Proper 11B Psalm 23 Robert Zandstra
There’s a historical young adult novel I really like, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt, set about 100 years ago in Maine. The two children protagonists befriend an elderly widow in their community who has a reputation for being very pious and very stern, very revered but also pretty isolated and a little scary. And they find out she’s actually really fun and interesting. One day it’s super hot out, and the old lady says, “It’s hot as hell in here. Could you kids go get me a ginger ale from the icebox?” So they do, and when they come back, they find that the widow has passed away. Now in that community, the dying words of a person, especially a very pious person, were seen as especially important, indicative of their character or the wisdom they were leaving with the world. So everyone says to the children, what were her last words? And they’re like, Uhh, we’ll tell you at the funeral. So at the funeral, everyone is like, Okay, tell us what were her last words? And the children know they can’t say her actual last words, so they start saying, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…” And everyone groans, Ugh, Psalm 23. Seriously?
That’s kind of how I’ve felt. Like Psalm 23 is almost like a cliché of what our Christian lives or spirituality should look like. I don’t know about you, but I think of Psalm 23 as one of the most familiar, well-known texts in the entire Bible. Certainly that’s the case for me. I was kindergarten when I memorized Psalm 23. Now I’m really grateful that I’ve had this Psalm memorized almost my entire life, and it’s a great psalm, but I’ll be honest: Just like I’ve matured past other elements of my childhood faith (which is good, I think), I’ve kind of felt like I’ve outgrown Psalm 23. I think of it as a kindergarten level psalm.
When I’m particularly uncharitable, I’ve felt like it was a little too much like the prosperity gospel—“trust in God, and you’ll receive health and wealth.” The Psalm felt like a poetic Thomas Kincaid painting—artificial prettiness only partially in touch with reality. That’s just me, not the psalm itself.
So today I want to take time to look at this maybe over-familiar text and try to defamiliarize it a little, to defamiliarize the spirituality of the psalm—the posture it takes toward God and what it says about God. Digging deeper into the significance of some of the words and images of the text really helped me see it and appreciate it anew, and I hope it will help you see it new, too. (And if you aren’t familiar with Psalm 23, then I have the pleasure of introducing it to you.)
As familiar as the text and imagery are, this psalm comes out of a very unfamiliar context, written at least 2500 years ago half way around the world. We get hints at this in the Psalm. How many of you have every had your head covered with olive oil, and thought that was the epitome of living the good life. But this foreignness of context even more true of the central image here—the shepherd. First, shepherds are very rare now, so we don’t have much reference, but were very common then.
But even more, to be a shepherd in ancient Hebrew literature meant something totally different than our popular images of a shepherd. When I think of a shepherd, I think of a man, probably with a beard, kind of unkempt and scraggly, caring and peaceful, out on the hills, probably pretty poor, isolated, socially marginalized. Where did I get these images? Probably from Sunday school material on Psalm 23, or the parable of the lost sheep, or Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
But that image is not that accurate. First of all, back then, many shepherds were women. It was a common occupation for women to do in pastoral families and societies. In the Bible, Rachel, Zipporah (Moses’ wife), and other women are specifically called shepherds.
Even more importantly, the meanings attached to being a shepherd were totally different then. All societies have character types like this. Like when you think of a Western, there are certain character types, like a cowboy or a quick-drawing sheriff. Those character types have meanings attached to them. And if we tried to tell an ancient Hebrew, The Lord is like a cowboy (not that the Lord is), they’d probably be really confused. Or think about translating the meanings of an occupation like brain surgeon or rocket scientist into ancient Hebrew. It’s kind of what I’ve found it’s like just to take “shepherd” at literal value—it doesn’t convey the full meaning.
So what did it mean to be a shepherd in ancient Hebrew literature?
In Old Testament literature, shepherds were indeed caring figures, but they weren’t peaceful. They were fierce defenders of their flock. Remember that when David was preparing to fight Goliath, everyone was like, you’ll get killed for sure–you’re just a kid, and he’s a giant. And David was like, “I may be young, but I’m a shepherd. I’m tough. I can fend off wild animals attacking me.” There are many other examples.
