Crosses today commonly symbolize Christianity, but it was not always so. Early Christian artists portrayed Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.” In these early depictions, Jesus appears as a beardless young man carrying a sheep or goat on his shoulders. Through the centuries, artists continued to portray Jesus as a shepherd, often adding a beard, a longer hairstyle, different clothing, and, perhaps, a halo. Sheep and shepherds populated the ancient world, and these figures crop up frequently in the Bible. One of the most familiar passages is Psalm 23, known to many as the “Shepherd Psalm.”
God as shepherd
In the biblical world, kings were called “shepherds” because they were expected to protect and provide for the people over whom they ruled. Good leaders—both in the ancient world and today—look after their people the way good shepherds care for their flocks.
In verses 1-3, the psalmist speaks about what God as shepherd does. Because God provides for our needs, the psalmist says, “I do not lack anything.” God as shepherd guides and protects us. The first two Hebrew words of verse 3 can be translated in several ways. The noun nephesh can be understood as a person’s life, life force, breath, soul, or self. The verb is an unusual form of a root that means “return.” Together, the two Hebrew words suggest that God as shepherd “renews my strength” or “restores my soul.” This psalm expresses God’s support for people who are physically weak or whose health is failing, as well as those who feel overwhelmed by their circumstances and apprehensive about their futures.
Biblical writers often describe life as a journey. Just as we choose which road to travel, we make decisions about how we are going to live our lives. In the remainder of verse 3, the psalmist signals that this poem is not a simple tale about a shepherd and a sheep, but rather, it reveals to us something about God, God’s people, and the journey through life. The Hebrew word tsedeq, translated “righteousness,” characterizes correct human decisionmaking in the Bible. It often means “doing what is right in God’s eyes.”
This psalm affirms that we are not left to our own devices, but rather, God leads and directs us. Hymn 352 in Hymnal: A Worship Book captures well this portion of Psalm 23: “Gentle Shepherd, come and lead us, for we need you to help us find our way.”
God as companion
Psalm 23 is often called a psalm of trust or psalm of confidence, and in verse 4 the speaker affirms that God accompanies us even in our darkest hours. The first two words in this verse are “even though” or “even when.” It is easy to express one’s trust in God when life is going well, but when we hit rock bottom, can we affirm that God accompanies us on our journey? This psalmist does and, perhaps, can inspire others to trust God’s presence in their lives.
When I memorized this psalm as a child, I learned the King James Version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Many translators now think that the Hebrew phrase is best understood as “the darkest valley,” rather than “the valley of the shadow of death.” “The darkest valley” provides a broader range of situations than that of death.
The Hebrew word translated “evil” also has a broad range
of meaning. It includes physical danger, harm, injury, as well
as malevolent people, things, or situations. If we expand the
range of this word’s meaning, verse 4 underlines Psalm 23 as
a psalm of trust in God that applies to many different situations.
The Common English Bible moves in this direction:
“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.”
God as host
With verse 5 the psalmist shifts to a different metaphor to describe God as the generous host, who offers food and shelter to travelers. I have long been puzzled by the idea of sitting at a table to eat “in the presence of my enemies.” What are my enemies doing at this meal? Why doesn’t God simply banish them from my presence?
Mennonite scholar John Paul Lederach applies this verse to the process of peacebuilding. Lederach suggests that sitting at table with our enemies can play a significant role in the peace process: “eating equalizes, humanizes, and creates a different space,” so that something new can emerge between people who are at odds with each other.
Lutheran pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber gets right at the core of this verse in her inimitable way: “See, in the 23rd Psalm God does a counter-intuitive thing when it comes to our very real fear of enemies. God doesn’t say ‘Let’s go smite them’ and God doesn’t say ‘Let’s analyze the data.‘ God says ‘Let’s eat!’”
These approaches to Psalm 23:5 challenge me to invite my enemies to lunch. They might also challenge congregations or church groups to organize ecumenical or interfaith meals. We can eat with enemies if we trust that God has set the table. Hospitality imagery continues to the end of the psalm. As a good host, God bathes guests’ heads in oil, offering healing from the rough elements. In the ancient world, good hosts protected their guests from harm. The Hebrew verb used in this verse often appears in connection to enemy pursuit. By contrast, the psalmist declares, “goodness and faithful love” [not enemies] “will pursue me all my days.”
Although most English versions have “dwell” in verse 6, the Hebrew verb means “return.” Continuing the metaphor of God as “The Good Host,” the psalmist expresses a desire to return to the security of God’s house, by proclaiming, “I will return to the Lord’s house my whole life long.” Just as people today often have favorite hotels (or favorite hotel chains), Psalm 23 names God’s house as the preferred place to lodge overnight. But if we do, we should be prepared to sit at table with both friends and enemies.
John Paul Lederach, “On Web Watching,” Chapter 10 in The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Mermaids, Enemies, and the 23rd Psalm,” Sarcastic Lutheran 4-22-2013. Patheos.com.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.
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