Summary: Year C Fourth Sunday of Easter May 6th, 2001 Psalm 23
This has been called the “pearl” of the Psalter, one of just about everyone’s favorites. The beauty of its imagery has survived many translations down through the ages. Ironically, it is the translation of a verb in the last verse which makes it difficult to classify this psalm. In verse six we can read either “I shall dwell” or “I shall return.” If “dwell,” then this would be classified as a psalm of confidence or trust; if “return,” then a psalm of thanksgiving. Either fits. When the psalms were written Hebrew did not use vowels, just consonants. Vowels were not indicated until the Massoretic text in the Middles Ages. The structure of Hebrew verbs (three consonants) especially, allowed one to figure out the vowels (and therefore the root meaning, tense, etc.) from the context. This is a case where it could go either way. The Hebrew could read either weshabti with an “a,” meaning “and I shall return” or weshibti with an “I,” meaning “and I shall dwell.” In praying this psalm before the first entry into the Promised Land and or referring to the Exodus “dwell” would fit. But in praying it in reference to the return from Exile, a second exodus, “return” would fit. Both have their advocates and both versions provide food for thought. Because of the generality of the metaphors we have no idea when, where, and for what circumstances this psalm was composed. It seems to be very old. It is appropriate for the Exodus Age, the Age of the Monarchs and Temple, the Exile and after, indeed, the present age. Likewise, it is appropriate for both communal and individual prayer.
The primary model or paradigm for this psalm is the Exodus- the whole forty-year journey from Egypt through the desert into the Promised Land, ending with a celebrative and commemorative meal and the people dwelling in the land “forever.” The psalmist sees that event as if it were a shepherd, with Moses, his representative leader complete with staff, leading his sheep from a pasture, chewed up and now devoid of nutrients and water into a new spot, a fresh and refreshing spot. Then, he applies its lessons, its truths, to his own personal “exodus” through life, experiencing the Lord’s constant companionship, guidance, protection and provision.
In verse one The Lord is my Shepherd: Up to this point in the Psalter the imagery used to refer to God has preferred the more distant “king” or “deliverer” or the more impersonal “rock,” shield,” etc. In the image of “shepherd” we have the most comprehensive and intimate metaphor yet encountered. The shepherd was everything to his flock- provider, protector, guide, “alpha dog,” etc. The psalmist has reached way back to the very beginnings of Israel as a people and brought forth one of its most ancient epithets for God, a rather common image used by other Near Eastern cultures applied to both God and king-leaders. It connotes the care, the meeting of every need, the emotional bonding shown by a shepherd, a good shepherd, not a hireling, so that his sheep may live a life of well-being and security and says, in effect, that God is like that or that the king-leader should be like that. The imagery and connotations would be easily understood by a people whose landscape was dotted with sheep and shepherds. The psalmist proceeds to set forth the fundamentals of the covenant relationship, not in terms of Lord-servant, but shepherd-sheep, not as it generally applies to the community, but as it applies to the individual. “My” shepherd does not deny the communal dimension but applies it to the personal, in this case his own life.
There is nothing I lack: This is Exodus talk. It comes from Dt 2:7 where the same verb, hasar, is used, a word incidentally easily reminiscent of and confused with, hesed, only in a Hebrew text where no vowels are written, loyal love. The Exodus is the backdrop of all the images used in this psalm. Whatever it takes to arrive at the end, the goal, the destination, the Promised Land, God will provide.
In verse two, green pastures…safe waters: Exodus language recalls the “holy pasture” of Ex 15:13, the immediate goal of the Hebrews, and the “waters of placidity,” the resting place associated with the ark in the desert wanderings, Num 10:33.
In verse three, you restore my strength: The vigor of and for life, vitality, is more than just life or existence. It is life enjoyed, cherished, embraced, life with a purpose and goal. The psalmist likens his ever-renewed love for life and joy in living it to the experience of an animal in green pastures and by drinkable waters. The first half of the imagery represents life when all is going well. It is relatively easy to be aware of God’s presence and give him credit for it.