Psalm 23 - link to the NRSV text
I don’t know about you, but I hate preaching a text like Psalm 23.
Psalm 23, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Sermon on the Mount, John 3, The Ten Commandments, Moses and the burning bush, the Christmas and Easter stories, and I’m sure many others; these texts, these stories and teachings have so much baggage attached to them that it can be daunting having to try and hear a fresh and renewing word from God while at the same time wading through and being sensitive of the emotional, spiritual, and personal attachments that people bring to these texts.
However, these are obviously powerful texts or they wouldn’t have all of these meanings and emotions attached to them. Something about these stories and teachings span time and space, person and place. They seem speak in diverse circumstances to a diverse group of people, and so maybe they deserve new attention, to hear where these texts might be speaking anew today.
Which brings us specifically to Psalm 23, almost certainly the most famous of all the psalms, at least within American Christianity. Living in the south of the United States, I’m thankful to The United Methodist Church for printing the KJV translation right in our Book of Worship, so that I don’t have to dig out a King James bible for funerals and memorial services because so many people want this psalm read, and they usually want it in the KJV translation that they grew up hearing.
And though Psalm 23 is an appropriate psalm for an occasion such as a funeral, limiting its use to such times robs it of some of its rich imagery and theological relevance for everyday life with God.
The psalm opens with a personal confession: “Adonai is my shepherd.” The metaphor of “shepherd” is a widespread one in the cultures of the Ancient Near East; it was used to describe gods and kings, and this was a common metaphor in Israelite thought as well (see Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, 107 and Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, 117). It is a statement of confidence and trust in God’s providential care, which is underscored by the second part of verse 1: “I will not lack.” God the shepherd provides for the psalmist.
The rest of the psalm is then an expression of that trust and care, describing in what ways God is “shepherd” and provider. Both Denise Hopkins and James Mays point out the linguistic and thematic ties to the exodus and wilderness tradition found in vv. 2-4 (see Hopkins, 107 and Mays, 117-18). This limits the ways in which the psalmist does not “lack” anything; the psalm is not an open prescription to come and request anything of the LORD, but instead offers a thematic list of how God the shepherd provides.
In verses 4b-6, the language shifts from 3rd person (“he”) address of God to 2nd person (“you”) address. This underscores the individual confession of verse 1, that God “is my shepherd”, by placing God’s actions for the individual within a communal circumstance. You have images of feeding (“you prepare before me a table”), of healing and grooming, or to borrow from the shepherd motif, “tending” to the psalmist (“you anoint my head with oil”), and of blessing and abundance (“my cup overflows”).
But these don’t take place in private, but “before my enemies.” God’s role as shepherd and as “host” in the later verses of the psalm are not restricted to internal feelings of peace and relief, but there is hope that this providential care will exert itself in life. This hope is echoed in verse 6 when the psalmist prays, “Surely good and faithfulness will pursue me all the days of my life.”
And it is in that hope that I think we find the true meaning of the psalm, and why the psalm is appropriate for a funeral or memorial service though it was probably never intended for that purpose when it was composed. This confession of trust that embodies this entire psalm is common in psalms of lament; it is the turning point of the lament, where the complaint turns towards a confession of trust. Usually, that confession of trust is marked by a “but.” “But you, O Lord…” It is a confession of trust even in the midst of trouble.
So when we read Psalm 23 at a funeral or in any other season of distress and anguish, in many ways we are moving from our unspoken laments to our confession of trust. “I’m certain about what is going on in my life, but the Lord is my shepherd.”
“I may be struggling to make ends meet, but I will not lack.”
“I might have trouble sleeping because of everything going on, but God causes me to lay down in good pastures.”
“Storms and tsunamis and hurricanes may bring damage to life and limb, but God will lead me to still waters.”
“I might be beaten down and hurt and broken right now, but my very being will be restored.”
The psalmist recognizes, and the text invites us to recognize as well, that our immediate circumstances are not the end of the story. The psalm reminds us that no matter what is going on, there is more to this life than the now. It is a reminder that it is ultimately God who provides, nourishes, and comforts us in our times of trouble, and that this provision goes beyond just the immediate but pursues us “all the days of [our lives]” and invites us to also dwell in the house of the Lord for the length of days.