Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2015
Psalm 23 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Psalm 23 is so familiar, so ingrained in historic American culture that those who preach and teach may feel intimidated by it. After all, it’s the psalm that characters as diverse as Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn and the hip-hop artist Coolio in “Gangsta’s Paradise” utilize. Pastors and others have also probably read it more than any other Scripture passage in hospitals, at funerals and during graveside services.
So those who wish to preach and teach Psalm 23 may feel like those who try to preach and teach the Christmas and Easter stories. We may assume we just don’t have anything new or dramatic to say about it. Yet those who proclaim the gospel don’t necessarily look to communicate new truths. We want to let the Holy Spirit use us to communicate something of the gospel of hope and comfort, even if that good news is familiar and nearly as old as humanity itself.
Psalm 23’s words seem to at least suggest God the Shepherd has safely brought the psalmist through some kind of crisis. No one enjoys enduring the crises sickness, suffering and other forms of misery produce. Yet as Rolf Jacobson notes, it’s the crisis she’s endured that seems to, by the power of the Spirit, generate Psalm 23’s psalmist’s stirring profession of faith.
This serves to remind God’s sons and daughters that although danger, evil and other crises can very painful, the Holy Spirit can use even those troubles to strengthen our faith and deepen our trust. And because the psalmist doesn’t identify the specific crisis she’s endured, that Spirit can also apply Psalm 23’s truths to all sorts of difficulties its readers may be enduring.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 23 want to be sensitive enough to those problems to not be glib about either the psalm or its message. What’s more, we don’t wish to analyze and dissect this psalm as we might some inanimate object or other literary genre. This is lovely poetry that’s full of beautiful metaphors and striking images. So we want to try to be somewhat lyrical and poetic in our preaching and teaching of it.
Psalm 23’s author immediately identifies “the Lord” as his “shepherd.” Certainly shepherding was a familiar vocation in Israel. Shepherds provided for and protected the sheep under their care. Their bosses held them accountable for their flock’s well-being. But preachers and teachers may want to explore with listeners more modern metaphors for such caregivers. Shepherding is, after all, a largely unfamiliar vocation to most westerners. So might we, for example, compare Israel’s shepherds to modern nannies or day-care providers?
The Old Testament speaks a great deal about Yahweh as Israel’s shepherd. In Genesis 48 an elderly Jacob/Israel professes that God “has been my shepherd all of my life.” In Isaiah 40 the prophet speaks of God as tending God’s “flock like a shepherd.”
However, the Ancient Near East also sometimes spoke of its rulers and other leaders as “shepherds.” This adds extra poignancy to Ezekiel 34’s talk about shepherds. There, after all, God accuses Israel’s shepherd-leaders of only taking care of themselves and looking out for their own interests. By contrast God insists God is the Shepherd whose priority is searching for taking care of God’s “sheep-children.”
James Mays sees Psalm 23 as a kind of polemic against the claims of divinity that so many ancient rulers made for themselves. After all, the psalmist professes he entrusts his well-being not to any human shepherd-leader, but to the Shepherd whose name is “the Lord.” So like so much of Scripture, Psalm 23 rejects both human claims of self-sufficiency and grabs for the divine status that belong to the Lord our Shepherd alone.
Psalm 23:1-4 describes things shepherds must do for their sheep because their animals can’t do them for themselves. While some may find it distasteful to be compared to sheep of which we often think as “dumb,” this metaphor helps us focus on our joyful reliance on God’s provision of every good thing. In fact, Psalm 23 insists God the Shepherd is so generous the psalmist will never be “in want.” In other words, the psalmist joyfully professes that God will give God’s children so much that we’ll never lack any good thing that we really need.
Much of Psalm 23’s most lovely imagery is protective imagery. The psalmist professes God makes him lie down in green pastures. If sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves. In verse 4 the psalmist adds when she walks through death’s dark valley, she needs fear no evil because God the Shepherd is with her. So the psalmist professes those whom God graciously shepherds can feel safe because God keeps them safe.
Though the Lord is God’s sons and daughters “shepherd,” we still hurt and struggle. However, Psalm 23 reminds us God won’t abandon God’s “sheep” to whatever threatens us. The valleys through which God’s people must sometimes walk are so dark that we can scarcely see the hand in front of our faces. Yet Psalm 23 reminds us God remains right beside us. As a result, we don’t have to be afraid.
Some of Psalm 23’s beautiful imagery is also leading imagery. God the Shepherd, professes the psalmist, leads her “beside quiet waters.” The Lord, in other words, leads the sheep that are God’s people to places that offer both rest and nourishment. The psalmist also professes that the Lord leads her “in paths of righteousness.” Scholars note that this image is somewhat ambiguous. The psalmist may intend us to understand God the Shepherd leads God’s sheep along safe paths. Or she may mean us to understand that God graciously leads us along morally good paths. Yet those options aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, God leads the sheep that are God’s people along paths that are both safe and righteous.
Other images in Psalm 23 are those of honoring. When the psalmist speaks of God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, he seems to be alluding to the practice of kings throwing banquets as a way of confirming alliances and friendships. As Jacobson notes, by throwing a banquet for the psalmist, it’s as if God honors him in the presence of those who want to dishonor and harm him, in other words, “his enemies.”
Preachers and teachers often rightly focus on Psalm’s 23’s imagery of God’s leading of God’s sheep-children. God, after all, certainly does lead and guide God’s sons and daughters. However, God the Shepherd doesn’t just “go before” God’s sheep. God also goes with God’s children. After all, the psalmist recognizes that even in life’s darkest “valleys,” God is with her. So it’s as if God the Shepherd stays not just ahead of the flock, but also somehow right in the middle of it. On top of that, God the Shepherd, or at least God’s goodness and mercy, follows the flock that is made up of God’s sons and daughters for as long as they live. So Psalm 23 gives God’s children license to imagine God as not only leading and being with them, but also following them. Its God is a God who surrounds God’s children with God’s loving and generous presence.
On the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary pairs Psalm 23 with John 10:11-17. There Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” So not only does Jesus claim divinity for himself, he also says that he’s the One who lays down his life for his sheep and calls sheep to himself. He is also the shepherd out of whose tender grip no one can ever wrest his sheep.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a hymn whose old Irish lyrics people originally attributed to St. Patrick during his work in Ireland in the 400’s. And while it was probably actually written during the eighth century, it expresses something of Psalm 23’s sentiments:
“I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me from snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in multitude.”
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