Additionally, the most common parallel in Ancient Hebrew literature to shepherds was to kings. Kings were like shepherds, guiding their flocks. This is exactly the metaphor in today’s reading from Jeremiah. Kings should be like shepherds. But they’re not. They’re more like wolves, scattering and devouring the sheep they should be caring for. I don’t want to dwell on it, but if you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, it’s hard not to see the parallels.
A similar metaphor to the king-shepherd metaphor is how we get the word “pastor.” The word used to mean “shepherd” in English and it was used as a metaphor for how clergy guided and their spiritual flocks. Now that there are many more clergy than shepherds, the meaning of the word itself has changed.
And just as kings were like shepherds, shepherds, conversely, were regal, heroic figures. All the greatest heroes of ancient Israel were all shepherds —Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses (for 40 years between fleeing Egypt and leading the Exodus), and King David. (Psalm 23 is “of David,” written in the David literary tradition).
The first shepherd mentioned in the Bible is Abel, whose offering please God, as opposed to Cain, the farmer, the one who built the first city. To be a shepherd was to live on the margins of empires, and to reject those empires, which were the source of oppression, injustice, murder. To be a shepherd was to follow Abel’s lead, and be free to please God, to do the right thing. It also probably meant getting killed, when then as now the world continues to choose the path of Cain.
So, shepherds were fierce, regal, and heroic figures. They like Iron Age knights in shining armor. That’s what the Lord is like, the Psalm is saying.
Of course, the Lord still in the Psalm is in the metaphor of a shepherd, with very concrete shepherding imagery. But here, too, the translated words that we’re familiar with sometimes mask what’s going on in the original text, so I want to look at a few words here
For instance, the word for “pastures” doesn’t have the sense of the pastures along I-5 in the verdant Willamette Valley. The word in Hebrew assumes the context of a wilderness, so in an oasis, or a growth in the desert just after it rains. It’s abundance, but in the midst of scarcity or fragility. Just knowing that helped me see that this wasn’t just a pretty scene divorced from the everyday work of the world or from the reality of the valley of the shadow of death or the presence of foes who trouble us. That dark reality is present throughout the psalm.
Likewise the word translated still or quiet in “still waters” is the word menuha, which means rest or quietude, but it almost exclusively refers to Sabbath rest. It’s the tranquility, the mellowness of spirit, that comes from God in the midst of our busyness, our daily stresses. Knowing that helped remind me that that is an important aspect of spirituality, one that I know I’m often desperately short on.
“He restores my soul.” So the word often translated “soul” is the Hebrew word nefesh. That word originally meant breath or the throat—the part of the body that breaths. Now, the word “soul” can mean a lot of things, but if we’re thinking it means that kind of essential part of us that is immortal and lasts after we die, that’s the opposite of what the psalm is saying. Nefesh meant life, the breath of life, but in particular it meant bodily life. Certainly God refreshes us inwardly, but the psalm is saying that the Lord refreshes our bodies too, that our spiritual orientation to God involves more than just the so called spiritual as opposed to the physical or worldly aspects of our lives. We might say that this suggests in incarnational spirituality.
“He guides me on right pathways” Or “paths of righteousness.” The Hebrew word for “right” or righteousness is tsedeq, which also always means justice, the kind of justice that characterizes right relationships. There is no sense of “self-righteousness.” (This is different from mishpat, which is the kind of justice that puts right injustices.)
Now, if there’s one thing to know about what it means to be a sheep, it’s that they stray away without guidance. They get off the right path. This is a common Biblical metaphor for us, God’s people. One of my favorite sections of Handel’s Messiah says “All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53) We often like to think we’re in control of our own lives, autonomous, making our own choices—but we’re not. (Now don’t get me wrong—freedom and self control are good things, and being controlled or oppressed are bad. But freedom isn’t an end in itself. It needs to be directed toward justice, and only God is can guide us there. Making our own decisions about what’s right and wrong is just as idolatrous as worshipping any other idol. On our own, even with good spiritual or political leaders, we’re like sheep without a shepherd.)
