I used to have about the same relationship to the 23rd Psalm as I had to the 1994 Honda Accord that I owned. That car lasted 14 years, went 265,000 miles, survived the Northfield hailstorm of 2005, and never broke down. I respected it; I appreciated it. I did not really love it. So it was for me with this most familiar and oft-recited of psalms. I respected the central position that it has garnered through the centuries, I appreciated the calm and comfort and consolation that it has brought to folks – including many for whom it is their only connection to the Bible. But for all that, it was not especially dear to my own heart.Some of that was a matter of literary criticism: it just doesn’t hold together very well for me. The first three verses are a lyrical description of God as the Good Shepherd, the one who provides and sustains the speaker (who may or may not have been King David).
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
( I have to confess that I have never understood exactly what God’s name has to do with it …)
Then in the fourth verse, the poet changes from calling God “he,” to calling God “you.” And the theme abruptly shifts from the green pasture to the dark valley:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
And we might notice that the “rod” and the “staff” are weapons, used to keep the sheep safe from wild animals. That’s a good continuation of the shepherd metaphor, but still little unnerving
The fifth verse shifts again, this time to a table and a blessing:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
(By this point there are already 5 semi colons in the first 84 words of NRSV text.)
And the beautiful, memorable finish:
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.
I don’t want to overstate my position. I didn’t dislike Psalm 23 – it was simply not on my personal list of favorites. Sometimes I even had trouble remembering whether the valley came before or after the table. Fortunately, I memorized it well back in second grade Sunday School, and as long as I start at the beginning I can get safely to the end.
But three things have come along that have drawn me back to this familiar text. One is a matter of art and two are matters of language.
First, the art. The picture I had carried in my head for the 23rd Psalm was one that hung on the wall of my Sunday School room when I was a child. It showed Jesus standing in a field, in a clean long white robe, with a white lamb (also clean) draped over his shoulders. It was a sweet picture, and one that came back to my mind as a comfort when I lost a stillborn child in 1975. The image was of kindness, gentleness, and caring.
When I was in seminary, one of my teachers presented a strikingly different painting of Jesus and a lamb – The Parable of the Lost Sheep by Alford Usher Soord – it’s on the cover of the worship bulletin today. It shows Jesus perched on the side of a cliff, reaching toward a sheep that is further down the slope. Jesus looks sweaty, wears a dirty robe, and has an alarmingly precarious handhold; the sheep below him is clearly in distress. This is not a sweet and gentle Jesus; this is Jesus willing to risk and struggle. And for that matter, this is not an innocent and pure lamb, but a grown up sheep that has done something foolish. This is the shepherd whose flock I want to be part of.
And then there are a couple of words – words that illustrate the challenge of translating the Biblical languages (in this case Hebrew) into modern English. Sometimes there isn’t a single word that really reflects the original, and using a phrase of several words would interrupt the flow of the poetry.
In this psalm, one of those words is the one that is translated as “overflows.” Or for those of you who learned this psalm from the King James Version, “my cup runneth over.” The mental picture we get is of liquid running down the sides of the cup and onto the table. God’s presence is abundant, and we are awash in it.
The Hebrew word, however, actually refers to the moment when a cup is overfilled – when the liquid is actually higher than the edge of the vessel, held by what my science teacher used to call “surface tension.” The liquid is held together invisibly, as though there were a membrane over the top. But if you remember 8th grade science, you will also recall that if the cup is bumped or the surface is touched, the liquid will then spill down the sides and onto the table. Though no less abundant than the image of “overflowing,” surface tension has, well, tension. This is an image of potential, of power that is both contained and plentiful, of divine love that is poised for the moment when it will be fully expressed.
The other word that has transformed this psalm for me comes near the end: “follow.” A better translation of this Hebrew word would actually be “pursue” – as in “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life …” Just as in Soord’s painting, the good shepherd is not just shadowing us, going where we go (though that is often a blessing by itself). The good shepherd is coming after us, chasing us, maybe sometimes rescuing us.
Because Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd” in the Gospel of John, Christians have long seen him as the good shepherd of Psalm 23. The ancient poet who composed the psalm is more likely to have been thinking about Yahweh, the God of Israel. Either way, it is a powerful thing to imagine that the Holy One, the divine presence, is intentionally and individually pursuing each of us. Yes, that’s how I want my shepherd to be.
You have guessed by now that these images and words have reconciled me with this ancient poetry. My childhood images of a well groomed Jesus with a tidy lamb were appropriate for me at the time and were the background for the only prayer I remember learning from my mother:
Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me; bless your little lamb tonight. In the darkness be down near me, keep me safe till morning light.
But for my ongoing faith, these more complex and nuanced images have been an unexpected gift.
As some of you may know, I did not come to serious, thoughtful Christian faith until I was in my mid-thirties, and I didn’t begin seminary (with its scholarly study of scripture) until I was 42. Because I had not really grown up in the church (though my parents did send me to Sunday School), I did not have the words and stories of the Bible in my memory or my heart. As a consequence, my preaching has always has a kind of “gee whiz” quality to it. Every text has been an interesting puzzle to me, and my sermons have tried to share what I discovered in working the puzzles out.
But along the way, some texts got stale – especially the ones that come up often in the lectionary, like Psalm 23. What continues to surprise and delight me, though, is that scripture can continue to surprise and delight me.
In the United Church of Christ, we are very clear that the ink on the pages of the Bible is not itself the “Word of God.” We are also very clear that we do look for the “Word of God” on those pages. We find it, not by memorizing or idolizing what we see there, but by wondering about it. We hear God when we let the texts be open, rather than closed: Open to art and poetry, open to questions and doubts, open to new insights and interpretations.
And so, even words that have become fatigued with recitation can be resuscitated; they can reveal new wisdom new vision and new hope. We sang a hymn a few weeks ago called “We Limit Not the Truth of God.” The refrain of that hymn is based on Pastor John Robinson’s farewell words to the Pilgrims leaving England in 1620: “O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your Word.”
May it be so. Even for the 23rd psalm.
[A sermon offered on June 22, 2014 at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, United Church of Christ, Minneapolis, Minnesota]