Well Loved yet Poorly Treated?
Familiarity with English translations of Psalm 23 may make it easy to overlook the fact that ‘The Lord’ of v.1 (which is a title) is a translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh, the name of the God of Israel. If to speak of Yahweh is to speak of the God of Israel, and not of a generic ‘G/god’, then this leads to an interesting juxtaposition of what Walter Brueggemann refers to as ‘…the repeated and pervasive first person pronoun’ with language that alludes to Yahweh’s shepherding of Israel as a nation. The psalmist’s experience of Yahweh as his shepherd makes far more sense if he is part of Yahweh’s flock, the people of Israel. David Clines notes the weakness of translating v.1b as ‘I shall not want’ by pointing out the absence of any future-oriented phrases in the text (other than perhaps v.6) and that want could be construed as meaning desire rather than necessity. The NIV plumps for ‘I lack nothing’ which highlights the present experience of the psalmist, but perhaps also picks up the language of Deuteronomy 2:7 where, on the cusp of entering the land, Moses reminds the Israelite community that ‘These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.’ The psalmist seems to be drawing on Israel’s memory and tradition in his composition.
Is the image of lying down ‘in green pastures’ (v.2-3a) one of feeding or resting? Clines not only suggests that it is impossible to make a sheep to lie down, but also makes the point that sheep eat standing up, and then lie down to chew the cud. Perhaps an idea more faithful to the image presented in the text is one of Yahweh allowing the sheep an unhurried context for both taking on board and enjoying sustenance. To be led ‘beside quiet waters’ could give the impression that the sheep is not permitted to stop and enjoy them! The point seems to be that Yahweh as shepherd provides both rest and refreshment for the sheep. Lest we forget that the twenty-third psalm was not literally penned by Shaun the Sheep, the psalmist affirms that Yahweh ‘refreshes my soul’. It is worth noting that this is not a reference to the immaterial ghost-person, but to the whole of the psalmist’s embodied life- Yahweh refreshes the life of the psalmist through food, drink and rest.
It is hard for us in twenty-first century Britain to get to grips with the intricacies of honour/shame cultures, but the psalmist knows that the wellbeing of the sheep is bound up somehow with the honour of the shepherd and vice-versa. Less important than the good behaviour of the sheep, then, is the shepherd’s ability to guide it and to direct it to places of nourishment and rest (v.3b). NIV and NRSV opt for ‘right paths’ over NASB and ESV’s ‘paths of righteousness’ here. My preference is for the former, as the emphasis seems to be on the ability and trustworthiness of the shepherd.
Once again, opinion is split between NASB/ESV and NIV/NRSV in translating v.4, with the former going for ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and the latter ‘the darkest valley’. Charles Spurgeon, in his Treasury of David series, understood this verse as a reference to the believer’s confidence of God’s presence in post-mortem bliss. However, one might be forgiven for asking quite how much comfort may be gleaned from a shepherd’s rod and staff in the face of impending death! I think it makes the most sense to go with the NIV/NRSV here, particularly as the preceding verse has referred to the shepherd’s ability to lead the sheep ‘along the right paths’ (v.3b) Rather than read this as a reference to death per se, it might be better to construe the imagery as a reference to the pervading presence of deathliness that haunts human experience in multifarious ways. Even if the paths lead through dark valleys where wild animals may be lurking in the shadows, the presence of the shepherd with his rod and staff are a comfort to the sheep.
A number of commentators see a change of imagery in v.5, with the shepherd motif giving way to language which evokes a picture of Yahweh as a generous host. Although a meal in the presence of one’s enemies doesn’t sound too appealing on face value, Holladay has suggested that this be viewed from the perspective of an honour culture, where the psalmist is thinking about the shaming of his enemies. An overflowing cup sounds like abundance, but the tenor of the psalm up to this point has been satisfaction, so perhaps the Good News Bible is right to go with ‘[you] fill my cup to the brim.’ On the other hand, if Holladay is right to see the shaming of enemies in this verse, then the abundance of an overflowing cup may well be a grounds for the psalmist to boast or gloat.
If the reference to the house of the Lord in the final verse is a reference to the temple, then the NASB, ESV, NRSV and NIV all give the impression that the psalmist’s goal is to live there forever. The temple may well be the place where Yahweh’s ‘goodness and love’ (and indeed, hospitality) are both enjoyed and reflected upon, but nobody in Israel got to dwell in the house of the Lord permanently. Is the psalmist, then, expressing a sense of longing via hyperbole, or is there an alternative reading? Craigie suggests a literal reading of the Hebrew text as ‘and I shall return in the house of the Lord’ which makes for an interesting dynamic for the psalm as a whole. Based on Brueggemann’s construal of the psalms, it may not be far-fetched to read Psalm 23 as a cycle of orientation (‘I lack nothing’) disorientation (‘darkest valley’ ‘the presence of my enemies’) and re-orientation (‘I shall return…’). The psalmist certainly lands in a place of future-oriented trust that he will return again and again to dwell in Yahweh’s house.
Psalm 23 in Christian Ministerial Contexts
If the reference in v.6 to the ‘the house of the Lord’ is understood as an inclusio with ‘the Lord’ of v.1, then in between are both green pastures and dark valleys, overflowing cups and the presence of enemies. The psalmist appears to embrace the ambiguities of life with God without resorting to denial or cynicism, therefore I would suggest that this psalm has immediate relevance in preaching and pastoring among people for whom the psalmist’s experience always rings true in their own lives to some extent.
I think that my own assumption has been that this Psalm is just a personal psalm, so I have been intrigued and provoked by the psalmist’s use of language which evokes the wider memory and tradition of Israel. Against the tendency to see faith as primarily an individual thing which may or may not overflow into a corporate expression, Psalm 23 seems to view personal faith and blessing in the light of Yahweh’s shepherding of a whole people. I would suggest that this psalm encourages personal engagement with the wider body of the church as a means of experiencing some of the blessings of which it speaks.
The emphasis upon Yahweh’s ability to lead sheep along the right paths for the sake of his name is surely of great significance for those facing major life decisions. This becomes particularly pertinent when anxiety over ‘God’s will’ exercises an almost paralysing power over the one who has to decide. Psalm 23 offers assurance that the honour of the shepherd is at stake in the direction and safety of the sheep, and that the central character in the psalm (and in life) is Yahweh. The memory of Yahweh’s track record with Israel evoked by v.1 might also prompt reflection on God’s past faithfulness- via Mark 6, perhaps- at the Lord’s Table.
I am basically arguing for a reading of Psalm 23 which, while not disregarding an individualistic interpretation, offers a richer context for understanding the psalm as an individual, viz., as a member of the covenant people of Yahweh, among whom the reader is nourished, restored, directed and protected.
This has been adapted from a formative essay I wrote for Cranmer Hall. For more biographical information, please contact me via the form on the ‘Contact Me’ page.