This tendency of sheep to go astray is hinted at “goodness and mercy will follow me.” The verb there translated “follow” is radaph, which actually means to pursue. The psalmist is pictured as being chased, like a sheep by a sheepdog perhaps, pushed forward rather than leading these qualities. And the word Hebrew hesed, which is often translated as mercy or loving-kindness or steadfast love, actually is a more specific term that refers to God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Humans have hesed for each other, too, but God’s relationship to us is the clear model. What pushes us in the right direction when we would go astray? God’s faithfulness.
Verse 4 seems to me to be the real crux of the psalm. As I mentioned, the reality of the valley of the shadow of death is present in all the imagery of abundance. That valley, that shadow, those foes who trouble us, they look different for every one of us, but we’ve all been there. It’s painful, it’s lonely, it’s confusing. It’s normal to fear evil, or harm, or disease, or death itself, simply not to fear, but instead to feast, to be at rest. That’s radical, even in the midst of the hard realities of our lives and the world.
And God, our heroic shepherd, helps us through it. Here is where I can’t help but look forward and see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who braved the valley of the shadow of death in his life and the crucifixion. In John 10, the “I am the Good Shepherd” passage, Jesus adds another quality of what the shepherd does for the sheep. He lays down his life for them. And that’s exactly what Jesus did, and he came out the other side of the valley of death itself resurrected. That’s who is with us. That’s why we don’t have to fear even death.
At this point, the psalm makes an important shift. Everything up to this point has referred to God in the third person. “He leads me” “He makes me lie down.” But here the psalm shifts to second person, “You are with me.” And when I realized that, I thought, yes, it’s in the darkest times that I really turn to God, that I realize I need to pray. That’s built right into the form of the psalm. It’s those times that I realize that God has always been with me, I’d just been taking it for granted.
The final passage I want to highlight is “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” which might seem a little incongruous if we’re used to thinking of rods and staffs as tools of punishment (“spare the rod and spoil the child”). But punishment, or for that matter the horrible things that have been justified using that verse, isn’t what those tools were for. They were used for keeping sheep moving in the right direction, for rescuing them if they strayed, or for defending them. So how might we think of that rod and staff as tools that comfort us, that help us stay on the straight and narrow path even through the valley of the shadow of death? I have a couple ideas rooted in our epistle and gospel readings.
For one, I think we can look to the Gospel reading. Mark says that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were life sheep without a shepherd. So what did he do? He teaches them. Of course, he goes on to perform miracles—feeding the crowd, walking on water, healing and casting out demons. But it’s his teaching that he gives them in order to guide them. Following Jesus teachings, and the teachings of the Bible, is a way to stay on the path and a way to find comfort. I think we get great teaching from Father Brent, but it’s not something that I think Episcopalians do particularly well. Other ways the Bible tells us we’ll encounter Jesus—breaking the bread, in prayer, in serving the poor—I think we do well. But following the Bible’s teachings in our private lives can be hard. It’s a rod and a staff. It’ll goad us but also rescue and defend us.
One teaching I think is particularly apt to mention here. I mentioned I memorized Psalm 23 as a young child. Another thing I memorized as a young child was the first Q&A of the Heidelberg Catechism, an important document in the church I grew up in. It says, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong in body and mind, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The knowledge that we are not our own can be hard to accept. We want to be like the sheep that strays “I can do what I want, do what feels right to me, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” or the sheep that just follows the herd “It must be okay to do what everyone else is doing.” Not only is that way of thinking false, it certainly won’t bring us any real comfort. We belong to Jesus, and knowing that he is the only one who can ultimately show us the way, is a great comfort.
For the final way of thinking about the rod and staff that guide us, I want to turn to the epistle. Paul is comparing the family of God to a building built of the foundation of Jesus that includes people of all backgrounds. In the early church, the controversy was whether non-Jews had to first become Jews to be Christians, and the answer was no. Anyone could be a member of God’s family in Jesus just as they were. (In John 10, Jesus says something similar, saying that as the Good Shepherd, his flock was larger than just those who were in the fold of Israel.) But being in fellowship with people different than us can be hard, whether those differences are socioeconomic, racial, political, or even religious. But those differences, too, can be a rod and a staff, lest we think that we or people like us are the only one’s who have the path.
In closing, I hope this sermon has renewed your appreciation for Psalm 23, and my prayer is that we would indeed find comfort in it’s message.
I’ll leave you with these words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us sheep, from John 14:
But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.