawing from Psalm 23. John 10 would be the standout example, “I am the good shepherd…my sheep know my voice…I lay down my life for my sheep…” Read John 10 closely and the description is of an incomparable shepherd. For Jesus, everyone in Israel’s history before him were like hired hands, running at the first sign of trouble. Not him. Going even further he says that all of Israel’s past leaders were so far off the mark they were more like sheep-stealers, thieves, than a true shepherd. He’ll do what none of them did, die for the sheep, and then pick his life back up again. That’s the incomparable shepherd we see in Jesus. The dramatic climax of all four gospels is that even death, our ultimate enemy, is not only intimidated by Jesus but is decidedly defeated by him through his death and resurrection. Jesus, tender and tough, compassionate and emboldening. That’s the shepherd of the Church we each belong to as people of faith.  As Kirsten said last week, we need a big enough vision of him to live under. Whatever intimidates any of us is intimidated by Jesus. 

So it’s real no wonder we turn to Psalm 23 when we’re upset or need reassuring, and why we’re likely to hear 23 read at a funeral, or see it printed on a gravestone next door in the cemetery. It’s not just a sunny little Psalm, it’s emboldening for anyone with chattering teeth and knocking knees. “Surely goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.” Last week when chatting with Ricky he mentioned that a possible translation of that phrase “pursue me” or “follow me”, is also “stalk me”. So, if we’re hunted by anything, in the big picture, we’re hunted by God’s goodness and kindness. And if the Christian is “templing” Jesus by his Holy Spirit, we’re always at home with God wherever we wander. 

Finally, why is Psalm 23 a greatest hit and why should we keep praying it?

I think 23 works for a number of reasons. First, the author knows what they’re talking about. A few weeks ago we mentioned that honesty a key ingredient in both poetry and prayer. This is an honest poem. David knows about shepherding, and he knows about trusting God, even though he gets it wrong from time to time just like the rest of us. It’s unlikely 23 was written in David’s younger years, and seems as though he’d seen some rough times before penning it. So it’s honest. But it also works because it’s a short, consistent poem with one carrying metaphor. When it comes to the technical proficiency needed in a good poem, Psalm 23 deserves its place in history.

But it’s more than an honest and technically sound poem, isn’t it? 23 doesn’t just stick with us because it’s authentic, or well crafted. It’s stuck because it’s trueIt’s integral to God’s character. That brings us back to 23s endurance because it focuses relentlessly on God’s action, rather than human action; directing our vision away from muddled self-reflection, toward a vison of a reliable God known through Jesus. Psalm 23 is true, it sticks, because the character it concentrates on is integral, reliable. Deep in our spirits we know this reliable and kind character is the very foundation of the universe itself.

I talked with a friend last week who’s faced a hard season recently. He shared that he thought his younger self would likely have crumbled under the challenges he’s facing today. But then he went on to say how each night he follows an intention to, as he put it, “just sit with Jesus”. And I said that in this dark spot I could see evidence of how he was being sustained, protected, and guided. I could tell that he’d been feasting at that table set up in the middle of adversity. And I could in him see a maturity of faith growing. In other words, I could tell he’d been hanging around Jesus.

Some people say that a life of faith is just wishful thinking, that faith itself is a crutch. And you know, I’d have to agree! Who doesn’t use a crutch in life? We’ve all got them. The question is, what’s the integrity of your crutch, the truth of it? What is compelling evidence to me are all the lives of faith over the many thousands of years, across hundreds of cultures, which have leaned on Jesus, through scripture like Psalm 23, and found the energy and resolve to keep going. Some of you are doing that now. You’ve got reason to despair, to give up, to ask “to be or not to be”. But then you turn to your Shepherd, and you’re steadied. The evidence of God is in the meadows, in the streams, and full cups. But it’s also in you. Look at you up on that sharp hillside, or walking through shadow-valley. You don’t have a feeble crutch, you’ve got a shepherd with a rod and a staff. You’re not leaning under your own strength, you’re carried. I don’t care if people think I’m weak; I don’t have to be the strong one – that job’s being done for me. The LORD is my shepherd; I will have all that I need…